Noam Chomsky, Understanding
Power: The Indispensable Chomsky
Peter R. Mitchell and John Schoeffel, editors
New York: The New Press (2002)
Fair Use Excerpts
intended for the use of students in
Law of Electronic Media
University of Iowa College of Law
An academic institution is not in the business of imposing ideologies or theories on reluctant students. It is in the business of exposing students to new ways of thinking -- for them to evaluate and utilize to the extent they find useful, and reject to the extent they do not.
As we study the "law of electronic media" we need to be aware that we are not examining this one more industry in a vacuum, separate and apart from its public policy, economic, political, social and ethical roles and implications. As we think about the role of the mass media in our, or any other, society, Chomsky offers a way of seeing, and thinking about, that role that -- whether accepted or rejected -- can help us sharpen our own perspectives.
These brief excerpts (from a 416-page volume) begin with Chomsky's description of the actions of the American government in Cambodia and Indonesia -- roles that were not widely (if at all) presented by America's mainstream media. The point of including those passages is merely to provide a couple of case studies of his assertion that there are some subjects that are "self-censored" or at least downplayed by the media for reasons unrelated to their newsworthiness.
The next excerpts put forth his assertions regarding the "why" of the mass media's news judgments.
Be aware that, although published in 2002, the book is a collection of transcripts from speeches and workshops of Professor Chomsky's, primarily from the years 1989 through 1996. (There's some from 1999.) That explains both the style (spoken, not written) and the choice of what are, by now, historical examples that may be unfamilar to you. (One of the advantages of using older examples is that they are not quite as highly emotionally charged for any of us as those drawn from this year's daily papers.)
(For purposes of citation, page numbers are indicated [in brackets]. [Text in brackets has been inserted by the editors -- unless preceded by "NJ."] Headings are taken from the book. Numbers in the text are footnotes. The text of the footnotes -- which far exceed the length of the book text itself, and are omitted from the book for that reason -- are arranged by chapter number and available online at www.understandingpower.com.)
-- N.J., August 30, 2002
"Genocide": The United States and Pol Pot
Pol Pot was obviously a major mass murderer, but it's not clear that Pol Pot killed very many more people -- or even more people -- than the United States killed in Cambodia in the first half of the 1970s. We only talk about "genocide" when other people do the killing. [The U.S. bombed and invaded Cambodia beginning in 1969, and supported anti-Parliamentary right-wing forces in a civil war there which lasted until 1975; Pol Pot ruled the country between 1975 and '78.]
So there's a lot of uncertainty about just what the scale was of the Pol Pot massacre, but the best scholarly work in existence today estimates the deaths in Cambodia from all causes during the Pol Pot period in the hundreds of thousands, maybe as much as a million.60 Well, just take a look at the killing in Cambodia that happened in the first half of the decade from 1970 to 1975 -- which is the period that we're responsible for: it was also in the hundreds of thousands.61
Furthermore, if you really want to be serious about it -- let's say a million people died in the Pol Pot years, let's take a higher number -- it's worth bearing in mind that when the United States stopped its attacks on inner Cambodia in 1975, American and other Western officials predicted that in the
aftermath, about a million more Cambodians would die just from the effects of the American war.62 At the time that the United States withdrew from Cambodia, people were dying from starvation in the city of Phnom Penh alone -- forget the rest of the country -- at the rate of 100,000 a year.63 The last U.S. A.I.D. [Agency for International Development] mission in Cambodia predicted that there would have to be two years of slave labor and starvation before the country could even begin to get moving again.64 So while the number of deaths you should attribute to the United States during the Pol Pot period isn't a simple calculation to make, obviously it's a lot -- when you wipe out a country's agricultural system and drive a million people out of their homes and into a city as refugees, yeah, a lot of people are going to die. And the responsibility for their deaths is not with the regime that took over afterwards, it's with the people who made it that way.
