On ‘corporate’ and ‘independent’ media

A tweet by Media Lens, a UK-based media-watch project that analyses mainstream media bias, urged young journalists to “not write for money”. It caused a big uproar – some deserved and some not so much. If Media Lens actually meant that journalists shouldn’t ever get paid for their work, it wouldn’t be worth talking about. But the distinction between “corporate” and “independent” media should be discussed, because it is a very influential way to conceptualise what is wrong with the news business.

By Augustine Zenakos

A couple of days ago, Henry Zeffman, a reporter for The Times, tweeted that the Anthony Howard Award for Young Journalists 2018 is open. The award offers £25,000 and the opportunity to research and publish a piece in The Times, The Observer or The New Statesman.

Media Lens, a UK-based media-watch project that analyses mainstream media bias, quoted Zeffman’s tweet, adding this comment: “Forget it. Don’t write for the ‘mainstream’. Don’t write for money. Don’t write for prestige. Just ‘follow your bliss’ by writing what you absolutely love to write to inspire and enlighten other people. Write what seems interesting, important and true, and give it away for free.”

This statement obviously triggered a torrent of replies, mostly chastising the media watchdog for its apparent approval of unpaid labour. Replying in turn, Media Lens argued that it was not saying that journalists shouldn’t ever be paid, but rather that they should not be motivated by a desire for money or for a “mainstream” media career. When asked how they pay their own rent, they replied: “Our readers send us donations.”

I think it is pretty obvious that the Media Lens tweet is badly worded. Not a great thing, to be sure, for a statement that tells people how to write. The minimum requirement for writing is, I suppose, to convey a point with at least some clarity. That said, conversations on social media, even between writers, are not known for a well-intentioned effort to understand each other’s point. I don’t think that some of the accusations levelled against Media Lens, such as that they are denying the working class an opportunity to work as professional writers, are fair. A piece that appeared in the New Statesman, for example, makes some very good points about professional journalism, but begins by saying that Media Lens “came out against journalists working for fair pay”. I don’t think that was its intention.

Media Lens, of course, together with its supporters on social media, implies that it is under attack because of its mission to expose “mainstream” media propaganda. Maybe that’s true, but if so, it needs a better tweet to back it up. Nevertheless, bad wording aside, I think their call to young journalists should be taken for what they say it is: a piece of advice not to work for “mainstream” or “corporate” media.

Which is actually more interesting. If Media Lens actually meant that journalists shouldn’t ever get paid for their work, it wouldn’t be worth talking about. But the distinction between “corporate” and “independent” media should be discussed, because it is a specific and very influential way to conceptualise what is wrong with the news business. Simply put, this concept posits two opposing forces: on the one hand, the “market” that distorts a certain truth that should be told objectively; on the other, “independence”, meaning precisely independence from the “market”, that can deliver that truth.

I have worked for both “corporate” and “independent” media, and I confess that I have argued along these lines many times. After experiencing the situation on both sides of the aisle, however, I think that what hasn’t changed is the problem I have always had with this “market” versus “independence” formulation. I don’t of course deny, quite the opposite, that specific interests often influence and distort the coverage of so-called “mainstream” media. Be it “market forces” in the strict sense, “special interests”, or political bias, there are untold instances where the “mainstream” media have fallen short of their obligation to illuminate unfolding events. If colleagues in Britain feel they have such issues with the British media, perhaps it would somewhat alleviate their angst to take a look at places like Greece, where bias often seems the only thing on the front page, displaced only by direct service of some corporate interest. Still, I have a problem with this all-too-clear divide between “corporate” and “independent”, and here’s why:

Firstly, there is a reason why most “independent” media primarily host analysis, opinion, or various kinds of first-hand-experience stories. Media Lens itself is a case in point: what it does is dissect “mainstream” media coverage and expose its flaws. An important job, no doubt, albeit one that feeds off the coverage that “mainstream” media produce. Not to put too fine a point on it, journalism takes money. Money to produce original stories that require months of research, organization of data, fact checking, and editing. Now, I am not knocking analysis of public discourse, including the media, it is quite often both a necessary and a fascinating thing to have around, but it is hardly the core of journalism. Investigative stories are – and I don’t mean groundbreaking revelations, which are often a matter of luck and happen only infrequently, but the great genre of narrative journalistic story-telling that paints an in-depth picture of the social landscape. Most “independent” media cannot afford to do that. When they try –and I have some relevant experience– they are plagued by problems, which have mostly to do with their extremely limited resources. So at their best, “independent” media mainly become a refuge for underreported events, minority rights, and disgruntled activism. Hardly, again, an unworthy mission – someone has to bring these issues to light. But it is difficult to argue that such a thing should be the ultimate goal for a young journalist.

