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
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 then
'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
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.”
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
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
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 board,