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The hack and flack machine
David Cromwell argues that media coverage of crucial environmental issues is systematically biased. But it’s not a conspiracy – just a good system of filters.

The 2,500-member Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that stabilizing global temperatures requires a 60-per-cent cut in the emission of greenhouse gases. At Kyoto in 1997, developed countries struggled to agree on a 5.2-per-cent cut. Meanwhile, according to climate scientist Mike Hulme of the University of East Anglia, tens of thousands of people are being killed by extreme floods and storms in a new climate regime 'tainted' by industrial society.

Do broadcasters and newspapers reflect the scale and urgency of this problem? Hardly. Consider the outpourings we used to endure in the West about the 'Communist Menace'. Now, in the decade since the end of the Cold War, secret state documents have been released which confirm that Western governments had little or no fear of Soviet invasion. The 'threat' was fraudulent. But the promotion of terror boosted the huge arms industries and the strategic interests of Western nations.

So whose interests would be served today by treating climate change as a terrifying menace which urgently needs to be acted on? Certainly not those of the business corporations and their political allies.

It is estimated that there will be more than two million deaths from related disasters worldwide over the next ten years. Damage to property will amount to hundreds of billions of dollars. The occasional superficial newspaper report of scientists' warnings, or dramatic footage of hurricane devastation on TV, is a pitiful response.

How many people know that even though the Kyoto deal is an important first step, it falls vastly short of the cuts in fossil-fuel use that have to be made now in order to stabilize global warming? How many of us know about the millions spent by corporations on public-relations hacks and slick spin-meisters to try to stop any action being taken? Where have the cynical activities of industry lobbyists been exposed? Where are the massive media campaigns to highlight these issues?

Let's not be fooled by the fact that many national newspapers, broadcasters and some regional dailies in Europe and North America have environment correspondents. The number of pro-business writers and cheerleading columnists promoting 'business as usual' is far greater.

In any case, as the Australian writer Sharon Beder points out: 'Environmental reporting emphasizes individual action rather than underlying social forces and issues.' She continues: 'A current-affairs TV show may expose corporation X for spewing toxic waste into the local waterway, but it will seldom look at the way corporations have lobbied to weaken the legislation preventing such dumping.'

Of course, there are decent mainstream journalists who sometimes challenge the rhetoric of the corporate sector and their political sidekicks. And occasionally the truth about environmental or human-rights abuses emerges. But the media are big business, tied into stock markets and the globalized economy. Media owners are wealthy people with many fingers in many business pies and are dependent on the support of advertisers. How likely is it that anyone calling for radical change in society - whether environmentalists, human-rights activists or opponents of the arms trade - will be consistently and fairly reported by corporate news organizations?

No-one is suggesting that there is a deliberate policy of crude suppression of dissident thinking: there is no conspiracy. We are not talking about a massive Soviet-style censorship machine, but something much more subtle and invidious.

In their acclaimed 1988 book, Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky introduced a 'propaganda model of media control'. Their argument is that market forces act as 'filters' which determine what news is 'fit to print'. One of these filters is simply the nature of media ownership. The sheer size, concentrated ownership, immense owner wealth and quest for profit of the dominant media corporations mean that business priorities can, and do, shape editorial content.

A basic understanding of the propaganda model should be in the tool-kit of every eco-citizen

Another major factor at work is advertising. Most media outlets depend on advertising revenue to survive. There is a subtle but immense pressure on any newspaper, commercial radio or TV station to conform to an advertiser-friendly medium. It not only pays to be sympathetic to business interests. It is absolutely essential.

Even threatening to withdraw advertising can affect editorial content. In one 1992 US study of 150 newspaper editors, 90 per cent reported that advertisers tried to interfere with newspaper content while 70 per cent said advertisers tried to stop news stories altogether. Forty per cent admitted that advertisers had in fact influenced a story. According to media analyst Laurie Ann Mazur, the Mercedes Benz corporation told 30 different magazines in 1993 that it would withdraw its advertisements from any issue that contained articles critical of Mercedes, German products or Germany.

