Why doesn't the world understand the concept of sustainability, 10 years after the first Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro in 1992? Whey are we still going for the neo-liberal business model?
Well you know, we're ten years on from Rio, and in those ten years if you track environmental media coverage, you'll find that there's been quite a bit of it, but usually it's fragmented. People don't have a sense of the big picture, a sense of how policy connects to environmental problems. They're not really exposed to the debates that are really at the heart of this whole process here in Johannesburg, and at the heart of the activism of many of the conservation and environmental groups.
The reason for that is that environment as an issue doesn't really sell very well in the media, even though large numbers of people when asked, the overwhelming majority would consider themselves either supportive of environmental goals, or environmentalists. It's an issue that people care about but it's not an issue the media cares about, because its an issue that raises deeper questions, really, about ownership, control, power, all kinds of questions that media companies are uncomfortable raising. And that's because media companies are themselves corporations, with their own vested interests and ways of identifying with certain players in this game. And the players they don't usually identify with are the environmental activists – who do get some coverage when they do spectacular things. I mean Greenpeace has shown that it can seize a nuclear plant or take some dramatic action and get its picture in the paper. But its real analysis of what the problem is that they're fighting about, the questions that they're trying to raise, often is missing in the press account which focuses on the incident but not on the deeper problem. And so as a consequence, many people are not very well informed about these issues, or about any issues for that matter!
I think the media, in a sense, is standing in the way of that understanding, even though here in Johannesburg we have, you know, three thousand media people here. But I'll ask you to evaluate afterwards if the media coverage has really moved public opinion or forced more of a responsiveness by governments. I don't think it will, in part because of the way media covers events, and also by the lack of on-going, continuing coverage of these issues. Some years back newspapers and magazines added environmental editors and reporters and programming. A lot of that got whittled away over the years and there wasn't sustained attention to the problem. Even CNN, which is run by Ted Turner – a big environmental funder, didn't really cover the issue very well. Episodically, from time to time, if there was an event,. but not on an on-going basis in a way that gives people the information, the tools they need to get involved.
The US government has become very unilateral in withdrawing from global concerns, but what about the American people?
Well I think when asked about these issues, when given a chance to to express themselves, the American public is concerned about the rest of the world, is concerned about environmental issues, about saving the planet. I mean this has shown up consistently in every poll. The American people, by a 67% majority according to one survey, support a stronger UN. The problem is that those sentiments don't have really strong advocates in government advancing them and lobbying for them. And when you have an Administration that is as hostile to environmental goals and issues, that takes conferences like this not very seriously, it's not surprising that the media doesn't take it very seriously, because they often march in lock-step with the government, except when there's a good controversy. There was an outrage all over Europe and around the world about the Kyoto Protocol, the US government's refusal to sign it. But in the United States it got very little attention and very little coverage because it was an issue identified with Al Gore, you know, and he lost, and therefore the issue lost! I think the American public is not being very well informed. There's been over the last ten or fifteen years an 80% cutback in coverage of the world. Last week Dan Rather, who is one of the news anchors in American television, one of the most notable people, you know, said that if you lead with a foreign story on a newscast, you die! In other words, that your ratings will be down. Well your ratings will be down, in part, because the stories are not covered in an interesting way. The connections are not drawn between what American policy makers do and what's happening in the rest of the world. So it's hard to get a sense of how things relate to each other. This is a deeper problem in media presentation and news, but it's particularly true when it comes to news about the rest of the world.
Now after 9/11 in the United States a lot of people said "my God, we've been living in a bubble, we haven't known about all this." In fact, before 9/11 we had a situation where major reports warning about an imminent terrorist attack were not being covered, because the American media was covering shark attacks and the Gary Condits sex scandal in Washington! So people didn't really even know about all this. When the events happened on 9/11, there was a sort of a shock to the system. "Oh my God, we don't know what's going on!" The news makers were saying "look, the world has changed forever" but the news media didn't change for ever, as I documented in a new book I've done called Media Wars, which tracks the coverage after 9/11. And in it are several reports which show how initially there was a lot of interest, there were stories about why does the rest of the world hate us, what's wrong with American policy, but those stories quickly vanished to be replaced by stories about Our Boys in Afghanistan, about the War on Terror, about the danger of Iraq, about a whole lot of issues that were really ideologically constructed in a way to avoid dealing with the deeper issues that folks like the folks here in Johannesburg want to raise.
