Write for Love, Not Money? Journalists Appalled

Something quite extraordinary has been happening on Twitter. Corporate journalists have gone into meltdown after two British media analysts – known as Media Lens – tweeted some friendly advice to idealistic youngsters contemplating a career in journalism.

Twitter is a social media forum much loved by corporate journalists – probably because media training hones their skills at pithy aphorisms and putdowns, especially of those who criticise them, that work well in Twitter’s confined format. In a battle of tweetbites, the corporate journalist is king.

But the outpouring of indignation from these journalists at a little bit of advice from Media Lens must be unprecedented.

What’s most notable is that until now tweets from Media Lens, or their much longer and more complex alerts on their website, have rarely attracted interest or acknowledgment from the chief targets of their analysis – big-name journalists working for the media corporations.

There is good reason. Media Lens promote the Propaganda Model, developed by the late Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky in their book Manufacturing Consent. In short, Media Lens argue that the corporate media – and the journalists who work for it – are enforcers of a narrow spectrum of ideological orthodoxy that promotes the interests of corporate wealth and power.

It may look as if there is a wide range of views in the western media – it does look that way to the corporate journalists themselves – but, in fact, serious and profound critiques of western society and its dominant ideology are almost entirely absent. Nowadays, debates in the corporate media are limited to how best to manage the excesses of a turbo-charged neoliberalism at home and a brutal neoconservatism dressed up as humanitarian intervention abroad.

Questioning the fundamentals of how western societies are organised – suggesting that they are inherently self-destructive (climate breakdown); non-viable (endless economic growth on a planet with finite resources); and deeply sick (an explosion of chronic mental and physical ill-health) – is to place oneself outside the bounds of legitimate discourse in the so-called “mainstream”.

Champions of the downtrodden?

None of this, of course, is likely to endear Media Lens to your average corporate journalist, especially the ones who work for supposedly liberal outlets like the BBC and the Guardian, who fancifully see themselves as champions of the downtrodden and upholders of unvarnished truth.

Media Lens have earned the especial enmity of George Monbiot and Owen Jones, the only two writers at the Guardian who have any claim to being on the reasonably radical wing of the left. They hate Media Lens’ observations that the paper they work for – and idealise – has repeatedly promoted illegal regime-change operations and cold-war rhetoric, maintained its love affair with war criminal Tony Blair, and sought to subvert two of the most hope-inspiring and progressive popular causes on the left, Wikileaks and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Nowadays, few journalists acknowledge the existence of Media Lens, much less address the content of their arguments.

Until, that is, this week when Media Lens tweeted the following:

Forget it. Don’t write for the ‘mainstream’. Don’t write for money. Don’t write for prestige. Just ‘follow your bliss’ by writing what you absolutely love to write to inspire and enlighten other people. Write what seems interesting, important and true, and give it away for free.

They were suggesting – as they always have – that there is no honest way for idealistic young people to work for the corporate media. They are there to provide legitimacy for a corporate agenda; the corporate media is not there to provide a platform for their ideals, especially if those ideals are likely to damage the corporations’ bottom line.

Even if a journalist manages to carve out a small space as a token leftie on the margins of a “liberal” outlet like the Guardian – as Jones and Monbiot have done – he or she cannot shift the publication’s ideological centre of gravity. They simply provide cover for the false claim that the corporate media is pluralistic and inclusive. They deter or delay readers from awakening to the reality that 99.9% of everything they read and see in the corporate media is enforcing an extremely narrow – and dangerous – ideological horizon.

Volcanic eruption

In short, Media Lens are telling followers to abandon the corporate media model. Not to write as a slave bound to a corporation, to peddle its destructive agenda and promote its toxic brand. Not to make a Faustian pact in the hope of acquiring an easy authority and fame that derive from the large and visible platform of the corporate media. Media Lens are advising their followers to be true to themselves and their values.

So how to explain the volcanic explosion of outrage in response?

Take, for example, this from Emma Kennedy, a writer and TV presenter whose 127,000 Twitter followers were subjected to this short rant:

This is total bollocks. If you want to be a writer know this: you have a value and you ALWAYS deserve to be paid. Go fuck yourself Media Lens.

Or even the more temperate response from James Ball. He engineered a career for himself at the Guardian by – how I can put this … oh, I’m not writing this for any employer so let me follow my bliss – stabbing Wikileaks and Julian Assange in the back as regularly as the corporate pay checks dictated.

This week Ball used a column at the “liberal” New Statesman magazine to dismiss the Media Lens project.

Ball sidestepped Media Lens’ repeated critique, airing instead a much-favoured argument that only big corporations can finance the journalism needed to carry out investigations into the rich and powerful.

