Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Gatekeepers

"One of the questions asked in that study was, How many Vietnamese casualties would you estimate that there were during the Vietnam war? The average response on the part of Americans today is about 100,000. The official figure is about two million. The actual figure is probably three to four million. The people who conducted the study raised an appropriate question: What would we think about German political culture if, when you asked people today how many Jews died in the Holocaust, they estimated about 300,000? What would that tell us about German political culture?" - Noam Chomsky (Media Control, 2002)

"Whoever controls the media controls the mind" - Jim Morrison

In an era of gross inequality, total surveillance, global war and rampant lawlessness of state powers, the role of the media in this escalating tragedy has come under increasing scrutiny, with media ownership by giant, interlocking conglomerates now concentrated to an extreme degree. This diagram from 2004 presents a clear picture of the conflicts of interest that can not fail to arise. To illustrate: on this list alone, with only four media companies represented, board members of major arms manufacturers Boeing and Northrop Grumman can be found. [Note: a more recent diagram was not available, but nothing has changed in 2015 aside from a re-shuffling of personnel]

A clear understanding of the role and methods of the corporate media is therefore essential for interpreting the (often confusing and conflicting) 'narratives' put forward 24/7 for mass consumption.

Along with the obvious conflicts of interest of lobbyists and CEOs serving on interlocking boards, print and online newspapers depend heavily on news agencies like AP and Reuters both in general and for information that would otherwise be too expensive to obtain. Under this system, statements of government officials and agencies are published verbatim and uncritically. The devastating dangers of this approach are perhaps best illustrated by the findings of a 2008 study by the Center for Public Integrity which found 935 false statements about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq issued by senior Bush administration officials (including Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleeza Rice and George W Bush himself) that were reported with no (or virtually no) verification by major news outlets. This orchestrated campaign of lies designed to build public support for a military invasion was reported uncritically not only in the US but also around the world, not least in the UK, the major partner of the US in the 'Coalition of the Willing'.

The consequences of this criminal dereliction of duty, for which the New York Times even issued a tortured mea culpa, was laid bare last week when Nobel Prize recipient Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) published a report entitled 'Body Count' that concluded:

This investigation comes to the conclusion that the war has, directly or indirectly, killed around 1 million people in Iraq, 220,000 in Afghanistan and 80,000 in Pakistan, i.e. a total of around 1.3 million. Not included in this figure are further war zones such as Yemen. The figure is approximately 10 times greater than that of which the public, experts and decision makers are aware of and propagated by the media and major NGOs. And this is only a conservative estimate. The total number of deaths in the three countries named above could also be in excess of 2 million, whereas a figure below 1 million is extremely unlikely.

This report, published by a serious, credible, respected and decorated organization, makes it very clear that a war built on deliberate lies propagated uncritically by the corporate-owned media has led to the deaths of 1.3 million people, possibly 2 million. It will come as no surprise, therefore, that this landmark report has been greeted with absolute silence by the very same media outlets, while little effort is required to imagine the blanket response if this report concerned the actions of a current official enemy: Russia or Venezuela in particular. For Western leaders and other establishment figures, it seems mass killings on this scale - 'holocausts' - only occur when firmly ensconced in (approved) history books, when they can safely bow their heads once a year and solemnly swear 'never again' and 'we shall not forget them'.

The lesson here should be simple: journalistic negligence of any sort - which can be caused by conflict of interest, editorial framing, or fear of challenging powerful figures for career reasons (loss of future access) - has cost innocent lives by the million. It has directly enabled one of the greatest crimes ever - the Iraq War. It has unleashed devastation and suffering on an unimaginable scale. Yet no responsibility is felt or borne by even the most enthusiastic cheerleaders, many of whom are unrepentant and continue to write articles advocating new wars or '(humanitarian) interventions'.

Meanwhile, stocks in the arms industry are booming:

Investors see rising sales for makers of missiles, drones and other weapons as the U.S. hits Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq, said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at Chicago-based BMO Private Bank. President Barack Obama approved open-ended airstrikes this month while ruling out ground combat.

“As we ramp up our military muscle in the Mideast, there’s a sense that demand for military equipment and weaponry will likely rise,” said Ablin, who oversees $66 billion including Northrop Grumman Corp. and Boeing Co. shares. “To the extent we can shift away from relying on troops and rely more heavily on equipment -- that could present an opportunity.”

...

