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The information age: George Orwell's worst fear

The information age: George Orwell's worst fear

Paul Moreira is an investigative reporter who has worked extensively in the print press and was one of the founders of the defunct French, investigative, television show “90 minutes.” In his latest book, Les nouvelles censures, Moreira describes the widespread practices of overt and covert manipulations of the news media. “One of this era’s most powerful myths is that we live in the information age. In fact, we live in a media age, in which information is repetitive, “safe” and limited by invisible borders,” writes John Pilger, Hidden Agendas. Are these theories ‘Big Brother’ paranoia, or are information flows much more controlled than the public would like to think? Is this only the case for television’s spectacular requirements, or also for trusted newspapers? Moreira investigates, and answers.

Moreira’s thesis is based on this paradox: in a society seemingly – and really – more and more transparent, the forms of censorship and control of information are becoming increasingly subtle and mechanical. In an age in which raw censorship isn’t possible anymore (at least in most true democracies), more and more resources are being put into controlling not what the people hear and see, but how they think and react to it.

According to Moreira, the journey between (controversial) news material and its actual delivery to the public now typically transits through a “communication filter” – a public relations firm, spokesman, or communication consultants. These filters, commonly known in the US as spin doctors, proceed to a play game of chess with journalists and news media.

So Moreira is the first to reject ‘Big Brother’-like worldwide conspiracy theories. Although his book seems to only portend to manipulations led by huge corporations or States, he explains he had to base it on specific investigations and concrete examples. Truth is, “there is a myriad of interests that construct these firewalls,” he says, and these censorships are driven by “industrial projects” rather than ideology – the stakes are often tragically banal, such as money or the dissimulation of legal mishaps.

The press, protected better, yet as vulnerable as other media

“The print press is much more protected,” says Moreira, as its content is still often managed by journalists rather than businessmen. This obviously isn’t the case of commercial TV, for which entire programs can be cancelled depending on the will of an advertiser. In fact, Moreira’s very successful “90 minutes” show seems to have suffered from the same pitfalls. After covering one too many sensitive subjects (namely a war crime perpetrated by the French army in the Ivory Coast and vehemently denied by the French government), the show was gradually phased out – with little or no explanation.

Nonetheless, most media are now heavily dependent upon advertising revenue and can thus be subject to the same financial pressures. Newspapers do not escape from this (France’s Canard Enchaîné is a rare example of an independent – ad-free – newspaper that still enjoys a relatively high readership and influence), and recent discussions about the Philadelphia Inquirer’s inclusion of an advertiser-sponsored column hint to the presence of these pressures in the press too.

In fact, newspapers have been at the heart of some of the worst manipulations: Moreira describes, during the 1930s New Deals in the US, how the corporate National Association of Manufacturers embedded seemingly independent journalists to slander President Roosevelt’s policies. These were eventually exposed by Roosevelt’s followers. But how can these practices still carry on today, may you ask?

Well, they do, but just not in such discernable ways. According to John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton’s Toxic Sludge is Good for You, nearly 40% of published press content is a direct reproduction – with no changes whatsoever – of a public relations firm’s press release…

The means of manipulation

Moreira tries to categorize some of the most common tools used by spin doctors:

- Dissuasion / intimidation
- control of the “official version”
- controlling the ‘noise’ of news
- buying out journalists / seduction
- destruction of the news source’s credibility
- getting rid of the source

The means of manipulating news and controlling the reactions to it are as diverse as the circumstances. From our perspective, the biggest threats are those that directly affect the editorial decision-making or journalists’ investigative capacity.

These can include pressure on editors from advertisers or managers, but can also result from the journalists’ own will, so to speak. Entire newsrooms can veil their eyes, even though they are faced with an obviously newsworthy situation (as for the Ivory Coast military crime). A firm can also sponsor a journalist to come enjoy a flashy event with engaging financial incentives: chances are he will leave with a positive impression. And if the journalist is ever critical of the firm in the future, his credibility is undermined by the simple fact that he attended the event. Moreira also points to the dangers of journalist’s necessary proximity to their sources, which can lead to intoxication (most recent major example is the Lewis Libby trial and relationship with reporter Judith Miller).

