Chomsky on mainstream propaganda

4 Mar

1996 interview of Noam Chomsky by the BBC’s Andrew Marr. Transcript below. (I’ve done a light edit to filter out vocal redundancy from someone else’s transcript, and added a few links.)

Introduction by Marr

Do you believe what you read in the media? I’m not talking Di and Fergie but the important stuff, politics and economics. Has it occurred to you it could be a system of propaganda designed to limit how you imagine the world? That’s the view of Noam Chomsky, whose been teaching in Boston for 30 years. Described as American’s leading dissident, he’s based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where although it’s very cold, it isn’t exactly the Gulag Archipelago. As a working journalist myself I’ve come to talk to Professor Chomsky about bias in the media.

Orwell’s nightmare. A place where propaganda rules. Where thought is controlled. It’s now a familiar, if chilling, Cold War fable. Most of us would say it’s old hat. But is it?

For decades freedoms of thought and expression have been central to western democracy. The media sees itself as free, fearless, stroppy, and for many in power the press are too strong. So the idea that Orwell’s warning is still relevant may seem bizarre. But not to Noam Chomsky, who thinks the image of a truth seeking media is a sham. Chomsky’s devoted his life to questioning western state power.

Having virtually invented modern linguistics by the age of 30, Chomsky joined the swirl of protests in the 60s. Since then, Chomsky has championed a brand of anarchism, becoming deeply hostile to established power and privilege. And in recent years he’s refined, what he calls, the propaganda model of the media. He claims that the mass media brainwash under freedom. Not only do the media systematically suppress and distort, when they do present facts, the context obscures their real meaning.

The invasion of East Timor by the Indonesian army caused indescribable slaughter. Hundred’s of thousands died. But it was more or less ignored by the main stream western media because, Chomsky argues, we were selling arms to the aggressors. But wars where the west’s interests are directly involved get a different treatment. For Chomsky, coverage of the Gulf War was servile, trivial criticisms were aired, fundamental ones were ignored.

Naturally Chomsky has numerous critics. Is the media so influential? Have dissident views really been excluded in an age of relative media diversity? In the age of the Internet? What about Chomsky’s own access? What about this very program?

The Interview

Marr: Professor Chomsky, can we start by listening to you explain what the propaganda model, as you call it, is? For many people the idea that propaganda is used by democratic rather that merely authoritarian governments will be a strange one.

Chomsky: The term propaganda fell into disfavour around the Second World War, but in the 1920s and 1930s it was commonly used. And in fact advocated, by leading intellectuals, by the founders of modern political science, by Wilsonian progressives, and of course  the public relations industry as a necessary technique to overcome the danger of democracy. The institutional structure of the media is quite straightforward, we’re talking about the United States, but it’s not very different elsewhere. The major – there are sectors – but the agenda setting media, the one’s that sort of set the framework for everyone else, like The New York Times and The Washington Post and so on, these are major corporations, parts of even bigger conglomerates. Like other corporate institutions they have a product and a market. Their market is advertisers, that is other businesses, their product is privileged, relatively privileged audiences. More or less…

Marr: They’re selling audiences to corporations.

Chomsky: They’re selling privileged audiences. These are big business, big corporations selling privileged audiences to other corporations. Now the question is, what picture of the world would a rational person expect to come out of this structure? Then we draw some conclusions about what you would expect, and then we check, and yes, that’s the picture of the world that comes out.

Marr: Is this anything more than the idea that basically the press is relatively right wing with some exceptions because it’s owned by big business? Which is a truism, is well know.

Chomsky: Well I would call the press relatively liberal. Here I agree with right wing critics. So especially The New York Times and The Washington Post, which are called, without a trace of irony, The New York Times is called the ‘establishment left,’ in say, major foreign policy journals. And that’s correct, but what’s not recognised is that the role of the liberal intellectual establishment is to set very sharp bounds on how far you can go. This far, and no further.

Marr: Give me some examples of that.

Chomsky: Well, let’s take say the Vietnam War. Probably the leading critic, and in fact one of the leading dissident intellectuals in the mainstream is Anthony Lewis of The New York Times. Who did finally come around to opposing the Vietnam War about 1969. About a year and a half after corporate America had more or less ordered Washington to call it off. And his picture from then on is that the war as he put it began with blundering efforts to do good, but ended up by 1969 being a disaster and costing us too much. That’s the criticism.

Marr: So what would the non-propaganda model have told Americans about the Vietnam War at the same time?

