Bewildering the Herd

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Rick Szykowny

The Humanist, November/December 1990 [September 7, 1990]

QUESTION: You take the average American who gets his or her information on the world at large from, say, the network news, from wire service reports in the daily newspaper, and maybe — if he or she is feeling especially dutiful — from CNN or “Nightline.” How good a picture do they actually have of what’s really happening in the world?

CHOMSKY: They get a good picture of how the state-corporate nexus in the United States would like to depict the things that are happening in the world … and occasionally more than that.

QUESTION: Occasionally more than that?

CHOMSKY: Yeah. But not most of the time. Most of the time the press is very disciplined.

QUESTION: Well, in short, what I’m asking is how well served are Americans by the mainstream media?

CHOMSKY: If you follow the mainstream media with great care and skepticism and approach it with the right under standing of how propaganda works, then you can learn a lot. The normal viewer or reader gets fed a propaganda line.

QUESTION: You’ve frequently stated that the Western media constitute the most awesome propaganda system that has ever existed in world history. But at the same time, the press tries to cultivate a mythology or popular image of itself as tireless, fearless seekers after the truth. You have them taking on the politicians, such as Dan Rather challenging George Bush on the air, or even toppling them from office, as Woodward and Bernstein allegedly did with Nixon. That’s the public image of the media, and I think many people are going to be surprised to hear that they are being fed a line of propaganda.

CHOMSKY: Well, I doubt that many people would. Most polls indicate that the majority of the population regards the media as too subservient to power. But it’s quite true that for educated people it would come as a surprise. And that’s because they are the ones most subject to propaganda. They also participate in the indoctrination, so therefore they’re the most committed to the system. You mentioned that the media cultivate an image of a tribune of the people fighting power. Well, that’s natural. How would a reasonable propaganda institution depict itself? But in order to determine the truth of the matter, you have to look at the particular cases. I think it is one of the best established conclusions in the social sciences that the media serve what we may call a propaganda function — that is, that they shape perceptions, select the events, offer interpretations, and so on, in conformity with the needs of the power centers in society, which are basically the state and the corporate world.

QUESTION: So, in other words, an adversarial press doesn’t really exist in this country.

CHOMSKY: It exists out on the margins, and occasionally you’ll find something in the mainstream. I mean, for example, there are cases where the press has stood up against a segment of power. In fact, the one you mentioned — Woodward and Bernstein helped topple a president — is the example that the media and everyone else constantly uses to show that the press is adversarial.

But there are very serious problems with that case that have been pointed out over and over again. In fact, what the example actually shows is the subordination of the media to power. And you can see that very clearly as soon as you take a look at the Watergate affair. What was the charge against Richard Nixon, after all? The charge against Nixon was that he attacked people with power — he sent a gang of petty criminals for some still unknown purpose to burglarize the Democratic party headquarters. Well, you know, the Democratic party represents essentially half of the corporate system. Its one of the two factions of the business party which runs the country. And that is real power. You don’t attack real power, because people in power can defend themselves. We can easily demonstrate that that’s exactly what was involved; in fact, history was kind enough to set up a controlled experiment for us. At the very moment of the Watergate exposures, there was also another set of exposures: namely, the FBI COINTELPRO operations which were exposed using the Freedom of Information Act right at the same time. Those were infinitely more serious than the Watergate caper. Those were actions not by a group of crooks mobilized by the president or a presidential committee but by the national political police. And it was not just Richard Nixon; it ran over a series of administrations. The exposures began with the Kennedy administration — in fact earlier, but primarily with the Kennedy administration — and ran right through the Nixon administration. What was exposed was extremely serious — far worse than anything in Watergate. For example, it included political assassination, instigation of ghetto riots, a long series of burglaries and harassment against a legal political party — namely, the Socialist Workers Party, which, unlike the Democratic party, is not powerful and did not have the capacity to defend itself. That aspect of COINTELPRO alone, which is just a tiny footnote to its operations, is far more important than Watergate.

So what we can look at is how the media responded to these two exposures: one, the relatively minor crookedness of the Watergate caper; and, two, a major government program of harassment, violence, assassination, attacks on legal political parties, and efforts to undermine popular organizations over a long period. The Watergate affair became a major issue, shaking the foundations of the republic. The COINTELPRO exposures are known only to a handful of people; the press wasn’t interested in it. And that tells you exactly what was involved in Watergate: people with power can defend themselves, and the media will support people with power. Nothing else is involved.

