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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

Media criticism – the state it’s in

bookshelfHaving followed all kinds of critiques of “the media” since the 1980s, I suspect the criticism has evolved less than the media itself – at least in its prevalent forms. Each day, dire press “coverage” (or “propaganda”, “churnalism”, “a clown show” – take your pick) reminds us of the need for media criticism which isn’t as tribal – or stupid – as the media it scrutinises, yet we seem stuck with the simple-minded binary tropes we had 30 years (and more) ago: bias vs balance, public vs elites, corporate vs independent, right vs left, etc.

So, what the hell’s going on?

1. “Sub-Chomskyan”

I see the term “sub-Chomskyan” used sometimes by those on the “right” who dislike the famous MIT professor’s politics, and occasionally by “left”-leaning commentators fed up with a genre of writing which reads like a sort of stark, zombified version of Chomsky.

The latter usage applies particularly to a widespread form of media criticism which makes overarching generalisations about “the corporate media” in a way which “owes something” to Manufacturing Consent (the classic 1988 book co-authored by Chomsky and Edward Herman). Given that the internet is currently the busiest forum for media criticism (in blogs, social media, “below the line” comment sections, etc) you could probably say that the Chomskyan (whether adept or “sub-“) variety is the most frequently voiced one.

But I wouldn’t blame NC for the current state of so-called “media criticism” any more than I’d blame JC for Xtian Evangelism or the Holy Inquisition. I suppose that what starts with a person of merit and originality often ends up with a self-righteous bunch of presumptuous acolytes or unfunny zealots. It’s true that burning people at the stake as “witches” is worse than denouncing journalists on Twitter as “corporate mouthpieces”, but you get the impression that the moral stakes are the same – corporations being up there with Satan.

(A recent tweet I saw responds to the Guardian columnist Marina Hyde by saying, “wake up, Honey”, accompanied by a picture of Manufacturing Consent).

2. Media “watchdogs”

David Foster Wallace said political discourse had become a “formulaic matter of preaching to one’s own choir and demonizing the opposition”, and the same can probably be said for the output of various media “watchdogs” and “monitors” – at least those with political leanings (ie virtually all of them). Most of these groups boast of being “independent”, “non-corporate”, etc – which is good; but unless they have some form of “innocent” funding (or unless the people running them are financially independent – ie well-off), it follows that they’re constrained, albeit less directly, by the same economics as their more “corporate” colleagues. And they are certainly no more “objective” or “impartial” (although their particular “bias” may be seen as more virtuous – assuming you agree with their politics).

Still, they can serve a useful purpose within these limits, highlighting important problems with the so-called “mainstream” media. For several years, starting in the late 1990s, I attempted something modest along these lines myself. I sent 150 fortnightly editions of my “News & Distraction” newsletter to around 5,000 subscribers (it had been advertised in my satirical zine, Anxiety Culture), and had some minor successes – for example, getting the BBC to uphold my complaint that a BBC1 News report had “breached editorial guidelines on truth and accuracy” (not an easy matter), getting coverage on a late-night Channel 4 TV show, even a phone call from a Newsnight editor who wanted me to appear (too short notice, alas – Alice Nutter from Chumbawumba ended up doing it).

When I envisioned something more ambitious – Media Hell, a web community project to record, link and cross-index types of media fallacies using a purpose-built structured database – I quickly ran into the economic constraints that I mention above. Although I had professional experience of database design, I had no funding and (as it turned out) not nearly enough spare time. And since I saw the relational database as essential to the kind of ongoing empirical research I had in mind (I wanted to avoid being just another serial polemic/blog/alert issuer), the project soon ran out of steam.

3. Cherry-picking & lack of empirical studies

Many “independent” media critics don’t see the lack of decent empirical studies as an obstacle to promoting their viewpoints, but I regard the “scientific” approach as essential if you’re making claims about broad media trends or, say, the output of a newspaper as a whole. Much more common, unfortunately, is the Mickey Mouse style of cherry-picking (which often passes for “analysis”) – since it’s relatively easy, convenient and tempting to select precisely those press examples which “prove” one’s existing beliefs about bias and propaganda, etc.

