Thirty Years After Manufacturing Consent, How Mass Media Still Keeps Thought Inbounds
Ask the average liberal arts graduate about Dr. Noam Chomsky and one of the first comments is likely to involve his presentation. Despite being one of the world’s leading experts in linguistics, he has a reputation for being a dull intellectual – someone “known for erudition rather than crowd-grabbing eloquence,” as one columnist once put it.
I always thought this legend was a bit of clever marketing on Chomsky’s part. If you read his books closely, there’s a conspicuous streak of ironic defiance that runs through his work. It animates his writing and his ideas and catches the reader conditioned to expect a bore by surprise.
He has a deadpan, dry sense of humor. If you asked him to sum up all of human history – and now that I think about it, I should have done this – he would probably say something like, “Unsurprisingly horrible.”
Chomsky in person turns out to be affable, funny, and generous. A million things have been written about him and he seems way past caring. A few years ago he moved to the University of Arizona in Tucson from his longtime home in Boston, at M.I.T. When I commented on the heat – I almost collapsed walking from my car to his office – he laughed and said that he actually liked it a lot. Boston in the summer is much worse, he said. He seemed to mean it. He looks like a happy man.
I came to ask about the legacy of Manufacturing Consent. How did he think his famous examination of the media held up over the years? Did he think the famous “propaganda model” still played in the Internet age? What, if anything, had changed?
I also wanted to ask about the history of a book that had impacted many young reporters, including myself once upon a time. Why had a non-journalist ventured into this topic? I asked the same question about his co-author, Wharton School professor Ed Herman, who sadly passed away last year.
About Herman: one of the first things Chomsky mentioned is that the “propaganda model” was “a little more his than mine,” which is why he insisted that the book’s byline read Herman/Chomsky, and not Chomsky/Herman. As it turned out, the book had a bit of a strange history, and he seemed to enjoy recounting it. We ended up talking about the future of the news media, and about the immediate political future.
There is a whole literature of reporters running to Chomsky in search of scare quotes about how this time, things are really bad – and coming away disappointed when Chomsky answers, with a shrug, that, no, things have always been this crazy, just remember X and Y and Z…
That drives reporters nuts. Particularly in the Trump era, when there’s constant pressure in the media business to scrape up a ten-alarm quote about how whatever lunatic thing Trump did today is the Worst Thing Ever, Chomsky has been a constant disappointment to the popular press.
He keeps telling reporters that Trump’s daily insanities are a distraction, and the real problems involve his administration’s dismantling of regulatory systems, its failure to focus on global warming, and its worsening of the threat of nuclear war. These are all things that, while historically awful, mostly happen behind closed doors, away from the headlines.
The world could use a little more of whatever well of equanimity he’s drinking from. In any case, here’s Noam Chomsky on the media’s past, present, and future:
Taibbi: Professor, it’s a great honor. Thanks so much for the time.
Chomsky: Thank you.
Taibbi: I want to talk Manufacturing Consent, a book that had a huge influence on reporters like myself.
Taibbi: What was the genesis of that project? How did you decide to do a treatment of the media? Neither of you specialized in the subject.
Chomsky: Well, the first book we wrote had a very interesting history. It was called Counter-Revolutionary Violence. There was a small, but quite successful, publisher that was publishing this. It was largely doing materials for universities, small monographs and things. One of them was this one we wrote, called Counter-Revolutionary Violence. They published 20,000 copies, and started advertising. But it turned out the company was owned by Warner Brothers. And one of the executives in Warner Brothers saw the ads, and didn’t like it.
Taibbi: What didn’t he like about it?
Chomsky: When he saw the book he practically went through the ceiling. So he asked them to withdraw the book. And they didn’t want to do it. They said they would agree to publish a counter-volume if he wanted. No, he didn’t want that. Wanted it withdrawn. What he finally did was put the publisher out of business, and destroyed all of their stock.
Chomsky: Including our book, and everything else.
Taibbi: Just to get rid of your book?
Chomsky: Yeah. And I brought it to the attention of some of the main civil libertarians, people like [Village Voice columnist] Nat Hentoff, and so on. But they didn’t see any problems with American civil liberties. I can understand their point. It’s not state censorship.
Chomsky: You’re not supposed to notice that we have private governments that are much more powerful than the state. Anyway, that’s not part of the ideology.
So this was okay, technically.