And in fact, there's an even more subtle point to be made -- but not an insignificant one. That is: why did Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge carry out their massacre in the first place? Well, there's pretty good evidence that the Khmer Rouge forces took power primarily because they were the only ones who were tough enough bastards to survive the U.S. attacks. And given the destructive psychological effects of the American bombings on the peasant population there, some sort of violent outpouring was fairly predictable -- and there was a big element of just plain peasant revenge in what happened.65 So the U.S. bombings hit a real peak of ferocity in around 1973, and that's the same period in which the Pol Pot group started gaining power. The American bombardment was certainly a significant factor, possibly the critical factor, in building up peasant support for the Khmer Rouge in the first place; before that, they had been a pretty marginal element. Okay, if we were honest about the term "genocide," we would divide up the deaths in the Pol Pot period into a major part which is our responsibility, which is the responsibility of the United States.
Indonesia's Killing Fields:
U.S.-Backed Genocide in East Timor
[I]t's really up to us what happens in East Timor: what happens there is going to depend on how much pressure and activism ordinary people in the Western societies can put together.
First of all, does everybody know the situation we're talking about? Want me to summarize it? It's an extremely revealing case, actually -- if you really want to learn something about our own society and values, this is a very good place to start. It's probably the biggest slaughter relative to the population since the Holocaust, which makes it not small. And this is genocide, if you want to use the term, for which the United States continues to be directly responsible.
East Timor is a small island north of Australia. Indonesia invaded it illegally in 1975, and ever since they have just been slaughtering people. It's continuing as we speak, after more than two decades. And that massacre has been going on because the United States has actively, consistently, and crucially supported it: it's been supported by every American administration, and also by the entire Western media, which have totally silenced the story. The worst phase of the killing was in the late 1970s during the Carter administration. At that time, the casualties were about at the scale of the Pot Pot massacres in Cambodia. Relative to the population, they were much greater. But they were radically different from Pot Pot's in one critical respect: nobody had any idea about how to stop the Pot Pot slaughter, but it was trivial how to stop this one. And it's still trivial how we can stop it -- we can stop supporting it.
Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975 with the explicit authorization of Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger [the American President and Secretary of State].37 Kissinger then at once (secretly, though it leaked) moved to increase U.S. weapons and counterinsurgency equipment sales to Indonesia, which already was about 90 percent armed with U.S. weapons.38 It's now known from leaked documents that the British, Australians, and Americans all were aware of the invasion plans in advance, and that they monitored its progress as it was unfolding. Of course, they only applauded.39
The U.S. media have real complicity in genocide in this case. Before the invasion, news coverage of East Timor had in fact been rather high in the United States, surprisingly high actually -- and the reason was that East
Timor had been part of the Portuguese Empire, which was collapsing in the 1970s, and there was a lot of concern back then that the former Portuguese colonies might do what's called "moving towards Communism," meaning moving towards independence, which is not allowed. So before the invasion, there was a lot of media coverage of East Timor. After Indonesia attacked, coverage started to decline -- and then it declined very sharply. By 1978, when the atrocities reached their peak, coverage reached flat zero, literally zero in the United States and Canada, which has been another big supporter of the occupation.40
Around that same time, the Carter administration moved to send new supplies of armaments to Indonesia, because their army was running out of weapons in the course of the slaughter. By then they'd killed maybe a hundred thousand people.41 The press did its job by shutting up about what was really going on -- when they did have coverage, it was just repetition of grotesque lies by the State Department and Indonesian generals, a complete whitewash. In fact, media coverage to this day has always completely wiped out the U.S. record: the strongest criticism you'll ever find is, "We didn't pay enough attention to Timor," or "The U.S. didn't try hard enough to get Indonesia to stop its atrocities" or something like that.42 It's kind of like saying the Soviet Union didn't try hard enough to bring freedom to Eastern Europe, or they didn't pay enough attention to it -- that was their problem.
And remember, the U.S. role in all of this has never been a secret -- it's in fact been acknowledged very frankly. For instance, if you read the memoirs of our U.N. ambassador at the time of the invasion, Daniel Patrick Moynihan -- who's greatly praised for his defense of international law, incidentally -- he says: "The Department of State desired that the U.N. prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. This task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success." Okay, then he goes on to describe the effects of the invasion, which he was fully aware of: he says, in the first couple of months it seemed "some 60,000 persons had been killed . . . almost the proportion of casualties experienced by the Soviet Union during the Second World War." Alright, that's the Nazis, and that's Moynihan, the great advocate of international law.43 And he's right, that's how it happened: the State Department wanted things to turn out as they did, and he ensured that they did. Moynihan's at least being honest, let's give him credit for it.
