Noam Chomsky has a veritable cult following among those who are sceptical about views the liberal media espouses and government propaganda machinery spawns to suit their often overlapping agendas. Compelling is his criticism, breathtaking is his knowledge, persuasive is his voice, and deep runs his humanity. This 82-year-old Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston, has written over 100 books and is considered the doyen of modern linguistics. To the world outside the academia, though, he’s more famous as America’s leading dissident intellectual whose instinct it is to expose the hypocrisy of the powerful. His awesome credentials inspired The New York Times to describe him as “arguably the most important intellectual alive”.
On the 15th anniversary of Outlook, Ajaz Ashraf and Anuradha Raman talked to Chomsky over the phone on aspects of the crisis plaguing the media. These included the questions you readers have often wondered about: Is the media really free? Or is it the handmaiden of the elites, the state? And how does one distinguish propaganda from news? Speaking with the candour and brilliance typical of his writing, Chomsky says the crisis in the media is not a result of its declining revenues as much as its intellectual dishonesty. He also sprang a few surprises—for instance, he finds the media in Pakistan more vibrant than it is in India. Excerpts:
Why do you say the idea of a liberal media is a myth?
I don’t. Some of my friends and colleagues do. My own view is that the media, the major media, the New York Times and so on, tend to be what is called liberal. Of course, liberal here implies highly supportive of state power, state violence and state crimes. I, though, don’t deny that liberal means, more or less, being in favour of civil rights, social programmes, roughly what’s called social democratic in much of the world.
Do you think the so-called liberal media really serves that purpose?
Yes, to some extent, but their major commitment is to the centres of power—state and private. For example, there are major attacks on civil rights today but because those are coming from the Obama administration, the liberal media barely discusses the violations.
As soon as the plan to invade Iraq was announced, the media began serving as a propaganda agency for the government. The same was true for Vietnam, for state violence generally. The media is called liberal because it is liberal in the sense that Obama is. For example, he’s considered as the principled critic of the Iraq war. Why? Because, right at the beginning, he said it was a strategic blunder. That’s the extent of his liberalism. You could read such comments in Pravda in 1985. The people said that the invasion of Afghanistan was a strategic blunder. Even the German general staff said that Stalingrad was a strategic blunder. But we don’t call that principled criticism.
You once said, “Propaganda is to democracy what violence is to totalitarianism.” Do you mean that propaganda enables the elite to dull the will of people, depriving them of the capacity to make political choices?
That clearly is its goal, in fact its stated goal. Back in the 1920s, it used to be frankly called propaganda. But the word acquired a bad flavour with Nazism in the 1930s. So now, it’s not called propaganda any more. But they were right in the 1920s. The huge public relations industry, for example, has its goal to control attitudes and beliefs. Liberal commentators, like Walter Lippmann, said we have to manufacture consent and keep the rabble away from the decision-making. We are the responsible men, we have to make decisions and we have to be protected—and I quote Lippmann—“from the trampling under the rage of the bewildered herd—the public”. In the democratic process, we are the participants, they watch. And the task of intellectuals, media and so on is to make sure that they are quiet, subdued and obedient. That is the view from the liberal end of the spectrum. Yes, I don’t doubt that the media is liberal in that sense.
What is the mechanism through which the media becomes the voice of the government and elite?
It is very straightforward. In his introduction to Animal Farm—virtually nobody has read the introduction because it was not published—George Orwell writes that the British (the audience for which he was writing) should not be too complacent about his satire on the crimes of the totalitarian enemy. He said in free England unacceptable ideas could be suppressed voluntarily, without the use of force. He says the reasons are that the press is owned by wealthy men who have every reason not to want certain ideas to be expressed. In the more modern period, generally, the media are either big corporations or parts of mega corporations or closely linked to the government. The other reason—maybe more significant—is just that if you have a good education, you would have instilled into you that there are certain things that it just wouldn’t do to say.
For example, you don’t say or even think that the invasion of Iraq is a criminal aggression of the kind for which people were hanged in Nuremberg, that what you say was a strategic blunder was precisely what the Communist party said in the 1980s. They were under coercion. In the West, it is not coercion, it is just voluntary submission to an intellectual culture which remains overwhelmingly within narrow limits that restrict analysis, reporting, and condemnation of government action. Take this morning’s (October 5) New York Times. There is an article by a good correspondent, Steven Lee Myers, who says that Iraq is having serious problems with sectarian conflict, with chaos, which are all the results of democracy. I don’t think so. I think it is the result of the American invasion. But you can’t say or think that.
So, in a sense, the structure of the media is basically reflecting the unequal structure of our society.
Yes, it’s reflecting the structure of power, which is not surprising.
In such a scenario, do you think the truth is bound to be elusive?
Take the same New York Times article. Anyone who has paid serious attention to what has been happening in Iraq the last seven years can see, for example, that the sectarian conflict was stirred up not by democracy but by the invasion and atrocities after the invasion. But that’s not what you are going to read in papers. When you read day after day and watch television day after day, a certain picture tends to sink into an overwhelming majority of the population. They don’t have the time to do research projects.
