Lulling Us Into Submission
Advertising, Core Truths, And The Great Electronic Tranquilizer
by David Edwards and Media Lens
October 11,2 003
“The fateful slumber floats and flows
About the tangle of the rose;
But lo! the fated hand and heart
To rend the slumberous curse apart!”
-- William Morris, For The Briar Rose
We Don't Run Airline Ads Next To Stories About Airline Crashes
The ‘quality press’ doesn’t like to talk too openly about the fact that it depends for 75% of its revenue on corporate advertising. Corporations, after all, are strictly hierarchical, undemocratic institutions motivated by limitless greed it’s hard to reconcile their needs with democracy, human rights and the public’s right to know. Imagine how we would have reacted to the idea of a ‘quality’ Soviet paper 75% dependent on Communist Party funding.
Even when writing solely for industry insiders in the media sections of newspapers, journalists are cautious to avoid stating the dependence on advertising too baldly. Ciar Byrne’s recent article in the Guardian on the arrival of a new editor at the Daily Telegraph was titled, ‘Newland targets younger readers’, rather than, ‘Newland targets advertisers’. Byrne writes:
“The incoming editor of the Daily Telegraph, Martin Newland, wants to attract more young readers to the paper while maintaining its core values...”
But why young readers? Is the new editor just attracted to the idea of a livelier, more youthful paper? Byrne reveals all:
“Appealing to older readers in an increasingly ageing population is not necessarily a disadvantage, however many advertisers prefer to give their business to newspapers which appeal to affluent young professionals. Recruitment advertising is another key source of income for broadsheet newspapers. However, the NRS figures show that 32% of Telegraph readers are retired, compared to 20% of Times readers.” (Byrne, ‘Newland targets younger readers’, The Guardian, October 1, 2003)
It’s worth reflecting on the fact that a paper is willing to radically reform itself in order to attract business advertisers in its quest for profits. If we pose the question, ‘Are Telegraph journalists free to criticise big business domination of society?’ we are asking the question in relation to a paper which is precisely restructuring itself to +accommodate+ big business domination of society. The point being that the question is equally absurd for +all+ newspapers that are 75% dependent on advertising including the much-vaunted, but in fact illusory, defenders of democracy like the Guardian, the Observer and the Independent.
On October 1, we wrote to Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian:
I hope you're well. When I open pages 18-19 of today's Guardian I find a tiny box in the bottom left-hand corner of page 18, titled, 'Global warming death toll'. It reads:
"A study by scientists at the World Health Organisation found that 160,000 people die every year from side-effects of global warming, ranging from malaria to malnutrition, and the numbers could almost double by 2020. - Reuters, London"
Immediately to the right of this box, spread across much of two pages, is a giant advert for Lexus cars.
Why, given the huge coverage afforded to the 3,000 deaths on September 11, do you provide so little space for a highly credible report of 160,000 deaths from climate change? And why, given your huge coverage on al-Qaeda and other sources of murder and mayhem, do you have almost nothing to say about the activities of the US National Association of Manufacturers, the US Chamber of Commerce, and other large business groups fiercely opposing even trivial action on lethal climate change? Is it because these bodies are made up of the same big business advertisers on which your paper depends for 75% oof its revenue?
The former New York Times CEO, Arthur Sulzberger, once admitted that he had leaned on his editors to present the car industry's position on various issues because it "would affect advertising". Aren't you subject to similar bottom-line pressures when reporting on global warming and the activities of fossil fuel fundamentalists?
Alas, we received no answer from the editor of Britain’s “leading liberal newspaper”.
The fact that the Guardian is heavily dependent on car advertising does not mean it is somehow banned from telling the truth about the causes of climate change, business obstruction of action on climate change, and so on. But in reality the whole point about the Guardian is that its format, content and design are all precisely shaped by the needs of big business advertisers. In other words, the whole structure of the Guardian is shaped to serve, not as a conduit connecting uninhibited “publish and be damned” journalism to society as a whole, but as a conduit connecting corporate advertisers to wealthy target readers possessing plenty of disposable cash.
In a 2000 Pew Centre for the People & the Press poll of 287 US reporters, editors and news executives, about one-third of respondents, said that news that would "hurt the financial interests" of the media organisation or an advertiser goes unreported. Forty-one percent said they themselves have avoided stories, or softened their tone, to benefit their media company's interests. (www.fair.org, ‘Fear & Favor 2000 How Power Shapes The News’, http://www.fair.org/ff2000.html)
In an interview with Ralph Nader, David Barsamian asked:
“Wouldn’t it be irrational for them [the media] to even discuss corporate power, since their underwriting and sponsors come from very large corporations?”