QUESTION: Well, that’s interesting, because you have the media reinforcing a false picture of what was going on then. I mean, they did not–

CHOMSKY: What I just said is virtually a truism. Here is something close to a controlled experiment. Two exposures at exactly the same time: one, an exposure of a very minor attack on people with power; the other, the exposure of a very major attack over a long period of time-with all sorts of ramifications against a large part of the population, including political parties, without power. And how did the media respond to these two cases? Well, basically, they cared nothing about the major attack on the people without power, and they made a huge fuss about the minor attack on the people with power. So, what does a rational person conclude from this? Well, a rational person concludes from this example — which illustrates it rather dramatically — that the media serve power.

QUESTION: Well, I think it’s especially pernicious, since Watergate was then touted as an example of the system working.

CHOMSKY: That shows how beautifully the propaganda system operates. It takes an example which proves its subordination to power and turns it into a demonstration of its adversarial role. That’s brilliant.

QUESTION: You’ve made the continual argument that the function of the media is actually to obscure what’s happening in the world.

CHOMSKY: To obscure … it’s more complex than that. I mean, the media, after all, have a complex role. In fact, you can’t put the media into a single category. First of all, let’s make a rough distinction. On the one hand, there are the mass popular media — that includes everything from sports and sitcoms to network news and so forth — and their task is basically to divert the population, to make sure they don’t get any funny ideas in their heads about participating in the shaping of public policy. On the other hand, there are the “elite” media, which are directed to what is sometimes called the “political class”: the more educated, wealthy, articulate part of the population, the “managers” — cultural managers, political managers, economic managers. I’m talking here about the New York Times and the Washington Post — at least their front sections. Now, those media have a somewhat more complicated task. They have to instill proper attitudes that serve as a mechanism of indoctrination in the interests of power. But they also have to present a tolerably realistic picture of the world, since, after all, their targets are the people actually making decisions, and those people better have a grasp of reality if the role they play is actually going to benefit those who wield power.

QUESTION: But you mean a specific kind of reality–

CHOMSKY: Well, you have to have some grasp of the real world, otherwise you get into trouble. So, take an investment banker or a state manager — someone involved in government — if those people don’t have some grasp of reality, they’re going to make moves which will be very harmful to the people who really pull the levers. So, therefore, they better have some grasp of reality. But that has to be shaped in the interests of power, and that’s a delicate task. Universities have the same problem.

QUESTION: These are all the things you refer to as the ideological professions. But their version of reality is not necessarily my or your version of reality.

CHOMSKY: No, in fact, it’s often quite different. And that’s what you find in any system of power — the totalitarian state, the democratic state, and so on. In fact, its just entirely natural that, where you have institutions with a degree of centralized power, they’re going to use that power in their own interests. I don’t think there’s an exception to that in history. Now, we happen to live in a system with a very high degree of centralized power — primarily in the corporate world, which has enormous influences over all other institutions, including government and obviously the media; in fact, the media are major corporations. They have a point of view and shared interests and concerns — of course, there’s some diversity within them — and naturally they are going to try to ensure that everything in their political, cultural, and ideological realm is going to be influenced to satisfy their needs. It would be astonishing if that were not true, and the evidence is overwhelming that it is true.

QUESTION: There have been a number of people, such as W. Lance Bennett in his book News: The Politics of Illusion, who have argued that the American people were somewhat better served by the media in the early days of the republic, when the press consisted of numerous small journals and newspapers, all with what would today be considered their own bias or partisan position or political axe to grind. What do you make of the deification or cult of objectivity that characterizes mainstream news reporting today?

CHOMSKY: Well, first of all, I think you want to be very careful about comparing different historical eras; it’s a tricky question. It’s certainly true that there was a lot more diversity in earlier years; you don’t have to go back very far to find a lot of diversity.

On the other hand, it was also highly skewed toward power. For example, let’s take the American Revolution. The position of noted American libertarians, such as Thomas Jefferson and the founding fathers, was that there should be no tolerance at all for positions antagonistic to their own. The range of debate and discussion that was permitted in Nicaragua in the last 10 years while the country was under foreign attack was incomparably greater than anything Jefferson would have allowed — or that the United States has allowed under far less threatening circumstances.

As for the cult of objectivity, here, too, we have to be careful. Surely the media describe themselves as deeply committed to objectivity, but what propaganda institution would not make that claim? A serious person would want to ask if that were true. And the answer is that it’s not true — its very far from true.

QUESTION: A related question then is why do the media continually concentrate on the individual personalities involved in the issues rather than the institutional actors, which is something you yourself scrupulously avoid. For example, in the Iran-contra scandal, the media pretty willingly acquiesced to Reagan’s efforts to make Oliver North and John Poindexter the fall guys.

