Early last century, industrial technology allowed business interests to produce mass media at a cost that outclassed the capacity of non-corporate media to compete. As a result, radical publishers were marginalized and media diversity rapidly narrowed.
To counter claims that society was being, in effect, brainwashed by this media monopoly, corporate publishers promoted the idea of “professional journalism.” For the first time, reporters would be trained in special “schools of journalism” to master the arts of objective, balanced reporting. Big business moguls would be in control but, as good democrats, they would see to it that their journalists were scrupulously fair.
In reality, powerful biases were built into this new media “professionalism” -- key among them a presumption about who should be the primary source of news.
American media analyst Robert McChesney explains that the new, professional press “regarded anything done by official sources, for example, government officials and prominent public figures, as the basis for legitimate news”. (McChesney, in Kristina Borjesson ed., Into The Buzzsaw, Prometheus Books, 2002, p.367)
This reliance on official sources naturally “gave those in political office (and to a lesser extent, business) considerable power to set the news agenda by what they spoke about and what they kept quiet about.”
Thus the Telegraph’s environment editor, Charles Clover, wrote to a Media Lens reader:
“I am a reporter. Reporters report what other people say. Generally we report important, influential people, but only when they say something new, because what important people say is of most interest to others, and they are the ones who shape our world.” (Email forwarded to Media Lens, September 8, 2005)
In the Times (London), the then ITV News (now BBC) political editor, Nick Robinson, wrote of the 2003 invasion of Iraq:
“It was my job to report what those in power were doing or thinking... That is all someone in my sort of job can do. We are not investigative reporters.” (Robinson, “‘Remember the last time you shouted like that?’” I asked the spin doctor,” The Times, July 16, 2004)
To the extent that a media system accepts that its “professional” role is to report a news agenda set by officialdom, it must largely renounce the task of challenging that agenda. If the government, for example, rejects as hopelessly flawed a report on civilian casualties in Iraq -- if it decides to “move on,” say, from the November 2004 Lancet report -- who are professional news journalists to disagree?
For a news journalist to continue promoting the credibility of the officially rejected report -- or the rejected role of oil in motivating foreign policy, or the rejected possibility of Tony Blair’s prosecution for war crimes -- is to challenge the accepted right of officialdom to set the agenda for the professional press. It is in fact an attempt to set a competing agenda. This is to lay oneself open to attack as a ‘biased’, ‘committed’ and ‘crusading’ journalist -- something professional news reporters are not supposed to be.
If this sounds like an exaggeration, consider this response from Ed Pilkington, foreign editor of the Guardian:
“We are not in the business of editorialising our news reports." (Pilkington to Media Lens, November 15, 2002)
In translation, this means: “We don’t express personal opinions in our news reports.”
After all, if professional news reporting is about covering the thoughts and actions of officials -- the “important, influential people” -- then advancing our own thoughts as journalists is, by definition, “unprofessional”. Just consider how seriously this is taken.
When we asked the BBC’s World Affairs correspondent, Paul Reynolds, if he thought George Bush hoped to create a genuine democracy in Iraq, he replied:
“I cannot get into a direct argument about his policies myself! Sorry.” (Email to Media Lens, September 5, 2005)
Reynolds explained to one of our readers:
“You are asking for my opinion about the war in Iraq yet BBC correspondents are not allowed to have opinions!” (Forwarded to Media Lens, October 22, 2005)
The point being that if journalists are not even supposed to express personal opinion in reporting officialdom, then they are certainly not supposed to express personal opinion by promoting a news agenda against the wishes of officialdom.
It would, for example, be professional suicide for a reporter to continue raising the issue of the Lancet report, or the lure of oil in Iraq, in press conference after press conference, or via news reports in the Guardian, against the flow of the official news agenda. All it needs is for the government, or an editor, to apply the label “crusading” and a journalist can become “radioactive”. Thus we find that not one mainstream UK news reporter has attempted to challenge government claims in response to the Lancet report. In her book, Into The Buzzsaw, award-winning former CNN producer and CBS reporter Kristina Borjesson, writes:
“The buzzsaw is a powerful system of censorship in this country that is revealed to those reporting on extremely sensitive stories, usually having to do with high-level government and/or corporate malfeasance. It often has a fatal effect on one's career. I don't want to mix metaphors here, but a journalist who has been through the buzzsaw is usually described as ‘radioactive’, which is another word for unemployable.” (Borjesson, op., cit, p.12)
In fact, some “radioactive” journalists are tolerated by the media -- but they are tiny in number. In reviewing Robert Fisk’s new book, The Great War For Civilization, The Economist writes:
“Two decades ago, in a history of Lebanon's civil war, he [Fisk] argued that the job of the journalist was to write a first draft of history. Since then, he appears to have changed his mind. In the preface of this book he endorses the view of an Israeli journalist, Amira Hass, that the proper vocation of the reporter is to ‘monitor the centres of power’.” (“Bigger problems -- The Middle East,” The Economist, October 15, 2005)
Predictably Fisk is therefore attacked for delivering “Old Testament rants against the wickedness of Israel and America” and a “dogged, powerful and often infuriating polemic against the West.” (Ibid)
The word “polemic” is journalistic code flagging “unprofessional” journalism (usefully, the word also indicates an angry - i.e. emotional and irrational -- attack).