So the American people are not stupid, they are not just exposed on an on-going basis to information. I mean there have been surveys in the United States showing that 80% of our high school seniors can't find Japan on a map. 50% couldn't identify, years ago, South Africa as being the country that practised Apartheid. 20% didn't find the United States in relationship to other countries. So this is a giant problem of illiteracy, political and cultural illiteracy. And it can be blamed in part on the news media, but also on our educational system, and our culture which is so organised and structured around the market, around consumption. You know, the dominant message to most Americans is "Shut up, and shop! Buy things, consume things, don't really get involved in political matters." And, you know, we have a situation where only half the population actually voted in the presidential election...
My point is, there's a problem here with our media institutions. There's been a merger between show business and news business in the United States and in other parts of the world. An NGO in Britain recently did a survey to ask how did people in England understand the world around them, because there's been a shrinking number of informational educational documentary programmes about the rest of the world. And this is true not only in England but across the board, around the world, as many broadcasters imitate or clone the American model of broadcasting.
Now the problem with this problem, in my opinion, is that the people who are concerned about the problems of the world don't see it! They are so absorbed in the intricacies of every issue that they're involved with, they don't really think about how to inform the American people or the world's people. They're much more comfortable writing long reports with detailed footnotes or high polemical rhetoric. They don't really get into the problem of how do you market an issue? How do you get people interested? How do you educate people? And what is the role of the media? And the media are some of the most powerful corporations in the world. But when you look at a list of the top ten companies that are, in a sense, a menace to the planet, media companies are not even on the list. We have activists in America who are upset because the Disney company is paying workers in Haiti ten cents an hour to make T-shirts in Port-au-Prince, exploiting workers. Well that's a serious issue. But what about the children of America who are being fed twenty four hours a day with programming that trivialises every issue in the world, that doesn't inform them? That is not on the agenda of most environmental groups!. So we have a disconnect here, between how people really understand the world, the media establishment – the mediaocracy that links politics and the media – and the activist community that doesn't even have a strategy about media! They don't talk about it, but they complain about it. Every NGO here will complain "Why isn't my issue in the news? why aren't people covering me? isn't it terrible? don't they realise how important what I have to say, or what our group has to say, is?" But they don't take responsibility for an inability to explain their issues clearly, and to understand that the media is a problem in the world, not a solution! They think like "if I can get on television for ten seconds, I've made a big difference about things." But you really haven't, because what works on television is sustained coverage. If you look a the big issues of recent years – O.J. Simpson, Monica Lewinsky, Gary Conditz, all these issues, Iraq, Saddam Hussein – reinforcement, constant exposure is what creates public opinion! Not an occasional sound bite here or a reference there.
But they don't get this, their approach is outdated, it's antiquated, it's not connecting, and it doesn't see this as a political problem. And as a consequence, if you look in the world, look at the governments that are here. What do these governments care about? A lot of them are democracies. They care about their press, their image! They spend a fortune on spin doctors, and handlers, and PR agencies, why? To get the image of their country up. They understand the importance of it. Every politician, at least in the United States, raises money to do what? To buy ads on television! It's all about media. They all want to be involved in the media, the need the media, and the media needs them.
But the activist world doesn't get the media. First of all, they don't watch television, for the most part. Most activists are too busy to really plug in to the popular culture in their own country. They listen to radio reports, they listen to more intellectual things, but they're not really clued in. As a consequence, they don't say anything about it, they don't challenge it. They don't say "look, media companies, you should be accountable. You must be transparent; you must be honest and ethical in your business practices." You rarely hear that from activists.
Now there is a group of media reform groups that are raising these issues, but by and large, they are not included in the big NGO world. They are not part of it, they don't connect to it.
We've organised mediachannel.org which is a network on-line, connected to oneworld.net, the big NGO portal. And what we've done is brought together a thousand groups from around the world who are concerned about media, concerned about the content of coverage, concerned about the structure of ownership, concerned about the issues that are not getting covered. And mediachannel.org should be something that every environmental activist pays attention to, because it directly connects to what they're doing. But they don't get it.