As the volume (and in some cases diversity) of mass-media content increases, this type of cherry-picking becomes easier, while empirical studies become more time-consuming (and relatively rarer). The former becomes a kind of “confirmation bias made easy”, although it may be seen as convincing and “substantive” by those who already believe what it “confirms”.

What begins as informed opinion can rigidify into dogmatic ideology if there’s little motivation to actively seek counterevidence. And not just to seek it and record each instance, but to constantly keep in mind how our tendencies towards confirmation bias skew our evaluations of “evidence”. As Kathryn Schulz points out, in her book, Being Wrong:

“We don’t assess evidence neutrally; we assess it in light of whatever theories we’ve already formed on the basis of whatever other, earlier evidence we have encountered.”

“Sometimes, by contrast, we see the counterevidence just fine – but, thanks to confirmation bias, we decide that it has no bearing on the validity of our beliefs. In logic, this tendency is known, rather charmingly, as the No True Scotsman fallacy.”

4. “No True Scotsman” logic

So, you believe that no Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge. But I present an example of a Scotsman who puts sugar on. You dismiss this by saying, “Yes, but no true Scotsman does that”. My counterevidence makes no dent in your belief.

One sees this a lot in “radical” media criticism – especially where there’s a reliance on blanket generalisations and broad class identifiers (“corporate”, “western”, “liberal”, etc). So, for instance, you believe that no radical content is allowed to appear in the “corporate media”. I list some good examples of radical articles that have appeared in the corporate-owned press, but you dismiss them as not “truly” radical.

If you dismiss counterevidence in that way, there may come a point when the question doesn’t even arise in your mind – your thinking on the issue gets replaced by a “Correct Answer” reflex. That’s how tentative beliefs turn into fixed doctrines – all the inconvenient examples which seem to contradict your belief are automatically brushed off. It’s a completely different mindset than the one you’d ideally want to bring to an empirical study. It’s “anti-scientific” in that evidence isn’t used to determine what is really going on – rather it’s carefully selected as a means to persuade others of a foregone conclusion.

This is how a certain type of media criticism becomes more and more sweeping in its assertions, until the rhetoric departs from messy reality and enters some platonic realm in which abstract generalisations about an abstract noun (the “mainstream media”) count as “hard-hitting” truth. This stuff fills my Twitter timeline every day – it reads like a rightwing caricature of “strident lefties”. It’s simplistic, even simple-minded. We learn nothing new from it; history repeats.

5. Panchrestons, overgeneralisations

“Panchreston” is a word we don’t bump into very often. The thing it refers to, however, seems very common:

Panchreston (noun): A proposed explanation intended to address a complex problem by trying to account for all possible contingencies but typically proving to be too broadly conceived and therefore oversimplified to be of any practical use.

Panchrestons in media criticism include many of those sweeping generalisations that you hear about “Western”/”establishment”/”corporate”/”mainstream” journalists. Of course, there are also high-level generalisations which are valid – but they’re usually either banal statements of the obvious, or valid by definition. It’s not a panchreston to say that the “corporate media” requires commercial revenue to survive, but I would consider it a panchreston to “explain” newspaper content largely in terms of its “corporate” attribute. That’s far too “easy”, reductive, and disconnected from messy reality. (It also seems to be very popular, but then so is “one powerful elite controlling everything” conspiracy-type framing).

(To be continued at some point…)

Written by NewsFrames

February 25, 2016 at 10:26 am

10 Responses

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  1. By the way, I don’t really mean to demean those who take the broad Chomskyan approach. I would put a lot of what I’ve written into the sub-sub-Chomskyan category. It’s because I’ve written a lot of that kind of thing myself that I’m aware of its limits and traps.


