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How not to do “media analysis” January 12, 2011

Posted by dissident93 in Media Criticism.
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Originally published by The Comment Factory (January 2011)

Two analyses of media reporting on Iraq were published recently. One was a simple quantitative comparison of the coverage received by two different death counts in the Wikileaks story (by the website, Medialens). The other was a more wide-ranging study, Pockets of resistance: British news media, war and theory in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, by Piers Robinson, Peter Goddard, Katy Parry, Craig Murray and Philip Taylor.

For reasons which should become clear, it’s worth comparing the two, very different, approaches behind these analyses.

First, Medialens, which counted references to “Iraq Body Count” (IBC) and “Lancet” in media coverage of Wikileaks (between October 23 and November 4, 2010), and found that IBC received much more coverage than the Lancet studies of Iraqi deaths. Although it’s not directly stated by Medialens, this analysis seems to be presented in support of their assertion that any mention of the Lancet studies is “a rare feat for our media”. Medialens also asserts, in the same article, that IBC is a “one-stop shop” for journalists, and that the media is “ignoring much higher death counts altogether”.

Unfortunately, Medialens failed to inform readers of the following facts:

  1. IBC worked with Wikileaks on the Iraq war logs. (The Lancet study authors didn’t).
  2. Julian Assange cited IBC’s analysis in many interviews. (He didn’t cite any comparable analysis by the Lancet authors, since there wasn’t any).
  3. IBC’s John Sloboda was on the panel at the Wikileaks press conference – Assange directed questions to Professor Sloboda. (The Lancet authors were not present).

In other words, one would expect IBC to receive coverage in the Wikileaks story over the period for which Medialens searched. Why would Medialens omit these facts which explain the IBC coverage? The editors of Medialens (David Edwards and David Cromwell) also failed to mention that the relatively small amount of data recorded by epidemiological surveys (eg the Lancet studies) would be of little use in analysing the Wikileaks material, and that this explains the lack of involvement by epidemiologists (eg the Lancet study authors).

With the addition of these omitted facts, Medialens’s “media analysis” takes on a different meaning. What seemed like a “damning indictment” of the media (and, indirectly, of IBC – if we accepted Medialens’s odd logic) turns out to be nothing of the sort, and the analysis itself is revealed as redundant (and pointless). It’s almost as if Medialens had “revealed” that media coverage of Wikileaks mentioned “Assange” more than, say, “Chomsky”, and that this proved that Chomsky was “marginalised”.

Not long after this ill-conceived attempt at media analysis, Medialens decided to criticise a broader – and rather more credible – media study (the above-mentioned Pockets of Resistance) in a lengthy (over 6,000 words) two-part ‘Media Alert’ titled, ‘What Happened To Academia?’. As is often the case with Medialens, their long critique tends to reveal more about their own (mostly ideologically-based) approach than that of the study they criticise. The following passages are particularly deserving of comment:

We have long been fascinated by the silencing of academe. How does it work in an ostensibly free society? What are the mechanisms that bring the honest and outspoken to heel? (Medialens, December 14, 2010)

This sets the tone for what follows. Academe is being “silenced” – a blanket generalisation, with a conspiriological metaphor (I’ve previously commented on Medialens’s fondness for the “silence” metaphor). Is it not possible that far from being “silenced”, “Academe” simply hasn’t produced work which fits Medialens’s worldview? (Or, to quote George Monbiot’s criticism of Medialens, it hasn’t produced work which conforms to their “narrow and particular doctrine”). Or perhaps Medialens isn’t looking in the right places? I see a lot of new, innovative academic research with implications for media analysis, but it tends to be in non-traditional fields (eg mapping of political beliefs in neurological, cognitive and linguistic studies, etc).

Medialens then moves its focus from academics to journalists: “The truth is that even the best mainstream commentators are not allowed to direct serious criticism at their own media, at their own advertisers, at the interests that control their media.” (Medialens, December 14, 2010)

Another “truth”, in the form of a generalisation over “not allowed”. As we’ll see, Medialens tends to put such “truths” before inconvenient facts, exceptions to the “rule”, etc. The language used by Robinson et al is somewhat different – it’s not about asserting “truths”, but about reporting findings and making qualified statements based on those findings. For example, the finding that Channel 4 conformed “largely” to an “independent model” of reporting over Iraq. Medialens responded to this as follows:

Ironically, Channel 4 News, which you claim “conformed largely to the independent model” of reporting (p.173), in fact led the way in the media dismissal of the 2004 Lancet report. On October 29, 2004, Channel 4’s science correspondent, Tom Clarke, was one of the first journalists to pass on government smears as obvious fact. (Medialens, December 14, 2010)

In fact, it’s not “ironic” that there are examples which run counter to a finding which doesn’t rule out counter-examples. However, it is ironic that the counter-example chosen by Medialens turns out, upon close scrutiny, to look nothing like a counter-example. We can easily check Tom Clarke’s Channel 4 remarks, as Medialens provided a transcript at the time. Far from passing on “smears”, Clarke states clearly that the government “dismisses” the Lancet report – his own comments about the study’s “main weakness” make sense in light of recent scientific research which casts doubt on the reliability of importing epidemiological methods into conflict studies (eg the Human Security Report 2009/2010). In hindsight, we know that the Iraq epidemiological studies (ILCS, Lancet 2004, Lancet 2006, IFHS/WHO) have produced vastly differing estimates, suggesting that there are indeed serious reliability problems (a fact that’s not altered by the government’s apparent desire to dismiss – or “smear” – the Lancet 2004 estimate at the time). Clarke’s comment that the Falluja data “distorted” the study was correct (in the sense that it was an extreme statistical outlier – it’s why the Lancet authors excluded Falluja data from many of their presented findings). In their original alert, Medialens misread or misrepresented Clarke on this point.