Another thing that's never reported, though it's completely public and was perfectly well known at the time, is that one of the main reasons why the Western powers supported the invasion was that there's a huge offshore oil field in Timor's territorial waters, and before 1975 the Australians and the Western oil companies had been trying unsuccessfully to make a deal with Portugal to exploit it. Well, they hadn't had any luck with Portugal, and they figured an independent East Timor would be even harder to deal with -- but they knew that Indonesia would be easy: that's one of our boys,
we've been running it ever since the huge massacre there in 1965 that the West applauded, when they wiped out the Communist Party and killed maybe 600,000 people.44 So for instance, leaked diplomatic records in Australia show that right around the time of the invasion, top Australian officials said that they would do better with an Indonesian takeover, and that Indonesia should be supported.45 Again, I have yet to see a word about any of this in the U.S. media.
And actually that exploitation has been proceeding rather nicely: Australia and Indonesia signed a big treaty to start extracting Timorese oil [in December 1989], and right after the Dili massacre in 1991 [in which Indonesians killed hundreds of unarmed Timorese protesters at a funeral], the big Western reaction -- apart from sending additional arms to Indonesia -- was that fifteen major oil companies started exploration in the Timor Sea oil fields. Happily for Chevron, there are apparently some very promising strikes.
[T]his virtually genocidal
massacre has received almost no coverage from the U.S. press . . ..
The Media: An Institutional Analysis
If you look back at the Revolutionary War period, you'll find that Revolutionary War leaders, people like Thomas Jefferson (who's regarded as a great libertarian, and with some reason), were saying that people should be punished if they are, in his words, "traitors in thought but not in deed" -- meaning they should be punished if they say things that are treacherous, or even if they think things that are treacherous. And during the Revolutionary War, there was vicious repression of dissident opinion. 31
Well, it just goes on from there. Today the methods are different -- now it's not the threat of force that ensures the media will present things within a framework that serves the interests of the dominant institutions, the mechanisms today are much more subtle. But nevertheless, there is a complex system of filters in the media and educational institutions which ends up ensuring that dissident perspectives are weeded out, or marginalized in one way or another. And the end result is in fact quite similar: what are called opinions "on the left" and "on the right" in the media represent only a limited spectrum of debate, which reflects the range of needs of private power -- but there's essentially nothing beyond those "acceptable" positions.
So what the media do, in effect, is to take the set of assumptions which express the basic ideas of the propaganda system, whether about the Cold War or the economic system or the "national interest" and so on, and then present a range of debate within that framework -- so the debate only enhances the strength of the assumptions, ingraining them in people's minds as the entire possible spectrum of opinion that there is. So you see, in our system what you might call "state propaganda" isn't expressed as such, as it would be in a totalitarian society -- rather it's implicit, it's presupposed, it provides the framework for debate among the people who are admitted into mainstream discussion.
In fact, the nature of Western systems of indoctrination is typically not understood by dictators, they don't understand the utility for propaganda purposes of having "critical debate" that incorporates the basic assumptions of the official doctrines, and thereby marginalizes and eliminates authentic and rational critical discussion. Under what's sometimes been called "brainwashing under freedom," the critics, or at least, the "responsible critics" make a major contribution to the cause by bounding the debate within certain acceptable limits -- that's why they're tolerated, and in fact even honored.
