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Why is the mainstream media so bad?


12:00 pm - March 16th 2011

by Left Outside    


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Writing in general exists to either entertain, inform, explain, describe, argue, persuade and advise, or for no particular reason at all; quite often writing is just absent-minded scribble. The media in all its forms performs these roles every single day.

The Westminster Skeptics quite understandably see the media as a tool for informing the public, explain the facts and describe the situation. They promote an evidence-based approach and critical thinking in the areas of policy, media, and legal reform, and I enjoyed going along to their most recent meeting on Monday night.

However, I would argue that most people see the media as entertainment. People do not pick up the Metro to be informed on the way into work, or the Evening Standard just in case they missed something while at their desk. The Daily Star is entertainment, when you see it as competing with Angry Birds rather than the Financial Times it begins to make much more sense as a product.

This was the elephant in the room when somebody asked “do the public deserve a more honest media?”

Honesty is boring. Asylum Seekers have never eaten a swan, but the story has legs because it is outrageous. Nobody has avoided deportation because of a pet cat, but people believe it because it gives them something to talk about. Jordon and Peter Andre are not getting back together, but people are interested because…well, okay, I don’t know why, but they are.

The truth is often a lot more boring, and almost always a lot more nuanced. Asylum Seekers do come to the UK because we’re wealthy rather than hang around in camps in Niger, but who blames them? It is wrong to deport people with close links to the UK, even if they built those links while here illegally, and Jordon and Pete probably still have some feelings for each other, but sometimes these things just cannot work out.

There is an abbreviation gap between the left and right and between liberals and authoritarians.

Pointing out a Bad Thing and saying something must be done, usually deportation, is easy. Job done. To point out the fallibility of the criminal justice system or the rigged nature of global flows of goods, services, capital and people is more complicated. The British people love a good hate. It is quick clean fun, simple to parse and easy to discuss.

This abbreviation gap is key, until skeptics package the truth in nugget sized pieces, and swear to never use the word dialectic or phrase “fiat currency,” the mainstream media will remain bad. Bad but wrong is more entertaining than correct but boring, and changing that will do far more than anything else, including giving the Press Complaints Commission more teeth.

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About the author
Left Outside is a regular contributor to LC. He blogs here and tweets here. From October 2010 to September 2012 he is reading for an MSc in Global History at the London School of Economics and will be one of those metropolitan elite you read so much about.
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Reader comments


In a democracy, politics also becomes a branch of entertainment for most people, left or right.

Totally agree. Completely awful Sun editorial today is just the latest example of outrageous misleading of public: http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/sun_says/244723/The-Sun-Says.html

Sentencing is not up to Ken Clarke or the Government (unless they legislate) so it’s not for him to give “the nod” to anything – it’s a judicial function which the Sentencing Council advises on. Clear evidence that they think going after “soft” Ken will make people buy their paper, and that this is more important than actually getting the basic facts right about an important process.

It’s an embarrassing indictment of the “market” analysis of the press too – how are peopel supposed to exercise choice if they don’t even know they’re being misled?

‘Fiat currency’ is quite useful. It’s one of those phrases (like ‘common market’) that warns you that the speaker is about to hold forth on a subject about which they know absolutely nothing.

Chomsky Hermann Propoganda Model anybody?

5. Shatterface

‘Dialectics’, on the other hand, is bollocks.

Like politics or government, we get the media we deserve (or want – the public wants what the public get?).

I was there on Monday. We were a bit disappointed that the only ‘mainstream’ media person was Suzanne Moore – and she’s a columnist rather than a news reporter. Richard Peppiatt put his point of view forward – why he quite the Daily Star (after a whole lot of soul-searching presumably rather than at the first hint of being told to make up stories). We would have liked to see Paul Dacre there. Or Littlejohn. That would’ve been really interesting!

Like someone said – a false news story from a tabloid (not letting broadsheets off the hook there) can sometimes end up with someone’s head caved in in Bolton.

“British people love a good hate.”

I guess this statement reflects an acceptable prejudice?