So, in response to the Robinson et al findings on Channel 4 coverage, Medialens provide an unconvincing counter-example. There are probably better counter-examples – but to use them, one-by-one, to refute this kind of study is a little like objecting to the findings of the British Crime Survey by arguing, “I know they’re wrong because a friend of my aunty was burgled twice last month, and my brother-in-law was robbed last June”. The point that’s apparently missed by Medialens is that some sort of quantitative evaluation of Channel 4 coverage would be needed to counter the claims of Robinson et al. Medialens has never produced the type of analysis needed – their efforts at quantification are limited to some very basic, questionable searches, etc (like the above misguided IBC/Wikileaks example).

In part two of their critique, Medialens begin with the following statement:

In our reply to Piers Robinson, below, we try to show how ‘objective scholarship’, like ‘objective journalism’, all too often filters out what really matters. Moreover, as in journalism, the scholar’s obsession with objectivity tends to promote the interests of power. Why? Because mainstream academics and journalists are deeply and unconsciously biased. (Medialens, December 15, 2010)

Another blanket generalisation from Medialens, another putative “truth”: mainstream academics are “deeply and unconsciously biased”! This raises the important question: is it not possible for intelligent, informed adults to debate serious issues without resorting to the redundant banality of the retort, “Well, you’re biased!”, which is what Medialens’s claim seems to boil down to. It doesn’t help that they further assert that “mainstream academics” (all, most, or just some?) are “unconscious” of their bias. The last time I came across such absurd, sweeping generalisations about “mainstream academics” was in the work of David Icke.

It’s not all about generalisations and deeper truths for Medialens, however. At certain points in their critique they offer more specific suggestions: “The point we are making is that there were a small number of key facts, issues and sources that had the potential to derail the government case for war.” For example, they think Robinson et al should have taken account of media references (or lack thereof) to Scott Ritter’s claims over WMD, since Ritter was a “key source”, and “not just another source”. (Ritter, a former chief UN weapons inspector, had written that Iraq’s biological/chemical weapons would have long since become “harmless goo”).

Ever since I read a long 2002 Guardian piece by Ritter (an extract from his book), I’ve thought his claims warranted widespread, prominent coverage. In an August 2002 interview, Noam Chomsky commented that “Scott Ritter’s testimony on the topic [of WMDs] is compelling, and I know of no serious refutation of it”.

Later in the same interview, however, Chomsky remarked:

It should be added that there are circumstances under which Saddam might use WMD, assuming he has the capacity. If Iraq is invaded with the clear intention of capturing or more likely killing him, he would have every incentive to go for broke, since he’d have nothing to lose. But it is hard to imagine other circumstances. (Noam Chomsky, August 2002)

It seems odd, in hindsight, that Chomsky painted this scary picture of Saddam “going for broke” with WMDs. But it didn’t seem odd at the time. Compelling though Ritter’s testimony was, no intelligent antiwar campaigner would base their case against war on the gamble that Ritter was right (unrisky though that gamble may have seemed, given Ritter’s credentials). Rather, there was a much stronger case against war which required less of a gamble: that the burden was on the warmongering parties to demonstrate strong evidence pointing to an imminent WMD attack from Saddam (no such evidence was forthcoming, of course).

This sense that waging war required an infinitely stronger justification than the “case” provided by the US/UK authorities was, in my opinion, rarely communicated in media coverage – and this was a matter of framing. In fact, pro-war framing put the burden of proof on the weapons inspectors to demonstrate absence of WMD capability – and to demonstrate it quickly. Unfortunately, I think many media reports conveyed this perspective (while appealing to the sense of urgency/fear already induced by tabloids). Would it have hurt this pro-war framing for Hans Blix to say: “You’re not giving us enough time to demonstrate that Scott Ritter is right, so you’ll just have to accept what he says without corroboration from us”?

From that perspective, the biggest problem with most media coverage, to my mind, was not the lack of reporting of Ritter’s claims on WMD, but the frequent adoption of subtle (and not-so-subtle) pro-war framing. Given that framing, I doubt that Ritter’s testimony, even if it had been more prominently reported, would have stood much chance of “derailing” (as Medialens put it) the government “case” for war.

Still, Medialens deserves some credit for drawing attention to Ritter’s claims (as the Guardian had earlier done. Peter Beaumont’s favourable Observer review of Ritter’s book, War on Iraq, also predated Medialens’s coverage).