Rory Carroll wrote of Gore Vidal in the Guardian:
“For over half a century Vidal has been a factory of polemic and prose raging against Pax Americana.” (Carroll, “For 50 years he has been the scourge of the US -- and now he's at it again,” The Guardian, December 6, 2001)
Oliver Robinson wrote in the Observer:
“Since 11 September, 2001, the appetite for Noam Chomsky's polemics has rocketed.” (Robinson, The Observer, May 23, 2004)
In a Guardian article, Jason Deans wrote of Carlton TV:
“Carlton's output... has included the award-winning documentary Kelly and Her Sisters [and] John Pilger's controversial polemic Palestine is Still the Issue.” (Deans, “Hewlett quits Carlton,” The Guardian, January 8, 2004)
Roy Greenslade wrote in the Guardian of the late Paul Foot: “He did not try to be objective or balanced. His polemics were laced with sarcasm.” (Greenslade, “A fond farewell,” The Guardian, July 26, 2004)
In the New York Times, Frank Rich discussed Michael Moore's film Fahrenheit 9/11:
“Of course, Mr. Moore is being selective in what he chooses to include in his movie; he's a polemicist, not a journalist." (Rich, New York Times, May 23, 2004)
Interestingly, the charge of crusading, polemical bias is generally reserved for critics of powerful interests. Old Testament rants by journalists for the virtue of Israel and America go unnoticed by the eagle-eyed guardians of professional virtue.
A BBC online report in September stated:
“BBC chairman Michael Grade has ordered a report into claims that Today presenter John Humphrys mocked politicians in an after-dinner speech.” (“BBC's Grade wants Humphrys report,” September 3, 2005)
No report was ordered when Andrew Marr said of Blair on the BBC evening news of April 9, 2003:
“He said that they would be able to take Baghdad without a bloodbath, and that in the end the Iraqis would be celebrating. And on both of those points he has been proved conclusively right. And it would be entirely ungracious, even for his critics, not to acknowledge that tonight he stands as a larger man and a stronger prime minister as a result.” (Marr, BBC 1, News At Ten, April 9, 2003)
In reviewing his book, My Trade, the Daily Telegraph noted that Marr “comes across in this book as he does in newsprint and on television -- as lively and human, with little side and no crippling prejudices.” (Nicholas Blincoe, “Striving to find the human note,” Daily Telegraph, September 25, 2004)
Or consider Matt Frei’s comment from Washington for BBC TV News:
“There's no doubt that the desire to bring good, to bring American values to the rest of the world, and especially now to the Middle East... is now increasingly tied up with military power.” (Frei, BBC1 Panorama, April 13, 2003)
Was this an Old Testament rant? Apparently not.
Or consider this from Frei speaking from the United States:
“The war with terror may have moved from these shores to Iraq. But for how long?” (Frei, BBC News At Ten, September 10, 2003)
Was this scrupulously neutral, professional journalism?
In fact, both of these statements communicated deeply controversial, personal opinions, but were not at all criticized as biased or unprofessional. Imagine if Frei had said:
“There's no doubt that the desire to exploit the Third World, to project US corporate power in the world, and especially now in the Middle East... is now increasingly tied up with military power.”
And: “The war for control of Third World resources has moved to Iraq. But for how long?”
There is no doubt that Frei would have been sacked. The reason? He would have breached the BBC's hallowed code of professional ethics: “Thou Shalt Not Express Personal Bias.”
This is how the most important group of journalists -- news reporters -- is effectively silenced by the concocted, power-friendly bias of “professional journalism.”
Media Lens is a UK-based media watchdog group headed by David Edwards and David Cromwell. Visit the Media Lens website (www.medialens.org) and consider supporting their invaluable work (www.medialens.org/donate.html).
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