What Happened To Academia? Part 2

In our reply to Piers Robinson below we try to show how ‘objective scholarship’, like ‘objective journalism’, all too often filters out what really matters. Moreover, as in journalism, the scholar’s obsession with objectivity tends to promote the interests of power. Why? Because mainstream academics and journalists are deeply and unconsciously biased. They notice subjective opinion that hurts power because power is on hand to make them aware, in no uncertain terms, with high-level complaints, legal threats, political flak and other attacks. When subjective opinion promotes power no-one notices because peace reigns supreme.

A superb example was provided in John Pilger’s new film, The War You Don’t See. The BBC’s Head of Newsgathering, Fran Unsworth, told Pilger: “it’s the BBC’s duty to scrutinise what it is that people [leaders] say; we’re not there to accuse them of lying, though, because that’s a judgement…”

And this would be fine, but for the fact that the BBC clearly is willing to laud these same leaders to the skies! Nobody notices that this also constitutes “a judgement” because people with the ability to hurt the media stay silent. This is a major reason why ostensibly objective journalists and scholars so consistently drift towards “the centre-middle ground” (to use the polite term). It is a key issue in academia, as in journalism, and needs to be discussed. We replied to Piers Robinson on December 14:

Hi Piers

Thanks for your response. This has been an interesting, if somewhat lengthy, journey for us. We were prompted to write to you after reading comments on Journalism.co.uk where Joel Gunter cited you as arguing that the UK benefits from an “admirably wide range of coverage” with the media including a “strongly anti-war element”.

This and other comments sparked a hectic display of facial fireworks here as eyebrows rose even as brows furrowed. Why? We devoted our lives to studying media reporting of the pre-invasion and invasion periods in the first half of 2003. The patterns and limits of media reporting, the unspoken rules, were so clear to us – they could hardly have been more obvious.

Far from offering an “admirably wide range of coverage”, the media facilitated an audacious government propaganda campaign while offering a strictly enfeebled version of dissent. Obvious facts and sources that had the power to derail the government case for war were essentially nowhere to be seen.  (See our books, Guardians of Power and Newspeak for details. See, also, John Pilger’s new film, The War You Don’t See, to which we contributed, and which is being broadcast tonight on ITV)

The unwritten rule seemed to be that journalists would raise questions about the war, but not in a way that might throw a spanner in the works of the war machine. This was clearly viewed as going too far: in a democratic society it was not the job of the media (including Channel 4 News, the Guardian and the Independent) to seriously obstruct an elected government bent on war.

We know this was the case because we and many other people raised these issues with large numbers of editors and journalists in the year prior to the invasion. Derailing arguments did exist, they were convincing, and the media did know about them – they simply chose to ignore them. This was a form of structural opposition to truth in deference to power. It was the result, not of a conspiracy, but of a kind of corporate herd behaviour. So we were interested to investigate the nuts and bolts of your report to see how an ostensibly scientific study could provide such a flawed result.

The late historian Howard Zinn described how the desire to work for progressive change “gets tangled in a cluster of beliefs so stuck, fungus-like, to the scholar, that even the most activist of us cannot cleanly extricate ourselves”. Zinn blamed the obsession with “disinterested scholarship” which fed on “the fear that using our intelligence to further our moral ends is somehow improper. And so we remain subservient to the beliefs of the profession although they violate our deepest feelings as a human being…” 1

Your study recalled Zinn’s “rules that quietly lead the scholar toward trivia, pretentiousness, orotundity, and the production of objects: books, degrees, buildings, research projects, dead knowledge”. 2

How harsh that sounds! But a million human beings have died in Iraq since the media reporting of 2003 which made those deaths possible. This is a harsh subject.

Questioning whether the Journalism.co.uk article had misrepresented your study, we began to look deeper. We found this PR release on your own Manchester University website, which repeated the claims:

“‘Our study has shown that some parts of the UK media can be proud of its record on war reporting,’ said project leader Dr Piers Robinson from The University of Manchester.

Its vibrancy is down to a culture of independent thinking, professional autonomy as well as the nationally-based, commercial and highly competitive nature of its press.

In part because it is partisan and opinionated, there are higher degrees of independent journalism than is often found in other countries, particularly the US.

Compare this with your latest response to us:

We are clear that most coverage fell in line with the coalition and that the key areas of criticism tended to be procedural, not substantive. We are also clear that, whilst some outlets offered negotiated and oppositional coverage, they were also bounded by the humanitarian warfare ideology and the ‘need’ to support ‘our’ troops as well as being suckers for the WMD claims.

