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Posted by Brian D on February 6 2008, 10:39 » Uploaded 06/02/08 10:42  

After hours of staring into space, I finally got round to writing something. At least nobody can accuse me of "churnalism".

6 February 2008

Nick Davies, in Flat Earth News, claims that journalists' reliance on packaged PR (government or corporate) is due to the lack of time journalists have available for investigative work. This, in turn, is due to downsized staff combined with upsized demand for space-filling content. Every story requires a "frame", and the PR industry knows how to frame a story so it's media-ready – a product to fit the market.

Readers of Lakoff, Chomsky, McLuhan, Postman, etc, know that this doesn't tell the whole story. But it does provide a starting point for a useful type of "institutional analysis". It may even lead to "deep" insights into the economic framing of "efficiency" and its effects on emerging "independent" media (more on this in a future article). Davies' book also seems to offer a wealth of details – the essential "raw data", without which any "media analysis" would be too abstract.

Questioning the status quo has always required time. That's why I find publications such as the Idler more subversive than most "radical" political movements – and it's why I find Paul Lafargue (author of The Right to be Lazy) more interesting than his father-in-law, Karl Marx. Changing your thinking requires time away from economic demands of work and "productivity". Chomsky pointed out that you can't undermine conventional pieties in a 15-second soundbite – you need more time. But you need more time, also – much more – to arrive at a state in which you are capable of undermining your own thinking. And what else do we require from journalists – mainstream or "independent" – with whom we fundamentally disagree?

We develop semantic reflexes at an age when we're unequipped for intellectual self-defense. We form semantic grids ("worldviews"), metaphorical representations of "reality" based on social programming ("education", etc). These require much time and effort to "undo", even assuming we have the inclination to undo them. Journalists inhabit a concentrated info-world in which the Great Work of undoing and reframing has serious consequences – particularly if "success" (conventional career development) correlates with the "right" semantic reflexes.

The unfortunate punchline is that non-career ("independent") journalists, bloggers, etc, are affected by the same economics of time – unless they're financially independent (eg well-off). This probably explains, in part, the complete lack of originality in most "independent" media, despite its freedom from corporate ownership. Copy-n-pasted "news" and recycled ideas (predominantly sub-Chomskyan) seem to be the rule – and I say this as someone who still sees the utopian promise of the internet.

In other words, the "churnalism" which Davies writes about ("churning" out copy on a "news" production line) is characteristic of both "mainstream" and much "independent" media. Behind it is a "deeper" set of constructs shared by both – the Western "economic" framing, common to both Marx and Adam Smith; the cognitive underpinning which unites two opposing sides in their encoding of survival-anxieties.

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COMMENTS Post comment


Comment 01 – Jon February 6 2008, 17:24

I agree with your (understated) point about "institutional analysis". A serious analysis of media institutions would of course take into account how corporate-owned time is utilized.

That's the one thing that journalists and employees in other fields have in common. Their time is owned. That time is generally not used for personal development, broadening of horizons or philosophical speculation, except in the very narrow sense in which these things might profit the shareholders.

How do people end up believing the crap they read in the Daily Mail, Sun or Guardian? Through a lifetime of lazy afternoons spend in quiet contemplation of the world's great media critics and deconstructionists?

Through decades of quiet mornings spent with Erich Fromm-trained therapists, unraveling their psychopathologies whilst listening to tapes of Chomsky?

Or through a rushed read in a 30 minute lunch break surrounded by other people reading the Mail or Sun?

That's the nitty-gritty economics of how people arrive at the views they have. The privileged, educated liberal type of journalists have their own route to the beliefs they end up with, again economically constrained (and they're not as well read as they'd have you think - they're just good at "intellectual" bluffing.)

Comment 02 – GingerJoe February 6 2008, 19:05

"it's why I find Paul Lafargue (author of The Right to be Lazy) more interesting than his father-in-law, Karl Marx"

That's a personal judgment, of course, but I think you do Karl a disservice. People perhaps tend to forget that he sought a humanist socialism in which everyone had the resources, opportunities and freedom to realise fully their potential. Now that's pretty much a spiritual notion - it goes way beyond economics.