Well, we said, “Alright, that’s gone.” But we decided to expand it. The next major book that we did together was a two-volume Political Economy of Human Rights, which came out in 1979. And it was around that time that we started working on looking at how the media handled things. And that led us to finally Manufacturing Consent.
Ed, as you may know, was a professor of finance. And his main work, his academic work, was called Corporate Power, Corporate Control, which is a standard text on corporate power.
But he’s pretty left wing, so it was critical. The part of Manufacturing Consent on ownership and control, that’s basically his work, the introductory part. Then we kind of shared much of the rest. His style is different from mine. We worked together very well, but in different ways.
Actually we never even met! We met probably two or three times overall. That was pre-Internet, so it was all on paper.
Taibbi: It was all done by correspondence?
Taibbi: Wow. Like typewritten? Handwritten?
Chomsky: (smiling) Oh, typewritten!
Chomsky: If you remember what it was like then – probably you don’t.
Taibbi: My generation is probably the last that does.
Chomsky: But the parts that are really carefully organized, all these charts on how many reports were there on one Polish priest –
Taibbi: Versus those in Central America.
Chomsky: Right. If I were doing it, I would have just given some examples. But when he did it, he did all of the statistics, and got the charts correct, and so on.
The main part that I wrote myself was mostly the Indochina part, and the parts on the Freedom House attack on the media.
This is a part that people don’t really recognize, that a large part of the book was a defense of the media. It was actually a defense of the media from the attacks of organizations like Freedom House.*
Chomsky: But it’s kind of interesting that journalists didn’t like that defense. And the reason was – part of it first came out in an article of mine in a journal that was short lived, critical journalism review** that was run by Anthony Lukas, kind of a critical journalist, very cool.
I wrote a long article in it about the two-volume Freedom House thing. What we basically argued is that the journalists are doing honest, courageous work that’s professional, and serious. And in lot of difficult circumstances, they do a very good job.
But they’re all doing it within a framework of, an ideological framework, which is reflects the dominant hegemonic common sense.
Chomsky: So in fact, they would describe what’s happening accurately, and that thing would be described as a mistake, a deviation, inconsistent with our values and our principles and that sort of thing.
Whereas in fact, it’s exactly in accord with their principles and values.
The idea that they were not courageous tribunes of the people flaunting doctrine and so on was unpalatable. The idea that, “We’re just honest professionals who are captured by an ideological framework that we’re even unaware of,” is an unacceptable idea. Nobody liked that.
Taibbi: So you got pushback on that immediately from reporters?
Chomsky: Yes. I mean, some did. I had some close friends who thought it was fine, but there was pushback, yes.
Taibbi: The main idea in Manufacturing Consent is basically that idea: that it looks like we have a vigorous system of independent journalists, but the debate has been artificially narrowed. Was there a moment when you first had that thought? Do you remember?
Chomsky: Probably when I was 10 years old! Actually remember, the work that I had done on my own before this was a critique of the intellectual culture. And my own view, Ed and I slightly differed here, is that the media aren’t all that different from the general intellectual culture, the academic culture.
So the effect of the institutions: ownership, advertising, and so on, that’s all there. But an overriding effect is just the way the general hegemonic culture works, and you see that in the academic world. You see it in scholarship, and you see it in a very striking way in the media.
But it’s much easier to study in the media. Academic scholarship is diffuse. You can’t do statistical analysis of how many articles there were on this, and that sort of thing.
So it’s kind of focused on the media, and sharpened, then it’s influenced of course by the filters that we talked about.
But I think riding through it is something that you see through the intellectual culture generally. In fact, the work that I’d done back in the sixties and on, it was mostly about that, continuing to the present. It’s mostly about general academic intellectual culture. Which does show up in the media in a very striking form, and that’s why we incidentally kept it to the elite media. So we talked about the New York Times, Washington Post, CBS. We didn’t talk about the tabloids.
Taibbi: But basically you’re talking about the same instinct for conformity, the inability to understand that you’re working within a predetermined framework.
Chomsky: It was exactly what you said before. It’s the assumption that you’re being adversarial, independent, questioning everything, and so on.
But it’s the same in scholarship. If you tell a scholar, “Look you’re just conforming to ideological prejudices,” they go crazy. You can see what happened when something really became prominent that questioned the basic ideological framework. Like when Howard Zinn’s book…
Taibbi: The People’s History of the United States.