So the question is, how do we get them to get it? How do we encourage people who care about water or food or any of the issues being debated, trade, to try to take a minute, step back: how is that issue being covered in the media? How clearly are people really understanding what the choices are, what the points of debate are? And as a consequence, we have activists who are way out in front, they're way ahead of where most people are. And we've got to kind of get them to say, listen, slow down, pay attention to this, you lobby governments all the time, do you lobby media? Do you ever go and try to talk to executives and journalists and challenge their coverage, based on an analysis of what they've done and haven't done? Very rarely! They just don't, you know, its like PR. Media is PR. You have somebody who sends you a press release, that's how they think about it, a completely antiquated approach. Every smart media strategist doesn't even think about that. They think about how do you reach the public directly, how do you get your message across, how do you finesse it, how do you package it, how do you brand yourself, blah blah blah blah blah. On the left? Pfff! They don't... and the foundation world? The right wing foundations in America spend, media is number one on their list, number one or two, they invest a lot in it. The more progressive foundations, it's number 10 on the list, number 15 on the list. They don't think about it, too much, or not enough. And so you have this – and they have more money than the right wing foundations, but they don't invest it in communications, and that's one of my complaints.
We're at a conference, a UN conference [WSSD in Johannesburg], where the structure of the UN is undemocratic and unrepresentative. Everybody here is talking about reforming the World Bank, reforming the IMF, reforming corporations, reforming everything but the UN. Nobody's talking about it! Why? It's right in front of them and they don't see it. Now [suppose someone is] trying to raise this issue, he calls a press conference, very few reporters come. Why? Because they don't even know that this is an issue. Why? Because the activist community isn't making it an issue. And that's the problem. We have to find a way to go directly to the people, because, when you do, when the people hear the case they say, wow, that's interesting, gee, you mean the people in Europe vote for the European parliament? And why can't we vote for a new UN? You know, they do it, why can't we do it, it makes sense. But there's no platform to raise the issue, and talk to journalists, cause it's not on the agenda. And it's not on the agenda because activists don't put in on the agenda, and this is the problem that I have.
In the last 20 years in biology, research has revealed a whole lot of cognitive activities going on within cells and throughout the metabolism of living systems. It turns out there's a whole lot of perception or "information processing" taking place in organisms and in ecosystems.
The same is true on the global level. You can describe the global crisis in the various languages of history, politics, religion, psychology, ecology, technology, economics and so on. But if you look at it from the point of view of cognitive processing and information theory, the main threat to our survival appears to be not some group of bad guys somewhere, but rather a gigantic information gap which is preventing the human species from integrating and implementing most of the solutions to those global problems which pose the greatest threat to our collective security and survival as a species. I'm talking about knowledge which already exists, but which is scattered throughout the global body politic.
Do you think the American intelligence community including the CIA still don't understand this aspect of information theory? Do you think they still try to manipulate or influence the information that gets on Time magazine, Newsweek, and the New York Times?
There is a kind of a merger between the military and the media. There is a way in which the intelligence community plays a role, but it's not direct, it's not the way most people think. Like in the old days in the Soviet Union when a guy calls up and says do this and do that! They don't have to do it that way, it doesn't work that way. There is a way in which an agenda is set, the media is set up structurally to cover that agenda. I mean, recently the head of CNN International was speaking at Newsworld Asia in Singapore – a big conference – and admitted. He said "Yes, we censored the news since 9/11, because we don't want to get ahead of the public opinion, we don't want the public turning against us by telling them things they don't want to hear, so yes, not only have we done it, but everyone has done it." It's the President of CNN! You know what? It wasn't reported in the United States! It was reported in the Press Gazette in London as if it's only something that other media people would be interested in, not something that the public would be interested in!
So yes, there's a lot of information management. There's something called IO which is short for Information Organisation, where there are officers that plan out, the same way that they plan a battle, on the media side they plan an information campaign around it, and they structure how to do it, and they do it very well. There's a whole American military school that teaches this kind of military management of media. They believe that the American media lost the war in Vietnam for them, you know, ahem! They believe a lot of things that are ridiculous, but this has been an operating assumption, that they have to manage media because today we live in an age of military conflict and media war. And that's what my book is about, Media War. It's about showing people this relationship between government, big business, and media as a big business. And how the ideological assumptions work, how people are recruited and trained, how dissidents are screened out and are never heard, how issues are framed, and how agendas are set and agendas are cut, and what the issue is that matters.
I'll give you an example. In the war in Afghanistan, there was a prison uprising in a place called Mazar-i-Sharif. Six hundred Taliban prisoners supposedly had an uprising. A CIA agent was killed. It was the top news around the world. It was a story ending up with the prisoners in a cellar in the fort, they were pouring gasoline in and lighting it, to try to burn them up alive! I mean it was a hideous battle! It was one of the only battles in the war where actually the other side was in direct collision with American forces and with the Afghan forces that the US was supporting. Now in the British press, you had the Times of London – right wing – you had the BBC and the Guardian and the Independent – left wing – all reporting that there were war crimes committed here, that this was a case of hideous abuse by the United States. There were suggestions that the reason the CIA agent was killed was because he executed somebody at blank range. All this was reported by extremely reputable reporters across the spectrum. This story was not reported – in the United States – at all! Nobody knew about it! I knew about it because I write for mediachannel.org and I read the press from all around the world, and I try to have a more diverse approach to news coverage.