Comment 03 – ALP February 6 2008, 20:02

I associate the term "institutional analysis" with Chomsky's defense of his own work as having nothing to do with "conspiracy theory". Of course, institutional analysis and conspiracy theory aren't mutually exclusive (provided one uses the standard definition of "conspiracy").

But if you're conducting an institutional analysis of the corporate media - let's say an analysis of "systemic" or "structural" factors - you can always leave out the elements that look like conspiracy (price fixing among supermarkets, etc). Or you can call it something else.

Okay, so we've got rid of conspiracy, and we're left with the more respectable stuff - the deep, systemic, structural institutional factors which Chomsky's critics never understand. So what are these? Well, they're systemic. And structural.

I don't mean to be obtuse. I have read the Propaganda Model described in Manufacturing Consent; I've read some systems theory, some cybernetics, institutional psychology/sociology, a smattering of institutional economics, etc. I know the ways in which systems can't be reduced to the sums of their parts.

So I see no reason why plain, simple language cannot be used to describe precisely which "structural" or "systemic" factors are claimed to be leading a given journalist X to utter a given abomination Y.

But it usually doesn't work that way. Typically, the more inept Chomskyites, such as Medialens, fudge it. They provide no analysis of what a journalist says in terms of specific "structural" or "systemic" factors. Instead, there's the quoted piece of journalism, some adjectives which express how outraged we should be, some speculation about causes (often involving cod-psychology, quotes from Erich Fromm, perhaps a bit of Buddhist compassion thrown in) and some self-congratulation about the "rational analysis" (which, in fact, hasn't taken place).

Queries from sceptics are then dismissed with the line that "they just don't understand the systemic, structural factors at work". That's "actually" right. But they don't understand it precisely because it's never explicated in the first place.

In other words, it's an intellectual cop-out. It's a way of intimating "depth" where there's none at all.

Prove me wrong, Medialens fans. Show me a single example (please post a link) of a so-called rational analysis of "systemic" or "structural" factors on media output - and I'll show you the wool being pulled over your eyes.

One of the reasons I prefer the approach of people such as Nick Davies or Greg Palast is that they stick to what can reasonably be said based on the facts. They don't overreach or overgeneralise or over-dogmatise. So they don't need to resort to these intellectual cop-outs.

Comment 04 – BBJE February 7 2008, 10:13

I'm assuming that you do accept "systemic factors", but that you're just unimpressed with the putative "analysis" from Chomsky followers?

Consider also that many in the media don't really buy this "systemic" line, although they're aware of its origins and underlying arguments.

Their position may be more like this: they experience various "pressures" - the usual politics associated with not annoying your bosses, the opinions of peers, direct instructions from above (policies, directives). You could call these things "systemic" if you wanted to suggest something deep and mysterious, to be appreciated only by Chomsky initiates.

The same applies to general beliefs about the world. Most journalists would probably consider themselves "normal" and "moderate" in their beliefs, and this could again be put down to "structural" factors if you really wanted to sound pretentious.

Then there are other tangible factors such as advertisers throwing their weight around or Alastair Campbell throwing his weight around. Or, in commercial media, the owners throwing their weight around. If that's what you are talking about, you can be clear. You don't need to hint at invisible "systemic" factors, which, as you rightly say, is a cop out.