Chomsky: Right. When that became popular, historians just went berserk. There’s a very interesting book that just came out about that, you want to take a look.
Taibbi: Is there? I didn’t know.
Chomsky: It’s called Zinnophobia... It’s very careful analysis of Oscar Handlin, and all the guys who bitterly attacked the Zinn report.
Taibbi: Well, that gets to one of the other themes of your book: flak.
Chomsky: Right. This is it. In the intellectual culture. Of course there’s plenty of it.
Taibbi: Have you thought over the years about what parts of the propaganda model have held up more than others? Clearly flak is one that has.
Chomsky: Actually there is a second edition, did you see that?
Taibbi: Yes, with the update.
Chomsky: We pointed out there correctly, that one part of the model was much too narrow: the part about anti-communism.
(Editor’s note: In Manufacturing Consent, heavy emphasis is placed on anticommunism as an organizing religion underpinning the media business. Here, Chomsky is talking about how other theologies have entered the scene since 1988.)
Chomsky: It’s got to be broader than that. Anti-communism was a salient illustration of the enemy that you construct to justify everything you're doing, But it could be terrorism, it could be anything.
Taibbi: Populism is another one.
Chomsky: You mean, what’s called populism.
Chomsky: That term had an honorable history. It was the most democratic movement in American history.
Taibbi: Well they’ve quickly turned it into a different kind of a word.
Chomsky: Yes. Which happens.
Taibbi: When you published Manufacturing Consent, it was at the height of the go-go, Top Gun, Reagan eighties. Everybody was feeling very positive and patriotic about America, or at least that was the line.
Chomsky: We were a “City on a hill.”
Chomsky: Did you ever go into the origin of city on a hill?
Taibbi: No, I didn’t.
Chomsky: It’s an interesting case. The term had never really been, barely been used before Reagan. But Reagan picked it up, and did the “Shining city upon a hill” speech.
But if you go back and you read John Winthrop’s sermon, he says almost the opposite. When he says we’re a city on a hill, what he means is everyone is looking at us, and if we don’t live up to the ideals that we profess, we’re going to be punished.*** Of course, in his case, by the Lord. Not by society.
So it’s really saying we’re exposed, we have to try to live up to these ideals. He didn’t say we were doing it, by any means. In fact, he knew we weren’t. That was the point.
Taibbi: Instead, they turn it into a catch phrase for exceptionalism.
Chomsky: Yeah. So wonderful, isn’t it?
Chomsky: And of course it all went along with Reagan’s nice smile, and all that.
Taibbi: So here you come, in the middle of all that exceptionalism, and you publish Manufacturing Consent, which is exactly the opposite. It presents an image of a country that is completely deluded, and bloodthirsty, and it has this terrible history it can’t face up to.
Chomsky: We had much more of that in the Political Economy of Human Rights, which wasn’t about the media. It was partly about the media, but it was mainly about the actions.
That was just an anathema. Nobody could even look at that. Which was pretty striking, because the most – well, it was pretty interesting. There was an interesting reaction to those two volumes. If you look at them, we covered a lot of ground, but the focus was on two cases. One of them was East Timor. The other was Cambodia under Pol Pot.
Those are two places, same region of the world, during the same years, both huge massacres. East Timor was probably worse.
There was only one difference between them. In one case, you could blame it on someone else. In the other case, we were doing it.
Chomsky: And what we pointed out is that in both cases, there’s massive lying but in opposite directions. In the Cambodia cases, there were all kinds of claims that there was no basis for. When things were refuted, they got elaborated upon and continued. Any invention is okay.
On the East Timor case, there appeared to be either ignoring, or pure denial. And of course the East Timor case is far more important, because that we could have stopped at any time. Because we were crucially responsible for it.
And in fact that was proven when finally 25 years later under a lot of domestic and international pressure, Clinton was pressured to tell the Indonesians to call it off. And he basically told them, “Look, the game’s over,” and they pulled out a minute later. But it could have been done for 25 years.
So the East Timor case was vastly more important. Basically the same story, but lying in opposite directions and phenomenal, actually phenomenal lying in both cases.
Take a look at the reaction to the book. The East Timor thing had never been mentioned. The Cambodia thing, everybody went berserk. They said, we’re protecting Pol Pot, we’re defending genocide. No. We were simply saying, if American intelligence probably has the story correct, than the stuff that you guys are publishing is crazed lies. It would have impressed Stalin.