CHOMSKY: Well, they also concentrated on Reagan himself. Remember, the big question was: did Reagan know — or did he remember — what the policies of his administration were? The reason the media concentrate on these matters is that they’re irrelevant. And insignificant. What they obscure is the institutional factors that, in fact, determine policy. And in the Iran-contra affair, it was rather striking to see the way major issues were almost completely obscured. So, let’s just take one of the obvious questions: you asked why they do that. Well, that’s just in the service of their propaganda function. One of the main purposes of any ideological system is to divert attention away from the actual workings of power and to focus on marginal phenomena. Individuals can be replaced, and then these institutions can continue to function as they do. So, if you take a look at the Iran-contra thing, once again there are perfectly obvious questions that were never asked, which takes remarkable discipline.

For example, the Iran-contra affair focused on what had happened since the mid-1980s — from 1985, 1986 on — with regard to the U.S. sale of arms to Iran. Well, an obvious question arises: namely, what was going on before 1985? And there’s an answer to this. Before 1985, the United States was authorizing the sale of arms to Iran via Israel exactly as it was doing after 1985. Now at that time, remember, there were no hostages. So what’s going on? If the whole operation was supposed to be an arms-for-hostages deal, how come we were doing exactly the same thing before there were any hostages?

Well, that’s another obvious question, and there’s an answer to that one, too. It’s not a secret; for example, I was writing about it in 1982 and 1983. And the answer is that the United States was authorizing arms sales to Iran via Israel in an effort to find elements within the Iranian military with whom they could establish contacts and who might be able to carry out a military coup to overthrow Khomeini. That was frankly, openly, and publicly admitted by top Israeli officials, including people high in the Mossad and others. And all the people who were later exposed in the Iran-contra affair were speaking quite publicly about this in the early 1980s. One of them, Uri Lubrani, said that, if we can find somebody in the military who is willing and able to shoot down 10,000 people in the street, we’ll be able to restore the kind of regime we want, basically meaning the Shah. That’s standard policy whenever there’s hostility to some government: cut off aid to that government but arm the military in the hopes that elements within the military will carry out a coup. That was done in Chile, Indonesia — in fact, that’s just normal. And it was being done in Iran in the early 1980s.

So, was there any discussion of this in the Iran-contra hearings? No, because, even though the question “What was happening before 1985?” was so obvious that it could hardly fail to come to the mind of anybody looking at the issues, the trouble is, if you ask it, you get the wrong answers. Better not to ask it. Therefore, this became one of many aspects of the Iran-contra affair that were effaced in what was, in fact, a cover-up operation by Congress and the media.

QUESTION: I think it’s kind of interesting to note in your discussions of American government that when you do refer to the government you almost invariably mean the executive. Do you consider Congress a confederacy of political eunuchs?

CHOMSKY: Well, I do discuss Congress to some extent, but it doesn’t vary very much. I mean, there’s a little diversity in Congress. If you get down to the House of Representatives, you’ll find a scattering of people who will raise hard questions, such as Henry Gonzalez of Texas or Ted Weiss of New York or Ron Dellums and various people in the Black Caucus. I mean, there’s a scattering of people who raise questions that barely make it to the media. But, by and large, Congress is very much constrained within the same very narrow elite consensus.

QUESTION: Well, do you feel also … I mean, I know that you have advanced these arguments and a number of other people have also advanced these arguments — they are there to be found by anyone who wants to seek them out…. But at the same time, I think there’s a great effort in the mainstream media to write these arguments off as conspiracy theory.

CHOMSKY: That’s one of the devices by which power defends itself — by calling any critical analysis of institutions a conspiracy theory. If you call it by that name, then somehow you don’t have to pay attention to it. Edward Herman and I, in our recent book, Manufacturing Consent, go into this ploy. What we discuss in that book is simply the institutional factors that essentially set parameters for reporting and interpretation in the ideological institutions. Now, to call that a conspiracy theory is a little bit like saying that, when General Motors tries to increase its market share, it’s engaged in a conspiracy. It’s not. I mean, part of the structure of corporate capitalism is that the players in the game try to increase profits and market shares; in fact, if they didn’t, they would no longer be players in the game. Any economist knows this. And it’s not conspiracy theory to point that out; it’s just taken for granted. If someone were to say, “Oh, no, that’s a conspiracy,” people would laugh.

Well, exactly the same is true when you discuss the more complex array of institutional factors that determine such things as what happens in the media. It’s precisely the opposite of conspiracy theory. In fact, as you mentioned before, I generally tend to downplay the role of individuals — they’re replaceable pieces. So, it’s exactly the opposite of conspiracy theory. It’s normal institutional analysis — the kind of analysis you do automatically when you’re trying to understand how the world works. And to call it conspiracy theory is simply part of the effort to prevent an understanding of how the world works.

