Sunday 11th Jan 2009

Nick Davies of the Guardian has recently written a book called Flat Earth News that charts the (further) descent of UK journalism into the realm of corporate parrots.

One of the points that the book makes is that most of what passes for objectivity in the media is in fact neutrality. If two people report the progress of mowing a meadow and one says "we're finished" and the other "we haven't started", neutral reporting simply quotes both sides. Objective reporting goes and looks at how much grass is left.

Worse, more than 80% of the stories in our press have no journalistic oversight at all, let alone an objective appraisal. This is because they are the unmediated creations of Public Relations staff, either direct to the paper or via a press agency like PA, AP or Reuters — and note that press agencies explicity define themselves as neutral, not as journalistic:

What we are looking at here is a global collapse of information-gathering and truth-telling. And that leaves us in a kind of knowledge chaos, where the very subject matter of global debate is shifted from the essential to the arbitrary; where government policy, cultural values, widespread assumptions, declarations of war and attempts at peace all turn out to be poisoned by distortion; where ignorance is accepted as knowledge and falsehood is accepted as truth.

I found that this entire structure — nationally and globally, the news outlets themselves and the agencies which feed them — is now inherently vulnerable to being infiltrated by stories which are generated by PR acting for commercial and political interests.

(p. 154)

The whole thing is crazier than that. It's more like watching a mouse being thrown into a washing machine. Anything can happen to frail fragments of information as they are hurled from hand to hand, whirled through a clash of conflicting needs — do what the others do, be exclusive, steal other people's exclusives, sell papers, sell a bunch of second-hand ideas, save money, make money, make friends, hurt enemies, hype it, ramp it, tweak it, match it to a picture, match it to a space, splash it on the front, bury it inside. This isn't a conspiracy. It's just a mess.

The picture as a whole is much worse than the one I had expected to find when I set out to write this book. I started with the millennium bug, with the simple idea that the main reason why journalists produce stories which contain falsehood, distortion and propaganda, is that they don't know the truth themselves. Then I began to see the scale of this Flat Earth news.

I found that national newspapers and broadcasters across the developed world have been taken over by a new generation of corporate owners, who have cut their staffing and increased their output, heavily restricting the time available for journalists to check the truth of what they write. I found that the same owners have caused the disintegration of the old network of local, front-line reporters, in domestic and foreign coverage, heavily restricting the flow of raw information to these hard-pressed national newsrooms.

I found that national journalists have been forced to rely overwhelmingly on the output of a tiny number of wire agencies — one for the whole of the UK, just two big ones for the whole of the world — and that none of these agencies has anything like the manpower needed to cover its patch; none of them has anything like the scope of the old network it has replaced; none of them generally gives its own editorial staff enough time to function as effective journalists; none of them generally attempts to check the truth (as opposed to the verbatim accuracy) of its stories. (p. 153)

As Nick says, this isn't a conspiracy but it is an unholy mess. And as Chomsky and others proved long ago it is far from the case that our news media were perfect even before this latest round of corporate incursions. There are no demons here though — just the rational choices of reasonable people operating within a broken system, the end result being broken media. Cut!


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