To get a more detailed idea of Moreira’s experience with filters and the array of methods used to manipulate news and its impact, you’ll have to read the book.

Journalists use the same means, what about the end?

Now, all this may be well-founded, but is Moreira not doing the exact same thing? After all, his book combines a sophisticated mix of pathos and ethos, plays into the reader’s emotions (death of a close friend) and buried fears (fear of the mega-corporations, anti-Americanism), and represents a perfect example of tidy wording and rhetorical strategies.

“It’s true. To an extent, a journalist always manipulates…the question is, why do we do it? To show the truth,” says Moreira. There lies the difference, although the work of a journalist is, especially on TV, “also a spectacle.” The rule is simple: if there is no show, there are no readers (or viewers), and the journalist’s work has no impact.

From this point of view, Moreira also points to the potential risks of print journalism’s third-person ‘factual’ writing – as opposed to the type of first-person, documentary-type, investigative journalism he leads. Editors and readers must use caution when reading these third-person factual accounts, as there is always the risk that they “mislead by their omni-conscience.”

How to fight the censorships

Perhaps most frightening are cases in which newsrooms and journalists are not consciously aware that they are being biased or conveying the message desired by public relations firms. Subconscious and psychological means of manipulation, both for the public and media, present one of the greatest threats to accurate news today.

Independent bodies and media monitoring agencies, such as ACRIMED or Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, are quickly sprouting throughout the world, and these usually do a good job. But these organizations are limited by human and financial resources, and still don’t have sufficient influence or reach to uncover the numerous cases of news manipulation.

How can media fight these external pressures (when they are detectable…)? By providing editorial support to their journalists, says Moreira. Unfortunately, even good-willing editors may not have the power to support their staff throughout an ordeal against deep pockets.

Moreira insists that, at least in France, the public is not as credulous as spin doctors and communications experts may wish it to be. He reminds that the French public’s greatest suspicion towards the media comes from false objectivity: the public would rather see self-admittedly biased news than agendas disguised under the cloak of objectivity.

Lastly, while Les nouvelles censures’ depiction of the situation may sound grim, let’s not forget that journalists and news media are still the ones who uncover the worst cases of manipulation… Although they always run the risk of bias and subversion, the majority of journalists carry out their job responsibly, with integrity and caution.

Manipulation and exposure in perspective

Are Moreira’s entire work, his investigations, and ‘truth’ worth a single corpse? No, he says with no hesitation – and with a tinge of melancholy.

Essentially, the story of ‘disinformation versus truth’ is an age-old cleavage. This is not a new, tech-driven, Big Brother phenomenon. New censorships have emerged, as well as new channels for information delivery, but the dialectic remains. So with this new set of tools and paradigms, are we heading toward an obscure Orwellian age, or toward a crystal clear world? Will blogs, Web 2.0, and citizen journalism see through the hazy filters, or will they just cause more confusion and inaccuracy? “It will always stay a dialectic struggle,” answers Moreira, prudently enough.

Granted, there will always be people seeking to inform and spread newsworthy information, just as there will always be people with interests to defend, who seek to control the impact of information. The only difference now is the institutionalization of a filtering system, accompanied by a switch from raw censorship to ‘suave communication.’ With this in mind, newspapers and news media must emphasize, financially and ethically, the need for accuracy, journalist integrity, and investigative reporting, to see past the filters’ fast-food recipes – full of taste and devoid of nutrition.

For more information about the emergence of news filters and their methods of manipulation, read Les nouvelles censures, edited by Robert Laffont.

Source: Paul Moreira, investigative reporter, author of Les nouvelles censures


Jean Yves Chainon


2007-06-29 10:23

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