    February 25, 2016 at 1:46 pm

  2. Good stuff. Yes, those looking for impartiality *outside* the corporate press will be looking for a long time!

    Andre SC (@Andre_Serov)

    February 25, 2016 at 2:01 pm

  3. Great job. I can appreciate the understatement and restraint in your writing, since I’m “acutely aware” of the type of “media criticism” you’re talking about (perhaps you could provide more examples in your finished piece?).

  4. It’s interesting how it gets assumed that “corporate” agendas in some wider sense always tally with political ones, even on topics that don’t involve direct consequences in commercial terms. So there is never any unpredictabilty or unknowns in what “the media” wants, as it’s all one big elite thing.


    February 26, 2016 at 9:41 am

  5. I think that one thing worth bearing in mind is that although Chomsky’s propaganda model may be old new to you, it is a new idea as any to many more who are seeking thoughts and ideas outside of large institutional media. The same could be said of Ghandi’s non-violent resistance – it might be an old idea, but it’s an old idea that is being reinvented every day. Chomsky’s theory requires contemporary evidence to support it, so I don’t predict that Chomskian analysis is going anywhere, anymore than Ghandi’s practice of non-violent resistance will be disappearing any time soon.

    In my own case Chomsky’s theory confirmed and refined what I already thought, or felt. I remember reading Johann Hari in The Independent as a teenager, and thinking that he communicated in an elite manner, and had opinions that seemed to belong to a group that was far removed my life, or people I knew (and I was relatively privileged, I suppose). But I was also aware that he projected the image of a rebel, even though I couldn’t find much evidence of this in his writing. When he supported the Iraq war I felt the influence of his opinions on me, though I ultimately resisted them.

    So perhaps you are right, Chomsky’s theory might not be entirely empirical, though it certainly is to an extent. I do think that there should be more empirical analysis, such as the recent Sutton Trust data, which does appear to support his theory. However I would also factor in that just as Ghandi’s theory of non-violence speaks to people without them having to read through a stack of empirical data, so perhaps can Chomsky’s. Of course it’s entirely correct to be wary of confirmation bias, and I fully agree that most radical media is more conformist and less tolerant than better news organisations like The Guardian, and that radical media tends to have unsophisticated technological infrastructure and revenue models, making it unsustainable and amateur.

    However where I do differ is the thought that the waters are stagnant. Over the last decade I have seen people’s attitude towards large corporate media transform to one of far greater mistrust. While journalists might not like this, I see it as ultimately healthy, just as it is ultimately healthy that people’s trust of politicians has descended to the point where the thought of alternative political systems is becoming slowly more thinkable. If I have one criticism in general it is of criticism itself, referring to Ghandi again, I would say that the prompt to “be the change” is far more powerful. If a functioning alternative media organisation came along that was capable of the type of journalism that so many of us crave, but also seems lacking in so many places, that would be worth 1000 books worth of media criticism, as its very existence would have made the point. I also think the same could be said for the arts, which is far less spoken about, but ultimately exists within similar structures. Anyone who could devise a method of funding the arts which did not rely only on patronage from large institutions, or the market, would have fundamentally transformed society. In this respect I find some of Jaron Lainer’s thinking interesting, if flawed.

    Thanks for the article, stimulating as ever, and I await the finished piece.


    February 26, 2016 at 2:05 pm

    • Good point about Chomsky’s appeal to a new generation. I’m probably showing my age here, but I think the difference now is the number of people writing in the media who are very informed by Chomsky (some are obviously fans – eg a bunch of young columnists on the Guardian’s Cif, folks like Greenwald, etc). Even the apparently “privileged” end of the spectrum – eg Seumas Milne (and you mention Johann Hari – his recent book on the drug war, incidentally, has a glowing blurb on the jacket from Chomsky).