We devoted our lives to studying media reporting of the pre-invasion and invasion periods in the first half of 2003. The patterns and limits of media reporting, the unspoken rules, were so clear to us – they could hardly have been more obvious. (Medialens, December 15, 2010)

It’s a pity, that in “devoting their lives” to this study, the Medialens editors never managed to produce a single substantial quantitative analysis of media coverage. In fact, the series of ‘alerts’ they produced can hardly be considered “analysis” at all – they’re obviously polemics. Steven Poole (author of Unspeak) wrote, in a Guardian non-fiction review, that Medialens has a “counterproductive tendency to bathe everything in childishly apocalyptic polemic”. Poole then added:

[Edwards and Cromwell] also affect to know what is going on “unconsciously” in journalists’ minds, and seem unaware that their own preferred descriptions of events are often just as rhetorically framed as the versions of the “psychopathic corporate media” (on which they nonetheless rely for factual reference). (Steven Poole, Guardian, October 3, 2009)

If you’re claiming to reveal media “patterns”, “limits” and “unspoken rules” (never mind “truths”), an analytical approach is needed. But Medialens’s rhetorical, ideologically-based approach starts with certain “rules” or “knowns” (eg derived from the Herman/Chomsky Propaganda Model) and then selects cases which show these to be “true”, whilst paying much less attention to (or at worst ignoring or denying) the cases which run counter to these “truths”. It’s a long way from the analytical/empirical approach.

A case in point is the “truth” promoted by Medialens on Iraq mortality reporting – that lower death counts are favoured because they are low (eg, Medialens’s claim that IBC’s figures are used “because they are very low”). In order to promote this “truth”, Medialens has to effectively airbrush a large amount of reality out of the picture. For example, the reality that the 2006 Lancet estimate of 601,000 violent deaths received far more media coverage than the much lower WHO estimate of 151,000 violent deaths.

The Lancet and WHO surveys were directly comparable (unlike Lancet and IBC) – both were peer-reviewed epidemiological studies, and they covered the same period. The WHO survey had a larger sample, better documentation and arguably superior quality control – several prominent experts have made clear their preference for it over the Lancet study (eg UN epidemiologist Paul Spiegel, and renowned demographer Beth Osborne Daponte). So, a media which favoured “lower” death counts while “ignoring much higher death counts altogether” (to quote Medialens) had the perfect, credible epidemiological study to counter (or “dismiss” or “smear”) the Lancet estimate.

But since reality is somewhat different from Medialens’s “truth”, things didn’t work out that way. Whereas the 2006 Lancet study enjoyed headline coverage on BBC1 News and BBC2 Newsnight on the day it was published, the WHO study didn’t get a single mention on the main BBC programmes on the day of its publication, and has rarely been mentioned since.

How do the Medialens editors respond to this piece of reality which is so relevant to their media criticism? By not mentioning it. While they have cited the Lancet estimates repeatedly in their prolific writings on Iraq, they’ve been virtually “silent” over the WHO estimate (I count only one direct mention in the whole of their published output – plus one other mention in a quoted email from a third party).

So much for inconvenient aspects of reality. But for Medialens to attract followers, their “truths” must presumably mesh with reality in some “resonant” ways – and this is obviously the case. Large parts of the media clearly do have a lot to answer for over Iraq. At times the reporting was shockingly inept or “subservient to Power” (my mind goes back to the BBC’s “coverage” of France’s intention to veto the UN resolution).

There were important exceptions to this “rule”, however, as Piers Robinson et al document. John Pilger, also, has written that two national newspapers (Independent and Mirror) were “anti-war” (also the Guardian, to a lesser extent, Pilger claims). This is echoed by Robinson’s findings:

According to Robinson, the Telegraph, Times and Mail were “generally supportive, with most of the coverage falling in line with the coalition PR campaign”; whereas the Independent, the Guardian and the Mirror “were quite remarkable for the degree of criticism that they engaged in, even during the invasion phase, which according to the academic orthodoxy is quite a departure from the way a lot of communications scholars understand the media”. (Journalism.co.uk, September 24, 2010)

This isn’t what Medialens wants to hear. In Medialens’s worldview, the Guardian and Independent are not allies, they are “complicit in war crimes”. Medialens’s editors claim that this is something they have “documented repeatedly”. But this isn’t the case. What they’ve documented is highly selective – a tiny (relative to the entirety) subset of examples to illustrate their claims. Sometimes the examples are good, sometimes feeble (as in the above Iraq mortality cases). The examples are taken mostly from the newspapers’ opinion pages – there’s also a selection of email dialogues with journalists (two prominent journalists have told me that Medialens excluded the parts of their dialogues which tended to contradict Medialens’s “truth”). Again, an analytical approach is lacking – there’s an unwillingness or inability to account for the extent of real-life examples which run counter to their “truths”, their blanket generalisations.

One of the bizarre things I witnessed while following Medialens in the run-up to the Iraq invasion was the almost daily posting (to Medialens’s message board) of links to antiwar comment pieces and cartoons in the Independent and Guardian – the response to these from Medialens’s subscribers was typically: “excellent article!”, “brilliant”, “spot on!”, etc. These direct reactions to a significant aspect of media reality were rarely allowed to interfere with the Medialens-promoted consensus – the “deeper truth” that these two newspapers were “complicit” in the move towards war.

Four Lions December 5, 2010

Posted by dissident93 in Uncategorized.
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One of the most brilliant and intelligent films I’ve seen since F for Fake. It works on several levels, satirising not just a narrow “jihadist” mindset, but the type of stupidity which appears whenever radical politics turns into Good-vs-Evil (ie Us vs Them) dogmatism. It also seems to mix every type of satire, from slapstick farce through Monty Python to drier, understated “semantic” stuff.