Chomsky: Same thing that the mainstream press was telling them about Afghanistan. The United States invaded South… had first of all in the 1950s had set up a standard Latin American-style terror state which had massacred 10,000s of people, but was unable to control local, a local uprising and everyone knows, at least every specialist knows that’s what it was. And when Kennedy came in 1961 he had to make a decision because the government was collapsing under local attack so the US just invaded the country. In 1961 the US air force started bombing South Vietnamese civilians, authorised napalm, crop destruction. Then in 1965, January-February 1965, the next major escalation took place against South Vietnam. Not against North Vietnam, that was a side-show. That’s what an honest press would be saying, but you can’t find a trace of it.

Marr: If the press is a censoring organisation, tell me how that works. You’re not suggesting proprietors phone one another up [Chomsky: No] Or that many journalists get their copies spiked as we say?

Chomsky: Orwell has an essay called Literary Censorship in England, which was supposed to be the introduction to Animal Farm except it never appeared. And which he points out, look, I’m writing about a totalitarian society but in free democratic England it’s not all that different. And then he says, unpopular ideas can be silenced without force. [Marr: How?] He gives a two sentence response, which is not very profound, but captures it. He says two reasons, first the press is owned by wealthy men who have every interest in not having certain things appear, but second the whole educational system from the beginning on through just gets you to understand that there are certain things you just don’t say. Well, spelling these things out, that’s perfectly correct. I mean, the first sentence is what we expanded on…

Marr: This is what I don’t get, because it suggests that – I mean I’m a journalist – people like me are self-censoring.

Chomsky: No, not self-censoring. There’s a filtering system that starts in kindergarten, and goes all the way through, and it’s not going to work 100% but it’s pretty effective. It selects for obedience, and subordination, and especially I think… [Marr: So stroppy people won’t make it to positions of influence] There’ll be behavioural problems. If you read applications to a graduate school you’ll see that people will tell you, he’s not, he doesn’t get along too well with his colleagues, you know how to interpret those things.

Marr: I’m interested because I was brought up like a lot of people post-Watergate to believe journalism was a crusading craft and there were a lot of disputatious, stroppy, difficult people in journalism, and I have to say, I think I know some of them.

Chomsky: Well, I know some of the best, and best known investigative reporters in the United States, I won’t mention names, whose attitude towards the media is much more cynical than mine. In fact, they regard the media as a sham. And they consciously talk about how they try to play it like a violin. If they see a little opening, they’ll try to squeeze something in that ordinarily wouldn’t make it through. And it’s perfectly true the majority – I’m sure you’re speaking for the majority of journalists who are trained, have it driven into their heads, that this is a crusading profession, adversarial, we stand up against power. A very self-serving view. On the other hand, in my opinion, I hate to make a value judgement but, the better journalists and in fact the ones often regarded as the best journalists have quite a different picture. And I think a very realistic one.

Marr: How can you know that I’m self-censoring? How can you know that journalists are..

Chomsky: I’m not saying you’re self censoring. I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is that if you believe something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.

Marr: We have a press, which has, seems to me, has a relatively wide range of views… There is a pretty small ‘c’ conservative majority, but there are left wing papers, there are liberal papers and there is a pretty large offering of views running from the far right to the far left for those who want them. I don’t see how a propaganda model can…

Chomsky: That’s not quite true. I mean there have been good studies of the British press and you can look at them, by James Curran is the major one, which points out that up until the 1960s there was indeed a kind of a social democratic press which sort of represented much of the interests of working people and ordinary people and so on, and it was very successful. I mean in the Daily Herald, for example, had not only more… it had far higher circulation than other newspapers, but also a dedicated circulation, furthermore the tabloids at that time, The Mirror and The Sun, were kind of labor based. That, by the 60s, that was all gone. And it disappeared under the pressure of capital resources. What was left was overwhelmingly the sort of center-to-right press, with some dissidents, it’s true.

Mann: I mean, we’ve got, I’d say a couple of large circulation newspapers which are left-of-center. Which are, which are, you know putting in neo-Keynesian views which the, you call the elites, are strongly hostile to.

Chomsky: It’s interesting that you call neo-Keynesian left-of-center, I would just call it straight and center. I mean left-of-center is a value term. [Marr: sure] But there’s, there’s… there are extremely good journalists in England. A number of them write honestly, and very good material, a lot of what they write couldn’t appear here. On the other hand, if you look at the question overall I don’t think you are going to find a big difference. And the few, there aren’t many studies of the British press, but the few that there are have found pretty much the same results and I think the better journalists will tell you that. In fact, we, what you have to do is check it out in cases. Let’s take what I just mentioned, the Vietnam War. The British press did not have the kind of stake in the Vietnam War that the American press did, because they weren’t fighting, but just check sometime and find how many times you can find the American war in Vietnam described as a US attack against South Vietnam, beginning clearly with outright aggression in 1961 and escalating to massive aggression in 65. If you can find .001% of the coverage saying that you’ll surprise me. And in a free press a 100% of it would have being saying that. Now that is just a matter of fact, it has nothing to do with left and right.

