Manufacturing Preferences: The Media as Manipulator

2:52 AM / Posted by Harry McEvansoneya /

It is a bizarre habit of human beings, and one that seems to repeat itself time and time again, that whenever we create something to act as a facilitator for our desires, it ends up shaping them. The slave becomes master and the technology, organisations or frameworks we create ultimately seek to become self perpetuating in order to maintain their relevance within the world through manipulating what it is that people want, rather than simply providing a service.

This spans across an almost universal set. On the basic level, something as simple as money, created to better allow economic interaction, became the basis for economies in and of itself. The internet, designed to allow us to access information, has become a bombard of advertisements and offers, trying to get people to purchase or engage in certain things. Facebook, recently, has been the centre of controversy over its sudden and overbearing attempts to pressure its user base into engaging with advertisers (and indeed, when people don’t respond to this, simply ripping away privacy protections – though that is a separate issue). More tellingly, even political parties have fallen into this paradigm, trying to lead electorates to follow their policies rather than trying hard to genuinely represent what people actually want.

However, where this attitude is most significant – and possibly most harmful – is within the sphere of the news media. When it comes down to the institutions that are supposed to be the distributors of information, entering into a paradigm of trying to manufacture opinions through the abuse of fact is something dangerous, deplorable, counterproductive and yet utterly, utterly ingrained within our society. Media has ceased to be, if it ever was, about the satiation of the desire of the public to be informed about the world and is now about the bottom line – how many copies you can sell, how many advertisements you can carry, how many people will pay to use your website and so on – essentially, the maximisation of revenue.

This is incredibly dangerous for the simple fact that more or less all information, regardless of the source, is in some way, shape or form, delivered to the public at large through the filter of some kind of media organisation.

This takes three forms – firstly, through the moulding of viewpoints of readership, secondly through affirmation of the biases they have created in or are already held by those they distribute information to and thirdly – and perhaps most sinisterly – through a system of news creation, whereby the media doesn’t report on or look into events, but actively causes them to happen so it has something large, flashy and scandalous to write about and sell their product with.

The first is the most obvious. Almost every news source – the exceptions being the state-owned ones in Britain and Ireland – have naked and obvious institutional biases that in general they make little attempt to hide, happily running articles designed to lionise those who support their agenda and demonise those who oppose it, prioritising “issue” stories over “event” ones that allow them to cast everything through a filter, coming out in favour of certain political parties and generally looking to tie negative events back towards whoever or whatever person, organisation, institution or cause they don’t like or want people to like.

The fact that this bias is clear insofar as opinion columns go doesn’t make it any less insidious, especially because it is also present in a big way in the supposedly factual reporting that media sources are supposed to engage in. This fusion of information and opinion is something worrying and insidious, as it encourages events to be seen in light of a certain worldview rather than be analysed by each individual, whereby conclusions are drawn for the audience rather that allowing them to draw their own. In this way, the primary goal becomes not to inform people of what is happening, but to use what is happening as a tool to make people think in a certain way and assume certain inferences to be true.

So why do media sources do this? It’s not for it’s own sake – news sources are not by default evil. Obviously, there is the issue of news sources trying to get their owner’s interests preserved, or viewpoints expanded. If you had the tool to make tens of thousands agree with your politics, it’s fairly natural that you would take it as that is probably going to benefit you in terms of social or political impact, as well as provide you with significant influence over events.

In addition to this, and this is the second form – the idea of re-enforcement and affirmation, which ensures people will keep reading and keep buying your product. Once people think a certain way, either through media sources or their own conclusions, it’s much easier to provide people with affirmation from what they perceive as an authoritative source than it is to suggest they are wrong about something, even when they are.

On a simple level, people like to be told they are right, especially by authority – it makes them feel as though they have significance. Similarly, people react poorly to authority sources telling them they are wrong and try to manipulate it mentally so that they are actually right and the authority wrong – see the deep resonation of the bizarre demonisation of “elitism” within American politics, which is increasingly creeping into Europe.

