In this article Nafeez Ahmed explain how and why mainstream media is broken and calls for your support for a revolution in independent investigative journalism.
The mainstream media is broken
Dominated by special interests?—?whether corporate lobbies, financial power, ideological bias, chauvinistic institutional racism, the entrenched problems are well-documented.
My experience at The Guardian?—?the highly-regarded liberal newspaper that broke the Edward Snowden whistleblowing stories?—?though particularly flagrant, illustrates just how entrenched and structural the problems are.
The skewed coverage of the Gaza crisis is merely the tip of the iceberg. One of the best studies of the British media’s servile attitude to warmongers was published by Manchester University Press in 2010. The book, Pockets of Resistance: British news media, war and theory in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, is based on a research project funded by the Economic Social and Research Council (ESRC). Studying coverage of Iraq War 2003 by the BBC, Channel 4, Sky News and seven national newspapers, the study’s findings were damning.
At a conference in Liverpool to launch the book, lead author Dr Piers Robinson, a respected media scholar, said:
“Although we found examples of media independence, journalists need to think more critically about the extent to which they allow the national perspective of ‘our boys’ to influence their war reporting. We also urge them to be more discerning when accepting official versions such as the humanitarian intervention line promoted by Tony Blair during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.”
Funnily enough, though press was invited, the book received no mainstream coverage at all.
The Glasgow University Media Group, a leading group of media scholars, has for decades conducted in-depth academic studies exposing the extent of the British media’s biased reporting on a wide range of issues, from war to the economy to politics, race and culture. Despite being ridiculed and marginalized by mainstream journalists, the group’s stellar research remains vindicated.
In the US, the situation is much the same. The media watchdog, FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting), has just released a study that found that US broadcasters offered no debate at all in the run-up to Obama’s proposed airstrikes in Iraq and Syria?—?instead invariably opting in favour of war.
Last year, a landmark study of US and UK media coverage of Iran’s nuclear program from 2009 to 2012 by University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies found direct parallels with distorted media reporting in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War. Reporting was largely dishonest, inaccurate, confused and contradictory, and served to reinforce “negative sentiments about Iran” while emphasizing “policy prescriptions and narratives put forth by government officials” and “deemphasizing other voices and alternative policy approaches that could be used to resolve the dispute, such as that of international organizations like the IAEA.”
The mainstream media can’t be fixed
The primary reason the mass media functions in this way is due to its corporate ownership structure. There is a rich literature on this, but I’ll highlight one brilliant study that is less well-known: The Suppression of Dissent: How the State and Media Squelch USAmerican Social Movements, is a book published by Routledge in 2012, authored by Prof Jules Boykoff of Pacific University in Oregon.
Boykoff’s pioneering study draws on this extensive literature to argue that mass media is “embedded in larger political, social, cultural, and economic arenas.” He highlights the work of Robert McChesney, Ben Bagdikian, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, and many other renowned media scholars, who have charted the rampant concentration and conglomeration of the “corporate media cartel,” and unearthed “systematic evidence” of how the financial interests of media owners influences “newspaper editorials” and “straight news reporting.” Within this framework, the dependence on advertising revenues acts as a further constraint, as well as the cultural and class milieu in which media executives and journalists operate. Further, media reporting is ideologically constrained by financial and corporate interests through a range of other “micro-processes” including reliance on certain information sources (often ‘officialdom’ and government/corporate ‘press releases’), story-selection, information biases, self-censorship, and of course, the all-encompassing pressure of the ‘news cycle’ and entrenched perceptions of what should and should not make news.
The upshot of all this, as Boykoff shows, is that social movements, political dissent, political protest?—?all manner of popular mobilizations that challenge or question the prevailing order in a fundamental way?—?are over the long-run ignored, suppressed, demonized, and caricatured by mainstream media.
The problem is that media is our window to the world. It’s our mechanism of self-understanding as a society. It’s our means of discovering and uncovering the way the world works, and the way we fit into it. The media is supposed to be a force that illuminates and informs, which empowers and educates. Instead, it does so selectively, and functions largely in the interests of sustaining the existing system, even when that system is hell-bent on eating the planet alive.
But it’s not our media.
We need a new model: NOW
I don’t really fancy working for a billionaire with vague messianic fantasies. And ultimately, for the reasons described above, I don’t believe media owned by or affiliated in some manner with large corporate financial interests will ever be able to get to the heart of the issues that matter?—?it will forever be ideologically and structurally constrained.
Developments in information technology over the last years have, however, opened up amazing new avenues to challenge the hegemony of what McChesney calls the “corporate media cartel.”
You may have heard of De Correspondent, a new Dutch-language digital journalism start-up that managed to crowdfund over a million dollars on the promise of doing independent ad-free journalism that would not be beholden to the arbitrary whims of the news cycle. That’s just one example.
De Correspondent received a lot of attention in the Dutch press, including its fair share of obligatory mainstream media ridicule. That’s not surprising, because if the business model takes-off and proliferates, it could fatally undermine the profitability of mainstream media.