I remember its creator/director (Chris Morris) once saying in an interview that he didn’t want to churn out the kind of thing that would make him sound like Tariq Ali:

But the idea of setting out with a political or moral hit-list repels him: “Down that route lies Tariq Ali, and the most lame-arsed, unamusing botched attempts at satire.” Independent, 20 April 2000

Clip of Chris Morris at film’s premiere >

Final falsehoods from Medialens October 29, 2010

Posted by dissident93 in Medialens.
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(See my Comment Factory article for more on Medialens’s
dishonest attempts to discredit Iraq Body Count)

Before I discontinue Medialens-related content (I’ve exhausted the topic), let me record a comment made yesterday by Medialens:

My point is that Shone repeatedly misrepresents Dougherty as a “scientist”. He’s not; he’s a guitarist. (Medialens editors,  Oct 28 2010)

This is either a malicious fabrication or the mistaken conclusion to some specious reasoning (see context below). It’s difficult to know which. Dougherty (Josh) is a researcher with IBC who has authored peer-reviewed scientific research, but who isn’t a “professional” scientist. Contrary to Medialens’s assertion, I’ve never once labelled Josh a “scientist” (never mind “repeatedly”).

(I emailed Medialens in response to their false claim, but they wouldn’t publish my email – contrary to their claim of guaranteeing “the right of a published reply” to their publicly-made accusations. So much for courtesy).

Context: What reason did the Medialens editors give for their assertion? Well, they pointed to my article, Scientists criticise Lancet 2006 study on Iraqi deaths, which compiled published material, mostly from scientists, including all the letters from a particular issue of the Lancet (one letter was by Josh). Nowhere in my article do I refer to Josh as a “scientist”, so I presume the sole “basis” for Medialens’s wild accusation is the article’s title. So: is it possible they’re that dimwitted, or were they maliciously fabricating?


*Update (10 Nov 2010)

Medialens repeated their “guitarist” nonsense in a very dishonest ‘alert‘ (read here about why it’s dishonest). They asked people to email the Guardian’s Michael White. So I did:

Dear Michael,

Medialens is currently prompting people to write to you: http://www.medialens.org/alerts/.

Here are some things they won’t want you to hear:

1. They comment on something you wrote (in the Guardian, 25/10) about the Wikileaks war logs:

We have seen many foolish comments from journalists over the years, but this truly numbs the mind […] the war logs record an unknown portion of violent deaths reported by US troops in the field […] They cannot conceivably be considered comprehensive, complete, or in any way scientific.

Foolish? In that case, Science journal must also have been foolish to publish this:

Taking the WikiLeaks data into account, IBC now estimates that at least 150,000 have died violently during the war, 80% of them civilians. That falls within the range produced by an Iraq household survey conducted by the World Health Organization – and further erodes the credibility of a 2006 study published in The Lancet that estimated over 600,000 violent deaths for the first 3 years of the war (Science, 18 January 2008, p. 273). [Clipping of Science article]

Science journal quotes an expert on conflict studies who worked with Wikileaks and IBC on the leaked data:

“…with such a huge overlap [between IBC and Wikileaks data], it does not seem very likely that there are a large number of civilian deaths missed by both sources”

2. Medialens’s attempt at “media analysis” was bizarre:

“UK Broadsheets
‘Wikileaks’: 103 mentions
‘Wikileaks’ and ‘Iraq Body Count’: 17
‘Wikileaks’ and ‘Lancet’: 0″ [etc]

Medialens want us to find this shocking, but it’s exactly what one would expect given that IBC worked with Wikileaks on the data, that IBC’s John Sloboda was on the panel at the Wikileaks press conference, that the Wikileaks data is at an individual level, like IBC’s, and that the Wikileaks data has nothing to do with epidemiological surveys (eg the Lancet-published studies).

3. Medialens frame the issue as a battle between the Lancet studies (“science”) and IBC (who they label as “amateurs”, etc) – but if they gave a full account (or even an accurate summary) of the science to date, it would completely undermine (in fact reverse) their argument. So they leave scientific research out of it, while claiming to be on the side of science. For example, they never once refer to the WHO survey (mentioned in the Science article quoted above).

4. It’s also rather dishonest of Medialens (given the “amateur” IBC sub-theme of their alert) to fail to point out that the critique of the ORB study (co-authored by IBC researcher Josh Dougherty) was peer-reviewed scientific research (published by Survey Research Methods [2010] Vol.4, No.1). Medialens also failed to mention that this study’s findings were recently echoed by epidemiologist Francesco Checchi, who is a colleague of Lancet study author, Les Roberts. Checci stated in an interview with the BBC that he thinks the ORB figure was “implausible”, that the poll had a “major weakness” and that the Iraq death count is “likely to be between 200,000 and 500,000″ (BBC World Service, 27 Aug 2010).

This scepticism (or outright criticism) towards Medialens’s favourite studies (Lancet/ORB) is fairly typical of the views one hears among researchers in the field at present, due to a string of critical studies appearing in the scientific literature. But Medialens never reports these views, or studies, since they undermine Medialens’s ‘Lancet vs IBC-amateurs’ framing. Another example is researcher Patrick Ball, whom Medialens often quote approvingly (current Medialens ‘alert’ included). But Medialens forget to mention that Patrick Ball recently wrote the following on the Lancet 2006 study:

First, I want to be clear that I have no interest in defending the Burnham et al. [Lancet 2006] estimates. The flaws in that study are now well known. (Patrick Ball, 28/4/10)

Thanks for your time.

