The Net Effect of Writing for the Mainstream Media
On the other hand, as the mainstream media by definition encompasses all the wide-reaching media outlets, how else is the environmentally concerned writer ever going to get their message across to enough people make a difference? The writer is left with a grim choice. An unholy alliance with the very forces they are criticising, or the relative, perhaps absolute, obscurity of writing outside the MSM. At some level of consciousness the morally motivated writer needs to make a calculation: What will be the net effect of my writing for the MSM? Will it serve to mitigate or exacerbate environmental damage? We can only assume that The Guardian's George Monbiot is confident that his writing achieves the former – otherwise he would depart and write elsewhere. Equally we can assume that the editors at Medialens suspect the latter – he would be more use to the world if he jumped ship.
These different conclusions stem in part from different interpretations of how news media works on us, the public. At first glance it seems obvious that Monbiot is performing a useful role. Even if The Guardian is chock-a-block with features on jet travel, and adverts for 4x4s, at least his features serve to challenge and shame these excesses. It’s like an ideological tug of war: One pull dulls our critical faculties, the other re-sharpens it; sometimes Monbiot discredits the adverts and infomercials, sometimes they undermine or dilute the power of his arguments. Viewed this way, it would be disastrous for him to leave.
However, opponents would argue that this isn’t a zero-sum game. To see this, we have to consider why corporations advertise in liberal/left periodicals in the first place. Obviously to increase their profits, one way or another. One particularly insidious way is through ‘greenwash’ – something Monbiot is well aware of. This is the practice of using marketing to create the impression that a company’s products and antics are greener than they seem. Obviously this tactic would be misplaced in some markets. It would be a waste of revenue to run a campaign like Beyond Petroleum at The Daily Mail or The Spectator. Indeed fans of Melanie Phillips and Dominic Lawson might well boycott BP if they thought it was back-tracking on the West’s inalienable right to slash and burn.
Rather, the appropriate target for greenwash is people who worry about the environment. Rather than lying to the converted, greenwash needs to source environmentally concerned people – like many readers of The Guardian and The Independent – so it can corrupt them. From this perspective the MSM environment columnist looks less eco-saviour and more Judas Goat, leading the target audience into the pen for indoctrination. They tempt-in the worthy and concerned, only for them to then have their critical faculties Shanghaied by the corporations.
While it seems reasonable to assume that both of these pressures are at play to some extent, calculating net effect is another matter. But here’s two content-based factors that must surely swing the scales. Firstly the content of the writing itself. Secondly its framing in the paper as a whole – its prominence, and ratio of column inches against those of articles and advertisements that deliver an opposing message.
The content and angle of an article is obviously vital. There is a huge difference between an article on shrinking ice sheets which sits meekly and obliviously amongst Ryan Air adverts, and an article on the same subject that denounces those adverts – dares to blame them for stoking this crisis. The former article might generate a helpless sigh (oh! the state of the world) before the page is turned. The latter article might really have some effect - awaken the reader to the hypocrisy of the situation. But of course that would be the Judas Goat biting the hand that fed it. It would soon find itself banished from the Eden of Guardian.
The subject of weighting and prominence is nicely illustrated by an old Viz cartoon, parodying the cigarette adverts of the day. On the side of a bus in a huge font, it read – “Smoke Tabs!” then in tiny writing underneath “HM Government warning: Don’t smoke tabs.” Advertisers are well aware that the relative ratios of such contradictory messages determine which one is likely to hit home. It’s no coincidence that now that the heath lobby have got the upper hand on the tobacco lobby the message ratios have swapped. A visiting smoker from the 1980's could be forgiven for thinking they’d been sold a packet of diced road-kill rather than twenty Rothmans.
If the ratio of worthy print/destructive print is a measure of net effect then George’s arguments barely register. Like the rest of the 'quality' press, The Guardian is heaving with saliva-inducing incitements to luxury and overindulgence. Monbiot's articles appear more as a confusing footnote. Forty pages of “Buy! Buy! Buy! - Fly! Fly! Fly!” punctuated with the occasional “PS. This is killing us.” And if you think an occasional ‘PS’ is better than nothing, well perhaps it isn’t. Presumably some environmentally concerned people get a nice warm glow from knowing they buy the paper with the ‘sound’ environment column, regardless of its overall effect on their spending choices. Perhaps without that environment column they wouldn't buy the paper in the first place, and wouldn't be exposed to its mass of environment-unfriendly content.
Lastly we mustn’t forget that there may be more influences at play than morality when a writer calculates the net good of their writing. Rather than keep making examples of George Monbiot I’ll make one of myself. What if The Guardian offered me a payment for this piece? – we are close to April 1st after all. Would I assent? Hopefully, I would first try to weigh-up the net effect. On the pro-side I could tell myself that content-wise that this is exactly one of those ‘owners-hand-biting pieces’ - so it might end up as a net good. Or perhaps I might frame it in my mind as just one little evil, but one that might then seed interest in all the other supposedly worthy things I might write in the future.
The danger of course is that this could all just be my ego, formulating excuses. It could be that like most people writing outside the MSM I’m just gagging for exposure, and would be flattered by the invitation from such an venerable publication (the paper my parents 'took' for all those years, wouldn’t they be proud?....etc.) And the money wouldn’t hurt either. So when it came to assessing the net moral worth of accepting this hypothetical offer, perhaps I wouldn’t be in the best position to judge.