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Antony Loewenstein’s contempt for journalists

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Antony Loewenstein came through New York recently to promote his new book Disaster Capitalism. He later related to me that at two NY events, he had gone off on journalists as a profession. I wanted to draw him out, and so we exchanged emails.

You said you’d developed real contempt for the profession of journalism. Why?

Loewenstein: Journalism has the potential to be transformative, to inform and provoke, or at the very least inform. Too often I see reporters desperate to be close to power, whether ministers, minders.  Insiders. Being embedded, pre or post 9/11, isn’t just about partnering with US or Western troops in a war zone. Too often it’s a state of mind that requires journalists to not question an economic system (“capitalism is damaged but can be repaired”), or Israeli violence against Palestinians or the apparent necessity of “doing something” in the face of state collapse (as if Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya aren’t cautionary tales). Vast parts of the world are routinely ignored by the Western media because they aren’t seen as having value or important enough. This could be “unpeople” such as most of the Muslim world, people of colour or poor whites.

I’ve been living in South Sudan this year and seen some fine and brave journalists, locals and Westerners, covering an incredibly brutal war. What’s been revealing and depressing is some editors in comfortable Western capitals saying that they don’t want stories that are “too depressing”. As if a reporter can prettify an ethic conflict to make Western audiences less uncomfortable when reading during breakfast on their iPhones.

I regularly ask myself what journalism is achieving apart from awareness that often brings little or no changes on the ground. It’s important and necessary to bear witness, and I’ll continue to do so, including in my new book, but what if seeing and witnessing simply isn’t enough?

I got the sense that you went on a more visceral rant against the profession at your events. I’m not going to stand up for the profession, any more than I want to stand up for the human race, but: Are there other professions that you have more admiration for than those parasitic journos?

I don’t have contempt for journalism as a profession, far from it, I have major issues with the ways it’s often undertaken. Media complicity in state violence – from the US bombing of Iraq and Libya, Israeli crimes in Palestine and US involvement in the Indonesian genocide in the 1960s – is the issue here. Reporters often claim they have to play a delicate dance or game with sources, especially in officialdom, to get access. But that access often means sanctioned leaks to a favored journalist. That’s not journalism, it’s stenography. I understand it’s often important to quote off the record information, I do it myself though sparingly, in a sensitive story. But the mentality that many in the media have – don’t stand out, join the crowd, fit in, be liked – means that independent journalism has never been more important.

My professional journalistic career began just after 9/11 so I’m a product of the last decade plus years. There are simply too many stark examples of wilful journalistic dishonesty (and lack of acknowledging mistakes) to believe countless reporters from many major media outlets don’t prefer being wrong to challenging state spin. It’s largely cost-free, career wise. Standing up to a lying Tony Blair, George W. Bush, Dennis Ross or Barack Obama takes guts.

I admire many professions, from brain surgeons to environmental scientists.

As human beings, we are full of faults, contradictions and hypocrisy. Journalists are no exception. But I’ve long believed that reporters have an extra responsibility when covering matters of war, refugees, life and death. We are conveyors of information that can either inform a population, or lie to it. I wish more journalists left their offices and psychologically embedded positions and valued more pissing off those whose outcome (if not primary aim) is to harm civilians. Defending or justifying state violence is the most degrading of arts.

Your critique is a variation of Killing the messenger. The press has always and will always reflect the powers that be, by and large; because they are paid by those powers. It is the role of independent media to challenge the powers that be, but how do they achieve that independence? There are some true independent spirits, but the basis of independence is financial, too. And progressives are a distinct minority in this system; we represent dissent but we also require forms of social support. And we shouldn’t shut off communications with the MSM types. I realize I’m becoming a crabbed conservative in life, somewhat; but I do want a way forward, and for me that involves putting breadcrumbs on the trail for the mainstream journalists.

I’ve never argued that cutting all ties, irreconcilable differences with the MSM, is desirable. I regularly write for the MSM, and will continue doing so. Its audience remains strong and influential. Leading by example by the MSM is rare, very few mainstream reporters will take the way on important social issues. From the gay rights movement to Palestine, they’re often following years after activists have led a path and the general public is usually far savvier and smarter than the MSM (and many of us) presume. That’s fine and should continue. But you seem to be arguing that independent media is hard, and the path is tough and let’s not entirely shut out the possibility that the MSM may one day, say, support BDS because Israel is a pariah and will only change its behaviour though strong outside pressure. When ethics and business collide, the former rarely wins. If history is any guide, the MSM are unlikely to be leading on anything that will upset their power and advertising base.