So there’s a huge literature attacking us, usually me, on Cambodia, and total silence on East Timor.
Taibbi: Because it’s so totally indefensible?
Chomsky: Because you can’t face it.
In fact, that holds until today. Take a look at Samantha Powers’ book, which was very highly praised. Everyone loved it, it’s a wonderful book. She’s probably perfectly honest, just naïve, but she was castigating the United States – which makes it good because it’s kind of critical – castigating it for not dealing properly with other people’s crimes.
It’s such a perfect choice of topic. If a PR person had invented it, they couldn’t have made it better. So everyone loved it and it won prizes, and it’s wonderful. But there’s nothing about any of our crimes. I think she mentions East Timor, and she says, “We made a mistake in East Timor. We looked away.”
Looked away? We gave the green light to go ahead, provided the arms, backed them all the time.
(Note: East Timor’s Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in 2006 concluded that America’s “political and military support were fundamental to the Indonesian invasion and occupation,” which led to the deaths of at least 100,000 people.)
Chomsky: That all happened, but the most you can say is that “we looked away” in East Timor.
Taibbi: There’s an analogous situation going on now with Yemen.
Chomsky: Yemen is the same. We’re giving them intelligence on where to bomb. We’re giving them weapons. But we don’t know anything about what’s going on. Must be a mistake of some kind!
Taibbi: That’s another part of the model that seems to have held up perfectly since 1988: the concept of worthy and unworthy victims.
Chomsky: That’s exactly it.
Taibbi: Syria and Yemen are almost perfect analogues to the Cambodia and East Timor examples in your book.
Chomsky: We used that term for East Timor and Cambodia. So the main themes of Manufacturing Consent are really there, apart from the institutional structure, you know. But that’s a very dramatic example. Because here’s two – you know, East Timor probably came as close to real genocide as anything in the post World War II period.
Taibbi: And yet, you won’t hear that word '“genocide” or see it anywhere in the popular press really attached to that incident – at least, not insofar as our involvement was concerned.
Chomsky: There are other rather interesting cases. Take Kevin Buckley, the Newsweek bureau chief in Saigon. A very good journalist. After the My Lai Massacre, Buckley and an associate of his, Alex Shimkin, did a careful study of what was going on in the Quang Ngai province, where the massacre took place.
And what they discovered was what people in the peace movement already knew, that there was nothing special about My Lai. It was going on all over the place, and further more, these massacres were minor. The major massacres were via the saturation bombing.
From guys sitting in air conditioned offices and telling B-52s to bomb everything in sight, you know. Those were the huge massacres. The My Lai, My Khe, the others like it, they were kind of footnotes. Newsweek wouldn’t publish it, so he gave me the notes, and we basically published his notes, but nobody noticed that either.
Taibbi: That was in the previous book?
Chomsky: It was in the previous book, in the section on Vietnam. This was right at the time that the Argentine neo-Nazi regime was instituted, strongly supported by the United States. I had material on that so, too, and a lot of other things, it covered a lot of ground.
Now see Reagan was using – Congress barred direct military aid to Guatemala. So Reagan, what he did interestingly, was set up an international terror network. But we don’t use people like Carlos the Jackal. We use terrorist states.
Chomsky: So we used Argentina, one of the neo-Nazi regimes. Taiwan. Israel was a big part of it. They provided the arms and the training and the support for the Guatemalan massacres.
Incidentally, people are still fleeing today from the Mayan areas that were subjected to virtual genocide. But they are driven back to the border, of course.
Taibbi: That brings me to another question. One of the main themes of Manufacturing Consent was that it was hard for people to recognize propaganda as propaganda, because it was private and there was absence of direct state censorship.
Chomsky: It’s very much like the destruction of the press. It wasn’t state censorship, so it’s okay.
Incidentally, there’s an interesting book that just came out finally, says some of the obvious things about this, by a woman named Elizabeth Anderson. She’s a philosopher and an economist. It’s called Private Government or some name like that, but her point is that, which is a major point, yes, there is a government, but governments can be repressive. But most of our lives are under private government, which she says are indistinguishable from communist dictatorships.
Any business, for example. If you subject yourself to it, you become essentially a slave of the institution with no rights, give away your liberty, and so on.
The interesting part of her book, which is somewhat new, is she goes through the seventeenth and eighteenth century advocacy of free markets by Adam Smith, Tom Paine, you know, up to Abraham Lincoln, and points out that that was a left wing position.