Robert Shone
[Sent 9 Nov 2010]

• Follow up email to Michael White (10 Nov 2010):

Medialens quotes this from John Tirman:

No war has produced more than about a 10 to 1 ratio of displaced to dead, and in most wars the ratio is about 5 to 1 or narrower. The 5 to 1 ratio would translate into at least 700,000 deaths in Iraq.

Completely false of course*. Does Medialens bother to check this stuff? I doubt it. As long as it fuels their anti-IBC smear campaign, they include it.

Best wishes,


* Kosovo ratio: approx 75 to 1 (12,000 dead, 900,000 displaced)
Bosnia ratio: approx 25 to 1 (100,000 dead/missing, 2.5m displaced)
Darfur ratio: approx 33 to 1 (60,000 deaths due to violence, 2m displaced)

Applying the ratios for Bosnia and Darfur to the figure quoted by Medialens for Iraqi displaced (“between 3.5 and 5 million”) would give you figures very much in line with what IBC is saying (approx 150,000 violent deaths – civilian plus combatant). So much for Medialens’s “analysis”.


BBC News publishes my response to Les Roberts October 28, 2010

Posted by dissident93 in Iraq mortality.
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After a prompt from an advocacy group, BBC’s Paul Reynolds added comments from epidemiologist Les Roberts to a BBC News piece on the WikiLeaks Iraq war logs. I complained to Paul that Roberts was using the space to reheat his old attacks on Iraq Body Count (IBC), and that his comments (with one exception) had little relevance to the subject matter of the article.

I also pointed out (with examples) that most of Roberts’s claims were either misinformed, unsubstantiated or simply false. Paul, to his credit, immediately published my comments on the BBC News page. But what he published was an edited version of comments which I’d already whittled down (to get the basic points across to someone who wasn’t already familiar with the studies/background). Here is the original version of my comments:

[Les Roberts] “A) It is likely that the IBC and Wikileaks reports tend to have the same lens (many reports coming from the Government of Iraq, oversampling of Baghdad, oversampling of the largest events and missing single killings).”

Robert Shone: On the previously unknown 15,000 deaths, IBC point out that: “The majority of these new deaths come from small incidents of one to three deaths”. If the WikiLeaks report had the same “lens” as IBC on size of incidents, as claimed by Roberts, this wouldn’t be the case.

[Les Roberts] “B) We have shown that most violent deaths in the press over the first 4 years of the war are not in IBC because they (cautiously) required multiple press reports and (unavoidably) used a few search terms that did not capture all events. (see attached)”

RS: Roberts hasn’t “shown” this anywhere (unless the “attached” which Roberts mentions contains something new and previously unpublished – what was this “attached”?). I suspect he’s making similar unfounded claims to the ones he makes in C), which I’ve already shown is false.

[Les Roberts] “C) In Baghdad where we believe the press coverage was by far the best, we showed that most violent deaths reported in phone and Skype interviews were not in IBC.”

RS: That’s false. Roberts’s study found that “38%” of deaths “were absolutely not in the [IBC] database”. The majority (62%) were included by IBC or can’t be ruled out as not included by Roberts’s Mickey Mouse study (which used a truly massive, comprehensive sample of only “18 primary interviewees”! – see my blog post for more details). The only way Roberts can make the above (false) claim is by ignoring the records in IBC’s database which came from morgues, etc (and which therefore Roberts couldn’t match, due to lack of detail). It’s very dishonest. Les Roberts’s study: http://pdm.medicine.wisc.edu/Volume_23/issue_4/siegler.pdf (page 3)

[Les Roberts] “D) There are just so many things that are not consistent with 120,000 deaths! The ORB 11/07 and BBC (see: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/bsp/hi/pdfs/19_03_07_iraqpollnew.pdf ) polls that are completely at odds with the IBC implication that 1 in 20 or 1 in 25 Iraqi households have lost someone to violence. The ORB implication that 1 in 4 households have lost someone matches all the ground reports I hear. You cannot have the Iraqi Ambassador reporting half a million new war widows or UNICEF speculating that there are a million orphans if there are 120,000 war deaths.”

RS: The comment about widows is completely bogus, as around 490,000 women would be widowed over a seven year period regardless of war (making a pro-rata population comparison to rate of widowhood in the US, for example – an over-simplistic comparison, to be sure, but it does underline the basic point that other things than war create widows). This issue has been debated a lot, and the conclusion among the informed seems to be that there’s currently no way of knowing how many of the widows are due to the recent conflict, to previous conflicts (80s & 90s), other factors, etc. As for the rest of Roberts’s comment here, this is where some real “balance” would come in useful. For example, the ORB study has recently been convincingly demolished in a peer-reviewed study published in Survey Research Methods [2010] Vol.4, No.1. Even Les Roberts’s colleague, Francesco Checchi, thinks there are serious problems with it (he was quoted as saying so in a recent BBC report*). So it might be better to use a more credible study, such as IFHS, as a comparison. So much for “balance”.

*Checchi said the ORB figure was “implausible”, that it had a “major weakness” (echoing the Survey Research Methods study findings). He added that the Iraq death count was “likely to be between 200,000 and 500,000”. (BBC World Service, 27 Aug 2010)


Published 8.43am October 28 2010

Media relies on WikiLeaks October 24, 2010

Posted by dissident93 in Iraq mortality.
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“…the deaths of some of 109,000 people are documented
including 66,000 civilians… Working with Iraq Body Count,
we have seen there are approximately 15,000 never previously
documented cases of civilians who have been killed…”

– Julian Assange (WikiLeaks)

It’s been widely reported (particularly by The Guardian), so it would be redundant to repeat the details here. Apparently the media (in the UK at least) is willing to report this kind of thing, even if it doesn’t do the investigative or analytical work (in this case it relied on WikiLeaks and Iraq Body Count).