“There’s no doubt the world is getting to be a more and more dangerous place, and there are countries around the world that could look to buy aircraft and artillery," Jeff Babione, deputy manager of Lockheed’s F-35 Lightning II program, said in an interview in Oslo. “There’s a sense that there’s less stability in the world than there was before.”

...

“Clearly the world has become increasingly unstable. The question of whether that has a major impact on the defense budget is uncertain,” Finnegan said. “There may be an investor psychology that suggests that there’s going to be a large benefit to these companies. But the jury is still out.”


[Note: Emphasis (bold) on commercial language mine]

It is not only the 'defense' (arms) industry that benefits from media narrative framing; indeed the largely unsuspecting readership, the overwhelming majority of the world's news consumers, is drenched from all angles with a systematic, corporate-friendly outlook on all aspects of life. This heavily promoted worldview is also anti-democratic, as one would expect from corporations - totalitarian structures by definition. True democracy - a community sharing resources fairly and working together for peace, security, justice and prosperity - is antithetical to the ideology of the profit motive. For this reason, rule number one of the corporate media's version of reality is to present at all times the illusion of freedom, the idea that people are actually in control of their societies, economies and leaders. This demonstrably false idea must be promoted relentlessly in order to quell and misdirect the anger and hopelessness felt by the millions upon millions of victims of the corporate credo - the now utterly discredited idea that the 'free market' is the best and fairest method of running humanity.

This is accomplished in part by the artificial creation in the media of endless divisions in society and throughout the world as a whole, with specific focus on conflict or disagreement between those of differing race, religion, sexuality, political ideology, and even gender. This serves the dual purpose of generating manufactured outrage, safely misdirecting anger and hate away from the targets it should be focused upon (while simultaneously driving up clicks for increased revenue) and also - crucially - making the idea of a functioning, harmonious community seem more and more unlikely as every day goes by. Faced with such a belief backed up with the purely manufactured 'evidence' created by media campaigns of division and hatred such as those perpetrated by the Daily Mail etc., the average citizen is likely to henceforth scorn the idea of harmonious community as a naive pipe dream, reserved for 'idealists' and 'activists' who are stuck in Star-Trek fantasies and 'don't have a clue'. The undisputable reality that we are all simply human beings, brothers and sisters whatever our background, color or religion, is the one thing that absolutely must be refuted and indeed disdained at every opportunity.

Hyperbole grows more and more extreme as an increasingly fickle, easily bored and atomized readership demands ever more outlandish distractions - things they haven't seen yet - various forms of ultra violence or skateboarding cats etc. This hyperbole normalizes extreme language and serves as an effective screen of the real-life extreme ideology we all now suffer beneath. It is now quite normal for people, when informed, for instance, that 21,000 people die daily of hunger - a preventable condition - to shrug and say 'shit happens' or ask 'what do you expect me to do about it?' There are even those who will find fault with the victims, saying they only have themselves to blame. The extreme is normal and, with tragic irony, the normal extreme.

The findings of a key 1970s study on the influence in society in television have particular relevance here. From an earlier article on this blog:

A most insidious and damaging form of deception is achieved through the utilization and deployment of fear. Professors George Gerbner and Larry Gross of the University of Pennsylvania in the 1970s researched the effect of television on viewers in the United States in the belief that in the few decades since its appearance and mass acceptance the medium had come to wield a power over humanity comparable to that of religion.

They developed a hypothesis known as Cultivation Theory and found through their research that over time the perception of reality of heavy, long-term viewers is subtly changed, eventually coming to closely resemble the televised version. Crucially, it was found that the more often such viewers were told or shown something, the greater significance they attached to it. Conversely, issues rarely or never encountered on television were attached relatively little or no importance in comparison.

These findings have far-reaching consequences. As TV delivery has become more and more violent and dramatic, heavy viewers tend to see the world as a more dangerous place than it actually is, particularly with regard to personal safety. Gerbner labelled this 'Mean World Syndrome', and found that affected people tended to believe, for instance, that violent crime was prevalent even if it was falling, and that they felt more likely to be a victim of a crime. Gerbner et al. developed a Mean World Index, which comprises three statements:

Most people are just looking out for themselves.

You can't be too careful in dealing with people.

Most people would take advantage of you if they got the chance.


...

These findings can be extended beyond the realm of fear and television. If a narrative is adopted, repeated and reinforced throughout various media, this can only cement the perceptual reality adopted through the distorting lens of the mass media.