“Very irrational... [There are] a few instances almost every year where there’s some sort of criticism of auto dealers, and the auto dealers just pull their ads openly from radio and TV stations.” (Z Magazine, February 1995)
James Twitchell explains why there is something about all newspapers that makes the skin crawl and the mind cringe:
“You name it: the appearance of ads throughout the pages, the ‘jump’ or continuation of a story from page to page, the rise of sectionalisation (as with news, cartoons, sports, financial, living, real estate), common page size, halftone images, process engraving, the use of black-and-white photography, then colour, sweepstakes, and finally discounted subscriptions were all forced on publishers by advertisers hoping to find target audiences.” (Quoted, Sharon Beder, Global Spin, Green Books, 1997, p.181)
According to media analysts Michael Jacobson and Laurie Ann Mazur, a further result of this kind of influence is:
“TV programmes that flow seamlessly into commercials, avoiding controversy, lulling us into submission, like an electronic tranquillizer.” (Jacobson and Mazur, Marketing Madness, Westview Press, 1995, pp.43-44)
Advertisers understand well that concern for others and greed are in profound psychological opposition a mind filled with desire is likely to be indifferent to the suffering of others in the same way that a mind filled with compassion is likely to be indifferent to the latest ‘indulgence marketing’.
One of the reasons Carlton TV broadcasts John Pilger’s morally and intellectually barnstorming documentaries at the ludicrous time of 10.45 in the evening when most people are shuffling about in their pyjamas is because Pilger’s films generate outrage and critical thought in the minds of viewers, not an advertiser-friendly ‘buying mode’. This is unacceptable to US broadcasters, who do not show the films at all.
In his latest documentary, Breaking The Silence, Pilger showed refugees from Afghan villages attempting to survive among the lethally dangerous, semi-collapsed hulks of multi-storey buildings in Kabul. One clip showed a small child bravely struggling to haul home a large yellow container of contaminated water. It was impossible to watch this depiction of human frailty and courage without viewing the subsequent adverts, drooling with necrophilic delight over some new car design, with contempt.
Likewise, it would be fair to say that impassioned, sustained editorial campaigns denouncing the destruction of our climate as a result of the business-inspired obsession with cars and other luxuries, would not “flow seamlessly” into two-page adverts for Lexus cars. Instead, we read of ‘measured’, ‘considered’ and ‘proportionate’ responses to the ultimate crime of this and any other century by our old friends: The Masters Of Nuance.
When a 2000 Time magazine series on environmental campaigners, sponsored by Ford Motor Company, failed to mention anti-car campaigners, Time's international editor admitted that mentioning them would be inappropriate because, after all, "we don't run airline ads next to stories about airline crashes". (FAIR, op.cit., 2000)
Sometimes the links between corporate influence and press reporting are simply obscene, and so are hidden from public view. An international memo put out by tobacco company Philip Morris in 1985 declared:
"The media like the money they make from our advertisements and they are an ally that we can and should exploit... We should make a concerted effort in our principal markets to influence the media to write articles or editorials positive to the industry position on the various aspects of the smoking controversy." (Tobacco Explained, Action on Smoking and Health, June 25, 1998)
Writing in October 2001 in the business section of the Observer where such candour is normally buried - Peter Preston explained the rationale behind the Times’ and other papers’ support for an immediate and decisive bombing campaign against Afghanistan. The media propaganda began at a time when aid agencies were pleading with the US to refrain from bombing to allow aid convoys to reach 7.5 million starving Afghan people as winter approached. But Preston wrote of how, post-September 11, the media had their own problems:
“There is the collapse in advertising - Rupert Murdoch saw £69 million vanish with the twin towers. There are wage and hiring freezes in every newspaper, and gathering redundancies to boot. One hundred and fifty went at the FT last week... When the Times - and it is by no means alone - wants something decisive done on the ground before 'the winter blizzards set in', something 'to show that the US genuinely means to fight and win', it also wants a resolution that will set advertising flowing again and slash the coverage costs. When it excoriates the 'long-haul' thesis, it inevitably has the full price of 'waiting till next spring' somewhere in mind.” (Peter Preston, ‘Too much jaw-jaw on war-war - Colin Powell may be talking about a 'long haul', but the media has neither the stomach nor finances for a protracted campaign,‘ the Observer, October 21, 2001)