Here’s some BBC coverage of the WikiLeaks Iraq War Log press conference, with Julian Assange and IBC’s John Sloboda:

Here’s more video footage of the WikiLeaks press conference.
Guardian article by Hamit Dardagan and John Sloboda.
Article from Science journal (clipping/image version)

Quotes to cogitate on… October 17, 2010

Posted by dissident93 in Medialens.
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Or even to masticate over…

“If an instrument similar to a geiger-counter could be invented that counted moral judgements instead, we would learn to duck as people became increasingly ‘moral’, since lethal force is usually imminent. So far from moral fervour being an alternative to force, it is frequently the overture, the accompaniment and the memorial to it.” — Charles Hampden-Turner

“[The self-righteous person] presupposes his own moral values and his own righteousness as a condition of conversation. The effect of this is that anyone talking to a self-righteous person must either agree with his moral values and act equally self-righteous, or face being put in a morally inferior position in the discourse.” — George Lakoff (Moral Politics)

“Any interesting ideas or realisations I have had have originated in my heart” — David Edwards (Hallmark Greetings cards & Medialens )

“Only do what your heart tells you” — Princess Diana

“My friends, no matter how rough the road may be, we can and we will, never, never surrender to what is right” — Dan Quayle (former US Vice President)

“The totally convinced and the totally stupid have too much in common for the resemblance to be accidental” — Robert Anton Wilson

[Source of saccharine David Edwards quotes]

“I’m going to ask you to exercise glands you never knew existed.”
J.R. “Bob” Dobbs

Feedback — just in:

Hey Robert, that’s funny. Were you aware that David Edwards’ cogitation is basically a rehash of Eckhart Tolle (a New Age “spiritual teacher”)? I actually saw Tolle speak live a few years ago he was quite impressive if you’re into that kind of talk. Edwards is eager to see “personality types” in his critics but slow to apply those insights to himself it appears. He talks about how people “come to identify so closely” with their ideas, but forgets about the dogma which defines him, and from which he will not deviate! But he’s got the Tolle bug alright. Whether it makes him more, or less, of a self-important fool remains to be seen. [Steve, via email]

Thanks, Steve – I’ve heard of Tolle. His books have apparently been mega-sellers due to promotion by Oprah (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing). As for Medialens, I think I’ve now exhausted the subject. It’s a pity they refuse to engage with what I (and many others, including journalists such as George Monbiot, etc) consider to be important points raised here (eg their errors/omissions over Iraq mortality studies, issues of censorship, hypocrisy, etc). The side of Medialens I’ve seen is not at all like the one presented in David Edwards’s “sweetness & light” piece. I see more of the narrowness, intolerance and childish polemic that’s been pointed out by Monbiot, Steven Poole, Stephen Soldz and others, as previously documented in this blog  — RS.

Here are a few other comments I’ve received, published with permission of the correspondents…

Sadly, I think it’s diminishing returns with criticisms of the Davids, even funny ones. They’re always complaining that certain people “blank” them, but they don’t seem to realise that they themselves are doing a lot of the “blanking” (by only responding to criticisms when it suits them, and only in terms that negate the very possibility that they might be in the wrong). The Lakoff quote really is very apt … I’ve felt myself being “pushed” by force of rhetoric into that “morally inferior” position several times. [George]

“Thinking is of the ego, feeling is of the heart”? The old guru routine? He’d be better advised to stick with the institutional analysis – the ‘spiritual teacher’ scene is over-crowded and has a bad reputation. Nice RAW quote, btw. [BD]

I don’t understand the relevance of the “exercise glands” or Dan Quayle quotes, I’m afraid. I came here from the Cif link but I already knew about MediaLens. [Roz]     [Nothing hugely relevant, Roz, they just seemed funny to me – RS]

Just to add to the comments you’ve already published…. that “cogitation” by Edwards just underlines the strangeness of Medialens. How quickly they flip from sniping at Monbiot to claiming they have the “answer” to the “dehumanising effect of excessive intellectuality” and other pomposities. Let’s just replay their latest intellectual joust with Monbiot, who had written of the government’s “cowardice” over the Green issue. Medialens replied that “the notion of government ‘cowardice’ is a classic liberal herring – the problem has always been the government +alliance+ with corporate power, not its ‘cowardice'”. But Medialens are so identified with their own intellectual games, that they don’t see the obvious: – that Monbiot was probably referring to the cowardice which *causes* the government to yield to corporate power. I really miss those discussions at Media Hell where this type of thing was gone over, and then Medialens (as “Woofles”) would attempt, unsuccessfully, to defend itself. 😉 [Greg]
[Links added by me – RS]

Freedom of Information Act request: 35,000 pages on Iraqi & Afghan casualties October 16, 2010

Posted by dissident93 in Iraq mortality.
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“We have summarised and released over 35,000 pages of records. We currently have one more set of documents we are working to summarise.”Nasrina Bargzie (attorney, for ACLU)

Perhaps this is how Full Employment can be achieved: declare everything of international importance secret. The amount of work required to request its release (via Freedom of Information Act), to legally demand it (when denied), and then to unravel, interpret and publish (in a form that’s understandable), etc, would surely keep the world’s “unemployed” in work for decades.