People are drawn to media sources that they seem to agree with. The biggest selling newspapers in Britain and Ireland are those who engage in populist reporting, telling people what they want to hear and setting things out in broad, un-nuanced terms. This is the tabloid media, where everything fits into three categories – right, wrong and tits. Treat your readers like utter cretins, tell them what they want to hear and tell them they are great, while pushing whatever your agenda is. The system is at its most naked and in-your-face here, but the same categorisation is essentially true of most media sources, where political bodies or causes are set up as being bogeymen, heroes or women – this is what shifts copy. Blast the EU, back Britian and throw in a few random pictures of Carla Bruni wherever France is mentioned and you essentially have the level of sophistication on display in the Sunday Times’ coverage of European affairs.

These first two issues are two sides of the same thing. Identify a demographic in line with your interests and appeal to their beliefs by re-enforcing them and encouraging them to harden, by painting them as absolutes and relevant to everything, that every event should be viewed in terms of them. The follow on from this is that when new issues arise, they can be integrated into this, and the readers who already trust you since you agree with them, will be much more open to suggestion on these issues. This is not to mention the huge significance of those beginning to encounter news media for the first time, like children growing up, seeing the world for the first time through specific lenses, and are thus more likely to fall into the cycle of affirmation outlined above.

This explains the uselessness of the so-called “independent media”, which like commercial media acts to confirm the pre-suppositions of a certain social group, and to spread the agenda of those behind the source, getting the influence and readership without necessarily profiting – though it shamefully claims to be above this level of exploitation which adds gross hypocrisy to the accusations that can be correctly levelled against it.

However, what truly exemplifies the manner in which the media has utterly abused its role and become an agent for change with agendas, self-entitlement and a general disregard for actually keeping people informed rather than pursuing its own ends is the third initial form, the habit of news manufacturing that so many sources seem more than happy to engage in. This comes in three main ways, all of which are reprehensible abuses of the position held by the media in society.

The first of these is hugely indicative in terms of the sense of undeserved entitlement felt by the media – and that is the tendency of media sources to use themselves as news and as part of the news story. How much is it we hear about the travails of specific journalists, reporters and analysts? How much coverage becomes about personalities, about what the person employed by the media will do next, rather than about the story they are supposedly covering? Sky News provides in Adam Boulton perhaps the best example of a supposed journalist who seems to dearly wish he was a talk show host. The message is clear – who cares what is happening?

What you should care about is what Boulton says about what is happening, and how he reacts to the individuals involved. And heaven forbid that he and his ilk are ever questioned – else they will be outraged as to why you are not co-operating with the great Boulton, and why you are trying to push him off centre stage. Similarly, I recall his colleague Kay Burley, who possesses similar desire for self-aggrandisment, physically assaulting a reporter who had the temerity to arrive ahead of her in a media scrum.

The reporting and coverage of the story become the story, the lengths to which the media go to cover a story is extensively reported on in the media itself, and if a challenge is made to that limelight-hogging, you can be sure that the response will not be pretty.

Secondly within the idea of news manufacturing is the actual creation of stories where there are none, often through what can only be described as entrapment. This is some kind of deformed progeny of investigative journalism that has somehow slithered into acceptability, whereby rather than actually looking into events that may be happening, it makes them happen. This is all kinds of morally questionable, not to mention that is has devastatingly negative effects on what were, until the media became involved, frequently legitimate organisations or causes.

In recent weeks, there have been two examples of this that received astonishing coverage, not just in the two papers responsible for them, but all across the media – the stings executed on Lord Triesman by the Mail on Sunday and on Sarah Ferguson by the News of the World. Ignoring the fact that these should by all rights be two utter non-stories, that people only care about because the media whipped them into a frenzy over them – that a minor lord expressed paranoid thoughts in what he thought was a private conversation and that a former royal is not very bright and desperate for cash (not to mention the implausibility of a scenario where anyone would be willing to pay £500,000 for an interview with Prince Andrew) – there are huge problems with both that apply to similar stories.