Comment 05 – dav February 7 2008, 16:54

It's no conspiracy that the Irish Times, for one, recently secured purchase of a ?50 million property website. Coincidentally rents are going up in the Irish Times, but they're not in reality. It's also no conspiracy too that the Irish mainstream media has been unintentionally hyping the flagging property market for the last few years - at home and abroad (at home buyers buy apartment shaped cardboard boxes from the developers and abroad they buy from each other). It's no conspiracy that RTE, the only mainstream corporate media entity that does not carry property advertising (though you're unlikely to read that anyway in the mainstream - even RTE couldn't spell it out, why?), was the first to even raise the spectre of doubt that market was not as buoyant as your Sunday supplement would have you believe - what happens then? The media, all thinking independently of course, attacks the messenger. All independently concerned with broadcasting 'fear' into the market. One of those rare occasions where Joe Soap had the exclusive well over a year before the rags decided it fit to print - embedded interests, nah, PR, or time or space. Let's not forget your typical journo is also a Joe Soap.

Then the there's the feigned concern for global warming, opinion writers opine alarm and offer honest intelligent ways by which devilish Joe Soap can reduce his otherwise (i.e. in the rest of the publication) promoted unfettered foot print or off set it by burning up an Inuit's unused return flight to New York for the festive shopping spree. The Ryanair adverts accompanying the constructive, though arguably flawed, addition to the debate aside, there's the concerted skirting of the issue in the national news section where six years of state sponsored suppression of a small coastal community cannot dare be linked with the countries pre-ordained (not in the biblical sense of course - because the media never failed to expose the 'misdemeanours' of that not yet bygone centre of power in Irish life) failure to meet Kyoto targets. A few trillion cubic feet of natural gas never raised sea levels, only Gardai tempers and fat cat waist lines (laterally of course). And any individual or organised move to upset this balance will be shot down in flames, and the system (without exception, needless to say) sweeps it under the carpet with only fleeting glances backwards, always disparaging. This being both a personal ideological backlash and a systematically enforced one - though no proof exists for the later, its pure conjecture.

It's quite funny really, when the story of the Taoisach's 'extraordinary' finances (a man acting as Minister for Finance with no bank account cannot really be expected to 'account' for why large sums of money pass through his hands can he?) initially broke, the status quo was put in real jeopardy (the man embodied the Irish spirit of 'creative accounting' - Bono actually stated this of his own tax status and no one dared pick him up on it! And pointed towards the endemic corruption of the Celtic Tiger), so it was studiously ignored by the mainstream seeking only to protect the status quo, until that is the status quo was attacked from within (the impending cancerous bust). When the news first broke, from the Daily Mail (by a journalist, discredited via slander by an outgoing unpopular politician - though one that personified the status quo, who would then be systematically ignored) of all places, (and there's reason for that too, a no prize for this one though) the mainstream, who would usually go to great lengths to subvert any nationalist rhetorical tendencies (it's not really good for business) actually attacked the Mail - imagine a BRITISH paper telling us we are corrupt, imagine! Anything to subvert, eh, truth, all done individually I must add. Speaking of individuals, when the controller of 80% of a countries print media, Sir O'Reilly, meets with an allegedly corrupt politician and said media then decides not expose readers to the biggest national story of the last decade issues of time and space quickly fade in importance. How does this manifest itself in the news room you'd wonder, surely Tony doesn't come in on a Monday and say, 'just had a chat with Bertie, think I'm gonna cut him some slack, what do yee reckon?'

Churnalism is a convenient way to explain away a broad systematic failure. Lack of time and space forced me to do it! At least where doctors, nurses, teachers etc endure it, there's at least a semblance of admission that corrective measures are required. Of course time and space has an effect, but it says more about the fact the system is set up to be compromised, the means were put in place for it to be undermined long before PR caught on. It's designed to SELL, it was more a failure of PR that it hadn't already understood the construct and took advantage sooner. The media was literally offering itself to business, arms wide open - 'use me', 'I am your conduit'. There's even an implicit understanding that the mainstream media welcomes PR, and in fact seeks it out. Just as with the rise in official propaganda, the British ministry for propaganda in Ireland recognised the weakness and thus came up against little resistance - they were after all preaching to the long converted. Thus the essence of 'reporting' was distilled to nothing more than the mark of officialdom.

