The Media, Politics & Ourselves (Part 2)

— Robert McChesney interviews Noam Chomsky

THE FIRST PART of this discussion with Noam Chomsky appeared in ATC 55. Robert W. McChesney is the author of Telecommunications, Mass Media, and Democracy: The Battle for the Control of U.S. Broadcasting, 1928-1935, which was reviewed in Against the Current No. 52 (September-October 1994).

Robert McChesney: Another development of the last five years has been the rise to great prominence of right-wing talk radio.

Noam Chomsky: That’s an interesting phenomenon. Have you ever looked into what is causing that? I mean, is it consciously planned?

McChesney: My supposition at this point is that these right wing people, especially Limbaugh, who’s the classic case, have had years to cultivate their shtick and generate an audience. Limbaugh has been at it twenty years, and I think ten as a hard-right ideologue, doing these talk shows.

Clearly, the commercial and political biases of the people who run these companies, and the advertisers, are such that they gave this guy all the room he needed. The sort of room Jim Hightower, for example, or anyone making an anti-corporate message, would never have a prayer of getting in order to develop the audience.

Chomsky: I tend to agree with you. I heard from Phil Donahue, who is kind of a democratic socialist I guess, and is certainly well placed in the media. He has been trying for years to set up a television talk show. He told me once that he simply can’t get advertising, even with his reputation and clout.

I listen to these right-wing talk shows a lot. I’m on them quite a lot. I think they are way to the right of the general population. An enormous percentage of these guys are extremist libertarians – in the American sense, like “let’s get rid of schools.”

McChesney: That’s my sense too. They are to the extreme right, and my experience with the U.S. population is not the same as that.

Chomsky: No, I don’t think it is anything like that. They are also able to do something...Guys like Limbaugh, whom I’ve heard. He is able to appeal – somewhat like a Nazi – to fears which are real, to the feeling that everything is against us so it must be those bad guys out there.

And you know what the counterpart to that on the left is? It’s the conspiracy business. Hang around California, for example, and the left has just been torn to shreds because they see CIA conspiracies ...

McChesney: Like secret governments...

Chomsky: Yeah, secret governments (behind) the Kennedy assassination. This kind of stuff has just wiped out a large part of the left. That’s the left-wing counterpart to Rush Limbaugh.

McChesney: Where do you see the right in this country? The Republican Party seems to have, by historical standards, a far right today that is if possible somewhat meaner, uglier, and more powerful than it was thirty or forty years ago.

Chomsky: The Republican Party has always had a certain problem. They don’t have a natural way to organize people. They can’t pretend to be the party of working people, or of women or minorities or anyone else. They are just flat out the party of business.

I think they have finally found their natural place. They organize people on the basis of racism and jingoism and religious fundamentalism and fear and so on. Very much like a standard fascist party, which makes a lot of sense. That’s the right way for them to proceed. The “God and Country” rally before the last Republican convention was a good illustration, arousing much fear and concern in Europe, where people can remember (Hitler’s) Nuremberg rallies.

McChesney: So Limbaugh is more or less an organizer.

Chomsky: Yeah, I think so. It’s very much like a Nazi organizer. And in the United States it is not all that hard because this is, for one thing, a deeply religious fundamentalist country. It’s kind of like Iran. So you’ve got this huge mass of ultra-fundamentalist opinion. I don’t have to tell you that the United States is off the spectrum of industrial countries in this respect.

Add the fact that there is a tremendous amount of fear; it’s a very frightened country. People are afraid that somebody is taking something from them, and everybody is pushing us around, and we aren’t getting what we deserve. Every time the Reaganites launched one of their terrorist scares to try to ram something through, the tourist industry in Europe collapsed. Americans were afraid to go to Europe, maybe some Arab would look at them the wrong way.

It was a joke. But it’s a very frightened country. There is no doubt about it. Plus people are used to winning all the time, and they’re not winning anymore. Therefore there must be somebody out there; if it’s not Jews or homosexuals, it’s welfare mothers or something, taking away what we deserve.

Also, you’re not allowed to talk about the main center of power – and the liberals are more responsible than the conservatives for this, in my opinion – nobody knows about corporations or business. That doesn’t exist. All you know about is the government or welfare mothers or something or other. What about the corporations? Nobody sees them.

McChesney: That’s off-limits.

Chomsky: For the Democrats, too. Did you ever look at Clinton’s (1992) campaign propaganda? This Mandate for Change book?