As the overwhelming majority of media is owned by corporations, a narrative that serves the purposes of such entities and their proxies can be hammered home literally twenty-four hours a day (with lashings of celebrity and other manufactured distraction for both starter and dessert).

As discussed, Cultivation Theory shows that the greatest significance is attached to issues that are most relentlessly repeated, and that the converse is also true. No surprise then that, to cite a recent example, the British public is woefully ignorant of the reality of...well, pretty much everything:

From the article:

Teenage pregnancy: on average, we think teenage pregnancy is 25 times higher than official estimates: we think that 15% of girls under 16 get pregnant each year, when official figures suggest it is around 0.6%.

Foreign aid: 26% of people think foreign aid is one of the top 2-3 items government spends most money on, when it actually made up 1.1% of expenditure (£7.9bn) in the 2011/12 financial year. More people select this as a top item of expenditure than pensions (which cost nearly ten times as much, £74bn) and education in the UK (£51.5bn).

Benefit fraud: people estimate that 34 times more benefit money is claimed fraudulently than official estimates: the public think that £24 out of every £100 spent on benefits is claimed fraudulently, compared with official estimates of £0.70 per £100.


Reality is skewed beyond recognition and in ways that benefit the elite political and financial classes, who without exception desire the continuation (and entrenchment) of the status quo and know all too well that any viable democratic system would spell their doom as it would signal the end of unaccountability, two-tiered justice and deeply immoral and destructive entities like tax havens.

This deep perversion of reality has made it possible for a new 'shock and awe' strategy that has gained favor in recent years: namely, blanket coverage of a significant event or incident that works heavily for the benefit of the political or corporate classes, and then blanket silence when evidence later surfaces that contradicts the promoted version of events. Clear examples of this can be seen with regard to the US-instigated coup in Ukraine - an unmentionable topic in the corporate media - as well as the chemical weapons attack allegedly carried out by President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. This was particularly instructive in that the assertions of Seymour Hersh, one of the world's foremost and most respected investigative journalists, were ignored by the media establishment, dismissed in favor of the findings of a stay-at-home blogger, Eliot Higgins. The reason? Hersh's findings contradicted the official story already put forward, while Higgins' supported them. Hersh, who has won numerous prestigious prizes for journalism and has broken some of the most famous stories of all time, had to be content with his piece being published in a British literary journal - the London Review of Books - while Higgins and his assertions were accorded wide acceptance.

This shock and awe tactic has proved extremely successful. As casual readers of news do not look at the details of stories, they will remember only the headlines and carefully chosen soundbites that stabbed into their brains relentlessly over a 24/48-hour period. With this comes mass acceptance of the story, which also means mass condemnation of any questioning of it. Those few brave individuals sticking their head over the parapets to politely point out inconsistencies or lack of evidence are quickly shot to pieces, subjected to vitriolic abuse and disdain on social media and elsewhere and smeared as 'conspiracy theorists'. This functions as a powerful form of social control, in that it plays on confirmation bias and also fear of association with objects of ridicule. A recent example of this phenomenon can be seen in the dearth of people willing to publicly support Russell Brand for simply calling for a fairer system, with millions, many of whom actually agreeing with what he says, choosing instead to castigate and denigrate his character and motivations.

It is this lie of omission that is most devastating of all because it permits plausible deniability on the part of those responsible. Outright lies can at least be exposed, but omission can be blamed on the need for 'objectivity' (impossible in any reporting) or a professed inability to verify information credibly. This excuse, of course, does not stop outright lies being used to discredit current official enemies, as Russian (also Iranian and Venezuelan) officials will attest, but it is a most powerful weapon in constructing a 'reality' that is acceptable to the Western elites who control the editorial pages.

[Note: Highly recommended: US journalist Paul Street in a recent article discusses in further detail the methods and aims of the corporate media]

This filtering and framing occurs in all corporate media, but while one can expect newspapers like the Daily Mail or the Daily Telegraph to openly espouse an establishment and/or right-wing agenda, the most essential (and insidious) service in support of the corporate system comes from traditionally 'liberal left' 'vanguards', most notably the UK's Guardian newspaper. They perform the vital function of bringing self-described liberals into the pro-interventionist (pro-war) camp, a function the right-wing press would have no hope of accomplishing.