What Davies does, I'd imagine since I haven't read the book (though I have heard him speak at a reasonable length about it), is form a compelling thesis as to one factor leading to a problem, yet he wildly overstates the effect this has. Davies alleges that what he documents accounts for 90% of the problem behind the 'failure' of mainstream news (though I have an informed inkling that he doesn't fully believe this himself, but books need selling - sales equals status after all), yet +he+ cannot be accused of overgeneralising or over-dogmatising based on selected data. Does it matter for instance if journos actually believe what they write?

It's a fairly grandiose generalisation too to say that time constraints, resulting from unavoidable economic factors, undermines independence outside the corporate news sphere, just as it allegedly does within. But when it gives rise to the lazy (presumably implying insult) slating of sub-Chomskyism it becomes suspect. One has always to be careful not to disappear completely up one's hole. While the concept of productivity is indeed a factor against originality and questioning, it is not necessarily a financial pressure, it is regularly a social pressure (endemic of the system perhaps) - the need to appear productive (because it is rewarded), the need to appear to be doing something (or at least thinking of doing something - a revolt against the curse of laziness) whether the something is actually worth doing or not.

Waffle over, due to time and space constraints.

Comment 06 – Russ Bridger February 7 2008, 17:55

dav spoke:
"Waffle over, due to time and space constraints."

Yep, a waffle, not an "analysis". I think ALP was looking for analysis.

dav spoke:
"Churnalism is a convenient way to explain away a broad systematic failure.

No it isn't. Nobody's suggesting for a moment that it "explains" all that.

dav spoke:
"It's no conspiracy that..." (repeated)

A list of things which aren't conspiracies isn't a "systemic analysis", dav.

dav wrote:
"It's a fairly grandiose generalisation too to say that time constraints, resulting from unavoidable economic factors, undermines independence outside the corporate news sphere, just as it allegedly does within."

No it isn't. Having bugger-all free time (due to excessive working hours) undermines one's independence. That's not a "grandiose generalisation", it's a research finding (and it's common sense). Take a look at the numerous studies into opinions of those who work long hours. "Grandiose generalisation" - what fucking planet are you living on, dav?

Comment 07 – Ged February 7 2008, 18:17

What Davies does, I'd imagine since I haven't read the book... [Dav]

Reminds me of the Pope. "I haven't seen the film, but I condemn it on moral grounds".

Comment 08 – dav February 7 2008, 18:20

Read the whole (deleted expletive) [these are the poster's exact words. We don't delete expletives - Board admin.] passage Russ. The concern is not independence to produce its about 'lack of originality'. It's an independence of thought, not the state of being independent. Just because you have less free time doesn't mean you're less original. Where's your research finding for that?

I was not offering ALP anything. Just as ALP didn't offer me anything.

Davies thinks it's explains 'all that'.

Can an element of a system fail, and yet the system remain stable?

Comment 09 – Russ Bridger February 7 2008, 19:55

dav spoke:
"Just because you have less free time doesn't mean you're less original."

This isn't a very progressive direction you're taking, dav. Do you really want to argue that worthwhile intellectual contributions - originality, if you will - is something that flows regardless of nurture? If you do, you'd be right up there with some serious jerks of the right.

I mean, what would be the point of education (real education, not factory production lines)? Children could learn equally well while they cleaned chimneys, and with just as much chance of becoming brain surgeons or media critics.

dav spoke:
"I was not offering ALP anything"

Don't give me that. Your tedious list of non-conspiracies was a response to ALP's raising that issue.

dav spoke:
"Davies thinks it's [sic] explains 'all that'."

Where exactly does he think that? Show me.

dav wrote:
"Can an element of a system fail, and yet the system remain stable?"

Well, it's funny you should talk about "systematic failure". Because it's not a failure from the system's point of view. For the power elites, it's a "successful" system - a systematic success. And it's a success for the capitalist system that the vast majority of people are so exhausted and depressed by a lifetime of drudgery that they rarely have any time or inclination to rebel against it.

