Media self-censorship

When we talk of a ‘controlled’ media, we tend to think of editors and political leaders telling reporters what they should write about and how. That does happen in some countries and newspapers, and we rightly call those things ‘propaganda’. But that kind of overt control is rarely effective over the long term because when people know that journalists take their instructions from people with openly political agendas, they tend to factor that in and discount the credibility of those news sources.

Propaganda is far more effective when there is no overt control or censorship of journalists but where they can be persuaded to self-censor, because then everyone, reporters and reading public alike, think that what they are getting is ‘objective’ news and are thus more likely to believe it. Implementing such a sophisticated propaganda model requires some overt pressure initially, but reporters and editors quickly learn what they can and cannot say if they want to advance their careers.

Take for example the case of Washington Post reporter Tom Ricks. I wrote earlier that Ricks reported that US military analysts had told him that Israel was allowing the Hezbollah to keep some rockets that killed Israeli civilians because that helped them deflect criticism when they killed Lebanese civilians. This, of course, goes against the accepted official line that ‘our’ (i.e. the Israel and US government’s) motives are always pure and that it is only ‘they’ (whoever the current enemy happens to be) who would do evil things.

It is interesting to see what happened to him after that. Howard Kurtz, on whose show Ricks made these comments, says:

One other note. On Reliable Sources two weeks ago, “Washington Post” Pentagon reporter Tom Ricks said he’d been told by U.S. military analysts that Israel was leaving some Hezbollah rocket launchers intact because the killing of Israeli civilians provided an image of moral equivalency in the war. “Post” editor Len Downie, responding to a letter from former New York mayor, Ed Koch, says he told Ricks he should not have made those statements.

Ricks told the New York Sun that he accurately reported the comments from analysts but that, quote, “I wish I hadn’t said them, and I intend from now on to keep my mouth shut about it.”

Notice that Ricks was not denying the accuracy of what he had said or the fact that it was a relevant and important piece of information about the nature of modern warfare. He was saying that he had learned not to offend powerful people and groups, people who have the ears of his bosses. He and his editors have learned that they cannot step outside certain boundaries of thought. You can be sure that every reported has heard this story and taken its lesson to heart.

That is one example of how self-censorship is created. Here’s another.

Chris Mooney described how Scott Gold, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times wrote a “hard-hitting but accurate” piece which reported that the scientific consensus was firm that “abortion does not cause breast cancer” and that those who claimed it did had dubious credentials.

Mooney says that “In an internal memo exposed by the Web site, the Times’s editor, John Carroll, singled out Gold’s story for harsh criticism, claiming it vindicated critics who accuse the paper of liberal bias.” Carroll said that Gold should have sought out a credible scientist to defend the breast cancer-abortion link. In other words, Gold should have done a ‘he said/she said’ story.

Mooney says that this criticism might have had the desired effect. In a subsequent article on intelligent design creationism, Gold went out of his way to highlight the views of the IDC movement and make it seem to have much more credibility among scientists than it did.

Mooney concludes, “Scott Gold had it exactly right on abortion and breast cancer. Then he produced an article on “intelligent design” so artificially “balanced” it was downright inaccurate and misleading.”

These examples can be multiplied over and over. Those journalists who cannot stomach this self-censorship and want to simply call it like it is have to leave the profession. Those who remain either have already accepted this ethic or internalize it so that eventually they don’t even realize that they are doing so. It just becomes ‘natural’ for them to practice journalism this way, and thus it becomes the culture of reporting, the ‘correct’ way to do things.

It would be wrong to assume that this kind of self-censorship occurs because of the actions of a few people here or there. That would not be effective. It would also be wrong to assume that it occurs because of a deliberate and planned conspiracy among powerful people. That would be too crude and obvious. That is not how such systems come about. The kind of self-censorship we see occurs as a natural consequence of certain kinds of systemic forces operating in invisible ways to create the ‘objective’ media that we now have. How that system operates will be the topic of the next few postings in this series.

POST SCRIPT: Bad news from Antarctica about CO2 levels

The most recent results from examining ice cores from Antarctica show that current carbon dioxide levels are substantially higher now than they have ever been in 800,000 years and rising faster than ever before. (See my earlier posting on this.)

The picture is the same: carbon dioxide and temperature rise and fall in step.

“Ice cores reveal the Earth’s natural climate rhythm over the last 800,000 years. When carbon dioxide changed there was always an accompanying climate change. Over the last 200 years human activity has increased carbon dioxide to well outside the natural range,” explained Dr Wolff.

The “scary thing”, he added, was the rate of change now occurring in CO2 concentrations. In the core, the fastest increase seen was of the order of 30 parts per million (ppm) by volume over a period of roughly 1,000 years.

“The last 30 ppm of increase has occurred in just 17 years. We really are in the situation where we don’t have an analogue in our records,” he said.


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