Well, to begin with, there are various layers and components to the American media -- the National Enquirer that you pick up in the supermarket is not the same as the Washington Post, for example. But if you want to talk about presentation of news and information, the basic structure is that there are what are sometimes called "agenda-setting" media: there are a number of major media outlets that end up setting a basic framework that other smaller media units more or less have to adapt to. The larger media have the essential resources, and other smaller media scattered around the country pretty much have to take the framework which the major outlets present and adapt to it -- because if the newspapers in Pittsburgh or Salt Lake City want to know about Angola, say, very few of them are going to be able to send their own correspondents and have their own analysts and so on.32
Well, if you look at these larger media outlets, they have some crucial features in common. First of all, the agenda-setting institutions are big corporations; in fact, they're mega-corporations, which are highly profitable -- and for the most part they're also linked into even bigger conglomerates.33 And they, like other corporations, have a product to sell and a market they want to sell it to: the product is audiences, and the market is advertisers. So the economic structure of a newspaper is that it sells readers to other businesses. See, they're not really trying to sell newspapers to people -- in fact, very often a journal that's in financial trouble will try to cut down its circulation, and what they'll try to do is up-scale their readership, because that increases advertising rates.34 So what they're doing is selling audiences to other businesses, and for the agenda-setting media like the New York Times and the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, they're in fact selling very privileged, elite audiences to other businesses -- overwhelmingly their readers are members of the so-called "political class," which is the class that makes decisions in our society.
Okay, imagine that you're an intelligent Martian looking down at this system. What you see is big corporations selling relatively privileged audiences in the decision-making classes to other businesses. Now you ask, what picture of the world do you expect to come out of this arrangement? Well, a plausible answer is, one that puts forward points of view and political perspectives which satisfy the needs and the interests and the perspectives of the buyers, the sellers, and the market. I mean, it would be pretty surprising if that weren't the case. So I don't call this a "theory" or anything like that -- it's virtually just an observation. What Ed Herman and I called the "Propaganda Model" in our book on the media [Manufacturing Consent] is really just a kind of truism -- it just says that you'd expect institutions to work in their own interests, because if they didn't they wouldn't be
able to function for very long. So I think that the "Propaganda Model" is primarily useful just as a tool to help us think about the media -- it's really not much deeper than that.35
Testing the "Propaganda Model"
Well, essentially in Manufacturing Consent what we were doing was contrasting two models: how the media ought to function, and how they do function. The former model is the more or less conventional one: it's what the New York Times recently referred to in a book review as the "traditional Jeffersonian role of the media as a counter-weight to government" -- in other words, a cantankerous, obstinate, ubiquitous press, which must be suffered by those in authority in order to preserve the right of the people to know, and to help the population assert meaningful control over the political process.36 That's the standard conception of the media in the United States, and it's what most of the people in the media themselves take for granted. The alternative conception is that the media will present a picture of the world which defends and inculcates the economic, social, and political agendas of the privileged groups that dominate the domestic economy, and who therefore also largely control the government. According to this "Propaganda Model," the media serve their societal purpose by things like the way they select topics, distribute their concerns, frame issues, filter information, focus their analyses, through emphasis, tone, and a whole range of other techniques like that.
Now, I should point out that none of this should suggest that the media always will agree with state policy at any given moment. Because control over the government shifts back and forth between various elite groupings in our society, whichever segment of the business community happens to control the government at a particular time reflects only part of an elite political spectrum, within which there are sometimes tactical disagreements. What the "Propaganda Model" in fact predicts is that this entire range of elite perspectives will be reflected in the media -- it's just there will be essentially nothing that goes beyond it.
Alright, how do you prove this? It's a big, complex topic, but let me just point out four basic observations to start with, then we can go into more detail if you like. The first point is that the "Propaganda Model" actually has a fair amount of elite advocacy. In fact, there's a very significant tradition among elite democratic thinkers in the West which claims that the media and the intellectual class in general ought to carry out a propaganda function -- they're supposed to marginalize the general population by controlling what's called "the public mind.37 This view has probably been the
dominant theme in Anglo-American democratic thought for over three hundred years, and it remains so right until the present. You can trace the thinking on this back to the first major popular-democratic revolution in the West, the English Civil War in the 1640s [an armed conflict between supporters of the King and the Parliament for sovereignty over England from 1642 to 1648].
See, elites on both sides of the Civil War in England -- on the one hand the landed gentry and rising merchant class, who were aligned with Parliament, and on the other the Royalists, who represented more traditional elite groupings -- were very worried about all the popular ferment that was starting to develop in the context of the elite struggle. I mean, there were popular movements springing up which were challenging everything -- the relationship between master and servant, the right of authority altogether; there was a lot of radical publishing taking place because the printing press had just been invented, and so on and so forth. And elites on both sides of the Civil War were very worried that the general population suddenly was beginning to get out of control. As they put it, the people are becoming "so curious and so arrogant that they will never find humility enough to submit to a civil rule."38 So both the King and the Parliament were losing the capacity to coerce, and they had to react to that.