QUESTION: Well, I think also the term has been assigned a different meaning. If you look at the root of the term itself — conspire, to breathe together, breathe the same air — I mean, it seems to suggest a kind of shared interest on the part of the people “breathing together.” It just seems that the word has been coopted for a different use now.

CHOMSKY: Well, certainly, it’s supposed to have some sort of sinister meaning; it’s a bunch of people getting together in back rooms deciding what appears in all the newspapers in this country. And sometimes that does happen; but, by and large, that’s not the way it works. The way it works is the way we described in Manufacturing Consent. In fact, the model that we used — what we called the propaganda model — is essentially an uncontroversial guided free market model.

QUESTION: An uncontroversial–

CHOMSKY: Guided free market model — the kind that’s virtually uncontroversial.

QUESTION: Hmmm. Well, can you say what issues the media reliably don’t cover? I mean, are there a series of issues that–

CHOMSKY: Well, take some of the issues that we’ve mentioned. Any issue — any thing that’s going on — the media will shape and modify so that it serves the interests of established power. Now, established power may have several components, and these components may even be in conflict in some way, so you will get a diversity of tactical judgments.

Let’s take, for example, the major foreign policy issue of the 1980s: Nicaragua. There was an elite consensus that we had to overthrow the Sandinistas and that we had to support murder and terror in El Salvador and Guatemala — that was a given. But within that consensus, there were some tactical variations. For example, how do you overthrow the Sandinistas? Do you do it by terror and violence, the way the Reaganites wanted? Or do you do it by economic strangulation and a lower level of terror and other sorts of pressures, the way the “doves” wanted? That was the debate. That was the only debate. And the media kept to that line. In fact, I’ve done a rather detailed analysis of this. The fact is that in news reporting, in editorials, and even in opinion columns — which are supposed to reflect a diversity of opinion — the commitment to this position approached 100 percent. So, if you take a look at, say, the opinion columns in the New York Times and the Washington Post, as I did during the peak periods of debate, you’ll find close to 100 percent support for the position that the Sandinistas have to be over thrown and a debate over how it should be done. Now, that’s the kind of uniformity you find in a totalitarian state, and it’s the same with all the other issues that I’ve looked at. Ed Herman and I and others have looked at a very wide range of cases, and that’s what you find throughout.

QUESTION: You speak of the media engaging in a practice that you call feigning dissent. Is this an example of it?

CHOMSKY: Yes. For example, lets take the question of how to overthrow the Sandinistas. In 1986, a poll revealed that about 80 percent of the people called “leaders” — which includes corporate executives and so on — were opposed to the contra option and thought that other means should be used to destroy the Sandinistas and restore the rulers of their choice. Other forceful and illegal measures — but not contras. The reason was simply cost effectiveness. They recognized that the contras are — as the liberals put it — an “imperfect instrument” to achieve our goals. Now, if the media were simply reflecting corporate interests, then about 80 percent of the commentary would have opposed the contras. Actually, it was about 50 per cent, which means that the media were more supportive of the government’s position than a propaganda model would predict. So, if you want, there was a defect in our model — namely, that we underestimated the degree of subordination of the media to the government. But that’s about it.

QUESTION: Do you think right now that the media are helping to lead us into war in the Persian Gulf?

CHOMSKY: Definitely. It’s a complicated story, but the options are basically either war or a negotiated settlement. Now, what are the opportunities for a negotiated settlement? Well, there have been opportunities which have not been explored. And it’s very interesting to watch the way the media treated them. For example, on August 12, Iraq apparently offered to withdraw from Kuwait as part of a general withdrawal from occupied Arab lands. That would mean, with the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon, and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the occupied territories, they would give up Kuwait. Well, that’s not an entirely unreasonable proposal; you can imagine a basis for discussion. It was dismissed. It was dismissed in the New York Times in one sentence — in the course of a news article on another topic. TV news just laughed about it.

On August 19, Saddam Hussein suggested a general settlement treating the problem of Kuwait as an Arab problem to be settled by the Arab states in the manner of Syria in Lebanon and Morocco in the western Sahara. Well, that, too, was rejected at once — this time on the very plausible grounds that, in that arena, Iraq could have prevailed because it’s the most powerful force in that part of the world. Well, that’s correct, but there’s a small point we’re missing here: namely, that Saddam Hussein was just stealing a leaf from our book. Every time a U.S. intervention takes place in the Western hemisphere, we immediately warn the world to keep away, even vetoing U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning U.S, aggression on the grounds that it’s a hemispheric issue and others should not be allowed to interfere. Well, sure, it’s a hemispheric issue because, in the hemisphere, we are so powerful compared to anyone else that we expect to prevail. If it’s wrong for Saddam Hussein — as it is — then it’s wrong for us.

