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Do you believe what you read in the media? I'm not talking about Di and Fergie
but about the important stuff, politics and economics.
Has it ever occurred to you it could be a system of propaganda designed to limit
how you imagine the world.
Well, that's the view of Noam Chomsky, who's been teaching here in Boston
for the past 30 years.
Described as America'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 the 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 gathering swirl of protests in the '60s.
I'm Noam Chomsky and I'm faculty at MIT. And I've been getting more and more heavily involved in anti-war activities for the last few years.
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. Hundreds of thousands died.
But it was more or less ignored by the mainstream Western media, because, Chomsky argues, we were selling arms to the aggressors.
But wars were 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 programme?
Professor Chomsky, could 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
than merely authoritarian governments, will be a strange one.
Well... the term "propaganda" fell into disfavour around the Second World War, but in the 1920’s
and the 1930’s, it was commonly used, and in fact advocated, by leading intellectuals,
by the founders of modern political science, by Wilsonian progressives and of course, by
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, it’s not very different elsewhere - there are sectors, but the agenda-setting
media, the ones that 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 relatively privileged audiences,
more or less...
So they’re selling audiences to...
They’re selling privileged audiences - these are 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.
And 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, it’s well known?
Well, I would call the press relatively liberal. Here I agree with the 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".
Give me some examples of that...
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 it ended up by 1969 being a disaster and costing us too much - and that’s the criticism...
So, what would the "non-propaganda model" have told Americans about the Vietnam War
at the same time?
Same thing that the mainstream press was telling them about Afghanistan. The United States
invaded South [Vietnam]... had first of all in the 1950s set up a standard Latin American-style
terror state, which had massacred tens of thousands of people, but was unable to control
local uprising (and everyone knows - at least every specialist knows - that’s what it was)
and when Kennedy came in, in 1961, they had to make a decision
because the government was collapsing under local attack, so the U.S. just invaded the
country. In 1961 the U.S. airforce 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 sideshow - that’s
what an honest press would be saying, but you can’t find a trace of it.
Now, if the press is a censoring organisation, tell me how that works - you’re not suggesting
that proprietors phone one another up, or that many journalists get their copy "spiked",
as we say?
It’s actually... Orwell, you may recall, has an essay called "Literary Censorship in
England" which was supposed to be the introduction to Animal Farm, except that it never appeared,
in 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 any force, and then 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 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...
This is what I don’t get, because it suggests - I mean, I’m a journalist - people like
me are "self-censoring"...
No - not self-censoring. There’s a filtering system that starts in kindergarten and goes
all the way through and - it doesn’t work a hundred percent, but it’s pretty effective
- it selects for obedience and subordination, and especially...
So, stroppy people won’t make it to positions of influence...
There’ll be "behaviour problems" or... if you read applications to a graduate school,
you see that people will tell you "he doesn’t get along too well with his colleagues" - you
know how to interpret those things.
I’m just interested in this because I was brought up, like a lot of people, probably
post-Watergate film and so on, to believe that journalism was a crusading craft, and
that there were a lot of disputatious, stroppy, difficult people in journalism, and I have
to say, I think I know some of them.
Well, I know some of the best and best-known investigative reporters in the United States
- I won’t mention names - whose attitude toward the media is much more cynical than mine.
In fact, they regard the media as a sham. And they know, 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 that the majority, I'm sure you're speaking for the majority of journalists, who are trained,
have it driven in to their heads that this is a crusading profession, adversarial, "We stand up against power",
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 who are often regarded as the best journalists, have
quite a different picture and, I think, a very realistic one.
How can you know that I’m self-censoring? How can you know that journalists are...
I don’t say you’re self-censoring - I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying;
but what I’m saying is, if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting
where you’re sitting.
We [the UK] have a press which has, it seems to me a relatively wide range of view -
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...
That’s not quite true. I mean there have been good studies of the British press and
you could look at them - James Curran is the major one - which point 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, 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 labour based. By the ’60s,
that was all gone, and it disappeared under the pressure of capital resources. What was
left was overwhelmingly the... sort of... centre to right press with some dissidence
- it’s true, I mean...
We’ve got I would say, a couple of large circulation newspapers, which are left of
centre and which are putting in neo-Keynesian views which - you call the elites -
are strongly hostile to.
It’s interesting that you call neo-Keynesian "left of centre" - I’d just call it straight
centre. "Left of centre" is a value term...
But there's... there are extremely good journalists in England, a number of them, they write very
honestly, and very good material; a lot of what they write couldn’t appear here [the
US]. On the other hand, if you look at the question overall, I don’t think you’re
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, what you have to do is check it out
in cases. So 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 it. Just check sometime, and find out 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 0.001% of the coverage saying that, you’ll surprise me, and in a free press, 100% of
it would have been saying that. Now that’s just a matter of fact - it has nothing to
do with left and right.
Let me come up to a more modern war, which was the Gulf War which, again, looking at
the press in Britain and watching television, I was very, very well aware of anti-Gulf War dissidence
Were you?