But, the key point we make is that some outlets did a far better job of challenging coalitions claims than others, even re substantive issues. In total, obviously there were not enough media outlets behaving in this way to produce a meaningful challenge as the invasion occurred. But to ignore those outlets is to misrepresent what happened during those three weeks.

To argue that “most coverage fell in line with the coalition” and “the key areas of criticism tended to be procedural, not substantive” is not the same as arguing “the British press continues to display an admirably wide range of coverage which includes a strongly anti-war element”.

Your latest study also differs from an earlier study in 2006, when you wrote:

Our findings fail to offer strong evidence of media coverage that was autonomous in its approach to the official narratives and justifications for the war in Iraq.

And:

Given the controversy surrounding the war, there was probably an initial case to be made that the media would be more aggressive. But in the end most media outlets tended to fall into line once things got under way.

Again, a very different emphasis: four years ago, you failed to find “strong evidence of media coverage that was autonomous”; in 2010, “the British press continues to display an admirably wide range of coverage”.

Codified Empirical Research – And Defining “Reasonable”

Your report works hard to give the impression that it constitutes an objective, scientific study of media reporting. You write of “systematic, reliable and codified empirical research” in which you “theorise, define and operationalise an analytical framework which can provide for a systematic and rigorous analysis”. But your conclusions, indeed your whole analysis, are based on deeply subjective views. For example, you write that the 2003 Iraq war “can be distinguished from interventions during humanitarian crises, such as Operation Allied Force in Kosovo (1999), which rarely involved the deployment of troops in major combat roles and where human rights, rather than matters of national interest, have been argued to be of chief concern”.

Argued by whom, exactly? In fact, many serious commentators have explained that it is logically impossible for the Kosovo intervention to have been motivated by concern for human rights – Western politicians and generals knew, indeed publicly predicted, that military intervention would generate a massive increase in atrocities and suffering, as happened. To argue that the invasion of Iraq “can be distinguished” from the Kosovo intervention is highly subjective and very questionable.

We notice that the same word kept popping up in your latest reply, “unreasonable”:

the lack of evidence available to journalists on this issue means that assessing their independence using this measure is unreasonable (as with the legality claim, only more so).

using post invasion casualty counts as a way to criticise the media coverage during the invasion is an unreasonable test of media independence.

Thus, we asked you how often journalists had used, rather than reported the use, of the word ‘illegal’ to describe the invasion. You replied:

… using this as a key measure of media autonomy during the phase we looked at, it is probably setting an unreasonably high expectation of journalists. Given that Blair got the Attorney General to sign off the war as legal, and the information for that was not fully available (and still is not), it is not surprising that journalists had little ammunition with which to challenge along these lines.

As your response makes clear, while ostensibly presenting a neutral analysis, you have here adopted a classic mainstream position on the media. You are affirming that it is the role of the media to depend primarily on mainstream authority figures. So, given that Blair “got the Attorney General to sign off the war as legal” journalists had “little ammunition” to challenge the claim.

Our equally subjective view is that it is not the job of journalists to defer to obviously compromised authority figures, and so abandon common sense and critical thinking. Journalists are moral human beings first, and it is the task of all of us to think rationally, for ourselves. It could not have been clearer in early 2003 that the US-UK invasion of Iraq was an illegal war of aggression. Even a glance at international law – at the UN Charter, for example – reveals that this was the case.

In March 2003, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) in Geneva expressed its “deep dismay” that a small number of states were “poised to launch an outright illegal invasion of Iraq, which amounts to a war of aggression”. According to the ICJ, such “a war waged without a clear mandate from the United Nations Security Council” would be “a flagrant violation of the prohibition of the use of force”. 3

Why did this not constitute “ammunition” for challenging the Blair government’s lies? After all, as Noam Chomsky observed, the invasion was “almost a textbook example of the ‘supreme international crime’ of aggression condemned at Nuremberg, which ‘contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole,’ in the words of the Nuremberg Tribunal, including the huge death toll, the destruction of Fallujah, Abu Ghraib, and all the other atrocities”.