For me, the constant failings of the MSM are that they don’t reflect the will of the people, views and ideas that are shared by many in the population. War isn’t popular, neither is privatization of public services. Full healthcare is backed by many Americans and yet it’s framed in the MSM as a bitter partisan ‘debate’. It is in Washington but many outside America laugh and cringe at the inability and unwillingness of the DC elite to provide publicly provided medical care for all. I want the MSM to be honest about its agenda and biases. We all have them and yet too often the myth of ‘objectivity’ is wheeled out as a weapon against indy media, as though the MSM is balanced and straight and indy reporters are inherently biased (check out the wonderful UK website Medians and its recent analysis of the BBC and Afghanistan).

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6 Responses

  1. JLewisDickerson
    November 2, 2015, 1:43 pm

    RE: “What’s been revealing and depressing is some editors in comfortable Western capitals saying that they don’t want stories that are ‘too depressing’.” ~ Antony Loewenstein

    SEE: “Katharine Weymouth Steps in It Again”, By Jack Shafer, Slate, 09/15/09
    ● A Washington Post piece gets spiked after its publisher expresses a preference for happier stories.

    [EXCERPTS] . . . Earlier this summer, Weymouth got in Dutch when a ‘Post’ plan to sell off-the-record access to reporters and government officials at “salons” at Weymouth’s home was made public by ‘Politico’. Weymouth and ‘Post’ Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli quickly canceled the events after much confusion over whether the paper had put its soul up for sale or whether miscommunication on the part of the management team was to blame.
    In the latest Weymouth miscue, she appears to have told freelancer Matt Mendelsohn, a friend of hers, that advertisers desired “happier stories, not ‘depressing’ ones” like the one he had been working on about a young woman whose arms and legs were amputated. His piece was ultimately killed by the Post’s Sunday magazine. The editor who killed it, Sydney Trent, told the Post‘s Howard Kurtz that the spike had been delivered “because it was clear the newspaper wanted to move in a different direction. That handwriting was very clearly on the wall.”
    Mendelsohn doesn’t blame Weymouth directly. . .
    . . . The controversy has both Weymouth and Brauchli standing on their chairs insisting that the church-state boundary at the paper was never, ever breached. Brauchli tells the ‘Post’, “We are not driven by what one of our business-side colleagues, or even our publisher, thinks about a piece. We follow a journalistic compass.” From Weymouth: “I would never interfere in an editorial decision and I had no intention of interfering.”
    Can you believe for a moment that Katharine Weymouth’s ideas don’t drive what the ‘Post’ prints? Or, to put a finer point on it, that her ideas shouldn’t drive what the Post prints? Weymouth is the one in charge. . .


    • JLewisDickerson
      November 2, 2015, 1:54 pm

      P.S. The above episode at the Washington Post where the advertisers wanted “happier stories, not ‘depressing’ ones” illustrates the editorial bias/filter Chomsky labeled “The Advertising License to Do Business”.

      FROM WIKIPEDIA [Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media]:

      [EXCERPTS] “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media” (1988), by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, is an analysis of the news media, arguing that the mass media of the United States “are effective and powerful ideological institutions that carry out a system-supportive propaganda function by reliance on market forces, internalized assumptions, and self-censorship, and without overt coercion”.*[1] . . .

      Editorial bias: five filters

      Herman and Chomsky’s “propaganda model” describes five editorially distorting filters applied to news reporting in mass media:
      Size, Ownership, and Profit Orientation: The dominant mass-media outlets are large firms which are run for profit. Therefore they must cater to the financial interest of their owners – often corporations or particular controlling investors. The size of the firms is a necessary consequence of the capital requirements for the technology to reach a mass audience.
      The Advertising License to Do Business: Since the majority of the revenue of major media outlets derives from advertising (not from sales or subscriptions), advertisers have acquired a “de-facto licensing authority”.[4] Media outlets are not commercially viable without the support of advertisers. News media must therefore cater to the political prejudices and economic desires of their advertisers. This has weakened the working-class press, for example, and also helps explain the attrition in the number of newspapers.
      Sourcing Mass Media News: Herman and Chomsky argue that “the large bureaucracies of the powerful subsidize the mass media, and gain special access . . .acquiring […] and producing, news. The large entities that provide this subsidy become ‘routine’ news sources and have privileged access to the gates. Non-routine sources must struggle for access, and may be ignored by the arbitrary decision of the gatekeepers.”[5]
      Flak and the Enforcers: “Flak” refers to negative responses to a media statement or program (e.g. letters, complaints, lawsuits, or legislative actions). Flak can be expensive to the media, either due to loss of advertising revenue, or due to the costs of legal defense or defense of the media outlet’s public image. Flak can be organized by powerful, private influence groups (e.g. think tanks). The prospect of eliciting flak can be a deterrent to the reporting of certain kinds of facts or opinions.[5]
      Anti-Communism: This was included as a filter in the original 1988 edition of the book, but Chomsky argues that since the end of the Cold War (1945–91), anticommunism was replaced by the “War on Terror”, as the major social control mechanism.[6][7] . . .