Well, the first thing they tried to do was to reintroduce the capacity to coerce: there was an absolutist state for a time, and then the King was restored [Charles II regained the throne in 1660 after several years of rule by Oliver Cromwell's military administration]. But they couldn't change everything back, they couldn't regain total control, and a lot of what the popular movements had been fighting for slowly began to work its way into the development of British political democracy [e.g. constitutional monarchy was established in 1689 and a Bill of Rights adopted]. And ever since then, every time popular movements have succeeded in dissolving power to a certain extent, there has been a deepening recognition among elites in the West that as you begin to lose the power to control people by force, you have to start to control what they think. And in the United States, that recognition has reached its apogee.
So in the twentieth century, there's a major current of American thought -- in fact, it's probably the dominant current among people who think about these things (political scientists, journalists, public relations experts and so on) -- which says that precisely because the state has lost the power to coerce, elites need to have more effective propaganda to control the public mind. That was Walter Lippmann's point of view, for example, to mention probably the dean of American journalists -- he referred to the population as a "bewildered herd": we have to protect ourselves from "the rage and trampling of the bewildered herd." And the way you do it, Lippmann said, is by what he called the "manufacture of consent" -- if you don't do it by force, you have to do it by the calculated "manufacture of consent."39
Back in the 1920s, the major manual of the public relations industry actually was titled Propaganda (in those days, people were a little bit more
honest). It opens saying something like this: the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is a central feature of a democratic system -- the wording is virtually like that. Then it says: it is the job of the "intelligent minorities" to carry out this manipulation of the attitudes and opinions of the masses.40 And really that's the leading doctrine of modern liberal-democratic intellectual thought: that if you lose the power to control people by force, you need better indoctrination.41
Alright, that's the first point about the "Propaganda Model" -- it has traditionally been supported and advocated by a substantial part of the elite intellectual tradition. The second point I've already mentioned -- it's that the "Propaganda Model" has a kind of prior plausibility: if you look at their institutional structure, you'd expect that the corporate media would serve a propaganda function in a business-dominated society like ours. A third point is that the general public actually tends to agree with the basic features of the "Propaganda Model." So contrary to what's usually said, if you look at poll results, most of the public thinks that the media are too conformist and too subservient to power -- it's very different from the media's self-image, obviously, but that's the public's image of them.42
Well, from just these three initial observations -- elite advocacy, prior plausibility, and the public's perspective -- you would at least draw one conclusion: that the "Propaganda Model" ought to be a part of the ongoing debate about how the media function. You would think that would be enough grounds to make it a part of the discussion you often hear presented about the media's role, right? Well, it never is a part of that discussion: the "debate" is always over whether the media are too extreme in their undermining of authority and their criticism of power, or whether they are simply serving their "traditional Jeffersonian role" as a check on power. This other position -- which says that there is no "traditional Jeffersoman role," and that the media, like the intellectual community in general, are basically subservient to power -- is never part of the discussion at all. And there's a very good reason why that's the case, actually -- because discussing the "Propaganda Model" would itself be dysfunctional to the institutions, so therefore it simply is excluded. The "Propaganda Model" in fact predicts that it won't be discussible in the media.
So, okay, those are the first three observations. The fourth has to do with the empirical validity of the "Propaganda Model" -- and that's of course the meat of the matter. Is the "Propaganda Model" descriptively accurate? Is it true that the media serve the "traditional Jeffersoman role," or do they rather follow the "Propaganda Model"?