McChesney: I confess I didn’t.

Chomsky: It’s very interesting. The first chapter in it is what they call “enterprise economics.” It’s the new economics. It’s all about how these are new Democrats, so they are going to be oriented toward business and they are forgetting the old stuff. But the picture they present is very much like the picture of the far right, the Bradley Foundation and those guys: The country consists of workers and their firms. The government’s job is to help the workers and their firms. Completely missing from the picture – not mentioned – are owners, investors, managers, bosses. They don’t exist.

McChesney: I teach right-wing media criticism and that is the classic right view of the social structure.

Chomsky: That’s the Clinton mandate for change.

McChesney: That’s pathetic.

Chomsky: Well, I think it’s very smart. Whatever PR guy wrote that knew his job.

McChesney: What is your sense of the political trajectory of the United States, over the next five, ten or fifteen years? Is the right going to surge even more?

Chomsky: Well, we can see where things are going. I think they are going towards a kind of third world model – towards the impoverishment of such democratic institutions as exist, the transfer of power elsewhere, where it is remote and inaccessible. The doctrinal system, the media and the universities, are going to have to try very hard to cover all this up as being justice, democracy and freedom.

More and more people are going to be out of the system. The criminal system, which is controlling a large part of the population, is targeting defenseless people naturally – to go back to the Death Squads analogy, this is just as the Death Squads do. So it is almost entirely targeting Blacks.

But that can’t go on forever. To really control the population by means of urban slums and jails and so on, they are going to have to extend to a much larger part of the population. And that will happen.

There is going to be increasing concentration of wealth. The world economy is an absolute catastrophe at this point. There is about thirty percent global unemployment, which is unheard of; and in the rich countries too there are plenty of people who want to work, but the economic system doesn’t want them to work, doesn’t want growth, doesn’t want production.

So people are going to suffer. And they are going to see other people – a small group of them – really enriching themselves. Those are the tendencies. People are going to feel more and more disillusioned about power. They are going to turn more and more to irrational alternatives. Well, that could go all sorts of ways. It could become a mass fascist movement, it could become a progressive movement.

McChesney: Clearly by that scenario we’ve got our work cut out for us. This is no time to sit on our butts.

Chomsky: Absolutely. What should be done? There are nothing beyond the usual answers, the only ones that have been around since the origins of human history: education, organization, action. How to do it depends on the specific circumstances. If there are any other tricks, they’ve been kept a carefully guarded secret.

McChesney: Relating to what you just said, one of the ironies, or perhaps better put tragedies, with the global crisis and the collapse of democratic forms and the decline of living standards, within the academy itself much of what considers itself oppositional thinking, critical thinking, has tended increasingly toward saying these issues are not...

Chomsky: Real?

McChesney: Yes, that they are not important anymore.

Chomsky: The postmodernist thing. There are no facts. Everything is a form of oppression.

McChesney: Everything is relative and rationalism is a white male heterosexual invention.

Chomsky: If you compare this stuff with the 1930s when left intellectuals were involved with workers’ education, writing books like Mathematics for the Millions and so on, the difference is dramatic. In my view this is one of the most dangerous things happening.

McChesney: I thought your essay in Z Papers [Sept.-Dec.1992, 52-57] on this subject was brilliant, especially your debate with the person who claimed that a Chinese woman could think that it was simultaneously raining and not raining.

Chomsky: Sure. It’s just racist and sexist to have any other idea. How could a peasant know that it matters whether it is raining? I mean, this is crazy. They are disempowering people.

McChesney: Where does this stuff come from?

Chomsky: I think it’s easy to see where it comes from. Suppose you are a young person and you would like to have an academic career, and you’d like to have a cushy job and write articles that are going to advance it, go to conferences, and at the same time be morally superior to everyone else and be on the left. It is designed for that.

McChesney: It certainly is going to be self-fulfilling, because these people have to have journals and careers and train their own grad students. It’s going to be around for a long time.

Chomsky: There is an article by Steve Vieux in Race and Class on exactly this point, about the social role of postmodernism in undermining oppositional and dissident tendencies. It’s very accurate, I think.

McChesney: I used to read a lot of this stuff and use it in classes because grad students were interested in it. But the last two or three years I have just dropped it all together because I see it as fruitless.

Chomsky: Well, for one thing, ninety percent of it is just gibberish. Also, it is a big mistake to think of it as being left. It’s not left. In fact, I do go to a lot of universities and colleges. You can go to a place that is a very right-wing college where nobody thinks of anything, but the students are all upset about their oppression, ethnic this and so on and so forth. This is the sort of thing that catches very easily with right-wing groups.