Because they were advocating free markets, because they wanted to undermine state monopolies and mercantilism, and to allow people to become free, independent artisans not subject to any authority. And they regarded wage labor as equivalent to slavery. The only difference is that it’s temporary. You can get out of it.
And when the Industrial Revolution came along, everything changed. You could only survive by being subordinate to a major corporate structure, and wage labor became the norm.
The contemporary libertarians are still citing the seventeenth and eighteenth century condemnations of wage labor and contract as being libertarian, because now it’s not government. Everything has inverted totally. It’s very much like you were saying before with censorship.
Taibbi: Well, that’s interesting, because we’re in this unusual place now. The media landscape now almost totally exists on a couple of distribution platforms. They’re private, technically. Facebook, Google, but there’s now a bit of an inter-relationship between those companies and the government. And some places like Israel, it’s more of a direct relationship. Would that be a change in the model if they were to adopt a more directly censorious role?
Chomsky: Take a look at the Facebook phenomenon. Where are they getting their news from? They don’t have reports.
They just getting it from the New York Times, so it’s the same sources of information. They’re just putting it out in trivialized form, so that people with a 10-year-old mentality can handle it. It’s a very dangerous thing. They’re not doing any of the things that the media do. They don’t frame things. They don’t select. They don’t send reporters out. They don’t investigate, you know, they just collect information hand it over to kids to look at in 10 minutes so you don’t believe the newspapers.
Taibbi: After you published Manufacturing Consent, there was a major change in the business. I had seen this pretty dramatically because I’d grown up in the media. But suddenly in the late eighties and early nineties, there was a new commercial strategy that Fox employed. It was less about getting the broadest possible audience, but more about capturing a demographic, continuing to feed them news that they agreed with. It was a siloing effect – silos of news, fed separately to each demographic.
Chomsky: That’s right, that’s new.
Taibbi: And that has been massively accelerated by the Internet, by Facebook, and the platforms.
Chomsky: The other aspect of that, which I think is maybe underestimated, is talk radio, it reaches a huge audience. And I’ve often thought, I don’t know if they’ve got it around here, but in Boston, I used to listen to it all the time while I was driving. It’s totally insane.
Taibbi: It is. But how does that affect the model? Because Manufacturing Consent was significantly about organizing everybody behind hegemonic imperatives. But we now have a system where the news and its attendant messaging is fractured. Information is distributed differently, to each different silo. And many violently disagree with each other.
Chomsky: Well, you know what’s actually happened, I think is they disagree – but the divisiveness I think is somewhat misinterpreted. It’s always described as some groups moving left, others moving right. I don’t think that’s happened. I think both groups have moved to the right. There’s a divide, but it’s misrepresented.
Take Bernie Sanders. Take a look at his policies. I mean, Eisenhower wouldn’t have been surprised by them. No, literally!
Eisenhower's position was that anybody who questioned the New Deal was out of his mind. There was strong support for unions by corporate leaders, in fact, because they kept things organized, and you didn’t have strikes and so on.
But, the Sanders proposals are pretty much – you know, they would have been considered maybe mildly liberal in the 1950s. But certainly not radical, not revolutionary. It’s just the whole spectrum has moved so far to the right that they look extreme.
Taibbi: Does the divisiveness also serve any other propaganda purpose? For instance, having people not realizing shared economic problems?
Chomsky: Definitely, there is an element.
Taibbi: You talk a lot in Manufacturing Consent about deceptions that are flagrant, like for instance the story about the supposed Bulgarian plot behind the attempt to kill Pope John Paul II in the Vatican in 1981. I remember you writing that “there was no credible evidence for a Bulgarian connection from the beginning,” and yet the whole press corps dove into it. It later came out that there were indications that our government was really working hard to sell a Soviet connection to that incident.
Chomsky: There’s a book on that.
Taibbi: Despite episodes like that, we’ve had so many that were similar. Take the Iraq War: WMD you could have seen through, I thought, from the very beginning.
Chomsky: There are still people who believe there were WMDs.
Taibbi: And of course that story turned out very badly for the media. Do you think all that blatant deception resulted in a situation where people were willing to believe somebody like Trump –
Chomsky: Over the media?