The "no blood for oil" campaigns, and I have the...
That’s not the dissidence...
"No blood for oil" isn’t the dissidence?
No. Saddam Hussein’s attack on Kuwait took place on August 2nd. Within a few days, the
great fear in Washington was that Saddam Hussein was going to withdraw and leave a puppet government,
which would be pretty much what the US had done in Panama. The U.S. and Britain therefore,
moved very quickly to try to undercut the danger of withdrawal. By late August, negotiation
offers were coming from Iraq, calling for a negotiated Iraqi withdrawal. The press wouldn’t
publish them here, they never publish them in England. It did leak however...
There was a great debate about whether there should have been a negotiated settlement...
No, sorry, no that was not a debate - there was a debate about whether you should continue
with sanctions, which is a different question... because the fact of the matter is, we have
good evidence that by mid- or late-August the sanctions had already worked, because
these stories were coming from high American officials in the State Department - former
American officials like Richard Helm - they couldn’t get the mainstream press to cover
them, but they did manage to get one journal to cover them - Newsday - that’s a suburban
journal in Long Island, the purpose obviously being to smoke out the NYT, cause that’s
the only thing that matters. It came out in Newsday and this continued (I won’t go through
the details), but this continued until January 2nd. At that time, the offers that were coming
were apparently so meaningful to the State Department, that State Department officials
were saying that "Look, this is negotiable, meaningful, maybe we don’t accept everything,
but it’s certainly a basis for a 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 this - the first reference to any of this in England is actually in an
article I wrote in the Guardian, which was in early January. You can check and see if
there’s an earlier reference.
Okay - let’s look at 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...
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. In fact...
But this brought down a President!
Just a minute - let’s take a look. What happened there... here it’s kind of interesting,
’cause you can’t do experiments on 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; they were the exposures of COINTELPRO.
Sorry - you’ll have to explain that to us.
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
This is the end of the Socialist Workers Party in America?
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 - its actions went
as far as political assassination. Now what’s the difference between the two? Very clear.
In Watergate, Richard Nixon went after half of US private power, namely the Democratic
Party, and power can defend itself. So therefore, that’s a scandal. He didn’t do anything...
nothing happened - look, I was on Nixon’s enemies list. I didn’t even know, nothing
ever happened. But...
Nonetheless, you wouldn’t say it was an insignificant event, to bring down a President...
No, it was a case where half of US power defended itself against a person who had obviously
stepped out of line. And the fact that the press thought that was important shows that
they think powerful people ought to be able to defend themselves. Now, whether there was
a question of principle involved happens to be easily checked in this case. One tiny part
of the COINTELPRO program was itself far more significant in principle than all of Watergate;
and if you look at the whole program, I mean, it’s not even a discussion. But you have
to ask me what COINTELPRO is. You know what Watergate is. There couldn’t be a more dramatic
example of the subordination of educated opinion to Power, here in England, as well as the
United States.
I know you’ve concentrated on foreign affairs, and some of these key areas...
I’ve talked a lot about domestic problems.
Well, I’d like to come onto that, because it still seems to me that, on a range of pretty
important issues for the Establishment, there is serious dissent...
That’s right.
... Gingrich and his neo-conservative 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 disjunctions, openings.
Within a spectrum so narrow that you really have to look hard to find it. Let me give you...
Can I just stop you there, because you say that the spectrum is narrow, but on the one hand
Let me illustrate...
... We’ve got flat tax...
Can I illustrate?
... flat tax Republicans, right the way through to relatively big state Democrats.
Find one - find a big state Democrat. The position now is exactly what Clinton said:
"The year 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 that there’s been a long
standing... sort of split in the American business community; it’s not precise, but
it’s sort of general, between high-tech, capital-intensive, internationally-oriented
business, which tends to be what’s called "liberal", and lower-tech, more nationally-oriented,
more labour-intensive industry, which is what’s called "conservative". Now, 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, he’s a political scientist.)
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 - where...
This is an interesting one.
... if there is something which one could describe as a global opposition movement,
that is, trade union-, environmental-, community-based, then it was certainly present in the anti-NAFTA...
Shall I tell you what happened?
Shall I tell you what happened?
What I was going to say is that...
Never reported...
... those arguments were well... we were well aware of those arguments.
No! That is flatly false. They were not permitted into the press, and I documented this. I’ll
give you references if you like.
We read all about it in Britain is all I will say.
No you did not; for example...
I’m sorry, but we did...
Well, let me ask you: Did you read the report of the Office of Technology Association of Congress?
Sorry - did you read the report of the Labour Advisory Committee?
Well, I don’t get these reports, but I read...
Sorry, that’s...
... I read many articles about the anti-NAFTA argument that’s very...
I’m sorry. Well if you’re 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, right in the middle of the presidential campaign.
