The News Has Nothing To Do With Newsworthiness
Listen to a reading of this article (reading by Caitlin Johnstone):
I don’t mention it often but I actually have a degree in journalism. I graduated with distinction from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in 2003, and while it would be another 13 years before I’d ever put my degree to any use, the experience played a massive role in forming my opinions about the mainstream press.
One of the lessons I think about a lot came at the beginning of my two-week internship with Channel 10's Eyewitness News (now 10 News First) when I was watching the show’s bedraggled news editor put everyone’s story assignments up on the whiteboard one morning. I’d been paying a lot of attention to TV news at the time because that’s what we were studying, and I’d noticed that the stories Channel 10 would cover were always exactly the same as the ones that would be covered by Channel 7 and Channel 9— usually in exactly the same order.
“Why do you guys always cover the same stories as Channel 7 and Channel 9?” I asked. “Do you guys phone each other to coordinate?”
“No, but it is a bit strange isn’t it?” he agreed. “I guess it’s what you call ‘news sense’.”
Even back then I had a hard time believing that all news editors had some magical “sense” which caused them each to know which are the most newsworthy stories day after day in a whole world full of events and ordeals.
Since that time I’ve learned about the groupthink effect that working in the mainstream press tends to have on people’s minds according to those who’ve made careers there, and the fact that journalists who either don’t know how to or don’t care to dance to the the agenda-setting task of the plutocratic media don’t find themselves promoted to news editor. It’s not that editors are coordinating with each other across outlets or receiving instructions on what to report from oligarchs and government agencies, it’s that if they were the type who needed to do such things to know what to report, they wouldn’t be working where they’re working.
How did the mainstream press know to ignore the scandal of a Ukrainian Nazi being applauded in the Canadian parliament? How did they know to smear Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn? How do they know to support every war while ignoring homelessness and economic injustice? It sure ain’t “news sense”.
In a contentious 1996 discussion between Noam Chomsky and British journalist Andrew Marr, Chomsky described a “filtering system” that “selects for obedience and subordination” which determines who gets to the top of the most influential platforms in the western world. He derided the false image that mainstream journalists have of themselves as “a crusading profession” who are “adversarial” and “stand up against power,” saying it’s almost impossible for a good journalist to do so in any meaningful way in the western press.
“How can you know that I’m self-censoring?” Marr objected. “How can you know that journalists are — ”
“I’m not saying you’re self-censoring,” Chomsky replied. “I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is that if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.”
In a 1997 essay, Chomsky added that “the point is that they wouldn’t be there unless they had already demonstrated that nobody has to tell them what to write because they are going to say the right thing anyway.”
By the time I graduated I’d already figured out that I wouldn’t be able to use my journalism degree to do any actual journalism. It had been made abundantly clear to me that I’d have to spend my first years re-writing copy from Reuters and AP and avoiding making any waves, and that even if I made it past that point there was very little to look forward to; the TV reporters at Channel 10 would write their stories before going to the scene of their reporting and just look for things that support their pre-written narrative, so there was never any actual fact-finding or real journalism happening on the ground.
So I didn’t bother. I raised some kids, did some corporate work, ran a business and a little eco-blog, and spend time learning about life instead. I couldn’t have predicted that the internet would eventually give rise to a new wave of crowdfunded journalism which would make it possible for me to spend my time on this planet doing what I do today. But now that it has I find myself thinking back on that news editor at Eyewitness News, and noticing that the stories I focus on are almost never the same ones being covered by the mainstream press on any given day.
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