Of course, the work ends up being done by volunteer groups dependent on donations – eg Amercian Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Iraq Body Count (IBC).

So, over 35,000 pages of internal US government documents on civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan – released following ACLU-initiated Freedom of Information Act requests, lawsuit and lengthy negotiations. Records which should always have been in the public domain. The latest batch of records was released by ACLU earlier this year. IBC has been working to integrate the records on Iraqi civilian deaths into its database since the first release in 2007.

A separate FOIA request by Professor Michael Spagat (of Royal Holloway University) led to the release of another set of data on civilian casualties (Basra police records held by the UK Ministry of Defence). This has also been integrated into the IBC database. (There’s a misconception in some circles that IBC excludes casualties which aren’t reported in “Western” media. In fact, IBC has used data from NGOs, Iraqi hospitals and morgues, records obtained from UK and US governments using FOIA requests – and non-“Western” media).

Unrelated: I’ve written a new piece for The Comment Factory: Counterproductive antiwar arguments.

Chomsky rubbishes Medialens? September 19, 2010

Posted by dissident93 in Media Criticism.
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Professor Chomsky has written a few kind blurbs for his loyal fans, the editors of Medialens. However, in one of these endorsements, Chomsky adds the careful qualification, “Its work, what I’ve seen of it…”. (My emphasis – RS)

I think that explains a lot. Prof Chomsky informed me (email correspondence, Nov 2007) that he didn’t follow Medialens closely. (For example, he said he didn’t recall seeing their criticisms of IBC – email, 19/11/07). Update: I recently asked Prof Chomsky if he’d put something on the record about a particular issue regarding Medialens. His response was to distance himself from them: “I know almost nothing about medialens, their positions, or their reasons.” (email, Chomsky to Shone, 18/06/2011).

I strongly suspect that if he were more familiar with their output, he’d be wary of endorsing them – particularly in light of the way Medialens use an ostensibly Chomskyite approach (sometimes peppered with out-of-context Chomsky quotes) to attack people such as George Monbiot and Nick Davies.

Rumbles over Flat Earth News

I wonder, for example, if Prof Chomsky was aware of Medialens’s intentions when they solicited his opinion on Nick Davies’s analysis (Chomsky hadn’t read Davies’s book, Flat Earth News). Chomsky replied (on the basis of one Davies article that Medialens linked to) that Davies’s approach was “complementary” to Medialens’s, adding, “I don’t really see any conflict. Just different topics”. He seemed unaware that Davies in fact wrote (in his book) some substantial (and original) material on media misreporting over Iraq. I wonder what Chomsky would make of Medialens’s later outbursts against Davies (they wrote of his book: “It’s not something to be praised; it should be exposed. It’s this stuff that finally kills people”). I also wonder what John Pilger would make of it, since he wrote the following kind blurb for Davies:

This brilliant book by Nick Davies, unrelenting in its research, ruthless in its honesty, is a landmark expose by a courageous insider. All those interested in truth – outsiders and insiders – should read it.
(John Pilger on Flat Earth News)

Chomsky has been generous in his endorsements of the work of fans, former students, etc. He even once wrote a nice blurb for a weird/witty cartoon book of iconic UFOs (Bill Barker’s Schwa). And, of course, he’s provided blurbs for Steven Pinker’s books, even though some of Pinker’s reactionary political views would normally be the type of thing to make Chomsky deliver a lecture about popular intellectuals unwittingly upholding western imperialism.

In some ways, Chomsky seems more sensible, pragmatic – less dogmatic – than many of his own biggest fans. For example, he’s “endorsed” (in a limited voting sense) democratic candidates such as John Kerry. (He’s been quoted as saying “Choosing the lesser of two evils isn’t a bad thing. The cliché makes it sound bad, but it’s a good thing. You get less evil”).

“Media Lens is very misleading on this occasion”.

Unfortunately, due to a confidentiality request, I can’t confirm that someone of the stature of Professor Chomsky wrote the above statement (or something very similar) to me in an email reply, after I asked the following question:

Media Lens has written that “professional rigour” in the Western media “does not exist”. They appear to derive this notion from [the] statement (in Deterring Democracy, p79), “The basic principle, rarely violated, is that what conflicts with the requirements of power and privilege does not exist” – which they also quote in the same piece. What do you make of the logic here? Of deriving (if that’s what they’re doing) these ultra-dogmatic nonsenses from a statement which can at least be supported with evidence?

What’s the point of publicising opinions which are anonymous (due to confidentiality requests, etc), and which therefore cannot be checked or investigated (as to context, etc)? For the answer to this question, you might want to ask the editors of Medialens, since they’re the experts on publishing anonymous smears. See, for example, their recent alert – see if you can determine the source of their “very misleading exercise” smear of IBC. Clue: you won’t be able to, since both the source and the source’s “colleague” (who apparently forwarded the anonymous smear to Medialens) are never named. It might as well be made up.

Patrick Ball rubbishes Lancet study September 19, 2010

Posted by dissident93 in Iraq mortality.
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Patrick Ball is one of the “experts” whose work (on Guatemala) has often been cited in support of the Lancet 2006 study on Iraqi deaths (even though it has little relevance to the situation in Iraq). He was even quoted in some PR for the Lancet study.