Well in August, these last two weeks, Newsweek magazine had a cover story about war crimes in Afghanistan. But by now, the impression of what's happening – the Great American Victory, the Victory for Freedom and all this – has been set in the public mind. You know it's like the first day's story is always the most powerful, the corrections on page 29 afterwards nobody pays much attention to. So here you have an issue which – if this had become framed, this war, early on when this happened – the whole course of events might have been quite different. You know, I mean the My Lai massacre in Viet Nam was suppressed, it was only a few people who brought it out to the world, and it changed the whole image of the Viet Nam war. And so, there are a number of instances like this, I don't have to go into them detail by detail (but I do in my book Media Wars, I do try to offer some detail and analysis).
I think this is a challenge to those of us who want a better world. This has to be an issue that we care more about. If we don't, we're lost, because we're just going to be marginalised and co-opted, as has been happening here, where the language of sustainability – which has long been a language of advocacy and protest and resistance – has become a language of convention and co-optation. And you know, as a result, the people who are trying to define what the real challenge is tend to get lost, or stereotyped, or labelled, or forgotten.
And I have to say, part of it is we do it to ourselves. We don't take responsibility for our own media choices, first of all. We do not support independent and alternative media adequately enough. We'll buy an ad in the New York Times for $50,000, but do we spend any money supporting independent media that actually works on an on-going basis to get these issues out? Not really. So, you know, this is the problem: in a way, the values of the dominant system and its information approach have infiltrated into our movements and into our approach to trying to change things. And unless we recognise it and are willing to think about that for a minute or two, as a problem, we're not going to be able to shape a news agenda that will give our issues the kind of resonance we want them to have.
I say this as somebody who was part of the start-up team at CNN. I worked for ABC news for eight years, I worked for ten years in commercial radio. I worked in public television. I worked in local commercial stations in television. I've had a lot of experience in this, this is not stuff I'm just talking about because I'm an academic of some kind. I've been there, done that, in the newsrooms. And I've seen how the process works, and I've seen why people with good values feel marginalised, frustrated, and end up leaving the business, because they don't get any support, not only inside from their industry, but outside from the people who should be their friends. You know, I do a report on ABC news that reaches, you know, 26 million people, and do I get one letter from any activist group saying "good job", to my boss, saying this was great, we need more of this type of thing? No, very rarely, if ever. So this is a problem that is a problem that's invisible.
Marshall McLuhan said "television is transparently invisible." It's in front of us, we see it, and you know, don't think that the internet is that much better, gang. Yes, everybody has a web site, but the top 50 web sites, a study done at Leicester University of the top 50 web sites, all but two of them have only two sources of international news, Reuters and A.P. – which in effect is one source, because they are both competing for who's first, not necessarily for who's best or who has the most information. So this is a problem too. We've created the Globalvision News Network, gvnews.net [not affilliated with Global Vision Corporation and this web site - ed.] to offer more diverse coverage of the world's issues. Because clearly, if you just have an Anglo-American, it's not surprising most people don't know what's happening. And a lot of the stuff from below, the activism and the community organisation doesn't get attention until a crisis happens. When there's a crisis, you know there's an old saying "It's not the ship that makes the waves, it's the motion on the ocean." And the motion on the ocean is the people, and the people are out there are doing great things but they're not being heard. They're powerless because they're voiceless, because their voice is not being heard in the debate. It's not being heard because the media screens it out, in large part, not always, not everywhere.
So what are we going to do about it, gang? Are we going to take this on as an issue? Are we going to say yes, media matters enough to care about trying to change it? Or are we going to say, well, that's my PR person, let them handle it, I'm too busy? And yet when you talk to every decision maker, what do they worry about most? Jesus! We've spent, you know, here at Human Rights Watch, we sent a delegation of ten people to Beserkistan, we've issued a report, you know, 48 pages on two thousand human rights abuses, nobody picked it up! You know? Why did we do it? We did it to get it into the media, but our effort at working with media was like a secondary thought, an afterthought, we didn't think about that as like what we should be doing. And this is the problem, you know, with a lot of activist movements and groups in my opinion