Comment 10 – dav February 7 2008, 21:23

I'll concede that, I was at the end of a rather lengthy waffle, and actually constrained by time and space, economically imposed I'll add. More so it was a reaction to the sweeping generalisation of independent writer output - substantially dependent on your acceptance of the discussed thesis. Of course we all aspire to live in a utopian society where intellectual freedom is a right not a privilege. But we cannot at the same time discount the value of 'work'.

The product of independent writers can, I agree, often be traced back to the mainstream, but I think mainly because that seems to be the mark by which it is to be judged. The narrowness of which it is criticised, not entirely a product of the economic factors, but a whole host of social factors inherent in the system.

If you think that's tedious (you'd be one of few - despite the fact it doesn't get talked about), I'll tell you what - analyse the past 10 years of mainstream output on the property market. You are likely to find that there is an inverse relationship between hyping and market buoyancy in those media that carry associated advertising. How do you prove this relationship is the direct of the relationship - answer, you can't.

Can't give you a web reference to Davies comments I'm afraid. But if I'm lying, let Raoul strike me down, because he def said it, honest.

The system part was a reference to something else, never mind.

Comment 11 – Raoul Djukanovic February 7 2008, 21:25

Here's Davies defending his thesis against a critique by another journalist:

Hi Adrian,

Thanks for the commentary. It's just about the first intelligent, well-informed challenge I've encountered. I think the Cardiff research is well-founded and important; and I think the picture which I'm painting of journalists being deprived of the time and resources which they need to do their work effectively, is accurate. But, just for the moment, assume that I'm wrong; pull back and look at the big picture of news media putting out global misinformation on WMD, the millennium bug, non-existent terrorist threats, key facts on which government policy is founded (all the stuff in the opening chapter of Flat Earth News). People outside the media look at that as well as the daily dribble of smaller false stories and often try to explain it by falling back on conspiracy theories, about proprietors or advertisers pressurising us to push out misinformation. For me, that doesn't cover the ground at all. So my explanation is that this is all about the numerous insidious and destructive ways in which the logic of commercialism has invaded our newsrooms (including the recycling of unchecked second-hand material from PR and wire agencies). But, if that's wrong, what is the explanation?

Good luck,[...]

Comment 12 – Brian D February 8 2008, 10:21

I'm not sure whose "sweeping generalisations" are being referred to (above). But if it was a reference to the point in my blog, let me add a few comments...

This probably explains, in part, the complete lack of originality in most "independent" media, despite its freedom from corporate ownership.

Please note the words "probably", "in part" and "most". There are, obviously, other important factors affecting quality of journalism besides "the economics of time". Does that need pointing out? One of the disadvantages of writing concisely is that you don't have the luxury of stating the obvious.

Also, I hope you won't subject "the economics of time" to the reductionist treatment. As I wrote in the blog, it's a starting point for an institutional analysis.

Comment 13 – David Storr February 8 2008, 11:24

Nick Davies, quoted from above:

this is all about the numerous insidious and destructive ways in which the logic of commercialism has invaded our newsrooms (including the recycling of unchecked second-hand material from PR and wire agencies)

I think that's clear. He's saying the recycling of PR, etc, is just part of it. And the "numerous" ways in which the "logic of commercialism" affects the situation shouldn't be given the reductionist treatment, as Brian says.

I count myself as Chomskyite, and I don't like the way that Chomsky's ideas are often reduced to "conspiracy theory". So when someone like Davies comes along with a detailed look at how the "logic of commercialism" affects media performance, I think it would be unwise to dismiss it in reductionist terms merely because it seems to let individual journalists "off the hook" to an extent (when we'd much rather see them as consciously complicit in war crime).

Comment 14 – dav February 8 2008, 13:19

Similiar thoughts from the Irish Times' Fintan O'Toole. The whole thing is worth reading if you've the time and inclination:

"the economics of print journalism has changed, you've ended up with fewer journalists writing more, a very simple labour equation. Historically, the trend is for fewer and fewer people to work in newspapers, while producing more and more."