“British people love a good hate.”

I guess this statement reflects an acceptable prejudice?

No a 100 year old daily mail marketing strategy and a view which has been reinforced for myself by several years research (contemporary and historic) on the media.

http://leftoutside.wordpress.com/2011/02/16/the-100-year-old-daily-mail-business-model-the-british-people-relish-a-good-hero-and-a-good-hate/

9. Chaise Guevara

“There is an abbreviation gap between the left and right and between liberals and authoritarians.”

I agree to an extent here: a lot of small-c conservative types do seem to address complex problems in overly simplistic terms. That’s why you can put forward a complicated and reasonable argument for a lenient justice system that focuses on rehabilitation rather than revenge, only to be answered by meaningless stock phrases like “You care more about the criminal’s rights than the victim’s!” Similarly, any argument starting with “Why should…” tends to be an appeal to outrage rather than a carefully thought-out point.

On the other hand, I’m sure conservatives feel that liberals do this too. I’m not a fan of the death penalty, for example, but I’ve seen advocates put forward strong arguments in its favour only to be met by one-sentence replies along the lines of “you’re a barbarian!”

From my biased standpoint, I would agree that more liberals than conservatives are capable of joined-up thinking. But I wouldn’t apply it at all to the other political axis: I’ve never seen any reason to believe that libertarians are generally sloppy thinkers, much as I disagree with them.

10. Chaise Guevara

7 Left Outside

I know someone who knows someone who used to work for the Mail (in other words, feel free to accept or reject my very anecdotal testimony here), and apparently one of the tips he was given was “at the end of a Daily Mail story, the reader should hate something or someone”.

@6 & 7: I think what the vast majority of people want most is “simple” and hate is a form of that. Everyone tends to be happier if they can justify dividing humanity into goodies and baddies with none of your tedious complications and real life nonsense.

@2 “It’s an embarrassing indictment of the “market” analysis of the press too – how are peopel supposed to exercise choice if they don’t even know they’re being misled?”

By reading several sources perhaps? No, I’ve got a much better idea, lets just have a government commission for truth and only one newspaper that everyone is forced to buy.

@3 Chris

I am curious to know why you think that anyone using the phrase ‘fiat currency’ clearly does not know what they are talking about.

13. Chaise Guevara

@10 Falco

“By reading several sources perhaps? No, I’ve got a much better idea, lets just have a government commission for truth and only one newspaper that everyone is forced to buy.”

Or, to pick a less dramatic and more workable idea, why not make it an offense for papers to print things that they have no basis for believing to be true? In other words, adapt libel laws (or at least our saner libel laws) so that they don’t need a direct victim to be applicable. A paper that decided to run a story about immigrant poaching swans, for example, could be held accountable if they could produce no evidence for their claims.

14. Planeshift

“, I’ve got a much better idea, lets just have a government commission for truth and only one newspaper that everyone is forced to buy.”

Has anybody on here – or for that matter any of the anti-daily mail sites – advocated that?

15. Chaise Guevara

@ 13 Planeshift

“Has anybody on here – or for that matter any of the anti-daily mail sites – advocated that?”

I think it’s a regular campaign feature in The Straw Man Bugle.

@12 Chaise: In theory great. In practice I think you would merely have the media revert to the pre – totally making shit up method of finding a local drunk and giving him enough to hammered in return for repeating the journalist’s story back to them.

@ 13 – 14: I was using, I would have assumed you might notice, reductio ad absurdum. If you don’t use the market with all it’s multiplicity of sources then you presumably have to use something else, the reductio was to show how difficult that would be.

18. Mike Killingworth

Let’s not forget, either, that the (right-wing) print media are not alone in this.

I forget the name of the feminist who thought that the more instances of rape she put into the same book the more nearly true the statement “all men are rapists” became. Anyone who believes in freedom must defend her right to do so, even if her only audience consists of women who have themselves been the victims of sexual abuse by their fathers or uncles. I don’t see how such women can be compelled to believe that not all men are like the ones in their family…

… but don’t we have a duty to believe things that are true, I hear you ask. No we don’t. It’s dangerous to live in New Zealand or Japan, but I don’t expect Lib con to run an article any time soon calling for the evacuation of the Pacific Rim.