      SOURCE –


  2. DaBakr
    November 2, 2015, 2:03 pm

    Lowenstein may have some points to make but there is no reason nor evidence to suggest that the ‘vaunted’ independent journalists are less ‘willfully dishonest’ or unwilling to correct mistakes or devoted to promoting their cause then the MSM. And complaining that the MSM doesn’t reflect the ‘will of the people’? Is that a joke? What people?

    And while he excoriates msm for towing a certain mainstream mindset he himself has a typical left-wing, anti-capitalist Zionist-hating mindset himself. Nothing about his work stands out as anything beyond the typical left-wing ‘progressive’ press. The hyper focus on Israel and the few surrounding wars in Syria, Sudan, Iraq, Yemen etc. As if there is no conflict in southeast Africa. India, China. Lowenstein and his type go where the left-wing press is most welcome. Anywhere that is violently opposed to Israel, (and of course Israel welcomes him too) capitalism or any other place where the ‘west’ can be portrayed as the big bad wolf and the native populations, cultures, legal and social systems can all be portrayed as a victim of ‘colonialism’ and the west [+ Israel of course] . The subject author seems to be just the other side of the same coin being tossed endlessly around over and over.

  3. brent
    November 3, 2015, 1:40 pm

    Media moguls get to use the public airwaves to make big profits without the obligation to inform. The rationale now is that the public will get what it needs from the overall mix.

    Rethinking the terms for use of airwaves could revolutionize the information flow.

  4. John Salisbury
    November 3, 2015, 3:20 pm

    We think a lot of Antony down here in The Antipodes.

    I consulted with him when making plans for recent project ‘Recognise Palestine Walk 2015’

    He is a prolific writer and covers multiple issues of global injustice.

  5. gracie fr
    November 4, 2015, 3:30 pm

    Antony Loewenstein, has covered politics in Australia with regard to discrimination, warehousing of refugees, the domestic stance on the Israel/Palestine question for a host of global media outlets. He has every right to feel angry about the bias, jingoistic use of untruths, and lies by ommision found innewspaper articls and on line reporting. His criticism reminded me of a 2011 piece by Nir Rosen, who said as much in so many words about the inadequate coverage of the Iraq War…….

    Western media fraud in the Middle East Too many journalists report official narratives of the powerful, missing the stories of working class people.
    Nir Rosen 18 May 2011
    …..Journalists are the archetype of ideological tools who create culture and produce knowledge. Their function is to represent a class and perpetuate the dominant ideology instead of building a counter hegemonic and revolutionary ideology, or narrative, in this case. They are the organic intellectuals of the ruling class. Instead of being the voice of the people… Western journalists take reality and amputate it, contort it, and fit it into a predetermined discourse or taxonomy
    The American media always want to fit events in the region into an American narrative
    But the American media has been obsessed with Islamists, looking for them behind every demonstration, and the uprisings have been often treated as if they were something threatening. And all too often, it just comes down to “what does this mean for Israel’s security?” The aspirations of hundreds of millions of freedom-seeking Arabs are subordinated to the security concerns of five million Jews who colonised Palestine.
    There is a strong element of chauvinism and racism behind the reporting. Like American soldiers, American journalists like to use the occasional local word to show they have unlocked the mysteries of the culture…..Islam is also treated like a code that can be unlocked, and then locals can be understood as if they are programmed only through Islam.
    A journalist doesn’t have to live like an impoverished local. But the less local life you experience, the less you can do your job, and this is what readers need to understand. The average person anywhere in the world goes to work and comes back home. He knows little about people outside his social class, ethnic group, neighbourhood or city. As a journalist, you are making judgements on an entire country and interpreting it for others, but you don’t know the country because you don’t really live in it.
    Relying on a translator means you can only talk to one person at a time and you miss all the background noise. It means you have to depend on somebody from a certain social class, or sect, or political position, to filter and mediate the country for you.
    American reporting is problematic throughout the third world, but because the American military/industrial/financial/academic/media complex is so directly implicated in the Middle East, the consequences of such bad reporting are more significant. Journalists end up serving as propagandists justify the killing of innocent people instead of a voice for those innocent people.
    There are many brave and dedicated journalists working in the Middle East whose work deserves attention and praise. Some even work for the mainstream media. Too often their independent voices are drowned out by the mass of writers who justify power instead of opposing it. Our job should not be about speaking truth to power. Those in power know the truth, they just don’t care. It’s about speaking truth to the people, to those not in power, in order to empower them.

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