"what happened in the eighties and early nineties was a process which contributed to the narrowing of the media at that time - a lot of that was actually driven by advertising."

"Agencies saw all these companies putting all this money into this advertising pool [magazines], which was taking away from newspapers."

"What you might have, is a shift in the social composition of journalism in general, which is certainly reflected in the Irish Times - which is that most of the people going into journalism are somewhat to the right of what they would be twenty years ago. And I think it has come from a bigger process, which is the professionalisation of the field, the fact that it has become something of a career path. And the entry to it has been set down through post-graduate study, this itself is a very big plateau for people to reach socially, in terms of being able to afford to go to university and then to pay for a fairly expensive post-graduate degree course. You are automatically changing the social composition of who the journalists are and you are also putting forward a notion of what a journalist is; it is a career analogous to being a dentist or a lawyer."

"there is a fundamental shaping effect in terms of the self-selecting nature of the audience, the audience has to be an audience that has money to spend. If they don't have the money spend, then advertisers won't advertise, if they don't put the money in then we don't survive. That's a simple set of rules; no one tells you these rules when you go into journalism, because they don't have to. I've never been at a meeting where someone says 'we won't do that because it doesn't appeal to rich people', it's much more fundamental to that. It's the air you breathe; it's the context of which all media, which are funded in whole or in part by advertising, operate. It does have a really important effect on who then is important to be writing for."

"You will see time and time again that material that is used in the media is coming from people that have an agenda. Very often the weight of that is going to lie with the multi-national company, because they have the professionalism, the capacity, to present that kind of material. And it may be more often than not to do with something, not sinister, but more to do with the means of production. If someone has say 45mins to write a piece about a complex event, they are naturally going to lean on the easiest, clearest and most accessible source of information. That's why one of the key issues around objectivity in the media is actually to do with man power, whether we can have media organisations that have sufficient numbers of people within them so that some kind of independent expertise can be built up."

"They need to be able to access the capacity to shape public opinion themselves and in a sense that's not an internal media problem - it's about the way the power to influence is spread throughout society. There are a lot of examples around Ireland where campaigning groups are building that capacity fairly rapidly; some of the philanthropic support is going in good directions. If you look at the children's rights groups, they are putting a lot of effort into advocacy, and effort into being on the ball, so when media issues arise they are able to intervene with exactly the kind of speed and authority that say a multi-national company can. That is just one of the ways you can try and address the imbalance, an imbalance that will always be there because it is to do with money and power, but at least the contest can be fought in a way that is a lot more open."[...]

Comment 15 – Donnie Darko February 9 2008, 11:45

Why are the sub-sub-Noams getting so worked up about this? If you ignore the differences in wording, Nick Davies's thesis doesn't sound so different from their own:

1. The media is full of lies and fabrications.

2. Root cause of corruption: profit-fixated corporate biz & power-mad govs.

3. Not simplistic. To quote Davies (from BBC Today interview): "in all sorts of complex, fascinating and deeply embarrassing ways, the logic of journalism has been overwhelmed by the logic of commercialism".[...]

4. The reliance on PR is just "one end of the scale" (Davies).

5. Not about conspiracy theories.

I wonder if the reason for the hysterical indignation (e.g. dav's jeer, "but books need selling - sales equals status after all") is the lack of hysteria in Nick Davies's wording?

And he doesn't use the correct passwords - "complicit", "systemic", "power elite", etc. So he must be a liberal herring-monger. How's that for systemic analysis?

Comment 16 – dav February 25 2008, 09:20

"if you take proprietor influence, advertising and ideology and say those are factors that perniciously influence the media and then ask how much of the total picture are they responsible for I want to argue that it's 5 or 10 per cent. That isn't where the problem is." [Nick Davies, "The First Casualty? War, Truth and the Media Today", London School of Economics, November 17, 2007]




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