Marr: Let me come to a more modern war, the Gulf War. Which again, looking at the press in Britain and watching television, including some American television. I was well aware of the anti-Gulf War dissidents. [Chomsky: ‘Were you?’] The ‘No Blood for Oil’ campaigns. [Chomsky: ‘That’s not the the dissidents.’] ‘No Blood for Oil’ isn’t the dissidents?’

Chomsky: Saddam Hussein’s attack on Kuwait was on Aug. 2nd. From August, within a few days the great fear in Washington was that he was going to withdraw and leave a puppet government, pretty much what the US had done in Panama. The US and Britain therefore moved quickly to undercut the danger of withdrawal. By late August, offers were coming from Iraq calling for a negotiated Iraqi withdrawal. The press wouldn’t publish them here, they never published them in England. It did leak, however… [Marr: There was a great debate about whether there should have been a negotiated settlement.] Sorry, no, there was not a debate. There was a debate about whether you should continue with sanctions, which is a different question. We have good evidence that by late August, sanctions had already worked. These stories were coming from high officials in the State Department, former American officials like Richard Helm. They couldn’t get the mainstream press to cover them but did manage to get one journal to cover it, Newsday, a suburban journal in Long Island, the purpose obviously being to smoke out The New York Times, the only thing that matters. It came out in Newsday and this continued, I won’t go through details but this continued until January 2nd. At that time, the offers coming were apparently so meaningful that State Department officials were saying look, this is negotiable, meaningful, maybe we won’t accept everything but it’s a basis for negotiated withdrawal. The press would not cover it. Newsday did, a few other people did, I have a couple of Op-Eds on it, and to my knowledge, you can check, the first reference to any of this in England is an article I wrote in the Guardian in early January. You can check and see if there is an earlier reference.

Marr: OK, let’s look a one of the other key examples which you’ve looked at too which would appear to go against your idea which is the Watergate affair.

Chomsky: Watergate is a perfect example, we’ve discussed it at length in our book in fact and elsewhere. It’s a perfect example of the way the press was subordinated to power.

Marr: But this brought down a president!

Chomsky: Just a minute, let’s take a look. What happened there… it’s kind of interesting, because you can’t do experiments in history, but here history was kind enough to set one up for us. The Watergate exposures happened to take place at exactly the same time as another set of exposures, namely the exposures of COINTELPRO.

Marr: Sorry, you’ll have to explain that.

Chomsky: It’s interesting that I have to explain it because it’s vastly more significant than Watergate. That already makes my point. COINTELPRO was a program of subversion, carried out, not by a couple of petty crooks, but by the national political police, the FBI, under four administrations. It began in the late Eisenhower administration, ran up till…

Marr: This is aimed at the Socialist Workers Party…

Chomsky: The Socialist Workers Party was one tiny fragment of it. It began… By the time it got through, I won’t run through the whole story, it was aimed at the entire New Left, at the women’s movement, at the whole black movement. It was extremely broad. It’s actions went as far as political assassination. Now what’s the difference between the two? Very clear. In Watergate, Nixon went after half of US private power, namely the Democratic Party. And power can defend itself. So that’s a scandal. He didn’t do anything, nothing happened. I was on Nixon’s enemies list. I didn’t even know, nothing ever happened.

Marr: Nonetheless, you wouldn’t say it was an insignificant event?

Chomsky: Half of US power defended itself against a person who had stepped out of line. And the fact the press thought that important shows they think powerful people ought to be able to defend themselves. Now whether a question of principle was involved happens to be easily checked in this case. One tiny part of the COINTELPRO program was itself far more significant in terms of principle than all of Watergate. And if you look at the whole program, it’s not even a discussion. But you had to ask me what COINTELPRO is, you know what Watergate is. There couldn’t be a more dramatic example of the subordination of the educated opinion to power here in England as well as in the United States.

Marr: You’ve concentrated on foreign affairs and some of these key areas. [Chomsky: I’ve written a lot about domestic politics.] But, well I’ll later come onto that. But it still seems to me that on a range of important issues for the establishment there is serious dissent. [Chomsky: That’s right] Gingrich and his neoconservative agenda in America has been pretty savagely lampooned. The apparently fixed succession for the Republican candidacy at the presidential election has come apart. Clinton, who is a powerful figure, is having great difficulty with Whitewater. Everywhere one looks, one sees disjunctures, openings…

Chomsky: Within a spectrum so narrow that you really have to look hard to find…

Marr: Let me, can I just stop you there, because you say the spectrum is narrow, but on the one hand… [Chomsky: Can I illustrate? May I illustrate?] you have flat-tax Republicans right the way through to relatively big state Democrats.