What people want is to feel safe – and that feeling may be based on believing only things that can be shown to be true, or largely so, but it equally may not be. Indeed, from the standpoint of the selfish gene, the learnt behaviour that is truthseeking is counterfunctional – it’s part of the rationality meme and the evidence is that rationalists have far fewer children than religious fundamentalists, with whom (and most decidedly not us) the future of humanity lies.

19. Chaise Guevara

@ 15 Falco

“In theory great. In practice I think you would merely have the media revert to the pre – totally making shit up method of finding a local drunk and giving him enough to hammered in return for repeating the journalist’s story back to them.”

I agree that this is a risk. Extend it, though: the paper would only be able to rely on one person’s account by quoting said person, and then said person would be equally liable. Alternatively, “evidence” would require more than “some random bloke says so”. It’s not a perfect idea, though. I admit it would be a challenge to ensure that it was effective without harming genuine freedom of speech.

20. Chaise Guevara

@ 16

I think that one’s on the debatorial borderline between reductio ad absurdum and false dichotomy…

Basically, I guess it comes down to whether Ellie was advocating the elimination of private media or just complaining about its excesses.

21. Chaise Guevara

@ 17 Mike

” the evidence is that rationalists have far fewer children than religious fundamentalists, with whom (and most decidedly not us) the future of humanity lies.”

I’d hope that this would be offest by a greater tendency for the children of fundamentalists to become or to sire rationalists than vice versa.

22. AnotherTom

The answer to “Why is the mainstream media so bad”? lies in the question. As a trade journalist who has also worked in a big mainstream media newsroom, it was easy to see how mainstream news journalists are prodded and incentivised to chase ‘the big story’ (ie the one that editors believed would be most read and have the most impact) rather than other significant stories that might not be read so much.

During my time at this particular news organisation, I remember seeing the largest group of financial journalists in London give up trying to explain finance because the ‘news agenda’ had been moved onto banker bonuses, led by the Mail and the Sun. No longer were stories that explained finance were allowed to be written. Two years later, our understanding of finance has not moved a minute on from January 2009.

23. Shatterface

‘Indeed, from the standpoint of the selfish gene, the learnt behaviour that is truthseeking is counterfunctional – it’s part of the rationality meme and the evidence is that rationalists have far fewer children than religious fundamentalists, with whom (and most decidedly not us) the future of humanity lies.’

That’s just gibberish, a word salad concocted up from second- or third-hand accounts of Richard Dawkins, and it bares no resemblance to anything Dawkins has ever written or implied himself.

Please don’t use terms like selfish gene or meme if you don’t understand them.

“‘Fiat currency’ is quite useful. It’s one of those phrases (like ‘common market’) that warns you that the speaker is about to hold forth on a subject about which they know absolutely nothing.”

Actually I tend to find that those whoa re critics of fiat money are well-informed of these issues, even if their opinions are in a tiny minority (although as a “goldbug”, I would say that…) Conversely it is fans of a particular form of fiat currency i.e. government issued who tend to be monetary cranks – social creditors and the like.

The media is not there to inform. It’s job is to keep us stupid, and distract us from what the global elites are really doing. Which is stealing as much wealth as they can. …….Look over there, sex, sport and Royal weddings….

In a corporate state, the corporate media is the state media.

‘In a corporate state, the corporate media is the state media.’

yep.

@ 24: I don’t understand how you can reconcile your hatred of corporations with doing so much to keep Bacofoil afloat.

28. Just Visiting

Falcon 26

You are a genius, I laughed outloud !

29. Mike Killingworth

[20] Eric Kaufmann http://www.sneps.net/ thinks otherwise.

30. Ellie Cumbo

@ 19 Chaise Guevara

“Basically, I guess it comes down to whether Ellie was advocating the elimination of private media or just complaining about its excesses.”