It’s kind of interesting, with all the talk about political correctness, the term is used very narrowly. For example, nobody calls anti-abortion rights activists politically correct. Well, why not? Because that’s OK.

McChesney: Because that actually is politically correct….

Chomsky: Politically correct in the real sense. Or like free market economics. Is that politically correct?

Criticisms of the Propaganda Model

McChesney: I would like to give you a chance to respond to the five main criticisms of the “propaganda model” developed in Manufacturing Consent, where you and Ed Herman provide what has become the seminal radical explanation for how and why the news media work to promote the interests of the elite and undermine the capacity for meaningful democracy.

First, some argue that the model is only applicable to foreign affairs, that it cannot address the greater complexity of domestic politics where there is much greater non-elite involvement than is the case with foreign affairs.

Chomsky: I see no basis at all for the belief that the model is inapplicable to domestic affairs. Most of the studies in Manufacturing Consent are of the “paired example” type (worthy and unworthy victims, etc.). Such examples are, obviously, of far greater significance in evaluating media performance than the usual “review of things I don’t like,” often anecdotal, sporadic and unsystematic.

Elsewhere, Ed and I have applied the same approach to domestic affairs, finding no particularly relevant difference, though when you get down to the level of corruption in a local town, the kinds of pressures that operate are not typically major corporations and the federal state power, but far more narrow ones. (This difference is) obvious, but not relevant.

Thus, I’ve written extensively about the way the media (and the other parts of the ideological system) deal with such matters as the drug war, health care, the crucial matter of radical state intervention in construction of a welfare state for the rich under the guise of alleged “free market” passions, etc. Herman has done the same. I’m aware of no relevant difference, nor have any been pointed out, to my knowledge.

McChesney: Second, some argue that with the collapse of the USSR, the fifth filter of anti-communism no longer has the same salience. Since this filter was critical for making it easy for journalists and editors to internalize a severe double standard, what does this say about the present value of the propaganda model to suggest patterns in news media performance?

Chomsky: Here I would prefer to speak for myself (though I doubt Ed would disagree much, if at all). My own view, as I mentioned earlier in the interview (see Part 1, ATC 54 —ed.), is that the Cold War is in essence a case of the “North-South conflict,” so radically different in scale as to have taken on a life of its own, but rooted in the same essential logic.

“Radical nationalism” (meaning, in effect, independence) in unacceptable, whatever its character (fascist, “Communist,” social democratic, liberation theology, Islamic, etc.). The reasons are simple: these tendencies interfere with the service role of the South. Such insubordination moves from unacceptable to completely intolerable if it induces the “rotten apple” effect, becoming a “virus” that might “infect” others, in the standard terminology of planners (Acheson, Kissinger, etc.) who fear the dread demonstration effect.

The Bolshevik revolution met both of these conditions, setting off the usual reactions. The scale of this example of the North-South conflict was dramatically different from others, so much so that the radically anti-socialist tyranny established by Lenin and Trotsky, and turned into a monstrosity by Stalin, was able to create a certain space for non-alignment and independence, and to exercise a deterrent effect on the world ruler.

Not surprisingly, the end of the Cold War pretty much returns most of the region organized by Soviet tyranny to its traditional Third World service role, centuries old. During the years in which this particular instance of North-South conflict loomed over all others by orders of magnitude, “anti-communism” was a convenient cover for all forms of opposition to <169>radical nationalism” or “ultranationalism” or “economic nationalism.” We have ample documentation that it was used as a cover, sometimes quite consciously.

Finally, as the Cold War ended and the same policies persisted without change (predictably), the pretext was simply dropped. For example, immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we find the White House exhorting Congress in the familiar fashion to maintain the Pentagon system effectively without change, including intervention forces aimed at the Middle East, “where the threat to our interests could not be laid at the Kremlin’s door” – contrary to half a century of convenient lies, uncritically reiterated by the press and others, now quietly shelved without comment.

Furthermore, the device has also been used for domestic control, in fact long before the Bolshevik revolution. In the 19th century, anti-labor hysteria was stimulated by the mainstream press and intellectuals with tantrums about “communism,” “anarchism,” etc., laced with the usual racist and other elements.

It made good sense for us to focus on “anti-Communism” (which has little to do with anything resembling “communism”) during the period when it was overwhelmingly the reflex device to which apologists for power and violence could appeal, but it is, as I’ve always emphasized, really a special case of something far deeper.