Well, to answer that question satisfactorily for yourself, you have to do a lot of investigation and examine an extensive amount of material on the question. But just to give you kind of an outline of how one can go about it, methodologically speaking -- the first way we tested the model in Manufacturing Consent was to submit it to what is really its harshest possible test: we let the opponents select their own ground. See, if you don't do this, a critic can always attack you by saying, "Well, you're just picking examples
that work." Fine, so you let the opponents select their own ground: you take the cases that people on the other side of the spectrum point to to show that the media go too far in their undermining of authority, you take the examples they select to prove their position -- like the Vietnam War, or Watergate, or other cases like that -- and you look at those examples to see whether they follow the "Propaganda Model." So that was the first thing we did: we let the opponents pick the ground, so there would be no question of taking the wrong sample or anything like that. And the result was, even when you let the opponents pick the ground, you still get very strong confirmation of the "Propaganda Model."
Another thing we've done is to document the range of permitted opinion in the media, just to discover what the bounds of expressible thought actually are in the mainstream. We've looked at crucial historical examples in detail. We've studied media treatment of closely paired examples -- I mean, history doesn't construct controlled experiments for you, but there are lots of historical events that are more or less paired, and it's possible to compare how the media deal with them. So we've examined media coverage of atrocities committed by enemy states and compared it to coverage of atrocities which were roughly on the same scale, but for which the United States was responsible. We've compared coverage of elections in enemy states and in client states. We've looked at the treatment of problems of freedom of the press in official enemies and in client states. And there are a lot of other topics we've investigated as well.43
So we've studied a great number of cases, from every methodological point of view that we've been able to think of -- and they all support the "Propaganda Model." And by now there are thousands of pages of similar material confirming the thesis in books and articles by other people too -- in fact, I would hazard a guess that the "Propaganda Model" is one of the best-confirmed theses in the social sciences. There has been no serious counter-discussion of it at all, actually, that I'm aware of.44 But that's all irrelevant within the mainstream culture -- and the point is, it will all stay irrelevant, even if the level of proof were to reach way beyond what could ever be achieved in the social sciences. In fact, even if you could prove it at the level of physics, it would always remain irrelevant within the main-stream institutions. And the reason for that is that the "Propaganda Model" is in fact valid, and it predicts that it will be irrelevant -- and in fact, not even be understandable within the elite culture -- no matter how well it's proven. And that's because what it reveals undermines very effective and useful ideological institutions, so it's dysfunctional to them, and will be excluded.
The Media and Elite Opinion
Well, the media are different from the general population -- they're very much like American elites. . . .
I think you can prove it, actually: on major issues there is a very noticeable split between elite and popular opinion, and the media consistently reflect elite opinion. So for example, on things like, say, dismantling welfare state programs, or on a nuclear weapons freeze, or on U.S. policies in Central America in the 1980s, or on the nature of the Vietnam War, the views expressed in the media have always been very different from public opinion, and in line with elite opinion.45
. . .
After all, what are the media? Who are they? Are they "us"? Take C.B.S., or the New York Times -- who are they? They're among the major corporations in the country, they're not "us." They are no more "us" than General Motors is "us."
The question is: are the media like a sample of public opinion? Is it that the public has a certain range of beliefs and the media are just a sample of it? If that were the case, the media would be very democratic in fact.
. . .
Look, what people call "left of center" doesn't mean anything -- it means they're conventional liberals, and conventional liberals are very state-oriented, and usually dedicated to private power.
Again, you have to look closely: I think there's plenty of evidence that public opinion and media presentation have differed quite sharply. The general public regarded the media as much too easy on the Reagan administration, they thought there should have been more exposure. In fact, they thought that the media were too hard on Carter, but too easy on Reagan -- it's exactly the opposite of what everybody says.
. . .
Actually, that point is made in a pretty interesting book by Mark Hertsgaard, called On Bended Knee, which is about media coverage of the Reagan administration.46
. . .
If you ask people, "Do you want new taxes?" they'll say no; but if you ask them, "Do you want better medical services?" they'll say yes.
. . .
But is there anybody pushing for developing meaningful social services? See, suppose there was somebody with a platform saying, "We want everybody in Massachusetts to have access to adequate medical care" -- I'll bet you if somebody was pushing that, they'd get overwhelming support. But if you just come to people and say, "Do you want to have new taxes?" of course they'll say no. If you have something on the ballot saying, "Should we put a limit on property taxes?" the answer will be, "Sure, why should I pay more?" But you're not asking the right question. If you ask people, "Do you want your roads clean? Do you want good schools? Do you want medical services?" then they'll say yes. So part of the reason there isn't much response is that there's no one offering real alternatives.