And yet you argue that journalists lacked “ammunition” for describing the invasion as “illegal”. You write:

I also don’t think we differentiated necessarily between journalists or sources asserting the illegality anyway.  4

This is also significant. The point we are making is that there were a small number of key facts, issues and sources that had the potential to derail the government case for war. The first issue was the obvious illegality of the war. An honest media system would not merely have reported the use, but would have consistently used the term to describe the war – exactly as they did in describing Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Second, was the fact that Scott Ritter, the chief UN weapons inspector in 1998, asserted that Iraq had been “fundamentally disarmed” by December 1998 and could not since have been rearmed. Third, any small amount of retained biological and chemical weapons would long since have become harmless “sludge” by 2003. This was a key fact of longevity of available materials, based on verifiable data, but there is no mention of it in your study. Similarly, there is no mention of the key source making the point, Scott Ritter, who was not just another source.

You invited us to check your “WMD justification coding frame criteria” for “heavily anti-coalition” reports. These include:

Reports that contain little in terms of the coalitions claims re WMD, with journalist openly challenging the claim that Iraq possesses a credible WMD capability. Extensive air time given to anti-war commentators, experts claiming that Iraq could not possess serious WMD capability plus Iraqi authorities rebuttals of coalition claims. Reports may start to challenge the legitimacy of the war and the claimed legal justification.

The mesh in this pseudo-scientific net intended to capture the truth was too wide, too loose – common sense slipped through the spaces. In reality, “heavily anti-coalition” media performance on WMD did not mean vaguely questioning whether there were WMD in Iraq. It meant examining very specific issues: the “fundamentally disarmed” and “sludge” claims, and Scott Ritter’s evidence for both. Given the US-UK government pretexts for war, these were the genuinely heavy oppositional arguments.

Some media were indeed involved in “challenging the claim that Iraq possesses a credible WMD capability”. But by ignoring the key issues – just as the media did – you allowed feeble media performance to pass as “heavily anti-coalition”. The media you single out for praise – Channel 4 News, the Guardian and the Independent – had nothing, or next to nothing, to say on these crucial matters (again, despite tireless attempts by activists and others to draw attention to them).

On the civilian death toll, you write:

I completely agree that the number of deaths issue is a/the key issue in debating Iraq. The problem for the phase we look at is that, for the 3 week invasion phase, the lack of evidence available to journalists on this issue means that assessing their independence using this measure is unreasonable (as with the legality claim, only more so).

It is true that the media system as we know it is unable or unwilling to access the evidence of mass killing. But that’s the point – our media system as it currently exists does not communicate the true extent of the carnage suffered by civilians under our guns. The suggestion that it is “unreasonable” to expect them to be able to do so is a red herring. The fact is that they can’t, don’t, or won’t. This is why it is false for you to assert that: “There were particular subject areas in which negotiated [balanced or neutral] and oppositional coverage dominated” including “civilian and military casualties”. (p.175)

Even “neutral” coverage would have given an accurate impression of the massive loss of life that took place during the invasion. But our media failed to communicate any real sense of that.

We note one further irony in your study. You do mention the work of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, but only in passing. You write, for example:

three reasons are variously invoked in order to explain the elite-drive model [of media performance] and the supportive coverage associated with it: journalists’ reliance on official sources… patriotism… and ideology. (p.35)

This is barely recognisable as Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model. You do later comment:

Herman and Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent (1988) is a provocative account that represents this position well. Its authors emphasise the significant overlapping interests between the US state and major US business conglomerates, including media corporations themselves. This set of common interests creates commercial imperatives which lead news organisations to avoid news stories that run contrary to these interests. (p.49)

In fact, Herman and Chomsky paint a much more pro-active picture of media bias. Anyway, this is pretty much all you have to say in explaining the propaganda model, which is marginalised in your analysis. It is interesting that you describe Manufacturing Consent as a “provocative account”. In your earlier, co-authored article with Eric Herring, ‘Too polemical or too critical? Chomsky on the study of the news media and US foreign policy,’ you wrote:

Over a number of years we have experienced, via reviewer comments, editorial direction and personal correspondence, the difficulty of taking seriously Chomsky’s work in particular. We have even experienced (and refused to comply with) explicit requests to remove all references to his work from manuscripts: these have even been made by those who say that they agree with Chomsky but were concerned to protect us from the costs of being associated with him…

The most common argument is that Chomsky has a polemical style, not in the sense that all scholarship is polemical (that is, aimed at implicit or explicit refutation of a particular position) but in a pejorative sense (that is, making an argument in a way which disregards the rules of scholarship). The irony is that this claim is itself polemical because evidence beyond the odd isolated quote is not provided. 5