Do you think the people in the West—and it is now happening in India as well—are giving up newspapers and turning to the internet largely because they do not believe what the newspapers say?
In the US, it’s partly true. But that’s also part of a much broader phenomenon which you can easily see in polls. A large majority of the population is disillusioned with everything. They are anti-government, anti-business, opposed to the political parties, Republicans even more than the Democrats; they dislike Congress, they don’t believe the professions, the scientists. It’s as if their lives are falling apart. So, yes, they don’t like the media. Then there is also the propaganda—how the media is socialist and so on.
There are lots of discussions about how the media won’t be able to survive in the days of internet. I am very sceptical about that. I was in Mexico last week—and Mexico, mind you, is a poor country. The second largest newspaper in Mexico, La Jornada, is a very high quality newspaper, one of the best I know. It gets almost no commercial advertising because the government hates it, business hates it. They survive on readership support. Why can’t it happen in a rich country? That’s because people in Mexico trust La Jornada. They are doing their job, you can see people reading it on the streets. You learn from it.
I spent three weeks in India and a week in Pakistan. A friend of mine here, Iqbal Ahmed, told me that I would be surprised to find that the media in Pakistan is more open, free and vibrant than that in India.
In Pakistan, I read the English language media which go to a tiny part of the population. Apparently, the government, no matter how repressive it is, is willing to say to them that you have your fun, we are not going to bother you. So they don’t interfere with it.
So what is the solution to all this? Is the internet the only way out?
What has to be done is not really specific to the media. It is to develop a more functional democratic society, a more democratic culture. As far as the elites are concerned they want the public to be disciplined, passive, obedient and directed to other things. Take a look at the history of the huge public relations and advertising industry that we have today. It developed in the freest countries in the world—England and the US—around the time of the First World War. Incidentally, that was the time Lippmann was writing. It was developed very consciously, out of the understanding that enough freedom had been won by popular struggle and the population could not be controlled by force. Therefore, it was thought necessary to control attitudes and beliefs. In the business press of the 1920s, you can read very openly about the need to divert people to what they call the superficial thing in life like fashionable consumption. If we can direct people to that, they will keep out of our hair, we can run things. You see that in India, certainly.
The Watergate scandal was just a cover-up. It was almost nothing. Right at the same time as the Watergate exposure—and this tells you a lot of about the media and the culture—a state terrorist government operation was exposed in the courts. It was called Cointelpro, it was essentially an fbi programme that ran through the Johnson, Kennedy and Nixon administrations. It began with targeting the Communist party, Puerto Ricans, the anti-war movement, the women’s movements, the entire new Left....It was a very serious thing, going all the way to political assassination, literally. That was exposed at the very same time as Watergate. No attention was paid to it; it was too serious. Cointelpro really told you something about the government. Therefore, it was basically suppressed, it is still suppressed so that people don’t know anything about it. Watergate, on the other hand, was a minor scandal. The main scandal about the Watergate was that Nixon went after the relatively rich and powerful people.
So Watergate was akin to intra-elite fight?
It was a kind of small intra-elite fight that became huge. The Washington Post did a good thing to write about the Watergate scandal, but I can hardly regard it as requiring great courage.
But are family-owned newspapers better in comparison to the corporatisation?
It is hard to choose. Take Rupert Murdoch. He owns a good part of the press. Is that a good thing? What would be a good thing is democratic control.
How do we bring about this democratic control? Do you have in mind community-based ownerships or community-supported media?
Perhaps the period of greatest real press freedom was in the more free societies of Britain and the US in the late 19th century. There was a great variety of newspapers, most often run by the factory workers, ethnic communities and others. There was a lot of popular involvement. These papers reflected a wide variety of opinions, were widely read too. It was the period of greatest vibrancy in the US. There were efforts, especially in England, to control and censor it. These didn’t work. But two things pretty much eliminated them. One, it was possible for the corporate sector to simply put so much capital into their own newspapers that others couldn’t compete. The other factor was advertising; advertiser-reliance. Advertisers are businesses. When newspapers become dependent on advertisers for their income, they are naturally going to bend to the interest of advertisers.
If you look at the New York Times, maybe the world’s greatest newspaper, they have the concept of news hole. What that means is that in the afternoon when they plan for the following day’s newspaper, the first thing they do is to layout where the advertising is going to be, because that’s an important part of a newspaper. You then put the news in the gaps between advertisements. In television there is a concept called content and fill. The content is the advertising, the fill is car chase, the sexy or whatever you put in to try to keep the viewer watching in between the ads. That’s a natural outcome when you have advertiser-reliance.
Of course, these things affect the tenor of the newspaper. Suppose a newspaper started publishing the truth—that the invasion of Iraq was a criminal invasion that destroyed the country. That newspaper or the TV station is not going to get any ads. We, again, come back to Orwell’s point—about an intellectual culture in which elites and great universities are inculcated with the understanding that there are things that just wouldn’t do to say.