Now, it's also true that there are a lot of people who just look at the world and say, "Don't confuse me with the facts, it's too painful," or "I don't want to know about reality, it's too ugly." But they're not even reading the news anymore -- they only read the "Style" section, and the "Sports" and so on. However, if you take the people who still pay attention
to the world, it's pretty striking: the population tends to regard the media as too conformist, too subservient to power. It's exactly the opposite of what everybody says.47
So just take a look at something like the nuclear freeze movement. The nuclear freeze had virtually no support in the media, no support among politicians, and certainly no support by business-but nevertheless, 75 percent of the American population supported it.48 Well, that's certainly not reflected in editorial opinion or in opinion pieces in the media. Or take what's certainly the most discussed media issue of the 1980s, Nicaragua. I've done a lot of analysis of opinion pieces in the national media, like the Washington Post and the New York Times, and it's uniform -- well over 99 percent of them are anti-Sandinista, and think the Sandinista Party government has to be eliminated; the only issue is how you do it: do you do it by attacking them with contra forces, or by some other means? Well, that does not reflect public opinion. I mean, most of the public thought we should just get out of Nicaragua and leave them alone -- they didn't even know which side we were on, but thought we had no business there, so let's get away. That certainly wasn't reflected. Then among the minority of the population who in fact knew which side we were on, there was strong opposition to any method of overthrowing the government.49 But that position is inexpressible in the media.
Let me just give you an illustration.
Six months in early 1986 and six months in early 1987 happened to have
been the periods of greatest debate over Nicaragua, right before the big
contra aid bills came to Congress. The New York Times and the Washington
Post in those two periods published only two columns that even raised
the possibility that the Sandinistas should be permitted to survive.
One was by the Nicaraguan Ambassador.50 The other was by a guy named Kevin
Cahill, a doctor at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, who's a specialist
in tropical diseases and who's worked extensively through the area. He
had a column in which he said, there's only one country in Latin America
where the government cares about the
population, it's Nicaragua: here's what they're doing, we should let them do it.51 That was the one exception of an opinion column even considering this position in practically a year of intensive coverage of the issue in the two most important newspapers in the country. Now, that certainly does not reflect popular opinion -- in fact, it doesn't even reflect opinion in the academic profession in this case: the media do not accept contributions from Latin America scholars on this issue, just because they disagree.52
[A member of the audience says: "There were people who lost their jobs in the media for reporting other points of view." Chomsky continues:]
Oh, that happens all the time. Ray Bonner is the famous case -- he was a freelancer the New York Times picked up who made the mistake of actually reporting what was going on for about a year in El Salvador. He was
bounced off to work in the "Metro" section or something, and then he just dropped out.53 And there are lots of other reporters who have just ended up leaving: Sy Hersh, for example, left the New York Times because they wouldn't let him do the kinds of stories he wanted to do.
Look, I have a good friend who's one of the seven or eight main editors of a major American newspaper, and he happens to be very much opposed to U.S. policies towards Central America, and towards the arms race, as well as several other things. He tries to craft editorials which will just barely sneak through under the ideological barrier, but will sort of hint at some of the things he would like people to see -- he has to make a very careful calculation as to what will make it in.
. . .
[T]hat ideological barrier reflects elite opinion, it's not that the public is going to object. The public's not going to mind if the editor comes out with these things; in fact, this guy happens to be in a liberal city, the public will applaud -- it's in Boston.
. . .
I once asked another editor I know at the Boston Globe why their coverage of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is so awful -- and it is. He just laughed and said, "How many Arab advertisers do you think we have?" That was the end of that conversation.
. . .
It is true, and he wasn't joking. That wasn't joking. . . . Are you kidding? If he doesn't care about the advertising, he will not be editor any longer. [NJ: [T]he Globe's editorial decisions are based on trying to keep advertising revenue] from dropping. It means retailers aren't going to advertise there and the Globe's going to go under. . . .
