Bagdikian’s Law

There is a truth in the climate change debate that is so obvious that it barely requires stating – but I will anyway. Despite all of the efforts of the scientists, politicians and activists, the message taken on board by the hoi polloi will always be whatever the mainstream media decide it to be. Which, of course, means that the message will be under editorial control and will be finely honed to draw maximum attention to the message bearer; an attention that almost always serves both a commercial and a political goal. It is little wonder, therefore, that those on both sides of the argument will see the media as being dominated by the dark side, prostituted on behalf of an avaricious and misguided oligarchy. The only thing that really unifies the climate debate protagonists is that both camps are convinced that the media is working for the other side.

I’m not really here to settle that debate. As far as I am concerned the issue can remain forever moot. But what does concern me is the level of media attention that the subject receives nowadays. And the reason for my concern is something known as Bagdikian’s Law of Journalism:

“The accuracy of news reports of an event is inversely proportional to the number of reporters on the scene.”

The reasoning behind the law is quite simple: If the journalists have an agenda that goes beyond the accurate reporting of a simple truth, then one can only expect the accuracy to suffer under the burden of increased reportage. It’s quite a profound insight, and its expounding required an unusually profound journalist.

The patron saint of journalists

Consult any reasonably reliable tome on the subject and it will tell you that the patron saint of journalists is Francis de Sales, Bishop of Geneva (born 21 August 1567, died 28 December 1622). But I put it to you that there is a much worthier candidate for the position; one who could have expected to get the vote ahead of Francis were it not for one unfortunate detail – he just happens to be Jewish. His name was Ben-hur Haig Bagdikian, an Armenian Genocide survivor who went on to receive both the Peabody Award and the Pulitzer Prize during a glittering journalistic and academic career that spanned 43 years. Famed for his ethical standards and hailed by his professional colleagues as one of the finest journalist of the 20th century, he is perhaps best known for his Washington Post role in the exposure of the Pentagon Papers, and for his hugely influential 1983 book, The Media Monopoly. He was a highly opinionated and much quoted figure, but if his outlook could be captured in a single quote, it would be the advice that he would give to his students during his tenure as professor of journalism at UC Berkley:

“Never forget that your obligation is to the people. It is not, at heart, to those who pay you, or to your editor, or to your sources, or to your friends, or to the advancement of your career. It is to the public.”

Indeed, throughout his career it was the dangers associated with the corporate control of the media that troubled him most, though he did also take a sideswipe at those journalists who saw the media primarily as an opportunity to promote their celebrity status. Celebrity, he thought, was the worst thing that can happen to a journalist, since “The job of the celebrity is to be observed, to make sure others learn about him or her, to be the object of attention rather than an observer.”

Yes, if you want to find a man of integrity who was able to forge a hugely successful career in journalism whilst being its most outspoken critic, then you need look no further than our Benny.

The fear of missing out

Those of you who had hoped that this eulogy was leading up to the revelation that Bagdikian was a fervent climate change sceptic are, I’m afraid, in for a big disappointment. As far as I have been able to determine, Bagdikian never actually wrote anything on the subject. However, given his anti-capitalist credentials, his self-proclaimed advocacy for social justice, and the fact that in the 2000 US presidential election he endorsed the Green Party candidate, one would expect his views to have been somewhat sympathetic towards the alarmist agenda. He was not, I would venture, typical of your usual Cliscep reader. But that isn’t going to stop me from pointing out the importance of Bagdikian’s Law in relation to the question of climate change reporting – even though the law’s creator would probably not have seen the misreporting that I do.

In fact, apart from Covid’s recent hogging of the limelight, it is difficult to think of a subject that has attracted more media attention than climate change. And, courtesy of Bagdikian’s Law, there can therefore be no subject for which the accuracy of reporting could be more suspect. BBC specials have become so commonplace that the epithet ‘special’ no longer seems appropriate. The reporting of just about any event or proclamation is incomplete without a reference to how it relates to climate change. Even the adverts offer no respite. Just last night I was treated to what appeared to be a short documentary about the effects that humans are having on the environment, and what they are doing to combat them, only to be treated to the end-title revelation that all of those who were taking a stand for the environment were drinking Estrella. Yes, there is a better way – the Estrella way.

Be that as it may, as far as the media are concerned, the reality is that it isn’t so much a question of what you can do for climate change, as to what climate change can do for you. Newspapers such as the Guardian have long since abandoned any pretense of free-thinking journalism and I’m beginning to wonder if they have anyone on their payrolls who isn’t an environmental correspondent. I sometimes feel as though I am being carpet-bombed by a media that seems to be so thoroughly locked into the zeitgeist that I can only draw two conclusions: There is no longer any hope of a counter-message emerging, and there is no hope that the current message can be taken at face value.

Consensus is a fine thing, and it can often be guardedly used as a surrogate for certainty where science is concerned. But journalism doesn’t work that way. Bagdikian’s Law is a reminder that a tsunami of reporting will only drown the truth. And you needn’t take that from me. It’s coming from one of the world’s most prestigious journalists, Ben-hur Haig Bagdikian, born January 30, 1920, died March 11, 2016.

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April 28, 2021 at 07:34AM

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