The classic modern example of this process outside the media was the election of Barack Obama in 2008 on a global, media-driven tide of 'hope and change'. Literally billions of people believed the dark days of the Bush era were finally gone and that there was real hope for peace and justice around the world, with the Nobel Peace Prize committee obviously in agreement. Obama proceeded to become one of the most warlike US Presidents in history (which is really saying something), presiding also over a drone 'kill list' (renamed the 'disposition matrix') on 'Terror Tuesday' to personally decide that week's innocent victims of the world's largest ever terrorist campaign (the drone program). He has also persecuted those essential elements of democracy - whistleblowers - to an unprecedented degree, imprisoning and persecuting anyone shining a light on the wide-ranging criminal activities of the US.

The significance of this? The President made millions of starry-eyed Obama fans support positions that they vociferously opposed under the Bush administration, possibly becoming therefore the most effective servant of the military-industrial complex in history.

The Guardian in its role as the most liberal mainstream outlet does the same. Consider this delusional Guardian editorial on Libya:

'Britain and France led the Libyan intervention, drawing in a reluctant United States and other Nato countries...'

Media Lens commented:

The chasm in honesty separating the corporate and non-corporate media is staggering. As we have seen, the corporate media generally assume that the West has a God-given right to wage war on other countries because a) 'our' corporate-dominated states are driven by high moral purpose, b) 'we' have the right to decide who should wage war, where and when because, c) 'we' know best, and d) it's just normal to wage war. The better non-corporate media challenge this as the vicious social pathology that it is.

Consider that, according to the text, UN resolution 1973 had 'the aim of facilitating dialogue to lead to the political reforms necessary to find a peaceful and sustainable solution...' It also excluded a 'foreign occupation force of any form'.


The three regular 'radical' Guardian columnists who serve as fig-leaves (Seumas Milne, George Monbiot and Owen Jones), while often writing powerful, informative and power-challenging articles (especially Milne and Monbiot), nonetheless by their regular presence alone lend crucial legitimacy to a newspaper that is servile to corporate power overall.

As noted by Media Lens in a recent article, the Daily Telegraph reported that the Guardian changed a headline to avoid offending Apple, with whom it had an advertising contract:

However, The Telegraph can disclose that in July last year Apple bought wraparound advertising on The Guardian's website and stipulated that the advertising should not be placed next to negative news.

A Guardian insider said that the headline of an article about Iraq on The Guardian's website was changed amid concerns about offending Apple, and the article was later removed from the home page entirely.

The insider said: "If editorial staff knew what was happening here they would be horrified."


Investigative journalist Nafeez Ahmed's Guardian blog was axed after he published a post detailing Israel's interest in Gaza's natural gas reserves.

Former Guardian journalist Jonathon Cook explains:

It is okay to criticise individual western policies as flawed, especially if done so respectfully, but not to suggest that the whole direction of western foreign policy is flawed, that it is intended to maintain a system of control over, and exploitation of, weaker nations. Policies can be dubious, but not our leaders’ moral character.

Nafeez Ahmed himself, now writing freelance, explains in a separate article how 'fraudulent blood money makes the world go round', with specific reference to connections between multiple scandal-tainted HSBC and the Guardian (among others):

Here’s something you won’t read in the Guardian. During the Treasury Select Committee meeting on 15th February, it emerged that the newspaper that styles itself as the world’s “leading liberal voice” happens to be the biggest recipient of HSBC advertising revenue: bigger even than the Telegraph.

According to the Guardian Media Group’s annual financial review last year, its American website, Guardian US, delivered “record online traffic” in the form of over 20 million unique monthly users “representing year-on-year growth of 12%.” User growth permitted a dramatic increase in advertising revenues: “Revenues from US operations more than doubled on the previous 12-month period, reflecting advertising demand and sponsorship deals with partners such as HSBC, Netflix and Airbnb.”

HSBC’s “partnership” with the Guardian Media Group has thus played an integral role in enabling the Guardian’s US venture to maximise its revenues, and expand its work.

The Guardian’s links with HSBC go beyond mere advertising. Much has been made of the fact that the newspaper is owned and run by The Scott Trust, originally created in 1936 “to safeguard the title’s journalistic freedom.” The paper, wrote leftwing columnist Owen Jones in the wake of Peter Oborne’s revelations, “is unique for being owned by a trust rather than a media mogul.”

I have a lot of respect for Jones, who is doing important work, but his assertion here is untrue and misleading.