Such stories take time and a lot of money, and also a lot of professional expertise: any fool can join a few dots and suggest there “may be something going on here”. Trying to prove it, make the story compelling, and do so without breaching libel laws, takes professionals. “Bliss” only gets you so far: eventually you need cash, too.

Few Woodwards or Bernsteins

First, let’s remember before corporate journalists like Ball get into full Woodward-and-Bernstein mode that only a minuscule number of journalists actually do anything resembling investigative work. The vast majority, including at the Guardian, do glorified rewriting of press releases, lifestyle journalism or commentary.

Second, much of the investigative work most prized by journalists actually came about because the rich and powerful allowed the information to surface, usually because of feuding and rivalries within the ruling and Deep State elites (mention the Deep State, of course, and those corporate journalists are already starting to bristle on behalf of their employers).

Watergate is a prime example. Woodward and Bernstein’s source Deep Throat – the only reason we ever found out about Watergate – was Mark Felt, the associate director of the FBI. He used the pages of the Washington Post to settle personal and institutional scores with the Nixon administration.

Something much harder to quantify are how many investigations never get on to the media’s drawing board, or off it, because these same elites are united enough to stop the information leaking out. A reasonable suspicion ought to be that in the west we get to see only the tip of the iceberg of crimes and misdemeanours that have been committed at home and abroad in our names. Either knowledge of these crimes never moves beyond a tiny elite, or, if fragments do, they are conveniently dismissed by political and media elites as “conspiracy theories”.

Down the memory hole

Some conspiracy theories are speculative or evidence-free, but plenty are grounded in some evidence. If that evidence is incomplete, or barely known by the public, it is precisely because the corporate media prefers to ignore it rather than investigate and bring it to their readers’ attention. Major parts of western history have been either disappeared down the memory hole or exiled to the margins of the internet. Just try googling CIA Operations Mockingbird, Ajax or Gladio.

No one is suggesting that holding the powerful to account is not necessary. The issue is how it is done, who finances it and how much the current financing model by corporations influences what is investigated, who is targeted, and what information comes to light. These are all questions no one in the corporate media even thinks about, much less addresses.

Further, lots of investigative work happens not primarily because of journalists but because of the work of brave whistleblowers and new whistleblowing platforms like Wikileaks, which have been made possible by the digital revolution. The corporate media’s supposed commitment to no-holds-barred investigative journalism can be gauged by their uniform hostility to Wikileaks. (The irony of Ball extolling the importance of investigative journalism after he was at the forefront of the Guardian’s campaign to hobble Wikileaks should not need underscoring.)

We are in a time of transition. New technologies offer new ways to carry out both investigations and journalism, and to finance it through crowdfunding and micro-payments. Media Lens are simply among those pushing to speed up change: to have journalists financed by readers rather than mega-corporations. No one who has a little idealism left should be against that.

The best investigations conducted by the corporate media might have been much better, with a much broader scope, and have pulled their punches far less had they been written by journalists not constrained by corporate interests.

Journalist Chain Gangs

Finally, Ball, like Kennedy and many others, including Owen Jones, has suggested that there is something “anti-socialist” about telling journalists to work unpaid. There is only one problem: that wasn’t what Media Lens said in their tweet. Not writing for money and prestige is not the same as writing for free. One concerns motivation; the other concerns outcome.

Write for money and prestige, and one is forced into a market place where skills are bought and owned by the highest bidder. This is the journalist as a channel, a vessel, for the rich and powerful to promote their values.

Renounce money and prestige as a motivation and write from “bliss” – a place of honesty, awareness and deep values unconnected to reward – and what one writes will be far more significant, insightful and truthful. And if it is any good, it will inspire people to make donations.

Is such a way of life more difficult than becoming a hired gun? Of course, it is. Will it be less well-paid? Almost certainly. Is it for everyone? Probably not.

But that is not the issue Media Lens was addressing. They were not telling idealistic journalists how they could get rich quick, how they could work within corporate parameters or how they could win easy adoration and followers on Twitter. They were answering the question: how can I write and remain true to myself? There was nothing “anti-socialist” about their response.

The sad fact is that corporate journalists are so captive to the agendas of their employers, that even the most liberal of them cannot imagine how other journalists might not be able to see a place for themselves in that corporate world, or may not see how they could get anything published that they believe would be of value.

Chomsky once famously told a non-plussed Andrew Marr of the BBC:

I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is, if you believed something different you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.

Journalists and writers like Kennedy, Jones and Ball are not being “socialist” or principled in defending corporate chain gangs for journalists, even if they themselves cannot see the heavy corporate leg-irons they wear.

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Jonathan Cook, based in Nazareth, Israel is a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel's Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). Read other articles by Jonathan, or visit Jonathan's website.