But… apparently the various criticisms of the Lancet study (by AAPOR, several peer-reviewed studies, etc) have filtered through, as Ball recently wrote:

First, I want to be clear that I have no interest in defending the Burnham et al. [Lancet 2006] estimates. The flaws in that study are now well known. (Patrick Ball, 28/4/10)

(Incidentally, I recommend the comments thread from which this is taken. Patrick Ball is critical of Iraq Body Count as well as the Lancet 2006 study, and his research on Guatemala is often cited by critics of IBC. But it’s very limited, based on small samples of press reporting specific to Guatemala – a handful of newspapers only; no news wires or anything comparable to IBC’s coverage, or to the situation in Iraq. I think the comment from Josh Dougherty completely demolishes Patrick Ball’s over-generalisations with regard to media coverage in Iraq, and media bias generally).

Note: the title of this blog entry uses the term “rubbishes” in a special sense. I’ve adopted this from my friends at Medialens who use it to characterise any criticism, substantial or trivial, real, implied or imagined, of the Lancet/ORB Iraq studies. (Recent example: a Medialens follower wrote that a piece I’d written “rubbished” the Lancet/ORB studies, when I’d merely listed peer-reviewed studies critical of those studies.

Medialens’s “silent” hypocrisy September 5, 2010

Posted by dissident93 in Medialens.
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A search of Medialens’s writings reveals that part of their MO is to accuse people of being “silent” over various matters. It’s a rhetorical device – in most cases the accused isn’t literally “silent”, but has responded in a way that Medialens finds inadequate (see examples below).

Curiously (and trivially), Medialens seemed very much affronted when Channel 4’s Alex Thomson wrote of their “total silence” in response to a question he’d asked. (Medialens weren’t literally silent; Thomson thought they’d “totally evaded” his question). Medialens said this was a “baseless smear” that was “particularly wretched“. But Thomson had simply used a word (“silence”) in the same way that Medialens has often used it – as the following examples indicate:


Medialens wrote the following to George Monbiot (28 Oct 03):

“Your silence in response to our question about your views on the performance of the Guardian is remarkable. You say we betrayed your confidence. Even if true, that would hardly justify not speaking out honestly now on such an important issue.”

Had Monbiot really been “silent” in response to Medialens’s question? Negative. In fact he’d responded with the following:

Finally, you ask me “what is your view of the Guardian’s reporting on Iraq?” Last time I gave you my opinion on the Guardian’s coverage, I asked you to treat it in confidence. You betrayed that confidence.

That doesn’t sound like “remarkable silence” to me.

One of Medialens’s articles (a petty, spiteful, error-riddled attack on Iraq Body Count) was titled: “IRAQ BODY COUNT REFUSES TO RESPOND” (their upper case). Of course, IBC hadn’t “refused to respond” – they just hadn’t responded in the way that Medialens wanted.

Sometimes Medialens’s accusations of “silence” apply to the media as a whole. In an article titled “IRAQ CIVILIAN SUFFERING – THE MEDIA SILENCE” (their upper case), Medialens wrote:

Silence also surrounds the plight of Iraq’s children who are dying in hospitals for lack of the most elementary equipment. Save the Children estimate that 59 in 1,000 newborn babies are dying in Iraq, one of the highest mortality rates in the world. Up to 260,000 children may have died since the 2003 invasion.

Where do these figures come from? Medialens helpfully provides the source, which is none other than the Independent newspaper, one of those newspapers that’s so “silent” on these issues. It’s surprising how often Medialens relies on facts that manifest out of “media silence”.

Medialens has also written (1st March 05) that:

The notion of government and big business perpetrating climate crimes against humanity is simply off the news agenda. A collective madness of suffocating silence pervades the media, afflicting even those editors and journalists that we are supposed to regard as the best. (My bold emphasis – RS)

That sounds like an example of what Steven Poole (author of Unspeak) referred to as Medialens’s “childishly apocalyptic polemic“. But the point is that their claim of media “silence” on this issue is obviously false. The coverage may arguably be inadequate in various ways (of quality and quantity), but it’s hardly non-existent.

That’s just a handful of examples – there are plenty more. Medialens even wrote (in an article titled “SILENCE IS GREEN…“) that the “Green movement” is “silent” over the “disaster” that the corporate media system “represents”! Classic Medialens overgeneralising bullshit-rhetoric.

So, to conclude –

Alex Thomson evidently wasn’t guilty of a “particularly wretched” “baseless smear”. That’s just Medialens’s hysterical (and hypocritical) take on it. Nothing nettles them more, it seems, than being subjected to their own favourite rhetorical tricks (they even wrote a complaint to journalism.co.uk about Thomson’s remarks).

POSTSCRIPT (17 Oct 2010)
Just over a month after they accused Alex Thomson of “smearing” them, Medialens issued another article with the theme of media “silence” (titled: “DEATHLY SILENCE, OBAMA’S LETTER, NETANYAHU’S REJECTION AND THE MEDIA’S NON-RESPONSE” – their upper case). Lower down in the article, Medialens notes that the issue on which they claim the media was “deathly silent” was in fact mentioned more than once by the Guardian, and also by the Telegraph – and they’re not sure whether or not it was mentioned by the BBC. So, not exactly “silent”, then.