What on earth is there to suggest that Ferguson would ever have actually acted corruptly? Once the money was placed in front of her, at that particular juncture (bear in mind that she is hugely indebted, which the News of the World, exploitive as they are, can scarcely have been ignorant of), she did – but would the money have been there otherwise? Would she have acted in this way if not for the encouragement provided by the so-called journalist masquerading as a businessman? Would she act this way at a future point if her finances recover – which is unlikely if these scandals keep ruining her attempts to recover her reputation? All of these are unknowns, and it is reprehensible of the media to provoke action in this way. The only outcome of this has been her personal reputation being damaged – all to get a bit more publicity and sales for a tabloid rag. This is cynical and no more than the media taking advantage for their own ends, regardless of who gets hurt.

The Triesman incident is similarly unethical. Frankly, in private, Triesman can think the Russians and Spanish are bribing officials all he wants. He can think that the Russian World Cup bid is, in fact run by unicorns from the centre of the earth. None of it matters unless it actually affects how he performed his job as head of England’s World Cup bid – which it obviously was not doing, as if it had, there would have been genuine, not manufactured, controversy due to it affecting his interaction with FIFA and the other parties involved. We don’t even know he thought it genuinely, given the circumstances, what is to say it was not just an idle boast to impress and intrigue the younger woman he was talking to? Yet due to the media’s destructive determination to make stories where there are none, to follow otherwise innocent men until they trip up over the traps laid for them by the media, the whole World Cup bid may well have been ruined – this just to satisfy the vanity of those who run the newspaper and, once again, to shift some more copy, regardless of what is sacrificed in the process of doing so.

The media possess, as we can see here, very little ethical considerations beyond their own self-interest, and yet, due to what was mentioned in the first two forms, people look to them for moral guidance, which forms the third way in which media sources manufacture news. This was alluded to before in this post – this is through the active and overt attempts to shape public opinion. The media is more than willing to fling itself after any campaign that suits the agenda it pursues and that will gain it sales, regardless of the actual truth behind the campaign, or even the harm that may result from it.

Controversy generated by taking a side against the government or similar authority is the most simple and widespread way in which media sources try to do this, again with no concern for who gets hurt in the way. The amount of media sources, that out of this self-interest and out of sheer lazy journalism went and campaigned against the MMR jab is deeply indicative of this, in spite of the fact that this ultimately led to a significant rise in the number of cases of measles in Britain. To make it worse, in an act that would be funny were it not so depressing, many media sources have, in the aftermath of the Wakefield trial, turned around and shamelessly castigated all and sundry – except themselves – for being so suckered into the whole scam.

The media generates these campaigns so it has something to report on. It takes issues and makes them stories, makes facts suit them, gives them exclusive coverage so the audience care, so they turn to the source who have the big issue, who have the inside scoop. They are told to care about this and then through their actions give the media something to report on, which more people will now want to read about and will turn to that media source for. It’s an exploitative and manipulative cycle that effectively gives a tiny organisation incredible leverage over what happens in a country by being able to manipulate large portions of the population.

The worst example of just how scandalously cynically motivated the whole campaign thing is, how it is morally bankrupt and merely designed to lead to self-aggrandisement and what all of the behaviours mentioned in the article actually culminate in is the Daily Mail’s line on the cervical cancer immunisation scheme, utterly disgustingly campaigning for it’s introduction in Ireland and for it’s banning in Britain. Both stances cannot be right – one of those outcomes is going to lead to untold future harm for a significant amount of young girls, either through the increased risk of cancer or through the horrible side effects the Mail claimed. The welfare of these people, these vulnerable people who put their trust in journalists to inform them accurately, is being callously tossed aside, their trust spat upon, in order to stir up things a bit and cause a bit of a fuss so they can sell a few more issues of their newspaper. This is beyond disgusting. It’s a violation of ethics and humanity on a grand scale. This is the action of self-serving, power abusive scum – that being about the kindest thing they can be called – who pass judgement and attempt to dictate societal views on everyone else while escaping scrutiny for their own horrendously irresponsible and materially harmful actions.