Which brings me to my second point: apart from money, original coverage needs sources. Sources, for the most part, do not engage with what they have good reason to believe are unreliable collocutors. What makes “independent” media unreliable in this context is that their mandate to “speak truth to power” often leads them to completely expose a source’s agenda, and even disregard the principle of balanced reporting. Whistleblowers –that subcategory of sources all journalists dream about–, might be motivated by a desire to serve the public good, but they have a very serious reason to prefer “mainstream” media: if you are to risk your career and even your life to reveal a big secret, then you want it published somewhere with millions of readers. Otherwise, though, sources in general do not disclose information for the public good. They disclose information to serve a purpose. This purpose is self-serving more often than not, but the journalist must strike a balance between revealing information and protecting the source – if they want to continue having sources, that is. Journalism can only be revealing if it is close to power. “Independent” media often argue that this is the same as serving powerful interests, but even if that happens, which it does, it is not the only thing that happens, and it is not clear at all what the alternative is. In the hypothetical scenario where Media Lens’s advice is played out to its logical conclusion, and journalists withdraw from the “mainstream” and turn to “independent” media, what seems a likely result is that nobody knows what is going on. Power is not more controlled, but less; we are not free, we are blind. There is no argument to support the hypothesis that power would be somehow more inclined –or forced– to be forthcoming with its information, rather than enjoy the fortuitous withdrawal of all journalists from engaging with it. Separating journalism from power is not as straightforward a proposition as it seems.

Thirdly, I have never quite understood why alternative market strategies are so easily taken to mean that someone stands “outside the market” or is independent of “market forces”. Given the fact that everything exists within an economy, this particular economy, I have always found it difficult to see how an alternative strategy is not as steeped in the market as a more conventional one. When you produce a publication, whether it is a company newsletter or a media watchdog, you are still selling a product that is designed to meet the assumed needs of a certain group of consumers. The product might be “calling out the corporate media”, the group of consumers might be “disillusioned leftists” and the mode of revenue might be readers’ donations, but the basic schema is the same as with any other product. Donations can be thought of as subscriptions that accept a percentage of lost revenue: please pay, but if you don’t, you can still see the content. This is not that different to transport systems all over Europe that require ticket validation instead of using barred gates, and so accept a percentage of people travelling for free. Of course, the “donation argument” will present this as a trait of a freer, more reciprocal relationship between publisher and reader. But this, again, can be thought of as a marketing strategy: the “I am not doing it for the money” line is very solidly based on a tradition of frowning upon profiteering. Let’s not trace it in all its moralistic glory here, but it should be pointed out that “not doing it for the money” would be one of the first traits that a marketing consultant would jot down in mapping Media Lens’s “corporate DNA”. And, of course, being “independent” does nothing to counter the reality that catering to the consumers’ needs, once the product is established in meeting them, will remain the main concern of the producer. It is interesting to observe how quickly anti-establishment publications lose their reader base if they dare to appear a little compromising or moderate. In fact, once in that game, one is often forced to increasingly turn up the volume, so as not to disappoint a group of consumers that has been conditioned in a certain way. “Independent” media are bound by the market just as much as “mainstream” media. The product is different, so are the consumers –though not always–, but the rules are the same.

So, if “independent” media are lacking substantial stories, because they don’t have enough money or sources, and if in the end they are products to be marketed, just like everything else, does this mean that there is no point to them? Should we all just hail the major networks and that will be that?

No, I don’t think so. I edited an “independent” magazine for a long time, and I think that we published some great stories over the years, especially about “unpopular” issues. We also took up a cause, as “independent” media so often do, arguing against austerity policies, which I believe was necessary and beneficial. Someone has to do things like that, and it is “independent” media that often step up to the task. But they are not a replacement to “mainstream” media, as is evidenced by the huge proportion of their content that actually refers to what “mainstream” media are writing. And they are not “outside the market”; they are at best a supplement to a market that –it is true– often leaves a lot to be desired.

So, perhaps, the need is to question this antithesis between “corporate” and “independent” media, not in the sense that it is baseless, because it evidently does hold some truth, but in the sense that it might not be all that useful – except as a marketing strategy for “independent” media. Perhaps we should pay attention to the kind of public discourse that this polarisation between “mainstream” and “independent” generates. A discourse that holds that one can only ever be either a sell-out or a missionary, when it is obvious that one can very well be neither or both.

Incidentally, I remember having a small, elegant argument on whether there is such a thing as “outside the market” with a respected colleague who was an editor for a big newspaper at the time. The context was art, not journalism, but the argument was not all that different. I argued in the pieces I wrote for another big newspaper, he argued in his regular column. I was saying there is no such thing as “outside the market”. He was saying there is. The years went by. I went on to edit an aggressive anti-establishment magazine. He went on to be a prominent MP and a government minister. I think it might be fun to meet up sometime and reminisce about our time of innocence in mainstream media.

1 reply »

  1. One difference perhaps in the money relationship between the buyer of a newspaper and the supporter of an outfit like MediaLens, is that the former is using their money to buy a product whereas the latter is often using their money to support the ongoing work of an individual or organisation that they have faith will continue to produce work (freely available to all) that they see as beneficial. The Patreon website enables this kind of relationship, see Eva Bartlett on there or artist Amanda Palmer. If enough people saw the huge flaws in corporate media, is it conceivable that they could donate enough to independent journalists (instead of buying a paper) and fund the kind of reporting that only the corporate media can currently afford?

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