Another propaganda device is 'flack': negative responses to critical articles that may appear in the press or on TV or radio. As Herman and Chomsky explain: 'This may take the form of letters, telegrams, phone calls, petitions, lawsuits, speeches and Bills before Congress, and other modes of complaint, threat and punitive action.'

Business organizations regularly come together to form flack machines. One of the most notorious of these is the US-based Global Climate Coalition (GCC) whose members include companies like Exxon, Texaco and General Motors. The GCC was specifically set up by Burson-Marsteller, one of the world's largest public-relations companies, to rubbish the credibility of climate scientists and 'scare stories' about global warming.

There are other factors at work too. Even wealthy media corporations cannot afford to place reporters everywhere. They concentrate their resources where major news stories are likely to happen: the White House, Wall Street, Westminster and other centralized news 'terminals'.

Business corporations and trade organizations are also trusted sources of 'newsworthy' stories. Editors and journalists who offend these powerful news sources can be threatened by the denial of access to their media lifeblood - fresh news. This has a subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle, but powerful effect in restraining editors from telling the 'whole' truth.

Have I exaggerated the problem? Isn't the issue of genetically modified (GM) food one of the biggest media stories of recent years? There is no denying that there was an explosion of newsprint and air-time devoted to GM issues in Europe, starting in 1998. Many sections of the mainstream media quickly picked up on the public's interest in the issue and ran with it. Biotech corporations took a hammering. Surely the media coverage of the GM story blows the propaganda model out of the water?

Not at all. Sue Mayer, now of Genewatch, worked on GM issues with Greenpeace in the early 1990s when they were struggling to attract any media attention at all. Mayer believes the press 'had to reflect the interest and information from public-interest groups' which forced it on to the agenda. The media 'were extremely unwilling to look behind the hype of the companies and the hype of the scientists, until they were forced to'.

Moreover, much of the mainstream reporting on GM - again there are exceptions - treated it merely as a consumer story. The undermining of Third World agriculture and corporate dominance of the food chain were under-reported, in particular moves by Western corporations to control the supply of seed to peasant farmers. Significantly, the press commonly portrayed activists who destroyed GM crops at test sites negatively, dismissing them as 'vandals' and 'terrorists'.

Environment reporter Andy Rowell says: 'It is becoming increasingly difficult to get hard-hitting current-affairs stories that have an in-depth understanding of environmental, development or human-rights issues into the media, especially broadcast media.' Rowell, who has worked for The Guardian newspaper in Britain, adds: 'All too often environmental issues are still ignored as editors fight for a quick popular headline.'

Is the situation hopeless? Not if activists first of all recognize that the media are an integral part of an institutionalized system of greed and violence that is destroying cultures and ecosystems around the planet. Second, activists ought to establish and maintain good links with sympathetic journalists, feeding them reliable information and supporting them in a hostile media environment. As far as other journalists are concerned, we ought regularly to highlight their omissions and biases, gently but relentlessly chivvying them along in the direction of truthful reporting.

Alternative media sources may be tiny, but they do play an important role. And then there is the Internet - though it remains an élite resource. Most of the world has never picked up a telephone, never mind surfed the Net. However, campaigning groups find it amazingly effective in spreading information quickly to a global audience. It was a main route for mobilizing resistance to the Multilateral Agreement on Investment and for helping organize the 'battle in Seattle' against the World Trade Organization.

David Cromwell's first book, Private Planet, will be published early next year by Jon Carpenter (Charlbury, UK).

A basic understanding of the propaganda model should be in the tool-kit of every eco-citizen. Discrete campaign issues such as pollution, global warming, ozone depletion or species depletion are important. But just as important is the structure of the media which processes, filters and distorts these issues - a crucial cog in the profit-driven system that created the need for such campaigns in the first place. Only by understanding this can we hope to overcome the systemic bias of the corporate media which continues to block public awareness of the plunder of the planet.

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New Internationalist issue 328 magazine cover This article is from the October 2000 issue of New Internationalist.
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