The barbarism and cruelty of what Preston was describing is almost beyond belief. Consider that while editors were fretting over revenue flows in comfortable London offices, the mere threat of bombing forced the removal of international aid workers from Afghanistan, instantly halting food supplies. As a result, refugees were soon reaching Pakistan "after arduous journeys from Afghanistan... describing scenes of desperation and fear at home as the threat of American-led military attacks turns their long-running misery into a potential catastrophe", Douglas Frantz reported in the New York Times. (Frantz, ‘Fear and Misery for Afghan Refugees,’ The New York Times, September 30, 2001)
"The country was on a lifeline," one evacuated aid worker reported, "and we just cut the line." (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, excerpted from Lakdawala lecture, New Delhi, online version prepared December 30, 2001, www.zmag.org)
If there was great concern on the part of our media editors for the fate of the human beings who paid the price for a “resolution” that would “set advertising flowing again”, it didn’t show. Of the 3,000 direct victims, and unknown thousands of indirect victims, of bombing, British historian Mark Curtis notes “their deaths have received the barest of concern from political leaders and the mainstream media, who have essentially deemed Afghan lives expendable to avenge the attack on the US”. (Curtis, Web Of Deceit, Vintage, 2003, p.49)
Readers might occasionally furrow a brow at the thought of just how the reluctance of the corporate press to challenge New Labour’s lies over Iraq fits into this picture. We can understand why the Guardian and Independent would of course not want to seriously challenge corporate control of society, but why cover for Blair’s support of US-driven foreign policy in the Middle East?
In a recent Z Magazine article, Edward Herman quotes Professor Lance Bennett who describes US media performance over the Iraq crisis as a “near-perfect journalistic participation in government propaganda operations”. But why the eager participation? Herman explains:
“The large right-wing segment of the media have functioned as literal press agents and cheerleaders for the Bush administration, setting the tone and helping cow the ‘liberal’ sector of the corporate media into similar, if less vocal, subservience to the government (although most of them didn’t need to be cowed).
"At a deeper level, this reflects the fact that the corporate community is very pleased with the Bush administration, which has been brazenly aggressive in providing business tax breaks, resource giveaways, reductions in environmental controls, cutbacks in the welfare state, and impediments to labor organization. Such service to the needs of the powerful feeds into the performance of the corporate and advertiser-funded media, which treats a Bush much differently than a Clinton, Gore, or any other politician who may try hard to placate business, but is not prepared for 100 percent corporate service.” (Edward Herman, ‘George Bush versus national security’, Z Magazine, October 2003)
Much the same applies in Britain where Blair and his “pragmatic” “Iron chancellor” have long been City favourites. Indeed the corporate community and Blairite media have for many years been deeply averse to criticizing their Downing Street champion. It could be, however, that even they have recently been alarmed by Blair’s worryingly erratic and totalitarian methods of government, with hints at literal “insanity” in Number 10 from political and media insiders.
The business community is interested in control plausibly masquerading as ‘democracy’, not in transparent trampling of popular feeling and political protocol in a way that threatens to wake the slumbering giant of public opinion. The 2 million march in London on February 15, although casually dismissed as ineffectual by the media, will undoubtedly have rung serious alarm bells among the powers that be.
For the people who would keep us in tranquilized ‘buying mode’, a “crisis of democracy” of this kind that is, an outbreak of +real+ democracy is exactly what they fear most.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian:
Ask Rusbridger why, given the huge coverage afforded to the 3,000 deaths on September 11, he provided so little space for a highly credible report of 160,000 deaths from climate change on October 1.
The former New York Times CEO, Arthur Sulzberger, once admitted that he had leaned on his editors to present the car industry's position on various issues because it "would affect advertising". Ask Rusbridger if he is subject to similar bottom-line pressures when reporting on global warming and the activities of fossil fuel fundamentalists.
David Edwards is the editor of Media Lens, and the author of Burning All Illusions: A Guide to Personal and Political Freedom (South End Press, 1996). Email: email@example.com. Visit the Media Lens website: http://www.MediaLens.org
Other Recent Articles by David Edwards and Media Lens