Take a more striking case: on August 23, an offer was transmitted to Washington from Iraq by a former high U.S. official with Middle East connections. That offer was an interesting one. According to memoranda and the testimony of the people involved, which was basically recognized as accurate by the administration, the offer included complete withdrawal from Kuwait, Iraqi control of the Rumailah oil field, which is almost entirely in Iraq except for a small corner in Kuwait — Iraq claims, maybe rightly, that Kuwait has been draining its resources, so they want a settlement which would guarantee them control over that oil field — general negotiations over security issues, and so on. They didn’t even mention U.S. withdrawal from Saudi Arabia. Well, that’s an interesting offer. What was the reaction to it? Well, first of all, it wasn’t published. Six days later, Newsday — which is not the national press — published it very prominently as the cover story and gave all the details. The next day, the New York Times — the newspaper of record — mentioned it in a small paragraph on the continuation page of a story on another topic. The Times opened by quoting the government as saying that the offer is baloney. Then, after having framed the issue properly — in other words, that the offer is baloney — it went on to concede quietly that the Newsday story was accurate and that the Times had had the same information a week earlier but hadn’t published it. And that was the end of that story.

This reveals some things about the media. First of all, it shows that, out side the national press, you occasionally do get deviations. So, for example, the Newsday report was an exposure of information not wanted by those people in power who are trying to avoid negotiations. So, these deviations can happen, and, when they do, you move to the phase of damage control. The way you deal with this information is by marginalizing it. First you present it as baloney; then you quietly concede it’s true and that you knew it all along but were suppressing it. And that’s the end of the story.

Well, what does that tell you? The choice again is a negotiated settlement or war. And we see the way the possibilities for a negotiated settlement are being dealt with. Well, that happens to be Washington’s priority at the moment, so therefore it’s the media’s priority.

QUESTION: Washington’s priority is war?

CHOMSKY: Washington’s priority is not war but, rather, to achieve our ends by the threat or use of force.

QUESTION: That brings up another question: how much of a crisis is there really in the Persian Gulf?

CHOMSKY: If it did explode into war, the consequences could be catastrophic.

QUESTION: I don’t mean after Bush inserted the troops into Saudi Arabia; I mean before.

CHOMSKY: Even then it was serious; Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was a very serious matter, and everything should be done to get them out of there. I mean, on grounds of principle and international law, it’s not fundamentally different from the U.S. invasion of Panama or the Israeli invasion of Lebanon or a dozen other cases we can think of where we didn’t care or we supported the aggression. But on the grounds of, say, human rights, it doesn’t begin to compare with the Indonesian invasion of Timor, which led to near genocide and which we tacitly supported. So, the only “principle” involved here is that might does not make right unless we want it to, and in the other cases we wanted it to. But this is significant because it involves energy. The Arabian peninsula is the major energy reserve of the world, and it’s been a major commitment of the United States since World War II that we or our clients control that source of energy and that no independent indigenous force is allowed to have a significant influence. Actually, years ago, at the time of the first oil crisis, I referred to this as “axiom one” of international affairs. These resources are controlled by the United States, U.S. corporations, and U.S. clients like Saudi Arabia, and we’re not going to tolerate any indigenous threat to that control. A large part of our foreign policy turns around that issue. And there’s absolutely no doubt whatsoever that Saddam Hussein is a monster and a gangster. But, of course, Hussein was just as much a monster and a gangster six weeks ago when he was a favored client of the United States — in fact, the United States was his largest trading partner, and the Bush administration had gone out of its way to offer him loans, credits, and so on. All of this was suppressed — virtually suppressed — by the media for a long time. He was just as much of a monster then. He’s still a monster. Now, however, his monstrous acts happen to be harming U.S. interests, so therefore he’s portrayed as a monster in the media.

QUESTION: I have a feeling that so much of the country has been conditioned now by this demonization in the press of Saddam Hussein that they would say, “Why should we even take these proposals seriously?”

CHOMSKY: We should take them seriously because he’s frightened. The demonization for once happens to be accurate; he is a demonic character, just as he was when the press was looking the other way. But the fact of the matter is that he got in over his head and he now realizes it, apparently. We don’t know, incidentally, if these offers are genuine; there’s only one way to find out — and that’s to pursue them. And that’s what Washington does not want to do. You can’t miss the fact that the United States is isolated on this issue. Who else has troops in the region?