Chomsky: Find one, find a big state Democrat. The position now is exactly what Clinton said. The era of big government is over, big government has failed, the war on poverty has failed, we have to get rid of this entitlement business. That was Clinton’s campaign message in 1992. That’s the Democrats. What you have now is a difference between sort of moderate Republicans and extreme Republicans. Actually it’s well known there has been a long standing sort of split in the American business community, it’s not precise but sort of general, between high-tech, capital intensive, internationally orientated business which tends to be what’s called liberal, and lower-tech, more national orientated, more labor-intensive industry which is what’s called conservative. Between those sectors there have been differences and in fact if you take a look at American politics it oscillates pretty much between those limits. There’s good work on this incidentally, the person who’s done the most extensive work is Thomas Ferguson who’s a political scientist here.

Marr: One more example which will have some resonance in Britain and Europe is the great argument over the North American Free Trade Association, the NAFTA argument [Chomsky: Interesting] If there is something that one could describe as a global opposition movement, that is, trade union, environmental, community-based then it was certainly present in the anti-NAFTA. [Chomsky: Shall I tell you what happened? Shall I tell you what happened?] All I was going to say is that those arguments were well, we were well aware of those arguments.

Chomsky: No. That is flatly false. They were not permitted into the press and I’ve documented this. I’ll give you references if you like. [Marr: We read all about it in Britain is all I would say] No you did not. [Marr: Sorry, yes we did, yes we did!] Well I’ll ask you, did you read the report of the Office of Technology Association of Congress? Sorry. Did you read the report of the Labor Advisory Committee? [Marr: Well, I don’t get these reports.] Sorry. [Marr: I read many articles about the anti-NAFTA argument] I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you. [It’s very interesting stuff?] I’m sorry. If you are interested in the facts, I’ll tell you what they are and I’ll even give you sources. The NAFTA agreement was signed, more or less in secret, by the three Presidents in mid-August, at the time of the, right in the middle of the presidential campaign – in mid-August. Now there’s a law in the United States, 1974 Trade Act, which requires that any trade related issue be submitted to the Labor Advisory Committee, which is union based, for assessment and analysis. It was never submitted to them. A day before they were supposed to give their final report in mid-September it was finally submitted to them. They were infuriated, the unions are very, are pretty right-wing, but they were infuriated. They had never been shown this. They had strong… Even at the time they had to write the… They had 24 hours to write the report. They hadn’t even looked at the text. Nevertheless they wrote a very vigorous analysis of it with alternatives presented saying, look we’re not against NAFTA, we’re against this version of it. They gave a good analysis, happened to be very similar to one given by the Congressional Research Service, the Office of Technology Assessment. None of this ever entered the press. The only thing that entered the press was the kind of critique they were willing to deal with. Mexico bashing, right ring nationalism and so on, that entered the press, but not the critical analysis of the labor movement.

Marr: Well somehow by some process of osmosis or something I picked up quite a lot of [Chomsky: No you didn’t] anti-NAFTA arguments, on the basis of worker protection, environmental degradation…

Chomsky: May I continue? This goes on in the press right until the end… By the end… There were big popular movements opposing it, it was extremely hard to suppress all of this. To suppress everything coming out of the labor movement, out of the popular movements and so on, but they did. At the very end it had reached such a point there was concern that they might not be able to ram this through. Now take a look at The New York Times and Washington Post, say the liberal media and the national ones in the last couple of weeks. And I’ll tell you about it, I’ve written about it and I’ll tell you what you find. What you find is 100% support for NAFTA, refusal to allow any of the popular arguments out, tremendous labor bashing…

Marr: Can I come back to make sure I understand the point about liberal press as against conservative press, because in Britain over the last two years, politicians I come across are deeply irritated ranging on furious about attacks on them in the press, day after day, on issues which known as ‘sleaze’. [Chomsky: “That’s right”] They feel they are harassed, they are misunderstood and the press has got above itself, is uppity and is destructive. That’s the message they are giving to us. Now are you saying that that whole process [Chomsky: That’s true] doesn’t matter? As it were because it’s all part of the same…

Chomsky: I mean when the press – the same thing is true here – when the press focuses on the sex lives of politicians reach for your pocket and see who’s pulling out your wallet. I mean, because those are not issues that matter to people. I mean they are of very marginal interest. The issues that matter to people are somewhere else. So as soon as you hear the press and presidential candidates and so on talking about values, as I say, put your hand on your wallet. You know that something else is happening.