You wrote in your conclusion:

What is sauce for the journalistic goose is sauce for the academic gander… Just as journalists have mostly internalised the liberal myth of the objective media, so such academics have mostly internalised the liberal myth of objective academia. Herman and Chomsky’s view is not read, understood and then rejected: it is simply made incomprehensible or invisible…

Ironically, much the same can be said of your latest study. It is interesting and does have merit, but we believe your “systematic and rigorous analysis” is, in fact, based on subjective assumptions that have skewed your results. We are sorry to be so critical (it’s never pleasant to be criticised) – we hope you will accept our comments as well-intentioned contributions to open, honest debate on these vital issues.

Best wishes

David Edwards and David Cromwell
Media Lens

  • Read Part 1.
    1. The Zinn Reader – Writings on Disobedience and Democracy, Seven Stories Press, 1997, pp.502-3 []
    2. ibid., p.504 []
    3. 3 []
    4. Email, November 18, 2010 []
    5. Review of International Studies, 2003, 29, 553-568 []
    Media Lens is a UK-based media watchdog group headed by David Edwards and David Cromwell. The most recent Media Lens book, Propaganda Blitz by David Edwards and David Cromwell, was published in 2018 by Pluto Press. Read other articles by Media Lens, or visit Media Lens's website.

    13 comments on this article so far ...

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    1. MichaelKenny said on December 17th, 2010 at 8:08am #

      Our two friends are increasingly on the defensive and are starting to waffle! I’m beginning to think that all this is a rather ham-fisted attempt to peddle the “Britain in Israel’s pocket” line. The inherent contradiction, of course, is that if all these journalists and academics are so far out of sync with what ordinary people are thinking in Britain, then Britain isn’t in Israel’s pocket!

    2. bozh said on December 17th, 2010 at 10:37am #

      “Our findings fail to offer strong evidence of media coverage that was autonomous in its approach to the official narratives and justifications for the war in Iraq”.

      evidence cannot be split in two: strong and weak. evidence or what is seen-known , is evidence.
      and it was known that nato didn’t know iraq was manufacturing a bomb or already had one.
      all any honest and peace-loving person had to do wld have been to have uttered: show me! tnx

      but either way, there had been no justification for the invasion and collective punishment of its people.

      media, “being autonomous”, may also mean detached from mass of people or even against interest of most people, particularly, in u.s.
      i venture to aver that 90% of americans wld have not understood the above-quoted statement. tnx

    3. bozh said on December 17th, 2010 at 11:00am #

      my recollection of what herman and chomsky said about, what i call privately-owned media, is that what they said had been accurate; however, neither adequate nor enough particular.

      media demonization of balkan peoples; use of word balkanization to depict the actuality: i.e., peoples right to self rule.
      media insistence that no aggression took place; all thus equally guilty; omission of the fact serbia had been since ’87 ruled by fascists and croatia by communists until mid-91 and general tone that these people are a subclass of peoples; forever fighting one another, etc., not only chomsky, herman, but the entire left and all u.s columnists never saw.
      And even media lens seems to have a blind eye for the actualities i have just posited. tnx

    4. Don Hawkins said on December 17th, 2010 at 11:04am #

      Yeah but the product’s are flying off the shelf’s Bozh. This is America and what happened to academia well they are buying many of those product’s. How does it play out not well not well at all.

    5. bozh said on December 17th, 2010 at 11:29am #

      don, i gave u a political ‘promise’ when i said that santa wld not bring any more junk to kids nor stores.

      he lied to me. he ‘promised’ to bring peace, justice, truth– u know, the usual: god’s word to us! tnx

    6. Don Hawkins said on December 17th, 2010 at 11:30am #

      What Happened To Academia? It seems most of what they say or write is academic. I know shocking for many and I was just watching CNN and that kid I forget his name was the new’s anchor and as the fashion show went along the weather came up and the kid said sure is cold after all it’s winter. I guess he could have mentioned about high pressure over Greenland and the little fact that weather patterns are changing just a tad on the third planet from the Sun. Academia go shopping and never mind the fact we are destroying a planet so far rather rare in the known Universe. Academia “You must unlearn what you have learned.” I beg your pardon sir are you just nut’s well yes and can still see with my eye’s and hear with my ear’s. Well yes you are a nut after saying that makes no sense at all. Really I have more. Please just go and buy my new book.