QUESTION: Well, it looks like the United States is bribing Egypt to put some troops in.

CHOMSKY: We’re trying to turn the screws on other countries to get them to participate, which in itself is very striking. Right now, as you and I are talking, the U.S. government — Nicholas Brady and James Baker — are flying around the world trying very hard to get people to contribute. What does this mean — that we’re trying to get them to contribute? So far, they’ve refused, but, if we have to make them contribute, that shows our isolation. Yesterday [September 6], Germany announced that they would not pay anything for the American forces in Saudi Arabia — that this was a bilateral arrangement between the United States and Saudi Arabia and had nothing to do with Germany. Japan, the other major economic force in the world, has been saying that maybe they’ll give some financial support to the countries that are being harmed by the embargo, or, you know, maybe they’ll send a couple of jeeps. Egypt, which is a big, populous country with a very large army — a third of a million men — has sent 2,000 men armed with light weapons and jeeps. Hell, I can round up more than that from the people I know. As for Saudi Arabia, there were big headlines in this morning’s paper saying that Saudi Arabia agrees to share the costs for the American soldiers. How very exciting. I mean, here are American soldiers sent to preserve the Saudi Arabian monarchy, and the Saudis are willing to pay some of the costs. Boy, that’s really impressive.

QUESTION: Well, the United States wants to forgive Egypt its $7 billion debt and also make the Soviet Union a most-favored trading partner if they play along.

CHOMSKY: “Play along” just means give us a diplomatic cover — that’s what it amounts to. Why is the United States so desperate for a diplomatic cover? In fact, why is everyone else in the world backing off from armed confrontation? These are things that a really objective media would want to be exploring. And again you find no discussion of it. And then you find an outraged editorial in the New York Times saying, “How come the world is playing the part of the bad guy?” But try to find some analyses of why that’s true. Well, there are reasons; the reasons are pretty obvious. You know, the United States for a long period was the dominant force in the world — both economically and militarily. It was agreed on all sides that, when the United States was intervening in the Third World, it was “politically weak” but economically and militarily strong. And you tend to lead with your strength. We had military and economic strength. Now, we are only one out of three. It’s a tripolar world from an economic point of view. But the United States is still unique in military force. Nobody comes close; we are the military power. And with the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from world affairs, we’re freer to use military force than before, because the Soviet deterrent has disappeared. And there’s a natural temptation to lead with your strength, which in our case happens to be military. Germany and Japan have different interests, and the resolution of the issue by the exercise of force is not in those interests.

QUESTION: Do you think that there was any good reason for Bush to put all those ground troops into Saudi Arabia?

CHOMSKY: Not really, no. I mean, I think there were reasons for the world community to make it clear that it would not tolerate Iraqi aggression, it would not tolerate the takeover of Kuwait, and it would certainly not tolerate any threat to Saudi Arabia. I think to make that clear and explicit was absolutely valid and right, and I think that Bush really knows there’s agreement about that in the world. The question is where do you go from there?

QUESTION: But my question is was there any real need for those troops to be committed? And didn’t that dangerously raise the stakes?

CHOMSKY: We could argue that; I’m not completely convinced that there was. But you could argue that a military presence was necessary. It would have been far preferable to do it under the U.N.’s auspices. That also was not pursued. Or, rather, it was pursued, but the U.N. would not go along; in fact, the other world powers still have not really agreed to enforce the embargo. After a lot of arm-twisting, we finally got a U.N. Security Council resolution, but it was a very cautious one: it refused to authorize even the minimal use of force. Again, the United States is relatively isolated.

QUESTION: I think it’s interesting that in the media you see a different sort of picture. For example, you were talking earlier about how weak and frightened Hussein actually is at this point — or at least frightened.

CHOMSKY: Well, he looks it. But again, you don’t know whether this is bluster and posing — just an effort to get what he can — or if he really is frightened. And, as I said, there’s only one way to find that out — and that’s to pursue a negotiated settlement.

QUESTION: So, do you think Hussein is militarily as powerful as the media have presented him?

CHOMSKY: On this issue, I think the media are pretty accurate. If you look closely at the military analysis, you’ll see that his military power is partly papier-mache. The army has poor morale, a limited capacity … but it depends by what standards you’re judging. By Middle Eastern standards, it’s a very powerful army. But if there’s a war with the United States, Iraq will lose. If we wanted, we could blow the country out of the universe.

QUESTION: And what about the media’s newfound appreciation of the United Nations now that it’s allegedly voting on our side?