Yes. Burn down Wapping!

Or, you know, regulate it properly because it matters. That’s where I was heading, really – although I know which sounds like the better day out.

the reason that the media is focused on entertainment rather then the actual news is that it acts as a diversion from real issues. it prevents people from being involved and keeps the masses awaying from the decaying and corrupt political system. (Read Chomsky)

32. AnotherTom

@30 pur-leeze! Chomsky’s lazy and selective misunderstanding of the media industry was wrong even before the rise of the internet. It now just looks weird. Read Nick Davies’ take-down of his views in Churnalism for a better perspective.

33. AnotherTom

Actually, Chomsky (and other polemicists, such as Naomi Klein) illustrate a related but similar point: the common tendency of the sensationalist and extreme view to crowd out more sane and sensible views.

A close read of any of these polemical writers illustrates their grasp on history is poor, their analysis is weak, and their selection of source materials sometimes jaw-dropping, but because the thesis is so attractive, many of their readers leave their critical faculties at home. The same applies to those that lap up polemicists on the Right (something much more prevalent in the US, though the Sun, Mail and Express all give it a good go).

Some of these readers then believe themselves to have a superior insight because of their access to ‘secret’ or ‘radical’ knowledge, or that their views are some way exclusive. This makes these authors’ work even more attractive. It has, of course, b*gger all to do with truth.

@32: “Actually, Chomsky (and other polemicists, such as Naomi Klein) illustrate a related but similar point: the common tendency of the sensationalist and extreme view to crowd out more sane and sensible views.”

But what’s new?

“What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power, and power without responsibility — the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.” Stanley Baldwin 1931
http://www.suffolkhands.org.uk/node/1031

And that was before TV became a family’s staple source of news and commentary.

Should it not be why *are* the mainstream media so bad?

None the less, my wife overheard my 6 year old daughter arguing with a friend on the way home from school – my daughter was arguing that you can’t believe everything you read in the newspaper, and her friend was arguing that you could. I was very proud to hear that.

The media exists to represent the interests of its owners, principally their right to make money with as little interference or tax as they can get away with. All outlets operate a mutually assured destruction pact, which means that there may be the odd exchange of distant artillery but the newspapers never break out into open war about Murdoch’s subversion of democracy, the Barclay twins attempts to make Sark their personal dominion, Dirty Desmond’s vast income from porn or his screaming tantrums, Rothermere’s tax-dodging, the Grauniad’s tax-dodging, the bulging bank accounts of the Mirror’s Sly Bailey and so on.

The majority of newspapers now consist of hugely overpaid name columnists who are either grotesquely out of touch or don’t actually write most of their stuff anyway and unpaid interns doing most of the grunt work. Investigative journalism is becoming rarer because it upsets rich and powerful people who are either media owners or the chums of media owners, it needs resources and it needs readers who are prepared to think. Recycled business press hand outs and celeb non-stories planted by agents are a far cheaper way to create a product that barely entertains, doesn’t disturb and requires no actual ability to think in order to consume. The declining attention span of people means they want to be told who are the goodies and baddies and that the nasty men will be punished in as short a time as possible so they can go back to looking at the latest celebrity scandal.

TV news is as bad. Sky News exists simply to further Murdoch’s no regulations or tax for Murdoch agenda ITV gave up on journalism years ago, Channel 4 makes only intermittent attempts and they are compromised by the ever increasing amount of adverts, the BBC was progressively neutered by Blair and it has totally castrated itself for Cameron with grinning prat Nick Robinson, even Newsnight seems pretty much comatose. I watched RoboCop again a while ago and I was struck by how the Media Breaks (“Give us three minutes and we’ll give you the world”), which at the time were a point of mockery, look like in-depth coverage compared with what actually appears on TV now.

The days of Robert Dougall and the like seem a very long time ago indeed

37. AnotherTom

@32 It’s an interesting quote (and 1931 an interesting time historically to say the least), but the context is quite different. Today, we generally have a media where the good doesn’t chase out the bad, where irresponsible and irrelevant reporting dominates the news agenda, and where there are only a tiny proportion of mainstream journalists cover meaningful stories. (The Guardian, for instance, today is a kind of rolling lifestyle zine with occasional moments of news.)

