Medialens attack Nick Davies
by Robert Shone
Medialens have published a long, harsh critique1
of Nick Davies's book, Flat Earth News.
At first glance, the Medialens article (available at medialens.org)
appears substantial, but under close scrutiny it becomes apparent
that it contains little more than a series of misrepresentations
First, a clear example. Medialens write:
'Davies’s focus on the relative
innocence of corporate profit-making leads him to even greater
Since it's obvious that Medialens don't
see corporate profit-making as "relatively innocent",
we must assume they're imputing this view to Davies. So, is
it Nick Davies's thesis that profit-making is "innocent"?
Does he "focus" on its innocent effects?
Anyone who has read Flat Earth News
would laugh at this suggestion. However, this is more than
a comical misreading by Medialens - it's part of an attempt
to portray Davies as a "company man" with "nothing
serious to offer", whose analysis is "flawed",
"naïve", "old" and "very superficial".2
The main rhetorical weapon used by Medialens
is equivocation. For example, they quote Davies's claim that
the "primary purpose" of media corporations "is
not propaganda", but is "to make money". They
'This last comment is breathtaking.
Anyone who knows anything about the political history of
the last century in Britain and the United States knows
that the primary purpose of much propaganda is precisely
"to make money".'
With this - and in spite of themselves -
Medialens reinforce Davies's view that making money is "primary".
Elsewhere, a Medialens editor writes: "Who can not
find the source of infinite misery in the insatiable, psychopathic
greed of corporate profit-seeking?"3
So, while Medialens find Davies's comment "breathtaking",
it's perhaps their own equivocation which takes their breath
It's difficult to spot equivocation on tricky
concepts such as "propaganda". In a narrow sense,
"propaganda" is consciously directed, but in a broader
sense it permeates a worldview (eg of consumerism). By equivocating
- ie treating different meanings as equivalent - it's possible
to make an ignorant (or disingenuous) case against Davies,
or against anyone.
Medialens claim that Flat Earth News
invites us to "tinker at the edges of a system which
in fact is rotten to the core". We're to believe
that Davies, as a "company man", is unwilling to
expose that rotten core. Here, in fact, is how Davies describes
'An industry whose primary task
is to filter out falsehood has become so vulnerable to manipulation
that it is now involved in the mass production of falsehood,
distortion and propaganda.'4
Medialens continue their equivocations by
invoking (repeatedly) the notion of "ideological neutrality".
For example, they write:
'...company men like Davies -
who perceive the architecture of the media as ideologically
neutral rather than the product of political struggle.'
"Ideologically neutral" is another
tricky concept. Would Davies really claim that the media is
"neutral" in the sense meant by Medialens? (You'll
see, below, that he would not). In fact, it's difficult to
see how anything in human culture could be considered "ideologically
neutral" in the sense implied by Medialens.
Medialens use a similar rhetorical trick
with the concept of "truth". They quote Nick Davies
asking why "truth-telling [would] disintegrate into
the mass production of ignorance". Then they comment:
'Truth-telling has +never+ been
the primary function of Davies’s profession.'
"Truth-telling" has a simple meaning
in the context of checking facts. If you check facts before
you relay them, then you are keeping to the "truth",
within the limits of this context. Medialens conflate this
with "neutrality". Their confusion is revealed when
they write the following:
'By contrast, Davies endlessly
reiterates his faith in the essential neutrality of his
“If the primary purpose of journalism is
to tell the truth, then it follows that the primary function
of journalists must be to check and to reject whatever is
not true.” (p.51)'
In order to recognise the equivocation here,
one must distinguish between the "truth" of checked
facts and the "truth" (if any) implied by so-called
"neutrality" or "objectivity". It's possible
to truthfully relay facts while remaining far from neutral
on an issue (scientists do it all the time). Faith in the
ability of journalists to check facts doesn't equate to faith
"in the essential neutrality" of journalism.
In fact, Medialens contradict themselves
in striking fashion over this, since at the start of their
article they quote Davies emphatically pointing out that "objective"
truth does not exist in the media:
'The great blockbuster myth of
modern journalism is objectivity, the idea that a good newspaper
or broadcaster simply collects and reproduces the objective
truth. It is a classic Flat Earth tale, widely believed
and devoid of reality. It has never happened and never will
happen because it cannot happen.' [Flat Earth
Another term which invites equivocation
in media contexts is "conspiracy". Medialens object
to Davies's characterisation of a certain view as "conspiracy
theory". They quote Davies:
'So, for example, there is a popular
theory that mass-media coverage is orchestrated or at least
fundamentally restricted in order to win the favour of corporate
Medialens then remark:
'[This] is a straw man of Davies's invention. Moreover,
we cannot think of a single serious media analyst who would
subscribe to it.'
This is a bizarre comment, given Medialens's own writings
on the issue. For example, in another recent article, they
write that "newspapers have to be so careful not
to alienate their big advertisers and related political allies".5
In Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam
Chomsky write that advertisers want to avoid media content
with "serious complexities and disturbing controversies
that interfere with the "buying mood"."
One could argue about the differences between TV and newspaper
advertising (Herman and Chomsky were discussing TV advertising,
above), but nothing that Medialens write comes close to supporting
their "straw man" accusation. Their follow-up comment
is a non sequitur:
'What rational person, after all, would accept
that media performance - which must include consistent media
support for the US-UK governments' lies on Iraq, Kosovo,
Iran and so on - is explained by a conspiracy to satisfy
Of course, no "rational person" has claimed that
a "conspiracy to satisfy advertisers"
explains all media coverage. This bizarre characterisation
doesn't follow at all from their quoting of Davies. Who is
supplying the straw men here?
Davies uses the word "orchestrated" (see quote,
above), which tends to frame the advertisers' influence as
grandly conspiratorial, and perhaps this is what Medialens
object to. But if that is the case, it's puzzling that Medialens
don't also object to the following passage, which they quote
approvingly from Elizabeth Fones-Wolf (and which contains
a claim of "orchestrated" campaigns):
'Manufacturers orchestrated multimillion dollar
public relations campaigns that relied on newspapers, magazines,
radio, and later television, to re-educate the public in
the principles and benefits of the American economic system...'
Medialens's two-part article is riddled with equivocations
and misrepresentations. The examples not already described
may seem trivial at first glance, but the cumulative effect
is distorting and destructive. For example, Medialens write:
'This naïve idea that the corporate media
merely “recycle ignorance” goes to the heart
of Davies’s analysis.'
In fact, Davies doesn't argue that the media "merely"
recycle ignorance. This is Medialens's reductionist gloss.
It could hardly be clearer from reading Flat Earth News
that there's far more to it than that. At this point you'd
be forgiven for thinking that Medialens haven't read the book.
Nick Davies argues that "in all sorts of complex,
fascinating and deeply embarrassing ways, the logic of journalism
has been overwhelmed by the logic of commercialism".6
He writes about "falsehood as profound as the idea
that the Earth is flat, widely accepted as true to the point
where it can feel like heresy to challenge it".4
2. All these derogatory terms are in the main Medialens piece
(link - see 1.), except the last, which is from the following:
"But if you take a look at Davies's key focus - "churnalism"
- you can see that it really is a very superficial analysis,
which is a big reason why the book has been widely discussed
in the mainstream." (David Edwards, Medialens message