Reporting the reporters | Franck Martin

picture-27GUM speaks with Nick Davies, award winning journalist and author of Flat Earth News, about why the news media isn’t doing its job.

News is a window on the world, so the saying goes. It allows us to make sense of things we can never experience for ourselves: the war we will never see, the explosion we will never hear or the fire we will never smell. Journalists organise the who, what and where of events to produce an accessible news story, and the media machine ensures that it gets to you, its highly coveted reader. So unless you, or someone you know, experienced an event first hand or you have a detailed prior knowledge of the topic this is how you stay informed and make your decisions, form your opinions. Were the Israelis right to invade Gaza? Should the bankers be made to give up their bonuses? How real is global warming? All of these issues are presented to you through the window of the media – but the glass is cracking. Yet, because it is the media who report, who will be there to report on the reporters’ failings?

This is the question that Nick Davies addresses in ‘Flat Earth News’, a term he coined to describe the media’s unquestioning acceptance of lies, distortions and propaganda produced by the media machine.

Davies argues that corporate greed is creating an ever growing deficit between the ‘who, what and where’ of news events and you as a reader. Unsurprisingly the book has been met with hostility within certain sections of the media so GUM spoke with the author and asked why he thinks the news has gone 2D.

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If you were a doctor assessing the health of the media what would be your diagnosis?

News media are extremely ill. They may well be dying. But, like some people with dangerous conditions, they prefer not to admit it, which means it’s even less likely they will recover.

What treatment would you prescribe?

The best treatment would be to escape from the mass media corporations who have taken over so many news organisations and to find non-commercial, non-profit sources of funding for ‘mini media’, i.e. small, lean, low-cost groups of journos, probably working from home, filing to a website, focussing on one very specific patch (geographical or subject). That would work journalistically. Financially, it will work only if it is subsidised – by grants from foundations, by donations from readers, by public money, by any other lawful source we can think of.

Why has there been such a drastic decline , and who is to blame?

The decline in standards has been driven by the profit-seeking corporations. It’s not simply that the Internet and the credit crisis have stolen our income and forced us to lower our standards. Flat Earth News is about the good years, when the corporations ransacked our newsrooms for profits, inflicting terrible damage on the quality of the news we produce while siphoning off mighty profits for the owners and for the executives’ pay packets. Now things are tight – and the corporations continue to treat journalists as an optional extra, to be cut at will. They are now in the process of causing such profound damage that the essential processes of news gathering are in jeopardy. In practical terms, what this means is that if we can find some new sources of funding for journalism it is vital that it is not given to the corporations. They would use it as the banks have used their bail-out money, for the benefit of the same greedy owners.

How concerned should readers be about this decline?

This is not just about journalists losing their jobs. We all are losing our primary source of reliable information about the world. This is happening just as globalization increases our need for reliable information- as pressure on governments increases their tendency to lie and to manipulate. If we don’t change track, we are going to enter an age of information chaos precisely when we most need the exact opposite.

Do you see this trend continuing, and if so what sort of changes can the public expect from the media over the next 10 years.

The decline will accelerate unless we rescue news organizations from the corporate owners and run it for a profit rather than its original purpose, informing the public.

As a dog eating other dogs, did any bite back?

A small group of people were hysterically hostile to the book – some of the individuals who come off badly in what I wrote and some very senior Fleet Street people who just can’t stomach being the subject of the kind of scrutiny which they purport to bring to bear on others. But their voices were long ago drowned out by of journalists who gave their full support to the book.

Have there been any examples of major ‘flat earth’ stories since the publication of your book?

There is a torrent of Flat Earth News running through our media. As a single example, look at our total failure to ask tough questions about Barack Obama. It is an example of the rule of production which I call Moral Panic – there is a heightened emotion out there (in this case, hope) and, largely for commercial reasons, in order to avoid alienating readers, we write stories which fit within that emotion. What on earth are we doing producing ‘souvenir editions’ after inauguration day, when we should be asking difficult questions? We’re selling papers and making money, that’s what we’re doing.

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The Obama PR campaign, which is one of the best and best resourced in the planet, feeds into that. Is he really a radical (this is a man who believes in religion, patriotism and capitalism)? How will he escape the electoral pressure to run the country from the right of centre in order to hang on to the few Republicans who switched sides in November (49% of the electorate still voted Republican)? How will he escape the enormously powerful lobbying pressure in Washington? Why does he need a year to close Guantanamo if he really is going to stick to lawful principles and either release or try all the detainees? Why is he still allowing US forces to bomb Pakistan, killing innocent civilians (and how would he react if, for example, the Mexicans chased a group of their insurgents across the Rio Grande and bombed innocent US civilians?)

Lots and lots of difficult questions are out there – sadly none are being asked.

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ARTICLE UPDATE

“GUM wish to highlight a misprint in its spring edition. Mr Davies was misquoted as saying: “The decline will accelerate unless we rescue news organisations from the corporate owners AND run it for a profit rather than its original purpose, informing the public. The correct statement read: “The decline will accelerate unless we rescue news organisations from the corporate owners WHO run them for profit rather than for their original purpose, informing the public”. FM

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