In 1931, simply finding information was difficult, and so could be easily controlled by a proprietor. Today, we are awash with information. Therefore the job of the journalist is quite different (though the output and attitudes remain stubbornly the same).

Moreover, the rise of commentary (and the internet) means the media can outsource newsgathering to the wires and focus on hiring (at some cost) whichever writers write the most apposite columnists for their readership (Boris Johnson, Charlie Brooker etc).

Much of the best news journalism now is written by (parts) of the wires and similar trade mags. Unfortunately, the general public don’t read this stuff.

38. AnotherTom

@Schmidt – your analysis misses the key point: the rise of the internet means the general public simply aren’t willing to pay for news, and that newspapers have taken 15 years (and counting) to respond effectively, and that this slow response is largely down (largely) to an arrogance amidst a group of (older) professionals who largely refuse to accept reality.

(If you’d ever worked alongside a national newspaper reporter you’d know what I mean!)

@34: “my daughter was arguing that you can’t believe everything you read in the newspaper, and her friend was arguing that you could. I was very proud to hear that.”

Your hugely sensible 6 y-o daughter is, of course, absolutely correct.

The challenging problem for the general reader, pressed for time, is how to detect and sift out spin in the news and documentaries without reading through the various reports of the news in not only different media, but in media owned by different, competing interests?

IMO we underestimate the extent to which we are regularly influenced by what we read – or hear and see on TV. For all intents and purposes, what we happen to read in our chosen newspaper is “the truth”.

As Hitler perceptively put it: “The great mass of people will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one.” Mein Kampf, vol. 1, ch. 10 (1925)

40. AnotherTom

“The challenging problem for the general reader, pressed for time, is how to detect and sift out spin in the news and documentaries without reading through the various reports of the news in not only different media, but in media owned by different, competing interests?”

As a media professional, I’ve ended up taking the advice of Taleb (of Fooled by Randomness / Black Swan fame): to assume that 99% of journalism is wrong. It’s up to you to then decide how much of your time you want to waste finding out how.

Otherwise, find out good journalists and only read them. The mark of a good journalist is that they tend to tell you things you don’t expect. (The mark of a bad one is that they usually say the same thing over and over again.)

@39: “Otherwise, find out good journalists and only read them.”

Of all the dailies, I rely most on reports and analysis in the FT. Because of its unusual readership – it’s virtually required daily reading not only by senior management in business but also by the First Division civil service – the potential commercial penalties for that paper from political bias or poor reporting are especially severe. For most of the rest of the press, regular readers of papers come to depend on their chosen media maintaining the spin and bias they expect.

42. the a&e charge nurse

“The British people love a good hate” – sorry to come back to this, but is that ALL people in Britain, or just certain communities – and is this hate tendency unique to our island, or universal – in other words americans, somalis, ozzies, etc, all love a good hate as well?

43. Chaise Guevara

@ 41

1) Not all people

2) Across all communities, although some are probably more hateful than others

3) I’d be stunned if this was in any way an especially British phenomenon.

44. So Much For Subtlety

14. Chaise Guevara – “I think it’s a regular campaign feature in The Straw Man Bugle.”

Really? That is interesting because someone else, just two posts earlier, suggested this:

12. Chaise Guevara – “Or, to pick a less dramatic and more workable idea, why not make it an offense for papers to print things that they have no basis for believing to be true? In other words, adapt libel laws (or at least our saner libel laws) so that they don’t need a direct victim to be applicable.”

So you want a government-appointed commission to sit and decide what is true and what isn’t. What can be published and what can’t. You just want to call them judges.

But if you don’t agree, you wouldn’t have to wait long for someone else to suggest it:

29. Ellie Cumbo – “Or, you know, regulate it properly because it matters. That’s where I was heading, really – although I know which sounds like the better day out.”