Chomsky: Well, I think it’s true. Although, honestly, I think one of the unfortunate effects of Manufacturing Consent is that a lot of people who’ve read it say, “Well, we can’t trust the media.” But that’s not exactly what it said. If you want to get information, sure, read the New York Times, but read it with your eyes open. With a critical mind. The Times is full of facts. You’re not going to find the information there on Facebook.
Taibbi: Or 4Chan.
Chomsky: Also, don’t confine it to the media. There’s skepticism now about institutions altogether. In fact, faith in institutions has just declined radically, almost all across the board. Like Congress, the support for them is just sometimes in the single digits. About 80% of the population since the eighties have consistently in polls been saying, the government is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves. Which is…
Taibbi: True. Right?
Chomsky: And I think it’s the impact of the whole neoliberal aggression that was major. That began technically with Carter, really picked up with Reagan and Thatcher, across the world. You’ve had tremendous damage to the general population under the neoliberal, business-first principles. And it’s just happened everywhere. Take a look just at wages, I mean, real wages today are lower than in the late seventies. There’s been economic growth, but into few pockets. Productivity keeps increasing, but not wages. Up until the mid-seventies, real wages tracked productivity. If you look back then, there’s a split of productivity keeps going up, but wages stagnate or decline. And that’s true by every measure you look at.
Taibbi: And naturally, people are upset about that.
Chomsky: They’re upset. And the same in Europe, at least the anger, the hatred of institutions, the ugly attitudes emerge to try to blame somebody for what’s going on. And you see in the European elections, in every election the centrist parties collapse, and they go to fringes. You see it in Brexit. Brexit is suicidal. But the people are so angry that they just want to get out of it.
Taibbi: During the 2016 election, I remember very vividly the experience of covering Trump and being behind the rope line with all the reporters and Trump pointing us out and making us villains. He’d basically say: “There are the elites, they’re stenographers for the bad guys.” And that was very effective I thought.
Chomsky: Yes, and it’s straight out of the fascist history. Go after the elites, even while you’re being supported by the major elites.
Chomsky: You ever read Thomas Ferguson? He’s a political economist, a very good one. His whole life he’s been working on things like the impact of things like campaign funding on electability. And he did a very careful study of 2016 election. What turned out was that, in the end, in the last couple of months when it became it was looking very clearly as if Clinton was going to win, the corporate sector really got pretty upset. And they start pouring money into funding not only for Trump, but heavily into the Senate and the House, because they wanted to make sure the Republicans controlled the House and the Senate.
And if you compare the increase in campaign funding with the shift in attitudes, it’s almost perfect. It pushed not only Trump, but also the whole Congress into Republican wins. Just as a reflection of campaign funding.
So the real elites knew where their bread was buttered.
Taibbi: But Trump uses this trick of presenting other people as representatives of the elites.
Chomsky: Standard technique of the fake populists against the elites, while you’re actually working for them.
Taibbi: Why do you think the population has become so much more conspiratorial-minded since the publication of Manufacturing Consent? Or has it? It seems to me that it has. Could it be that – well, when you wrote Manufacturing Consent, there was a commonly accepted set of facts. We had three networks, they mostly reported the same things, now-
Chomsky: Well there were conspiracies. I mean, take a look at the Kennedy conspiracies. That’s much earlier. This goes way back in American history when Richard Hofstadter wrote about it fifty years ago. But it’s true that it’s been inflated recently, and I think it’s just a reflection of the very natural anger at institutions altogether, across the board. Maybe the Army sort of escapes, but practically nothing else. And if you can’t trust institutions, why can you trust the media?
Taibbi: But that’s one of the developments, isn’t it? That the media increasingly are viewed as an institution, whereas previously this was not so much the case?
Chomsky: Oh, they are. Because Trump is very effective in terms of eliciting anti-institutional furor against the media, making media the enemy, which is a clever trick. He’s a good politician.
Taibbi: A lot of people who are fellow reporters have commented to me over the years – and I agree with them – that Manufacturing Consent really captured something about the inner workings of the media business. I think of things that Chris Hedges has talked about, about the dynamics inside media companies: if you’re too independent-minded, if you have too obvious a bent toward independent thought, sooner or later, you’re going to run into trouble. You won’t be promoted, or you’ll get wrapped up in some kind of bureaucratic fiasco. Some kind of label will get attached to you, particularly in the giant daily news operations.
Chomsky: They’ll say you’re too biased, emotional, too involved in things. But you see, it’s the same in the academic world. It just might be bigger words over here.