      If the corporate media is now full of people who have read and understood Chomsky (although they may not agree with him), then… Something Douglas Rushkoff noted in one of his early books applies here, I think: that the influence is two-way. But the focus tends to be on how “corporate power” shapes the type of content – one-way – an obvious enough point. The influences in the other direction are basically overlooked, or dismissed. They may be more subtle and indirect, but they exist and to me they seem important. They’re in the shifts in human culture, which includes humans working in corporations. My points about increasing volume and diversity in online media content – also, the way people read “media” these days has drastically altered with social media (and things like reposting on forums, use of Adblock, etc – with which we can separate and isolate content from its traditional “corporate” formats).

      As I see it, many of these fundamental shifts don’t really register in a viewpoint which sees things in terms of overarching elite power controlling everything in that realm. This view can be dogmatic, simple-minded and also very destructive, as witness the smear campaign against IBC (which started with the view that since IBC relies on “media” data, it must be guilty of the “Western” imperial biases that Chomsky documented at the editorial level. What was overlooked here was that IBC was using low-level data in a way that bypassed the editorial gatekeepers – their website counters were actually quite revolutionary in keeping the civilian bloodshed constantly in people’s minds – a massive change from the first Gulf War which was portrayed in the media as some bloodless, clinical thing, no body counts given – all clean strikes and cross-hairs, like a video game).

      Another thing I’ve noted is that, at the sweeping generalisation level, the rhetoric of the radical “left” looks very similar to that on the far right – at least in terms of its ontological metaphoric framing. So, you have people like Farage and Trump denouncing the “mainstream” “establishment” media’s influence as a primary force for ill. You have the terms “liberal” and “progressive” used as derogatory labels by Glenn Greenwald et al; Nick Griffin retweeting Medialens, etc. Populism can be a force for good, but, sometimes…

      Another thing that comes out of the broad Chomskyan view is not taking the rightwing press seriously. I hear this all the time – that the Daily Mail, Sun, Express, Telegraph, Fox News, etc, aren’t the real problem, because everyone “knows” they are silly and absurd. As Chomsky himself has said, he doesn’t pay them much attention because it’s “too easy” to see through their nonsense. This ignores everything we know about how frames get internalised. Millions of non-elite, non-privileged people willingly “consume” the rightwing tabloids, Fox, etc, every day. And we’re surprised when immigration is the top of peoples’s polled “concerns” or when the Tories win the election, or someone like Trump comes to the fore. (A lot of people on my timeline seem to think the optimum response to this situation is to have another go at Owen Jones for not being more like Noam!).

      Excellent point on the parallels with the arts, btw. I hadn’t considered that, but I think it’s very true. Also extends to how people want all this content *free* on their devices (often with pirated downloads, which makes you wonder how the non-corporate artists are going to get any income).


      February 27, 2016 at 3:48 pm

      • I agree with much of what you write. The influence is certainly two way, even if the corporate influence is much greater. Also social media, and the internet more generally require these theories to be updated. It’s not simply enough to say it’s all the same; there are new benefits and downfalls to these platforms. Hence why I like Jaron Lainer’s writing – agree or disagree, he’s given it some serious thought, and understands social media, unlike Noam.

        I also agree with the parallels between left and right rhetoric. Both have a very conspiratorial language, and I’m sure if you isolated some of the comments about the BBC from the source it would be impossible to tell if it was left or right wing. As you mentioned earlier, like many a historical figure the subtlety and originality of their thinking is lost on acolytes who dogmatically regurgitate what they interpret to have been the original creed. It’s no less grating than the rhetoric of thoughtless Marxists or free market capitalists.

        Regarding the right wing tabloid press. I am indeed open to your view, which I think on paper is quite persuasive, but take your own writing as an example (or at least this blog): most of it focuses on the liberal media. If you were truly convinced of that view wouldn’t it focus more evenly? I wonder how many readers you would get if the focus were the Daily Mail and The Sun? Perhaps very many, but I’m not sure. I agree it is a very important point.

        If I return to Chomskian theory, what I think is often overlooked is it’s a subset of an overall theory of power. The propaganda model applies to just the news media, but as he mentioned in an interview with Freeland (that can be found on Youtube) it applies — in his view — to all intellectuals.