As the device loses its efficacy, we see the deeper reasons emerging, sometimes rather clearly in fact. Thus a recent article in Foreign Policy advised that the foreign policy elite and intellectual community put aside the usual distortions and frankly concede that policy is formed on frankly vulgar Marxist grounds (that’s pretty much what they said).

McChesney: Third, although you (and Ed Herman) go to great pains to clarify that the propaganda model does not suggest a conscious conspiracy of editors and journalists – in fact, that the model explains why a conspiracy in unnecessary – this point confounds many, even some sympathetic to your position. In your opinion, how commonly do editors and journalists consciously alter coverage due to institutional pressures?

Chomsky: It’s impossible to give a numerical estimate, of course, but it is not hard to show that there sometimes is conscious agreement to modify and suppress. That’s hardly surprising. Our point is it is not a matter of great importance.

To take an analogy, consider a corporation, say GM. There are powerful institutional pressures, trivially, that lead to efforts on the part of the CEO and board of directors to maximize profit and market share, to de-skill and control workers, etc. If they depart from these practices, they’ll be replaced. The question of whether they engage in them by direct conspiracy is of some interest perhaps, but only marginally so.

In rational enquiry, one naturally focuses on primary factors, consigning secondary ones to footnotes. That’s second nature in the sciences. In areas where the intellectual level is much more shallow, and the ideological significance much greater, the norms are often quite the opposite: emphasize minor factors in a way that will obscure the major ones. That’s understandable in ideological warfare, but hardly a practice to be condoned.

In the case of the media, I know personally of examples of conscious suppression. I’ve in fact personally witnessed quite dramatic and important examples, in the field (in Laos, in the Middle east, and elsewhere), which are quite revealing about media practices and professional ideology. I rarely mention them, because they are misleading: They are sporadic rather than systematic, and divert attention from primary to marginal factors, something that any rational analyst will seek to avoid.

McChesney: Fourth, a major left-liberal critique of Manufacturing Consent (made, for example, by Dan Hallin in the introduction to his recent book) is that the propaganda model does not account for the importance of the ideology of professional journalism, and its effect on news media practices and content. How do you respond to that?

Chomsky: I don’t regard this as a “major” critique or even a minor one. And I’m aware of no serious argument to support it. In fact, it seems to me an illustration of the tendency I just spoke about, to introduce matters that are secondary (or less) in such a way as to obscure major tendencies and operative factors.

Doubtless, there is an ideology of professional journalism, which has many aspects. One is a commitment to professional integrity, which sometimes leads to important deviations from the predictions of the propaganda model, as we’ve taken pains to cite – and often to punishments of one sort or another for the person who rejects the discipline and subordination, which is another part of the ideology of professional journalism.

The effort to keep to the surface – to be “objective” and not too “cerebral” or analytic – also has its effects, mixed effects in fact. There are innumerable such factors, and exactly as in the sciences, one will seek to rank them in terms of significance, focusing on the dominant ones. We’ve given extensive evidence to support our view that these factors, while real, are second-order at best.

That could be wrong; these are empirical questions, where not too much is understood, If someone has a counter-argument, I’d be happy to look at it. I know of none, only allegations backed by little substance.

McChesney: Fifth, and finally, mainstream critics (like Nicholas Lemann in The New Republic) say that you and Herman blame the media when in fact your problem is that there is no left in the United States. If there were a viable left, they suggest, then the media would provide left analysis to issues. By this reasoning, you should stop bellyaching about the media and expecting the media to do the left’s dirty work, and instead go about building a viable left.

Chomsky: It’s in fact illuminating to look closely at Lemann’s critique. The argument is that, by showing that the media grossly transform the real world in the interests of power, we are “bellyaching” about the failure of the media to follow a left agenda.

The underlying assumption, plainly, is that only the “left” would call for a departure from the most vulgar Stalinist standards: for example, would call for the media to treat the crimes of their own state (for which they bear responsibility) by the same standards as those of the official enemies. Apart from “the left,” according to Lemann’s view, the prevailing assumption is and must be one that must launch into hysterical abuse of the crimes of official enemies, attributing them without evidence to the highest source, while keeping silent or offering vulgar apologetics about the vastly worse crimes of one’s own state.

Lemann thereby reveals an interesting array of values, not to speak of the intellectual level of the criticism. I don’t mean to suggest that he puts his point this way, or would even understand the argument. But it is surely clear enough.