What else does regulating it properly mean apart from a Government Committee to decide on what is acceptable or not?

45. So Much For Subtlety

30. mo – “the reason that the media is focused on entertainment rather then the actual news is that it acts as a diversion from real issues. it prevents people from being involved and keeps the masses awaying from the decaying and corrupt political system. (Read Chomsky)”

Yeah. Because normal people would much rather read an in-depth discussion of Foucault’s theory of the development of discipline in a capitalist economy than look at a Page Three girl’s tits.

For crying out loud, papers give their readers what they want. That is how they stay in business.

Hardly any mentions of the timid approach to the media by the political class. If the media is so inconsequential, it begs the question why so much effort (PR, spin) is put into influencing what is written and broadcast. Once upon a time the Labour Party couldn’t get elected, at least in part because of the openly declared hostility of the Press – particularly the Mail, Telepraph, Sun and Times.

The party was reinvented by Blair, Brown and Mandelson to be more appealing to these papers and ever since, the truth has become an irrelevance. Politicians desperate to get elected and prepared to tell the world that black is white to do so, need media support. Getting it, iinevitably removes their legitimacy and willingness to stand up to the media.

So lies are simply tolerated. One clear sign of this is the extensive use of the word “perception” in news reports. The journalist is signifying they can find no evidence for the phenomenon they’re covering. But that doesn’t matter because the Government has announced a new policy to deal with the matter which is perceived to be a problem.

Health and safety gone mad, Muslims destroying British life, red tape, public worker=useless cossetted bureaucrat, are all little more than media fictions. But no politician dare say so and burst the media balloon. Instead they sign up to the campaigns, announce pointless, expensive inquiries, new policies and new legislation designed to deal with these “problems.”


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Why is the mainstream media so bad? http://bit.ly/e3EueO

  2. Jemima

    RT @libcon: Why is the mainstream media so bad? http://bit.ly/e3EueO

  3. Ellie Cumbo

    RT @libcon: Why is the mainstream media so bad? http://bit.ly/e3EueO

  4. Jonathan Davis

    RT @libcon: Why is the mainstream media so bad? http://bit.ly/e3EueO

  5. Alex Burrett

    RT @libcon: Why is the mainstream media so bad? http://bit.ly/e3EueO

  6. Daniel Pitt

    Why is the mainstream media so bad? http://bit.ly/e3EueO

  7. akblackandred

    "Why is the mainstream media so bad?" http://bit.ly/hEcvkR My fucking Christ – is Liberal Conspiracy leftism for the brain dead, or what?

  8. Phil Dickens

    http://bit.ly/hEcvkR No, the truth is not "boring," it's just too often antagonistic to the interests that own, fund, and source the media.

  9. akblackandred

    http://bit.ly/hEcvkR Look up "The Propaganda Model of Media Control" instead of whittering about "abbreviation gaps," you gang of twats.

  10. Ramzy

    RT @AKblackandred: http://bit.ly/hEcvkR No, the truth is not "boring," it's just too often antagonistic to the interests that own, fund, …

  11. Caer

    RT @AKblackandred: http://bit.ly/hEcvkR No, the truth is not "boring," it's just too often antagonistic to the interests that own, fund, …

  12. dannyanarchy

    RT @AKblackandred: http://bit.ly/hEcvkR Look up "The Propaganda Model of Media Control" instead of whittering about "abbreviation gaps," …

  13. Jennifer O'Mahony

    @NickyWoolf OMG THIS ARTICLE ON LIBCON CONTAINS PETER ANDRE! http://liberalconspiracy.org/2011/03/16/why-is-the-mainstream-media-so-bad/

  14. timbird84

    Liberal Conspiracy ask why the media's so bad: http://bit.ly/e3EueO Here's my take (sort of): http://bit.ly/gIzgZ8 @LibCon @NewLeftProject

  15. ire engine

    BREAKING: Secret plan to erect 100ft statue of Abu Hamza on Horseguard's Parade! – http://t.co/9iuhJQyr





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