I will close with the words of another, since I am having trouble finding my own after seriously considering the enormity of the above. In 1891, Oscar Wilde wrote the following:

“In old days men had the rack. Now they have the press. That is an improvement certainly. But still it is very bad, and wrong, and demoralizing. Somebody — was it Burke? — called journalism the fourth estate. That was true at the time no doubt. But at the present moment it is the only estate. It has eaten up the other three. The Lords Temporal say nothing, the Lords Spiritual have nothing to say, and the House of Commons has nothing to say and says it. We are dominated by Journalism.”

The fact that this statement is every bit as valid now as it was almost 120 years ago is, to say the least, a damning indictment of how the media has kept society in its thrall, allowing it to pursue its own self-interests, spread its own agenda, and manipulate political and social events with absolutely no meaningful accountability.


Comment by Automatic Writing on May 27, 2010 at 4:54 AM

Harry, much of this is valid and well-observed. I think however, in castigating the alternative media (i.e. indymedia et al) for displaying an obvious bias, you fail to realise that there cannot be an objective and neutral media source. Ultimately the stories that individual journalists choose to report on, and the facts they include in their reports are influenced by the ideology they subscribe to, even if they set out with the intention of being balanced. That the independent media tend to view things from a left-wing perspective is no more surprising than the mainstream media viewing things from a centrist (i.e. liberal capitalist) perspective.

Comment by Harry McEvansoneya on May 27, 2010 at 11:37 AM

Aidan, I think if anything is clear in this article, it is the recognition of the paucity of objectivity and neutrality in all areas of the media. I do not see your point on the independent media - it remains as biased in whatever direction as the mainstream, as I pointed out in that article, and you seem to admit in your post. Indeed, it is only mentioned in the article to point out that it is not a valid way of avoiding media bias, which it often claims to be.

Some organisations are more neutral than others - Reuters and the BBC, for example, do in general strive for neutrality in a way plenty of others wouldn't, though that is not to say they succeed all the time. I would suggest these two would be different because the BBC is actually beholden to some kind of accountability and Reuters' primary audience has been other news sources rather than individuals (although Reuters' recent attempts to deliver news directly has actually resulted in a decline in standards).

Comment by Social Dullard on May 27, 2010 at 5:00 PM

Media as a whole has always been divided by biased and self interest.

In the early days, and even now they all about money, agenda, influence and self-advancement. But the time's are changing, in that we the consumer and the reader have far more choice.

We have far more than one news source. We can choose are newspaper, we can choose the time and channel of what news bulletins to watch. There is more than one 24 news channel, with the BBC, Al Jezera, France 24, CNN, and other's such as Fox/Sky. And we have the internet.

Traditional media's presence on teh internet, in many case's is disgusting. Paying for online subscription or specific content goes against the ideal's of the internet. But accompanying established media, is public generated information and discussion.

From the now old forum of Blogs, to trending shared links, to Message boards, and micro-blogging such as twitter, the public is now also a source of opinion and reporting. It may be biased, it may be region specific or Individualistic, but is information. And it is information that is beyond the control of traditional media.

The public can decide what to read, watch and listen to in all aspects of information delivery. Your feed reader choice's and peer groups will in essence always be as biased as traditional media bias, but it is YOUR generated choice, and it's this freedom that we can complement and applaud, before it is all taken away by further money making.

Comment by Automatic Writing on May 27, 2010 at 5:36 PM

I think you're overstating the case. In my experience of demonstrations that I have been present at, I have found that Indymedia reports the facts more accurately than the mainstream press. For example, the mainstream press seems to have decided that everyone on the anti-capitalist bloc is in eirigi (those red and black flags must be some republican symbol), or worse the 32CSM.

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