McChesney: Although you have been a consistent critic of Marxism, in your political analysis of the U.S. and global situations, you invariably employ a “materialist” approach and you stress that importance of class and the profit-system for explaining politics. Most Marxists (that I know, at least) regard your analysis as entirely compatible with theirs. Is this a contradiction?

Chomsky: I haven’t really been a critic of Marxism. I largely ignore it. I’m frankly skeptical of what are called “theories” in the study of social and political issues, or just about anything of real and direct human significance. There are a few areas, mainly the hard sciences, where real insight and deep understanding have been achieved; here we can talk seriously about “theories.” In most areas, it’s just not so, at least to my knowledge.

That’s not to suggest that inquiry is simple, or that answers are easy to come by. It’s just that such understanding as we can attain is relatively shallow; and we gain a lot, as far as I can see, by putting it all quite simply, avoiding the self-serving jargon favored by intellectuals, left and right.

What are called “theories” are useful for career enhancement and obfuscation, surely. Maybe they also really serve purposes of clarification sometimes, though I’m rather skeptical.

As for Marxism, the early Marx was interesting, but pretty derivative. The later Marx offers vivid and enlightening commentary on contemporary affairs and history, and discussion of an abstract model of capitalism which has what interest it has. He appears to have little to say about socialism, and little interest in it.

There’s much to learn from Marx’s work, so a person who hopes to understand the world should certainly pay attention to it. How helpful it is, people can decide for themselves. My feeling is: not all that helpful; most of what can be put in the terms of “Marxist theory” can also be said pretty simply in monosyllables. Same with later Marxists, many of whom have had a lot of interest to say, though I should say that the concepts “Marxist” or “Freudian,” etc., make me most uneasy.

In rational pursuits, we don’t deify individuals and construct cults in their names. I don’t know of any “Bohrians” in physics. The importance of class is clear enough – as it was to Adam Smith. Doubtless the work of people calling themselves Marxists has advanced understanding of these matters, as has work of others. We learn from what we can. Same with the rest.

McChesney: Related to this, there has been considerable debate within the left (in the pages of Z, among other places) concerning whether the left has overemphasized class and capitalism at the expense of race and gender, and also sexual orientation, the environment, and “culture.” This debate is closely tied up with the emergence of “identity politics.” These seem like fundamental debates. Where do you stand?

Chomsky: I have no general stand of any interest on these matters. In the past there is no doubt, in my mind, that leading sectors of what’s called “the left” has focused too narrowly on forms of oppression and domination that are rooted in the economic system (narrowly construed – excluding households and what goes on within them, for example). To the extent that this is true, the defect should be overcome.

McChesney: In these debates, perhaps the single most hotly argued issue on the left today is the question of pornography, whether it is innately hostile to women to the point of promoting violence against women and whether the left should organize to see that it be banned. Much of the debate reveals fundamentally differing conceptions of human sexuality, and whether it is biologically feasible to think that men and women can ever coexist in harmony. What do you think?

Chomsky: There are two questions here: one a factual one about pornography, the second a policy one about banning pornography. And as you say, there are other factual questions about the nature of relations among men and women (or, for that matter, men and men, women and women), and whether there are biological barriers to their living in harmony.

Suppose we find that people are designed by nature to act in such ways as to harm one another. Do we then conclude that we must endow the state with the power to determine what they are allowed to say? To think? That’s a path toward disaster. State forces should not have that power in principle – and if they do, we know exactly how that power will be used, and against whom.

Freedom of speech is a value to be treasured. It’s not absolute; morals aren’t an axiom system, and there are real conflicts of value. But a very powerful argument has to be given to endow the state with the power to ban expression of thought. In the case of pornography, I haven’t heard any such argument.

That’s not to say that someone has the right to put up a pornographic (or racist, etc.) poster in your living room, or overlooking Times Square. Other values intrude, like the right to private space, to a workplace free from harassment, etc. There are no simple formulas about these matters, but in general, freedom of expression is to be highly valued and protected, I think.

If one is intent on banning speech that causes human harm, pornography would rank very low on the scale, even if we restrict ourselves to harm suffered by women. Take the standard discourse about “free markets” (a battering ram to be used against poor and defenseless people). That caused vastly more harm, to women in particular, than all the pornography in history.

Should we ask the state to ban the doctrines of the elites that run it? Let’s be serious.

ATC 56, May-June 1995