CHOMSKY: Well, that’s an interesting story. The U.N. has come in for some quite unaccustomed praise. There’s been article after article about how, with the end of the Cold War, and with the Russians no longer dragging their feet, the U.N. can finally function in the way it was originally designed to function. There’s one slight problem, though. Certainly for the last 20 years, the U.N. has not been able to function because the United States has blocked it. We’re far in the lead — far, far in the lead — in terms of Security Council vetos. On a whole range of issues — including the Middle East, the observance of international law, disarmament, the environment, you name it — the United States has vetoed Security Council resolutions repeatedly and has voted alone, or along with one or two client states, in the General Assembly. That’s happened over and over again.

So, what does that tell you? Well, if you look at the attitude toward the U.N. in the United States, you find that, in the late 1940s, the U.N. was regarded quite favorably. At that time, after World War II, the United States was overwhelmingly dominant in the world and the U.N. could be counted on to follow U.S. orders on virtually everything. So, at that time, the U.N. was a fine thing, and the Russians — who were being outvoted because we were using the U.N. as an instrument against them — were the bad guys. Then the U.N. gradually fell out of favor, as U.S. dominance in the world declined. And as Third World countries gained independence and were able to join, the U.N. fell under what we call the “tyranny of the majority” — otherwise known as democracy — because it was no longer following U.S. orders. So, slowly, over the years, we lost interest in the U.N. By about 1970, the situation had gotten to the point where the United States was becoming increasingly isolated. And, by that time, the U.N. was just bad news; it was full of irrational anti-Americanism and so forth.

Its interesting to see how the discussion changed over those years. In the 1950s, the debate was why are the Russians so awful? By 1985, the debate was why is the world so awful? You had stories in the New York Times Magazine by their U.N. correspondent asking how come the whole world seems to be out of step. I mean, they’re voting against us on everything; so, what’s the matter with the world? And there were a number of thoughtful ruminations on that topic. Now, in this one instance, the U.N. is more or less acting in accordance with U.S. wishes — more or less. So, all of a sudden, the U.N. is a wonderful institution.

Well, anybody looking at this record would regard it as a comedy. Any sane person would. The U.N. is considered favorably to the extent that it follows U.S. orders; to the extent that it doesn’t, it is looked upon unfavorably. Furthermore, for the past 20 years, the Soviet Union has, by and large — in fact, over whelmingly — voted with the majority, the large majority. Those are the facts of the matter. Try to find a report in the press that even comes close to describing that. Well, that again shows you what a remarkable institution of distortion and deception the media are.

QUESTION: Not only that but … I don’t know if you’ve been watching “Nightline” recently?

CHOMSKY: I don’t watch it.

QUESTION: Well, Barbara Walters was on hectoring a German journalist and a Japanese trade ministry representative about whether or not they were going to contribute money. There was Barbara Walters, you know, speaking almost on behalf of the American peo ple, asking them where’s their damn money.

CHOMSKY: Well, an obvious question arises; namely, why … lets say she’s the voice of the American government, not the American people … why does she have to hector representatives of Germany and Japan about giving us money? Why do we have to twist their arms to get them to pay for this? After all, they’re more reliant on Middle East oil than we are. So, what’s the matter? Well, maybe this says something about us. The possibility that there’s something wrong with our policy, our commitment … that’s something that can’t be raised. I mean, it’s just a law of logic that we’re right in whatever we do. And even if the whole world disagrees with us — not just on this but on many other issues — the world is wrong. The world is not on the “team,” you know, if it doesn’t go along with us. We just take that for granted.

QUESTION: I brought that up because it wasn’t as if this journalist had the keys to the German treasury. It wasn’t news; it wasn’t analysis. It just seemed to be a lot of posturing. Actually, this leads me to my next question. You concentrate mainly on the print media; is there any reason for that?

CHOMSKY: Yeah, I don’t have the resources to cover television. Don’t forget that, on this side of the fence, we don’t have many resources. Everything I do is on my own time, mostly with my own money. On the other side of the fence, you have ample resources. And if you really want to cover television seriously, you have to go through the transcripts, which really takes time. Furthermore, to the extent that there have been studies of television — there have been some by others — it’s almost invariably the case that the framing of the news on television is largely within the bounds set by the national print media. You can pretty well predict what’s going to be on network television on any given evening by looking at the front page of the New York Times or the Washington Post.

QUESTION: Sure, even people within television freely admit that. Do you think there’s any difference in terms of the effectiveness of indoctrination between broadcast media and the print media?

CHOMSKY: Yeah, for most of the population, television news’ framing of the issues is probably much more influential.

QUESTION: Gore Vidal, among others, has suggested that people who are inundated by television news are easier to manipulate. Do you buy that?

