How to ensure that journalists don’t listen to you.
By George Monbiot, published on monbiot.com, 28th October 2012
A letter to the editors of Media Lens.
Dear David and David,
At your request, I agreed to write to you at length on the topics we debated on Twitter which, as you rightly say, is the worst possible forum for a detailed discussion. I hope you will take this letter in the friendly and constructive spirit with which it is written.
Our brief correspondence on Twitter caused me to wonder why it is that Media Lens, a project whose purpose is to engage and persuade progressive journalists by critiquing their work and encouraging people to write to them, so often seems to alienate and antagonise them.
As you know, journalists whose politics are broadly in line with yours, and who are hostile to big business and the corporate domination of politics and the media, have become, following your attempts to engage with them, not your allies but your sworn enemies. I think it’s time for you to take stock and ask why this has been happening.
I have seen both you and your followers characterise their angry responses either as an intolerance of challenge and debate or as a defence of their own economic interests. I can speak only for myself, but I can say both that I love challenge and debate – as you can see from my constant engagement with those who criticise me – and that, while I have been through some rough patches in the past, now, to judge by the offers I receive, I have many possible ways of making my living. If I did not work for the Guardian, there are plenty of other things I would love to do, not all of which involve journalism. I’ve stayed with the Guardian because I believe it provides the best opportunity I have at the moment to change the way people see the world. This is doubtless the same reason that you continue to run Media Lens.
But there is something about the Media Lens approach that drives me bananas. Judging by the responses of other leftwing journalists, I’m not the only one. So I’ve been trying to stand back and work out what it is. I think it boils down to three issues.
The first, as I mentioned to you on Twitter, is the issue of bombardment. While I love debate, I do not love receiving scores of almost identical messages from people who sound as if they haven’t thought through an issue for themselves, but are parroting a line – often the exact words – formulated by someone else. A good journalist, I think, should read all his emails: my inbox is often stuffed with fascinating and important information (I apologise to all those who send such material but don’t receive a reply – I can’t cope with the volume of correspondence). Bombarding a very busy person with the same thing, over and over, is an effective formula for infuriating them and making them think “to hell with the lot of you!”.
The second is that you often seem to ascribe to people the worst of all possible motives. For example, I recently made the mistake of looking at your message board. You made a comment about the debate we conducted at the Guardian on advertising. I can’t remember the exact words you used, but they were along the lines of “here’s Monbiot diluting his message in order to suck up to his boss.” I thought that was an unfair characterisation, and that you were quite wrong. What I was trying to do was to make my case as persuasively as possible, in order to precipitate change at the Guardian. To do that you have to understand the other person’s point of view and anticipate his counter-arguments. Otherwise you merely end up – again – alienating and antagonising instead of persuading. My engagement with Alan Rusbridger was the same as my engagement would be with anyone who’s broadly on the same side but has a difference of opinion on a particular issue (and who hasn’t yet thoroughly antagonised me through bombardment or misattribution(!)).
I thought the motive you imputed to me, while inaccurate and unworthy of you, was also familiar. The sense I sometimes get when reading your alerts is that there’s no such thing as a legitimate difference of opinion. If journalists at the Guardian and elsewhere do not agree with your line in every particular, it’s because they are corporate stooges defending their pay packets. In reality some issues, such as the matter of whether NATO support for the rebels opposing Gaddafi was a good or a bad thing, are morally complex. I still don’t know where I stand on that (which is why I haven’t written about it), because I can see compelling moral arguments on both sides. Yet you appear to characterise such responses to complexity as conformity to the propaganda model. Again, that seems unfair, and your imputation of terrible motives even when they are not operating could scarcely be better calculated to alienate people.
This is not to say that terrible motives never come into play. But I believe you need to take a lot more care in ascribing them.
The third issue is what I perceive as confirmation bias: that you appear to have begun with a conclusion – that the Guardian conforms to the Herman and Chomsky propaganda model – then sought evidence to support it. Take your recent alert about the Guardian’s coverage of climate change. It seemed to me that you were cherry-picking a few lines of comment to support an otherwise unsupportable conclusion. I challenge you to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the paper’s coverage of climate change over the past few years, rather than just plucking out the items you disagree with, and seek to decide, as dispassionately as possible, whether or not it really conforms to the propaganda model.
I think you’ll discover that far from doing so, the Guardian has mounted a fierce and sustained challenge to the corporate-friendly coverage of this issue in the media (especially the Mail, Telegraph, Spectator, Express and Channel 4). I’ve written many such articles myself, desperately trying to defend the biosphere and the interests of the world’s poorest people against an onslaught of denial and misinformation from media organisations umbilically connected to the interests of big business. (In doing so, incidentally, I appear to have burnt my bridges with Channel 4, with the result that I have not made a TV documentary since 2007. That’s painful, as I’d love to present films again, but I don’t regret writing what I did). To characterise the Guardian’s writers on climate change as “unable to move beyond the same anodyne waffle they have been publishing for thirty years” strikes me as an inversion of what has really been happening, and I wonder how much of our coverage you have actually read.
Similarly, I’ve noticed over the years that when a journalist working for the Guardian disagrees with your line, you have characterised them as a corporate stooge. When they agree with your line, you have characterised them as a figleaf, used to disguise the propaganda model. In other words, the people you target cannot win. Whatever they say and do, they are condemned as the useful idiots of corporate propaganda. It’s another tendency that makes me think, “to hell with the lot of you!”.
When I challenged you on Twitter to carry out a comprehensive analysis of the Guardian’s output, rather than simply cherry-picking the stuff you disagree with and extrapolating that to support your pre-formed conclusion, you replied that you use the technique of “paired examples”. But you make a huge and damning general allegation against its coverage as a whole. To support it you need to look at all the coverage of the outlets you criticise, not just the instances that offend you.
I’d like you to ask yourselves what would it take to dissuade you from the view that the Guardian conforms to the propaganda model. How much evidence – for example of its climate change coverage – would you require to abandon your view that the Guardan is, overall, defending rather than challenging the corporate interests trying to prevent action from being taken on climate change? If the answer is that nothing would change your view, it rather dents the credibility of your argument. If your answer is that the coverage would have to be overwhelmingly in favour of taking action on climate change and confronting and exposing the corporate and other interests which oppose this action, I think you’ll find that this is already the case.
And of course it’s not just climate change. While there might be some articles you disagree with (and what a dull paper it would be if there weren’t!), the bulk of the Guardian’s coverage of these issues has presented fierce challenges to the Murdoch empire, the banks, the government’s cuts, its privatisation and outsourcing, the war with Iraq, the drone war in Pakistan and a host of other topics of interest to you. If you stepped back from the handful of instances that offend you and looked at the whole picture, I think any fair-minded assessment would produce conclusions very different from those you have reached.
I don’t intend to engage in a protracted correspondence with you about this: I’ve had quite enough of those with Media Lens. My intention is both to present a challenge to you and to be helpful, in trying to discern what it is that’s preventing you from reaching the people you address. I’m leaving you with this challenge, to take up if you wish. But I’ll post this letter on my website, so that other people can see it and decide where they stand.
With my best wishes,
Update, 6th November 2012
Media Lens has now replied to my letter. You can read their response here.