Marr: But it’s been much more, certainly with us, its been much more than bed hopping. It’s also been about taking money from [Chomsky: corruption] corporations, paying for political parties [Chomsky: corruption, corrupt judges, fine topic] corrupt politicians… [Chomsky: corrupt party…]

Chomsky: Big business is not in favour of corruption, you know. And if the press focuses on corruption, Fortune Magazine will be happy. They don’t care about that. The don’t want society to be corrupt, they want it run in their interest. That’s a different thing. Corruption interferes with that. So for example, when I was, I just happened to come back from India, the Bank of India released an estimate, economists there tell me its low, that a third of the economy is black, meaning rich business men not paying their taxes. Well that makes the press, because transnationals don’t like it. They want the system run without corruption, robbery, bribes, and so on, just pouring money into their pockets. So yes, that’s a fine topic for the press. On the other hand the topics I’ve talked about are not fine topics because they’re much too significant.

Marr: What would a press be like do you think without the propaganda model. What would we be reading in the papers that we don’t read about now?

Chomsky: I’ve given a dozen examples. On every example that incidentally you’ve picked, I haven’t picked, I mean I could pick my own, I’m happy to let you pick them. On every one of those examples I think you can demonstrate there has been a severe distortion of what the facts of the matter are. This has nothing to do with left and right as I’ve been stressing, and it has left the population pretty confused and marginalised. A free press would just tell you the truth. This has nothing to do with left and right.

Marr: And given the power of big business, the power of the press, what can people do about this?

Chomsky: They can do exactly what people do in the Haitian slums and hills – organise. In Haiti, which is most, pick that, which is the most poorest country in the hemisphere they created a very vibrant, lively civil society. In the slums, in the hills, in conditions that most of us can’t even imagine. We can do the same much more easily.

Marr: You’ve got community activists in American [Chomsky: Yes, we do] You’ve got… I’m not talking about the so called Communitarian movement, but I’m talking about the local community activist writers all over the place…

Chomsky: All over the place. Take a city like Boston. All sorts of people, they don’t even know of each other’s existence. It’s… There’s a very large number of them. One of the things I do constantly is run around the country giving talks. One of my main purposes, and the purpose of the people who invite me, is to bring the people together, people in that area, who are working on the same things and don’t know of each other’s existence. Because the resources are so scattered, and the means of communication are so marginal, there isn’t just much they can do about it. Now there are things, plenty of things that are happening. So take say community based radio, which is sort of outside this {inaudible}

Marr: I was going to ask you about that and the Internet which has certainly got pretty open access at the moment.

Chomsky: Well the Internet is, like most technologies, is a very double-edged sword. It has like any technology, including printing, a liberatory potential, but also repressive potential, and there’s a battle going on about which way it’s going to go as there was for radio and television and so on…

Marr: About ownership and advertising…

Chomsky: Right, and about just what’s going to be in it, and whose going to have access. Remember incidentally the Internet is an elite operation. Most of the population in the world haven’t even made a phone call, so they’re not on the Internet. But nethertheless, it does have a democratising potential, and there’s a struggle going on now as to whether that’s going to be realised or whether it will turn into something like a home marketing service, and a way of marginalising people further. That discussion went on in the 1920s over radio and it’s interesting how it turned out. It went on over television, it’s not going on over the Internet. And that’s a matter of popular struggle. Look, we don’t live the way we did 200 years ago, or even 30 years ago. There’s been a lot of progress. It hasn’t been gifts from above. It’s been the result of people getting together and refusing to accept the dictates of authoritarian institutions. And there’s no reason to think that that’s over.

Marr: You been portrayed, and some would say occasionally portrayed yourself as a lonely dissident voice. You clearly don’t feel lonely at all.

Chomsky: I do not portray myself that way. I can’t accept a fraction of the invitations from around the country. I’m scheduled two years in advance. And of that I’m only selecting a fraction of [Marr: And you’re speaking to huge audiences] huge audiences. And these are not elite intellectuals, these are mostly popular audiences. I probably spend 20 or 30 hours a week just answering letters from people all over the country and the world. I wish I felt a little more lonely. Of course I’m not on NPR, I wouldn’t be in the mainstream media, but wouldn’t expect that. Why should they offer space to someone trying to undermine their power, and to expose what they do? But that’s not lonely.

Marr: Professor Chomsky, thank you very much.

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