Taibbi: There might just be a hair more intellectual mediocrity in our world than yours, I would think.
Chomsky: Well, I’m not convinced of that.
Taibbi: Obviously, the structure of media now with the Internet-based distribution systems, what do you see as the future there? Will it be easier or harder to “Manufacture Consent” with so much concentration?
Chomsky: The crucial word was distribution systems. The Internet doesn’t dig up any information. So, the information’s coming from the same place it will always do. It’s the reporters on the ground. Unfortunately, there are fewer of them.
But I think in a lot of ways, it’s hard to measure, but my impression is that the media are probably more free and open than they were in the fifties and sixties. And the reason is that a lot of the younger people, the people who are now in the media, went through the sixties experience, which was very liberatory. It really opened people’s minds, so they tend to be more critical and open-minded and so on.
People forget how conformist the media were in the fifties and sixties. It was shocking. When you look back, it’s mind-boggling.
In 1961, I think around November, Kennedy authorized the U.S. Air Force to start bombing South Vietnam. They used South Vietnamese markings, but everybody knew what was going on. They were American planes. This is a big thing: starting to bomb the rural population in a foreign country. I think the New York Times may have had ten lines on it on a back page.
Nobody knew, nobody paid any attention. I don’t think that could happen now. And there are many cases like this.
Taibbi: Do you think that this is a source of concern to the government and large corporate interests, this idea that maybe there is a little bit too much freedom? A little too much independence? Maybe, something needs to be
Chomsky: There’s a very important book, which came out 1975. It’s called the Crisis of Democracy. It’s the first publication of the Trilateral Commission, which is a group of liberal internationalists from Europe, United States, and Japan, three main centers of capitalist democracy.
What’s the “Crisis of Democracy”? The “Crisis of Democracy” is that in the 1960s, all kinds of sectors of the population that are supposed to be passive and apathetic begin to try to enter the political arena to press for their own interests and concerns, and that imposes too much of a burden on the state, which becomes ungovernable. So, what we need is “more moderation in democracy.” That’s their phrase. People should go back into their corners and leave it to us.
In fact, the American rapporteur Samuel Huntington looked back kind of nostalgically to the Truman years. He says Truman was able to govern the country politically with the aid of just a few Wall Street bankers.
Then we had democracy. But he goes after the media. He says the media have become too adversarial, too independent. We may even have to institute government controls to try to contain them, because of what they’re doing.
That’s the liberal position. The Trilateral Commission also went after what they called the de-legitimation of the universities. They said that the institutions – and this is their phrase – these institutions responsible for the “indoctrination of the young” – are being de-legitimized.
We’ve got to have more indoctrination. Remember, that’s the liberal end of the spectrum. Over to the right wing, you get much harsher things… but that’s the intellectual background. We’ve got to stop “too much democracy,” “too much freedom.”
The 1960s were always called the “Time of Troubles.” That was a time when the country when all this started.
Taibbi: You mention that in the book, that they talked about an “excess of democracy” in terms of the media coverage of Vietnam.
Chomsky: This is the main source of it. When the book came out, I immediately got the MIT library to buy about ten copies, because I figured they were going to put it out of print. (laughing). Which they did. They later printed it again. That’s never discussed. I’ve discussed it a lot.
Taibbi: All of that rhetoric that you’re talking about is now resurfacing. We’re hearing again about “too much democracy.” And there are many discussions about having to rein in the media, really on both sides of the aisle politically.
Chomsky: Yes. It’s very much the same.
Taibbi: Well, terrific. Professor, thank you so much.
Chomsky: Thank you.
* Freedom House, as described in Manufacturing Consent: “Freedom House, which dates back to the early 1940s, has had interlocks with AIM, the World Anticommunist League, Resistance International, and U.S. government bodies such as Radio Free Europe and the CIA, and has long served as a virtual propaganda arm of the government and international right wing.”
** MORE, which went out of business in 1978.
*** From Winthrop’s sermon: “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.”
Image of Noam Chomsky via jeanbaptisteparis.
This is the preface to The Fairway, or Thirty Years After Manufacturing Consent, How Mass Media Still Keeps Thought Inbounds. Subscribe to get access to this serial book as it’s published, as well as to the entirety of the already-published The Business Secrets of Drug Dealing: Adventures of the Unidentified Black Male.
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