This actually happened, it's happened a few times. Most of the time it never happens, because the newspapers never deviate. But in 1976 or '77, New York Times advertising and stock values began to drop very slightly. There were immediately articles about this in the Wall Street Journal and Business Week, pointing out what was going on -- Business Week in fact said, if the New York Times doesn't realize that it's a business, it's not going to be in business any longer.54
Well, what was happening was that the Times had taken a mildly supportive editorial position on a New York tax bill that business was opposed to, and advertising started slipping off a little, stocks started dropping very slightly. And the Times then shifted its entire editorial staff: John Oakes went out, all the liberal editors went out, and a whole bunch of new people came in. All it took was a slight change on the stock market. Now, in that case it was a matter of such a slight deviation that you'd need a microscope to see it -- suppose they took a major deviation, what would happen to their stock?
In countries that have a wider range of democratic politics than we do, where there really is a danger that some political party might impose different policies, this sort of thing happens all the time.
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A small local paper's a different story. But suppose you start doing things that are harmful to local business interests -- I think you'll find that it's not easy to keep doing it. You can probably do good reporting on international affairs if you want, just because they don't care so much in a small-town paper.
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You think you do what you want; see, Tom Wicker at the New York Times thinks he does what he wants, too -- and he's right. But what he wants is what power wants.
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Filters on Reporting
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See, the press does not make money on people buying newspapers, they lose money on people buying newspapers.55 But the press is business interests -- I mean, the major press is huge corporate interests, the small press is more local business interests, but either way it's kept alive by other businesses, through advertising.
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Look, one of the things that Edward Herman and I did in Manufacturing Consent was to just look at the sources that reporters go to. In a part that I wrote, I happened to be discussing Central America, so I went through fifty articles by Stephen Kinzer of the New York Times beginning in October 1987, and just asked: whose opinions did he try to get? Well, it turns out that in fifty articles he did not talk to one person in Nicaragua who was pro-Sandinista. Now, there's got to be somebody -- you know, Ortega's mother, somebody's got to be pro-Sandinista. Nope, in fact, everybody he quotes is anti-Sandinista. [Daniel Ortega was the Sandinista President.]
Well, there are polls, which the Times won't report, and they show that all of the opposition parties in Nicaragua combined had the support of only 9 percent of the population. But they have 100 percent of Stephen Kinzer -- everyone he's found supports the opposition parties, 9 percent of the population. That's in fifty articles.56
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What I'm saying is that if you look at the sources reporters select, they are not sources that are expert, they are sources that represent vested interests: that's propaganda.
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Suppose that as a reporter you start going outside of vested interests. You will find, first of all, that the level of evidence that's required is far higher. You don't need verification when you go to vested interests, they're self-verifying. Like, if you report an atrocity carried out by guerrillas, all you need is one hearsay witness. You talk about torture carried out by an American military officer, you're going to need videotapes. And the same is true on every issue.
I mean, if a journalist quotes an unnamed "high U.S. government official," that suffices as evidence. What if they were to quote some dissident, or some official from a foreign government that's an enemy? Well, they'd have to start digging, and backing it up, and the reporter would have to have mountains of evidence, and expect to pick up a ton of flack, and maybe lose their job, and so on. With factors of that kind, it's very predictable which way they're going to go. And reporters generally pick the easy way; I mean, the laziness is phenomenal.
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[NJ: The propaganda model is] precisely the opposite of conspiracy theory, actually -- in fact, in general this analysis tends to downplay the role of individuals: they're just replaceable pieces.
Look, part of the structure of corporate capitalism is that the players in the game try to increase profits and market shares -- if they don't do that, they will no longer be players in the game. Any economist knows this: it's not a conspiracy theory to point that out, it's just taken for granted as an institutional fact. If someone were to say, "Oh no, that's a conspiracy theory," people would laugh. Well, what we've been discussing are simply the institutional factors that set the boundaries for reporting and interpretation in the ideological institutions. That's the opposite of conspiracy theory, it's just normal institutional analysis, the kind of analysis you do automatically when you're trying to understand how the world works. For people to call it "conspiracy theory" is part of the effort to prevent an understanding of how the world works, in my view -- "conspiracy theory" has become the intellectual equivalent of a four-letter word: it's something people say when they don't want you to think about what's really going on.