CHOMSKY: Well, I think we again ought to make the distinction between the political class — those who are more active in political, economic, and cultural management, a minority of some 20 per cent — and the rest of the population whose function is to be passive observers. For the large mass of the population, I suspect that the main impact of television comes not through the news but through mechanisms to divert their attention. That means network programming — everythlng from sports to sitcoms to fanciful pictures of the way life is “supposed” to be. Anything that has the effect of isolating people — keeping them separated from one another and focused on the tube — will make people passive observers.

Remember, after all, that this is basic liberal democratic theory — I’m not making it up. If you read, say, Walter Lippmann, the dean of American journalism, who is also considered a leading progressive, democratic theorist, his argument is that, for a democracy to function properly, there are two different roles that have to be played: one is the role of what he called the specialized class — the responsible men, a small minority — and the other is the role of the public, who he described as a “bewildered herd.” The role of the public, then, is to be spectators, not participants; their role is just to watch and occasionally to ratify. The decision making has to be in the hands of the elite. That’s democracy.

QUESTION: And that was to be consciously directed?

CHOMSKY: Oh, well, I’m quoting Lippman and he means it to be completely conscious. You can trace this to the founding fathers: the public are to be observers. The country was founded on the idea that… Well, John Jay [the president of the Constitutional Convention and the first chief justice of the Supreme Court] put it very concisely: “Those who own the country ought to govern it.” That’s the way the country was established, and that’s the way it’s been run.

QUESTION: Do you think things are getting better or worse in terms of the people’s access to alternative news sources?

CHOMSKY: Oh, I think it’s better.


CHOMSKY: For one thing, I think the media are better than they were 20, 25 years ago, and more open. I’ve been talking about how narrow they are, but it’s a lot better than it was 25 to 30 years ago.

QUESTION: Why did this change occur?

CHOMSKY: Mainly because of the way everything changes — social change. Why do we have free speech? Not because anybody wrote it down on paper but because of centuries of struggle — popular struggle. Every social change comes about through a long term process of struggle — whether it be the peace movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, or whatever.

And in the 1960s, there was a substantial popular awakening, which improved enormously the cultural and intellectual level of a large part of the population. And that’s had an effect. There’s been a tremendous effort to stamp it out, but I don’t think it’s working. It’s had its effect on popular dissidence during the 1980s, which was greater than it has been in our recent history. And it’s had an effect on the media and Congress. Many people have filtered into the system who came through that experience — and that’s had an effect. So, now you have people in the media whose formative influences were in the 1960s’ ferment — and sometimes you can see their effect. And the same thing holds true with Congress. Take the congressional human rights campaign, which is mistakenly attributed to the Carter administration; a lot of the initiative for it came from young people and grew out of the 1960s experience.

QUESTION: So, you think that people are getting–

CHOMSKY: I think it’s marginally better in the mainstream institutions. Also, there are lots of alternatives. Take some thing like community-based radio, which is pretty widespread over the country — well, that really offers an alternative. Communities that have a community based radio station are significantly different from others in terms of the liveliness and openness and vitality of the political discussion. I travel around the country a lot, and for me the difference is palpable.

QUESTION: So, you think that people are getting less manipulable then?

CHOMSKY: Yeah, I think so. You could see it in the 1980s. For example, when the Reagan administration came in, they expected to be able to carry out world wide interventions the way the Kennedy administration did; Kennedy was their model. And the Kennedy administration was quite brazen about it; some of what they did was clandestine, but most of it was quite open. When they started bombing South Vietnam, it was on the front pages. When they sent troops to Vietnam, it was overt. The Reagan administration couldn’t do that; they had to move at once to clandestine warfare — in fact, they mounted the largest campaign of clandestine terror in modern history, probably. Well, the scale of clandestine operations is a good measure of popular dissidence. Clandestine operations aren’t secret from any body except the domestic population. And they’re inefficient. Any state will use overt violence if it can get away with it; it’ll turn to covert violence when it can’t get away with it.

QUESTION: Do you have any advice on how to escape this pervasive and continual indoctrination offered by the media?

CHOMSKY: People have to understand that it’s necessary to undertake what you might call a course in intellectual self-defense. You have to understand the nature of the material that is being imposed upon you and its institutional sources. When you do that, you can make corrections. Its very hard to do that as an isolated individual. But in solidarity with others, in communication with others, it can be done. It was done, for example, by the Central American solidarity movement, which was a very effective movement in the 1980s, and also by the anti-apartheid network, by the green movement, and by the women’s movement. That’s the way you combat it. An isolated individual — unless he or she is really heroic — can’t prevail.