        I find that convincing on a visceral level, and through my experience. Forgot the news, Murdoch doesn’t just control The Sun, he controls what novels appear on the shelves of book shops. Record labels did (and still do) control what music you hear. Films require financial backing from the wealthiest of patrons. Just as Plato wrote in The Republic, powerful people control the cultural and symbolic nature of our civilization. That’s not a conspiracy, evidence of it is everywhere. The internet certainly changes things, but how is a much larger question.

        I am planning actually to write to Chomsky on the subject of the arts, because my experience fits perfectly with the PM theory. I’ve worked for a high end arts organisations in London, owned by people who knew nothing at all about the arts, and even hired in people to curate and explain it to them. Yet they controlled a part of the artistic and intellectual landscape of a major city, and used this to gain greater influence and credibility.

        Furthermore even though many artists pose as boundary breaking rebels, they generally cannot survive without being obsequious and sycophantic to a whole array of ‘important’ people. Take Tracy Emin, widely regarded as a rebel, but who also recently called the conservative party “very wise men”. There are obvious figures such as Saatchi – regarded as the Murdoch of the arts – but there are a great deal many similar figures with lower profiles, but still plenty of influence.

        Where I depart from Chomsky and find his worldview thin, is the solution to all this is a flavour of political anarchy, which I have witnessed failing more times than I can remember. My guess is that hierarchy will always exist, but, with improved educations systems, greater systematic transparency, and more financially equal societies, much of what the propaganda model decries would be eliminated or become more benign.


        March 1, 2016 at 10:15 am

      • >> but take your own writing as an example (or at least this blog): most of it focuses on the liberal media. If you were truly convinced of that view wouldn’t it focus more evenly? <<

        I’m not sure that’s true if you look at it overall. Going back to the beginning, there’s a very definite emphasis on explaining conservative framing in most of my in-depth pieces (what Lakoff calls the “strict father” moral worldview, and how it applies to various issues in the news – alas, this area still isn’t well understood by many on the “left”). And if you look at the categories that I’ve put posts dealing with individual newspapers into, it breaks down as follows (copied n pasted from my “categories” list):

        Daily Mail (15)
        Express (10)
        Telegraph (13)
        Guardian (10)
        Times (7)
        I (Independent) (4)
        Independent (4)
        Mirror (3)
        Observer (2)
        The Sun (1)

        (The count for the Guardian is artificially bumped up by the sport/racism pieces and the Lakoff interview in the Guardian)

        It is true though that I’ve become concerned more recently about the way the debate on the “left” seems to be polarising along certain lines (blind alleys as I see it – “you can’t understand 21st century politics with an 18th century understanding of cognition & language”, to paraphrase The Political Mind). And as nobody else is pointing out certain things, I feel sort of “obliged” to say them – not that it makes me popular or likely to get any paying writing gigs with this stuff.


        March 1, 2016 at 1:40 pm

  6. Social media is supposed to flatten the playing field and give us a more democratic means of expression, but I don’t think it’s going great at the moment. The loudest and bluntest voices seem to get a disproportionate audience, next to the winner-takes-most stars and celebrities.

    I feel sorry for Jeremy Corbyn, a decent man who sounds more intelligent and less narrow and self-righteous than those of his supporters who are always screaming about the “corporate media” conspiracy against him. That kind of media criticism isn’t going to help Corbyn – he’ll be associated with that “tribe”, marginalised, while the “normal people” will go on reading the UKIP populism in the Express and the usual scare stories in the Mail and Sun.

    Neil F

    February 29, 2016 at 12:02 pm

    • I agree with you that social media is not having quite the wonderful democratising effect that a “level playing field” should have. All kinds of complex and simple reasons, no doubt – including the fact that even non-corporate, non-elite “ordinary people” very often seem addicted to celebrity and reliant on conventional “authority”, expertise and respectability. It still looks very much like a frenzied, competitive marketplace *outside* the corporate gates.


      March 1, 2016 at 1:53 pm

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