Now, there’s a law in the United States - the 1974 Trade Act - which requires that
any trade-related issue be submitted to the Labour 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. The unions
are pretty right wing, but they were infuriated. They had never been shown this. Even at the
time that they had to write the... they were given 24 hours to write the report... they
didn’t even have time to look 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 that had been 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 that they were willing to deal with: Mexico-bashing, right wing nationalists,
you know, and so on. That entered the press. But not the critical analysis of the labour
movement. Now...
But somehow, by a process of osmosis or something, I picked up quite a lot of anti-NAFTA arguments,
on the basis of worker protection, environmental degradation...
May I continue? This goes on in the press, right until 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 labour movement, out of the popular movements, and so on - but they
did. At the very end it had reached such a point that there was concern that they might
not be able to ram this through. Now, take a look at the New York Times and the Washington
Post - say the "liberal" media and the national ones in the last couple of weeks - I’ve
written about it and I’ll tell you what you find. What you find is a hundred percent
support for NAFTA, refusal to allow any of the popular arguments out, tremendous labour-bashing...
Can I come back, to make sure that I understand the point about the liberal press as against
the conservative press because, in Britain over the last 2 years, politicians I come
across are deeply irritated, ranging on furious, about attacks on them in the press, day after day,
on issues which have come to be known as "sleaze". They feel that they are harassed,
that they are misunderstood and that the press has got above itself, is "uppity" and is destructive:
That’s the message that they are giving to us. Now, are you saying that that whole
process doesn’t matter, because it’s all part of the same...
It’s marginal... 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, because
those are not the issues that matter to people. I mean, they’re of very marginal interest.
The issues that matter to people are somewhere else, so as soon as you hear, you know, 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.
But it’s been much more than... certainly with us, it’s been much more than "bed-hopping",
it’s also been about taking money, it’s been about the corporations paying for political parties
Corruption, sure... corrupt judges - fine topic...
Corrupt parties?
Yeah - corrupt parties. Big Business is not in favour of corruption, you know, and if
the press focuses on corruption, Fortune Magazine will be quite happy, they don’t care about that,
they don’t want the society to be corrupt, they want it to be run in their interest
- that’s a different thing. Corruption interferes with that. So, for example, when I was, let’s
say... I just happened to have come back from India: The Bank of India released an estimate
- economists there tell me it’s low - that a third of the economy is "black", meaning
mostly rich businessmen not paying their taxes. Well, that makes the press, because in fact,
certainly trans-nationals don’t like it. They want the system to be 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,
’cause they’re much too significant.
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?
I’ve just given a dozen examples. On every example, that incidentally you've picked,
I haven’t picked, I mean I could pick my own, but I’m happy to let you pick ’em - on every one
of those examples I think you can demonstrate that there’s 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...
And given the power of Big Business, the power of the press, what can people do about this?
They can do exactly what people do in the Haitian slums and hills - organise - and Haiti,
which is the 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 couldn’t even imagine.
We can do the same, much more easily.
You’ve got community activists in America...
Yes we do.
... I’m not talking about the so-called "Communitarian" movements, but I’m talking
about the local community activists and writers, all over the place....
All over the place... all over the place... take say, a city like Boston, with all sorts
of people: They don’t even know of each other’s existence. There’s a very large
number of them. One of the things I’ll do consistently 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 plenty of things that are happening. So take say, community-based radio, which is
sort of outside the system...
I was going to ask you about that, and about the Internet, which has certainly got pretty
open access, at the moment.
Well, the Internet, like most technology, is a very double-edged sword. Like any technology,
including printing, it has a liberatory potential, but it also has a 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.
About ownership and advertising...
Right - and about just what’s going to be in it, and who’s going to have access to it.
Remember, incidentally, that the Internet is an elite operation. Most of the population
of the world has never even made a phone call, you know, so that’s certainly not on the
Internet. Nevertheless, it does have democratising potential, and there’s a struggle going
on right now as to whether that’s going to be realised, or whether it’ll turn into
something like a home marketing service, and a way of marginalising people even further.
That discussion went on in the 1920s (it was Radio) - that’s interesting how it turned
out - it went on over Television, it’s now 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.
You’ve been portrayed, and some would say, occasionally portrayed yourself, as a kind
of lonely dissident voice - you clearly don’t feel lonely at all.
I say nothing like that. I certainly do not portray myself that way. I can’t begin to
accept a fraction of the invitations from around the country: I’m scheduled two years
in advance. And at that, I’m only selecting a fraction...
And you’re speaking to big audiences.
Huge audiences. And these are not elite intellectuals either. 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. I don’t. Of course, I’m not
on NPR, you know, I wouldn’t be in the mainstream media, but I wouldn’t expect that. Why should
they offer space to somebody who’s trying to undermine their power, and to expose what they do?
But that’s not loneliness.
Professor Chomsky, thank-you very much.


Noam Chomsky on Propaganda - The Big Idea - Interview with Andrew Marr

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صائد الاشباح 2017 年 1 月 17 日 に公開
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