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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 and equivocations.

First, a clear example. Medialens write:

'Davies’s focus on the relative innocence of corporate profit-making leads him to even greater extremes...'

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 then remark:

'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 away.

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 the media:

'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 profession:

“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 News, p111]

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 advertisers.'

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 advertisers?'

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


1. http://www.medialens.org/alerts/08/080305_flat_earth_news.php
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 board, 6/3/08)
3. http://www.medialens.org/cogitations/060211_the_ultimate_propagandist.php
4. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,2251982,00.html
5. http://www.medialens.org/alerts/07/071101_advertising_climate_disaster.php
6. http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/today/ram/today5_bankrupt_20080204.ram

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