The problem is not just that foreign reporting is being stripped of financial resources. It is that the corporate media are designed to reflect the interests of power - and the corporations that control our media are power.
As I have found out myself, there is nothing media outlets like less than criticising other media publications or the 'profession' of journalism.
It's not really surprising. The credibility of a corporate media depends precisely on their not breaking ranks, and not highlighting the structural constraints a 'free press' operates under.
So one has to commend the Boston Globe for publishing this piece by Stephen Kinzer, a former foreign correspondent, warning that the media is not telling us the truth about what is going on in Syria. His account, well worth reading, begins:
"For three years, violent militants have run Aleppo. Their rule began with a wave of repression ... This month, people in Aleppo have finally seen glimmers of hope. The Syrian army and its allies have been pushing militants out of the city. Last week they reclaimed the main power plant. Regular electricity may soon be restored. The militants' hold on the city could be ending ...
"Americans are being told that the virtuous course in Syria is to fight the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian partners. We are supposed to hope that a righteous coalition of Americans, Turks, Saudis, Kurds, and the 'moderate opposition' will win.
"This is convoluted nonsense, but Americans cannot be blamed for believing it. We have almost no real information about the combatants, their goals, or their tactics. Much blame for this lies with our media."
Kinzer then goes on to describe why the media are failing - but those very structural constraints that govern our free media appear to limit the scope and depth of his analysis:
"Under intense financial pressure, most American newspapers, magazines, and broadcast networks have drastically reduced their corps of foreign correspondents. Much important news about the world now comes from reporters based in Washington. In that environment, access and credibility depend on acceptance of official paradigms.
"Reporters who cover Syria check with the Pentagon, the State Department, the White House, and think tank 'experts.' After a spin on that soiled carousel, they feel they have covered all sides of the story. This form of stenography produces the pabulum that passes for news about Syria."
So is there more to it?
Kinzer's explanation represents more of the 'cock-up, not conspiracy' justification for skewed reporting. If only there was more money, more space, more time, more reporters, he suggests, the media would not simply spew the government's official line.
Guardian journalist Nick Davies wrote a whole book, Flat Earth News, making much the same claim - what he called "churnalism". I reviewed it at length here. Journalists like this kind of argument because it shifts responsibility for their failure to report honestly on to faceless penny-pinchers in the accounting department.
And yet, there are journalists reporting from the ground in Syria - for example, Martin Chulov of the Guardian - who have been just as unreliable as those based in Washington.
In fact, many of the points Kinzer raises about the reality in Syria echo recent articles by Seymour Hersh, who is writing from the US, not Damascus. But he, of course, has been shunted to the outer margins of media discourse, publishing in the London Review of Books.
Media coverage of Iraq was just as woefully misleading during the sanctions period in the 1990s, when I worked in the foreign department at the Guardian, and later in the build-up of the US-led attack on Iraq. In those days, when there was no shortage of resources being directed at foreign reporting, the coverage also closely hewed to the official view of the US and UK governments.
The problem is not just that foreign reporting is being stripped of financial resources as the media find it harder to make a profit from their core activities. It is, as Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky pointed out long ago in their 1978 book Manufacturing Consent (link to full PDF), that the corporate media are designed to reflect the interests of power - and the corporations that control our media are power.
The world view of career success
They select journalists through a long filtering process (school, university, journalism training, apprenticeships) precisely designed to weed out dissidents and those who think too critically. Only journalists whose worldview aligns closely with those in power reach the top.
None of this is in Kinzer's piece.
It is doubtful that he, a member of the media elite himself, would recognise such an analysis of the journalist's role. As Chomsky once told British journalist Andrew Marr, when Marr reacted with indignation at what he inferred to be an accusation from Chomsky that he was self-censoring:
"I don't say you're self-censoring. I'm sure you believe everything you're saying. But what I'm saying is, if you believed something different you wouldn't be sitting where you're sitting."
That understanding of journalism does not depend on conspiracy, but nor does it accept that it is all about cock-up. It posits a much more interesting, and plausible, scenario that journalists get into positions of influence to the extent that they are unlikely to rock the boat for elite interests. The closer they get to power, the more likely they are to reflect its values. Much like politicians, in fact.
That's why extremely few senior journalists have read Manufacturing Consent. And why among the Guardian journalists I worked with, though none seemed familiar with his huge body of work, there were few intellectuals who were referred to in more derisive terms than Chomsky.
Jonathan Cook is an award-winning British journalist based in Nazareth, Israel, since 2001. A former Guardian reporter, he now writes for Middle East Eye, CounterPunch and other media. In 2011 Jonathan was awarded the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism.
This article was originally published on Jonathan Cook's website.