In their latest alert, Media Lens examine a familiar argument about journalistic “professionalism”, this time made by the popular British philosopher Alain de Botton in his new book The News: A User’s Manual – and one that appears to have made an impact on Russell Brand, for example.
De Botton argues that the reason the news is so information-poor and misleading is chiefly due to problems of presentation. Serious news is boring, so the media concentrate on trivia and disasters or sex up news to the point of distortion. The implication is that, in the commercial battle for customers, the media sacrifice truth and a moral perspective, because these are seen as unexciting by their audiences.
The problem, in short, is caused by competition, and the fault lies not with the ownership and structure of the media but with individuals: both with the reporters and editors who fail to put in the extra work needed to make “real” news interesting, and with us as news consumers, capable of only sound-bite levels of concentration.
This is a familiar liberal analysis, one also expounded by the Guardian’s Nick Davies, in his influential book Flat Earth News. I critiqued that book at length here. Both fail to grapple with a much more significant problem: why do the media consistently skew things towards the powerful interests that control our supposedly open societies?
Media Lens argue that De Botton, like Davies, ignores the key role of the corporations in ownership of the media, and the media’s overwhelming dependence on advertising for commercial survival. The imperative force of the dictum “Money talks” in this case is so obvious it must require almost wilful blindness for the pair to ignore it.
De Botton does admit that to a degree business and state interests affect foreign reporting, notes Media Lens. But, as they also observe, his analysis is back-to-front. He claims:
The financial needs of news companies mean that they cannot afford to advance ideas which wouldn’t very quickly be able to find favour with enormous numbers of people. (p.93)
As Media Lens observe:
Like the endless promotion of wars in Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, perhaps – including the Guardian and Independent’s tireless advocacy for the West’s supposed ‘responsibility to protect’ – despite the clear disfavour of readers and viewers. In fact, the financial needs of newspapers mean that they cannot afford to advance ideas which fail to find favour with the 1 per cent, and above all the 0.1 per cent, which owns and controls them.
According to Media Lens, De Botton argues that “foreign reporting defers to particular types of ‘events’ that are of interest to state and business, not to an elite worldview through which foreign reporting typically interprets those events.”
In fact, the most persuasive evidence against this argument, in my view, is the fact that the “prestige” media, including liberal newspapers like the Guardian and Independent in the UK, and the New York Times in the US, precisely don’t make foreign news interesting or exciting – and don’t even try to. In fact, most foreign reporting is impenetrable to all but the most informed or specialist readers, and is supposed to be.
It was precisely my own struggles, during several years working in the foreign department of the Guardian, to feel I really understood “foreign news”, especially relating to the Middle East, that pushed me, first, to spend two years doing a Masters in Middle East politics at SOAS in London and then to give up my job and move to Israel-Palestine to cover events here as a freelance reporter (something I’ve now been doing for 13 years).
I thought that by immersing myself in this topic I would better appreciate the Middle East coverage I was struggling to follow in the Guardian and other media. I would, in short, get up to speed with my journalistic colleagues. I assumed like De Botton that the fault lay with me, that I needed to fix myself by becoming better informed.
In reality, neither the MA nor my early years in Nazareth helped. In fact, the better educated I became on the Middle East the more alienated I felt from my colleagues and their coverage. Further, in refutation of De Botton’s analysis, the better I became at presenting the news, making it more interesting and informative, the less likely – at least, if it related to Israel – I usually was in getting it published in mainstream media.
What I started to suspect was that the fault was not mine, or related to my presentational skills, but with the media itself.
I stayed in a state of journalistic bewilderment until I stumbled across a book by Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power. Then, my confusion started to lift. With a framework for understanding how the interests of economic and political power were pursued through western state policy, I could make sense both of the events taking place around the world and the media’s failure to cover them meaningfully.
The media are structurally incapable of seeing “foreign news” outside the lens of state-corporate power. They aren’t searching for truth, as I had been led to believe in my “professional” training; they are committed to “manufacturing a consensus” (as Chomsky and Ed Herman termed it) behind these powerful interests. Because real events in much of the world, especially the developing parts of it, reveal the ugliness of the west’s pursuit of its interests, the real job of foreign reporters is to equivocate and obfuscate – in fact, to betray the truth. “Presentation” is not concerned with clarity and generating interest, as De Botton assumes; it is designed to conceal the true goals of western foreign policy.
De Botton is a genuinely clever, sensitive cultural critic, and one who has become that rare thing: a populariser of difficult ideas. He would doubtless like to believe that his success reflects his talent for presentation, for making things interesting. But maybe he also needs to consider the extent to which his success reflects how safe he has played things on the most important issues concerning state-corporate power.