The Guardian is not owned by a trust at all. In 2008, “the trust was replaced with a limited company” that was accordingly re-named “The Scott Trust Limited.” Though not a trust at all, but simply a profit-making company, it is still referred to frequently as ‘The Scott Trust,’ promulgating the widely-held but mistaken belief in the Guardian’s inherently benign ownership structure.

The new company purports, like many other corporate entities, to be guided by a range of commendable values, including the task of maintaining the Guardian’s editorial independence. The problem, of course, is that the Guardian functions under the same sort of corporate structure as any other major media company.


After Peter Oborne quit the Daily Telegraph in protest at being expected to whitewash the HSBC scandal because of advertising revenue concerns, Media Lens wrote:

In a free society, Oborne's courageous whistleblowing would have triggered a wide-ranging debate on how profit-seeking media owned and run by a tiny elite, dependent on corporate advertisers, subsidised by state and corporate 'news', obviously produce a vision of the world in which corporate domination is viewed as 'just how things are'. The astonishing, hidden story of the vast corporate campaigns to stifle political choice, to subvert democracy, control culture and even to brainwash children, would have poured forth. Instead, heads bowed, journalists focused on 'maverick' Oborne, on isolated problems at the Telegraph, on the specific problem of advertising, and on defending their employers. The truth, as ever, was not a concern.

'Radical' fig-leaves are a necessary evil for the corporate media as they are essential for providing 'balance'. Flak against corporate-influenced policies and actions in society is inevitable, more so as the grip tightens, and information that is hostile to corporate aims will inevitably reach some people anyway through alternative and social media. It costs little, therefore, to allow discussion of power-challenging topics in the Guardian's pages such as the TPP/TTIP. Indeed, as a bonus, radical articles in the Guardian can then safely be left to be torn to pieces by astroturfers and other hostile elements in comments below the line, comments that do not engage with issues and use inflammatory rhetoric and/or attack the credibility of the writer. Ironically, George Monbiot himself wrote a good article on this issue.

They also help to give the false impression that the Guardian is holding power to account, when in fact - when one looks at the results - the status quo is always preserved. When Edward Snowden leaked the NSA disclosures to Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian - with Greenwald on its payroll - won a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting. Yet the surveillance continues, with only cosmetic safeguards proposed. When John Kiriakou disclosed that the illegal torture technique of waterboarding was used systematically by the CIA, he went to prison. The CIA torture report was later released, detailing horrific acts by US agents on detainees. The world's media didn't hold back, detailing even some of the most gruesome acts, but succeeded in framing the narrative in such a way that none of those responsible for these illegal acts have been prosecuted, with the whole episode now quietly buried along with Abu Ghraib and Collatoral Murder.

When challenged, liberal journalists often claim that they are aware of the nature and aims of the corporate media but are nonetheless using it as a platform to spread progressive ideas to a mass readership. This seems plausible until one remembers that newspapers like the Guardian will always require progressive journalists, be they Milne, Monbiot or Jones or anyone else. If Owen Jones was not writing there, someone like him would be easily found to replace him. In the case of Jones, with his 271,000 Twitter followers who retweet everything he does, mass readership is guaranteed wherever he writes. There is also the option of writing as an occasional guest columnist (as true radicals sometimes do), which would reach the same audience but from someone outside the corporate structure, a crucial difference as the Guardian can no longer use his presence as a source of legitimacy.

The role of the corporate media is to protect, promote and legitimize the destructive and amoral aims of profit-seeking private power. Any journalist or columnist working within that system is actively aiding the corporate media achieve this goal. These gatekeepers, especially those regarded as liberal, are therefore culpable in the illegal wars and rapacious, planet-destroying actions of the worst corporations. A right-thinking journalist of conscience would extricate themselves from the machine, as the aforementioned Jonathon Cook and Nafeez Ahmed have done, along with famed journalists such as John Pilger. With enough big names breaking free, the dream of a mass-market, ad-free, donation-based investigative journalism enterprise employing the best writers would be one step closer to reality.

Written by Simon Wood

Twitter: @simonwood11

Facebook: Here

Please also see my 'daily' (not) blog.

My articles are written freely. If you appreciate them, Paypal donations can be made at my free book's website.

[Note: you don't need to download the book to make a donation]

Bitcoin donations are also gratefully accepted:

Address: 1BMnkhwgPap2NVNiyKGTP1gfBuMtZQVYUo