How an Activist Fathered a Media Critic
As a child, David Cromwell got an invaluable insight into the way the corporate media skews the news.
Scattered around his family’s Scottish home were “mainstream” newspapers like the Daily Record and Glasgow Herald. But among them was also the non-corporate Daily Worker, later to become the Morning Star, which his father not only bought, but sold.
“Dad had plenty of left-wing and Communist pamphlets, magazines and books around the house,” he writes in his new book, Why Are We The Good Guys? ”I could see from quite early on in my life that there were different takes on the way the press would report, or not report, and analyse ‘the news’.”
Cromwell went on to co-found watchdog website Media Lens, which has challenged journalists for more than a decade by issuing “alerts” that criticise the way the press report, or do not report, and analyse “the news”.
He has written several books, both alone and with his Media Lens co-editor, David Edwards. But Why Are We The Good Guys? is made all the more appealing by the fact that Cromwell, 50, has made it far more personal in describing his childhood and career. Did he feel that his past books had been a little too dry to reach a wider audience?
“Reaching a wider audience isn’t really a motivating factor for my writing,” he replies. “It doesn’t and can’t work like that. I write what I like and if other people get to hear about it by word of mouth, for instance, and like it, that’s fine.
“It’s hard for me to be objective, of course, but if you’re talking about the two Media Lens books, I don’t think they were dry at all. They’re packed with sharp observations, gob-smacking exchanges with journalists and even discussions of psychology and philosophy that you will rarely find in books about ‘current affairs’ or journalism.
“This book has more personal aspects to it because I’ve long wanted to write about some aspects of my upbringing and experiences that have shaped the critical approach I take to understanding news, politics and the state of the world.”
The book recounts how Cromwell was studying for a PhD in astrophysics and “trying to understand what was going on inside solar flares” when his then-girlfriend suggested he apply for a job with a big oil company.
As unlikely as it may sound, the Communist sympathiser’s son ended up working for Shell for five years. Yet it was perhaps his training and work as a scientist that that made him more likely to question the status quo.
After all, one of Cromwell’s heroes, the intellectual and media critic Noam Chomsky, says that – contrary to the humanities – in the sciences, “the goal is to learn how to do creative work, and to challenge everything”.
Cromwell disagrees. “The best scientists do indeed think creatively, and perhaps ‘challenge everything’, but only in their own, usually narrow, field,” he says.
“Being brilliant at pushing forward our understanding of the fundamental forces of the universe or human evolution or how cancer develops doesn’t seem to lead to stronger challenges to the status quo. If anything, it can leave less time and effort for that.”
Challenging the status quo certainly requires time and effort. Media Lens’s monitoring of the media is exhaustive and, most likely, exhausting. In his book, Cromwell quotes the eighth-century Indian sage Shantideva, saying: “This is no time to sleep, you fool!” Does he get any sleep?
“I certainly can’t claim to live up to Shantideva’s code of conduct,” jokes Cromwell. “I’ve got a pretty normal family life with a partner and two children. I have several files on my computer to collect quotes, thoughts, ideas for alerts, and so on.”
However, just monitoring the hyperactive Media Lens message board must take up considerable time. Media Lens’s followers are a predictably sceptical bunch and don’t hold back in criticising Media Lens.
Yet Media Lens has been called a “cult” by at least one corporate journalist for the way its followers collectively email journalists when encouraged to by its alerts.
Cromwell refers in his book to Danny Wallace’s Join Me: The True Story of a Man Who Started a Cult by Accident. Does he feel he has accidentally started a cult in Media Lens?
“What an intriguing question,” he says. “No, I don’t think the point is fair. In fact, on quite extreme occasions, it’s been deployed as an ignorant smear against us and our readers. There have been many variations, all suggesting that the people who support what we do are a homogeneous mass of uncritical worshippers.
“Have these journalists ever even read our media alerts or books, and visited our message board and seen the feisty debates going on? Or seen the emails we get, even from people who say they like what we do?
“If anything, it’s the herd mentality of corporate journalists – the almost uniformly hostile treatment of Julian Assange is classic – that exhibits cult-like behaviour.”
The feisty debates on Media Lens’s message board include accusations of hypocrisy. Cromwell and Edwards have been blocked from following some journalists on Twitter, yet Media Lens has banned message boarders such as former New York Times journalist Daniel Simpson and blogger Dissident93. That blogger, also known as Robert Shone, wrote a ZNet article criticising Media Lens that he claims it still hasn’t responded to.
Cromwell says Media Lens responded to Shone on numerous occasions long ago, but the responses have since dropped off the bottom of the message board. Asked why Media Lens hasn’t responded to Shone’s ZNet article, he says: “We learned a long time ago that constantly responding to unreasonable critics just feeds their obsession and inner turmoil. It’s why we stopped.” Asked if he feels he has ever lost an argument, Cromwell says: “No.”
However, even Media Lens’s most relentless critics, such as Simpson, admit to still using it as a “cuttings service” to keep up with events. Media Lens’s service is free, yet just as with Cromwell’s father, it still offers an invaluable insight into the way the corporate media skews the news.
Mat Ward writes for Green Left Weekly.