In his 2008 book Flat Earth News, long before the current frenzy about ‘fake news’ and Russian ‘disinformation’, British journalist Nick Davies sought to explain why the global media contained so much ‘falsehood, distortion, and propaganda.’ According to Davies, up to about the 1980s, mass media was not predominantly concerned with money-making. In particular, what one might call ‘serious’ broadsheet newspapers were rarely profitable and often lost substantial amounts of money. They stayed in business because of the subsidies of rich proprietors who felt that owning a newspaper gave them prestige and political influence. In the 1980s Rupert Murdoch changed all that, and set about turning the mass media into a source of revenue. One way of doing this was by cutting costs, which entailed reducing payroll. Thus began a process in which the number of journalists employed by Western media organizations has plummeted. This process has accelerated in recent years, with newsroom jobs falling by 23% between 2008 and 2017 alone. At the same time, the internet has led to a vast increase in the number of media organizations. The internet has also created intense pressure to produce stories quickly. The result is fewer and fewer journalists forced to produce more and more stories faster and faster. The inevitable consequence has been a decline in quality.
Along the way, investigative journalism, which is slow and labour intensive, has fallen largely by the wayside. Instead, modern journalism has become largely a matter of cutting and pasting. Davies and his research team examined where the stories in newspapers came from. They discovered that the overwhelming majority came from two sources: a) a handful of press agencies, such as AP and Reuters; and b) press releases issued by governments and private corporations. Only a few organizations, such as the BBC, produce most of their own news reports. The majority just cut and paste from press agencies or press releases. Fact checking – which is also slow and labour intensive – has largely disappeared. In his 2006 book War Reporting for Cowards, British journalist Chris Ayres explained how the process works. Arriving in New York as the new US correspondent for the London Times, Ayres meets his predecessor. His job, she tells him, is to watch CNN and read the New York Times and then transcribe them for a British audience. Enough said!
My last post was on a very trivial matter, but I wrote it because it encapsulates the sloppy journalism which results from this process. Unfortunately, it’s endemic, and given the pressures that journalists operate under, it’s probably inevitable and not really their fault. Davies comments that these pressures mean that it’s relatively easy for governments and corporations to manipulate the media. Needing stories, journalists will snap up official press releases and regurgitate them without too much critical analysis. Others will then copy them, and before long the story is accepted everywhere. If you want to know why the English-language media overwhelmingly accepted government claims of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, this explains a lot.
What Davies doesn’t go into, but I think is also important, is the latitude the modern cut-throat media process creates for biases to influence reporting. Many issues are contested. Perhaps more than one party is issuing press releases. You don’t have time to check the competing narratives, or maybe look for some middle ground. The editor wants the story out now. So you have to choose. Whose press release do you cut and paste? The one issued by the side you believe more reliable, obviously. And how do you decide that? Perhaps years of experience have taught you the correct answer. But perhaps it’s just a matter of personal preference. Reporting on Syria, do you cut and paste the White Helmets’ latest press release, or that of the Syrian government? You don’t like the Syrian government, so you go with the former. Ideally, you’d do more research, but, as I said, there’s no time, so biases govern.
Davies also points out that at any time there is a ‘story’ which prevails. If everybody else is reporting on something, then editors feel that they have to be reporting on it too, regardless of whether there is anything to it. If you want to sell copy, you can’t be the only outlet which is ignoring the ‘story’. You can see this with what is called ‘Russiagate’. For the past two years, Russian ‘electoral interference’, ‘disinformation’ and so on have been the ‘story’. Journalists therefore leap upon anything which feeds this story, even if it doesn’t actually amount to much. By contrast, anything which suggests a different story is ignored. You can see this in the case of the British-run Integrity Initiative, a shady organization funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and dedicated to combatting ‘Russian propaganda’. As Kit Klarenburg points out in an article in Sputnik News, the Integrity Initiative set up one of its ‘clusters’ of like-minded opinion formers in Germany. This cluster was headed by a former British Member of Parliament Harold Elletson, who is believed to have once worked for the British secret intelligence service MI6. Imagine if it became known that a secret network had been set up in Germany to push pro-Russian stories in the German media, and that this network was funded by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and led by a former Russian Duma Deputy who had at one time worked for the Russian intelligence service SVR. One suspects that it would be front-page headlines. Journalists would be all over it. It now turns out that a British funded network, run by a former British spy, has been recruiting Germans to influence Germany public opinion. It seems newsworthy. But how much attention has it gathered from the ‘mainstream’ media? Practically none. It doesn’t fit the ‘story’.
Attentive readers will note that in two days I have twice referenced the Russian media organization Sputnik. This is kind of odd, as I doubt that I have ever read more than about five Sputnik stories. But the narrative above tells me why people might decide to read more. Too much reporting in Western media is sloppy, inaccurate, and biased. I’m certainly not saying that all of it, or even most of it, is. There are some excellent journalists and some first class reporting. But when it comes to Russia, there is a lot which falls short, more than enough for many intelligent readers to realize that something isn’t quite right. The result is a loss of faith in the mainstream media, which induces some to defect to alternative sources, be it Sputnik or anything else.
Those alternative sources may, of course, be worse. But it seems to me to be wrong to blame them for the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ and the like. Those who campaign against Russian disinformation often demand that governments take action against RT, Sputnik, and others, and propose setting up counter-disinformation centres dedicated to exposing Russian fake news and spreading their own version of the truth. But none of this addresses the root cause of the problem – the failings of our own traditional media. I’m not sure what the solution is – the pressures of the market and the processes unleashed by modern information technology are what they are – but the solution certainly doesn’t involve blaming others. If you don’t report on the Integrity Initiative, for instance, of course people will turn to Sputnik to read about it. And frankly, they’re right to do so – where else can find out about this stuff? So what I’d say to our information warriors is that if you don’t want people turning to Sputnik¸ you first need to get your own act together. As I’ve said before, the root of problem doesn’t lie without; it lies within.