    7. bozh said on December 17th, 2010 at 12:59pm #

      don,
      i let my wife buy me a pair of socks. i protested. i said, i already have a pair, but she said don’t insult jesus. u know he never said anything about not having two pair of socks.
      ok, i said, but what did he say? she said, u read the bible, i don’t. that’s true i said, but i still don’t know what he meant with anything he said or had been said for him!

      anyhow, i am gladly going to hell. as we know, it had been around so long, it had cooled dwn enough by now even to suit hitler let alone me. isn’t that good news for bush also. i hope he reads this post. tnx

    8. mary said on December 18th, 2010 at 2:38am #

      Mr Kenny it is not about what ‘the people’ think, it is about those who have the power and how they are, and have been, assisted with diligence by those who carry their message in the media. Wake up and smell the coffee.

      This morning the BBC had a pretence of a debate on Radio 4 Today about Julian Assange and the likelihood of charges for extradition to Sweden and/or the US being brought against him. They brought on John Pilger and a harpie called Janet Daly who writes for the Telegraph I believe. She spoke a torrent of falsehoods and eventually it was difficult for Pilger to get a word in. It was a contrived opportunity for her to spread his right wing poison.

      This is an example of the poisonous stuff she produces, this time in an Australian rag. It is called propaganda for the war machine.

      http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2003/04/09/1049567739103.html

    9. mary said on December 18th, 2010 at 3:07am #

      The item in question.

      {http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_9301000/9301452.stm}

      The BBC have changed their precis from this –

      The founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, says he is convinced the US is preparing to indict him. Veteran journalist and Assange supporter John Pilger and Daily Telegraph columnist Janet Daley discuss why some people are prepared to support him.

      to this!

      US ‘trying to invent law’ to extradite Assange
      As the founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, prepares his case against extradition to face sexual assault charges in Sweden, one of his prominent supporters says the United States is “trying to invent a law” under which they might also attempt to extradite Mr Assange.

      The investigative journalist John Pilger, told Today presenter Sarah Montague that Mr Assange “was not going to get justice in Sweden” and it was very important his case was heard in Britain.

      Daily Telegraph columnist Janet Daley disagreed, saying that “the idea of Sweden as some notorious banana republic just doesn’t wash”. And she added that there was “a perfectly straightforward case” for bringing charges against Mr Assange in the United States.

      Mr Assange, who denies the Swedish charges, has indicated that the US is preparing to indict him on espionage charges. A spokeswoman for the US Department of Justice would confirm only that there is “an ongoing investigation into the Wikileaks matter”.

    10. mary said on December 18th, 2010 at 3:58am #

      ‘spread his right wing poison’ s/be her right wing poison !!

    11. Hue Longer said on December 18th, 2010 at 9:16am #

      MichaelKenny said on December 17th, 2010 at 8:08am #

      MK, Even if some people you are talking to here believe the “Britain in Israel’s pocket line” (and whether that is true or false), you are making a Straw Man argument and it it has nothing to do with what was written.

      Are you knowingly doing this?

    12. MichaelKenny said on December 19th, 2010 at 7:35am #

      I note with amusement that Mary has once again reacted to my comment by creating a diversion. More interesting is what we are supposed to be diverted from: my idea that the reporting Media Lens complains of is out of sync with the views of ordinary people in Britain. If that had been Media Lens’s intention, the logical reaction would have been to say “of course! That’s what Media Lens is trying to tell us”. Nobody has made any such claim. By trying to divert us with the Pilger discussion, Mary tells us that whatever cause he/she blogs for would be damaged if American progressives believed that the ordinary people of Britain weren’t fervent supporters of Israel. What cause might that be?

    13. Mulga Mumblebrain said on December 24th, 2010 at 4:40am #

      Thanks, mary. Daley is pliainly, in my opinion, that type of Rightwing psychotic who are certifiably insane, driven mad by unquenchable hatred of anything ‘other’ than themselves. The press in Australia is totally dominated by the type and the constant peddling of their poisonous hatred has infected many of the morally and spiritually challenged in this society, leading to a widespread extremity of hate and a palpable lust for violence and destruction, to be inflicted, of course, on the Moslem untermenschen. Certainly I think it bears comparison to Germany in the 1930s. It goes without saying that Daley is fanatically pro-Israel, the noxious source of this ever-growing tidal wave of hate (how they love to hate, how it invigorates them).