The world is changing. The corporate media giants, like the fossil fuel industry behemoths and defense company conglomerates with which they are institutionally embedded, are figments of the old extractivist, top-down, industrial paradigm of centralized violence against nature and people in the name of profit that is currently in its death throes.
Climate change, energy volatility, food crisis, recession, militarism, terrorism, the police-state, all these crises are escalating symptoms of a global system that has failed, and is failing, and which cannot survive the 21st century in its current form according to our best scientific minds.
In its place, the seeds of a new way of doing things is emerging, based on clean energy, participatory political networks, distributed finance, shared values, community-controlled currencies, celebration of diversity, and decentralization of production and power, to name just a few features of the people-powered paradigm that could conquer the 1%.
During this pivotal transition period, we have an opportunity to ride the wave to create a new English-language global media platform that is truly accountable to people and the planet, rather than special interests. Central to this, of course, is the mechanism of funding?—?which must be dependent on the public, not on special interests?—?but it’s not just about funding. It’s also, critically, about methodology and vision.
The Insurge manifesto
This is why I’m asking for your help to launch INSURGE INTELLIGENCE, a digital multimedia investigative journalism collective for the global commons. The ‘commons’ refers to the natural resources, fundamental services, public spaces, and ultimately public goods, that are held in trust by all people, and which should not be monopolized by any state, corporation or other entity.
I want INSURGE to be the first English-language platform to do investigative journalism for the explicit purpose of reclaiming the commons. This means doing the kind of journalism that very few are doing?—?joined-up investigations into the global system highlighting not just the surface of what’s happening in terms of mass surveillance, foreign policy militarism, and police-state violence, but to excavate root causes, why the shit’s hitting the fan, and to empower citizens with the information and tools to conceive and explore meaningful alternatives here and now.
I’d like to co-create the platform with you not just through crowdfunding to create a sustainable financial infrastructure to maintain true independence, but to develop its direction, and to draw on your input to make the platform the best it can be.
I want to do journalism that is accountable to we, the people?—?that is so powerful in its independence, rigorous in its approach, and fearless in its questioning, that in time it can break the co-opted business models of the mainstream media. Those business models are already in terminal decline. That’s partly why I think this venture is possible. Hell, I think it’s the future
So this is my manifesto for a new media, and for what I intend INSURGE to be, with your support:
1. People-powered independence
By putting people at the heart of the financing of the media platform as patrons, we guarantee its total independence from dubious external financial or ideological pressures. If patrons don’t like our coverage, they can communicate with us their criticisms, and if they’re not satisfied, they can unsubscribe. Special interests won’t pull our strings. You will.
2. Adversarial, interdisciplinary investigations
Our job is not to relay ‘the news’: it’s to investigate power, to empower the public. That means embarking on original in-depth investigations that dig deep and which others aren’t covering; going between the headlines, providing critical context, conducting the kind of unique analysis of events informed by genuine expertise (which is why we’ll have an academic/scientific advisory board), not phony punditry. It also means joining the dots across multiple issues and stories.
3. Visionary advocacy
We will campaign for justice and we will advocate for the marginalized, to help create social change and to empower you with the information you need to become change-makers in your own contexts. That means, we’re not just covering ‘the bad news’?—?you’ll find us on the frontlines of the revolution, covering real-world solutions to our global challenges proposed and enacted by practitioners, activists and communities everywhere.
4. Participatory story-making
If we can raise enough to invest in the right sort of website, our stories won’t just be static, isolated fixed ‘news items.’ Just as the real-world is full of change and complexity, we will be open and responsive to critique, and will create overlapping and evolving stories that chart the interconnections between global and local challenges, between planetary meltdown and state-corporate militarism, and which will build on your feedback whenever possible.
5. A community for change
Our citizen-patrons won’t just be our donors. You’ll be our backbone, and therefore our first port of call in the development of the platform, story ideas, as well as the best ways to make the platform work, and improve what we do. We’ll keep connected through a social network just for us.
If this sounds good to you, you can sign up via the crowdfunder here and pledge as little as $1 a month.
Imagine what we could do as we grow and formalize a viable financial structure, if our subscription base expands sufficiently: we could potentially move to an ideal model in which patrons pay just a $1 a year to sustain us. It might take us a while to get there. But that’s the goal.
Here’s to the media revolution, one we create together.
Dr Nafeez Ahmed is an investigative journalist, bestselling author and international security scholar. Formerly of The Guardian, he writes the ‘System Shift’ column for VICE’s Motherboard, and is the winner of a 2015 Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for his Guardian work.
Nafeez has also written for The Independent, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Scotsman, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Quartz, Prospect, New Statesman, Le Monde diplomatique, New Internationalist, Counterpunch, Truthout, among others. He is the author of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It (2010), and the scifi thriller novel ZERO POINT, among other books. His work on the root causes and covert operations linked to international terrorism officially contributed to the 9/11 Commission and the 7/7 Coroner’s Inquest.