QUESTION: You write in Manufacturing Consent [(Pantheon, 1988)] that it’s the primary function of the mass media in the United States to mobilize public support for the special interests that dominate the government and the private sector. What are those interests?
CHOMSKY: Well, if you want to understand the way any society works, ours or any other, the first place to look is who is in a position to make the decisions that determine the way the society functions. Societies differ, but in ours, the major decisions over what happens in the society — decisions over investment and production and distribution and so on — are in the hands of a relatively concentrated network of major corporations and conglomerates and investment firms. They are also the ones who staff the major executive positions in the government. They’re the ones who own the media and they’re the ones who have to be in a position to make the decisions. They have an overwhelmingly dominant role in the way life happens. You know, what’s done in the society. Within the economic system, by law and in principle, they dominate. The control over resources and the need to satisfy their interests imposes very sharp constraints on the political system and on the ideological system.
QUESTION: When we talk about manufacturing of consent, whose consent is being manufactured?
CHOMSKY: To start with, there are two different groups, we can get into more detail, but at the first level of approximation, there’s two targets for propaganda. One is what’s sometimes called the political class. There’s maybe twenty percent of the population which is relatively educated, more or less articulate, plays some kind of role in decision-making. They’re supposed to sort of participate in social life — either as managers, or cultural managers like teachers and writers and so on. They’re supposed to vote, they’re supposed to play some role in the way economic and political and cultural life goes on. Now their consent is crucial. So that’s one group that has to be deeply indoctrinated. Then there’s maybe eighty percent of the population whose main function is to follow orders and not think, and not to pay attention to anything — and they’re the ones who usually pay the costs.
QUESTION: … You outlined a model — filters that propaganda is sent through, on its way to the public. Can you briefly outline those?
CHOMSKY: It’s basically an institutional analysis of the major media, what we call a propaganda model. We’re talking primarily about the national media, those media that sort of set a general agenda that others more or less adhere to, to the extent that they even pay much attention to national or international affairs.
Now the elite media are sort of the agenda-setting media. That means The New York Times, The Washington Post, the major television channels, and so on. They set the general framework. Local media more or less adapt to their structure.
And they do this in all sorts of ways: by selection of topics, by distribution of concerns, by emphasis and framing of issues, by filtering of information, by bounding of debate within certain limits. They determine, they select, they shape, they control, they restrict — in order to serve the interests of dominant, elite groups in the society.
The New York Times is certainly the most important newspaper in the United States, and one could argue the most important newspaper in the world. The New York Times plays an enormous role in shaping the perception of the current world on the part of the politically active, educated classes. Also The New York Times has a special role, and I believe its editors probably feel that they bear a heavy burden, in the sense that The New York Times creates history.
That is, history is what appears in The New York Times archives; the place where people will go to find out what happened is The New York Times. Therefore it’s extremely important if history is going to be shaped in an appropriate way, that certain things appear, certain things not appear, certain questions be asked, other questions be ignored, and that issues be framed in a particular fashion. Now in whose interests is history being so shaped? Well, I think that’s not very difficult to answer.
Now, to eliminate confusion, all of this has nothing to do with liberal or conservative bias. According to the propaganda model, both liberal and conservative wings of the media — whatever those terms are supposed to mean — fall within the same framework of assumptions.
In fact, if the system functions well, it ought to have a liberal bias, or at least appear to. Because if it appears to have a liberal bias, that will serve to bound thought even more effectively.
In other words, if the press is indeed adversarial and liberal and all these bad things, then how can I go beyond it? They’re already so extreme in their opposition to power that to go beyond it would be to take off from the planet. So therefore it must be that the presuppositions that are accepted in the liberal media are sacrosanct — can’t go beyond them. And a well-functioning system would in fact have a bias of that kind. The media would then serve to say in effect: Thus far and no further.
We ask what would you expect of those media on just relatively uncontroversial, guided-free market assumptions? And when you look at them you find a number of major factors determining what their products are. These are what we call the filters, so one of them, for example, is ownership. Who owns them?
The major agenda-setting media — after all, what are they? As institutions in the society, what are they? Well, in the first place they are major corporations, in fact huge corporations. Furthermore, they are integrated with and sometimes owned by even larger corporations, conglomerates — so, for example, by Westinghouse and G.E. and so on.
So what we have in the first place is major corporations which are parts of even bigger conglomerates. Now, like any other corporation, they have a product which they sell to a market. The market is advertisers — that is, other businesses. What keeps the media functioning is not the audience. They make money from their advertisers. And remember, we’re talking about the elite media. So they’re trying to sell a good product, a product which raises advertising rates. And ask your friends in the advertising industry. That means that they want to adjust their audience to the more elite and affluent audience. That raises advertising rates. So what you have is institutions, corporations, big corporations, that are selling relatively privileged audiences to other businesses.
Well, what point of view would you expect to come out of this? I mean without any further assumptions, what you’d predict is that what comes out is a picture of the world, a perception of the world, that satisfies the needs and the interests and the perceptions of the sellers, the buyers and the product.
Now there are many other factors that press in the same direction. If people try to enter the system who don’t have that point of view they’re likely to be excluded somewhere along the way. After all, no institution is going to happily design a mechanism to self-destruct. It’s not the way institutions function. So they’ll work to exclude or marginalize or eliminate dissenting voices or alternative perspectives and so on because they’re dysfunctional, they’re dysfunctional to the institution itself.
Now there are other media too whose basic social role is quite different: it’s diversion. There’s the real mass media-the kinds that are aimed at, you know, Joe Six Pack — that kind. The purpose of those media is just to dull people’s brains.
This is an oversimplification, but for the eighty percent or whatever they are, the main thing is to divert them. To get them to watch National Football League. And to worry about “Mother With Child With Six Heads,” or whatever you pick up on the supermarket stands and so on. Or look at astrology. Or get involved in fundamentalist stuff or something or other. Just get them away. Get them away from things that matter. And for that it’s important to reduce their capacity to think.
Take, say, sports — that’s another crucial example of the indoctrination system, in my view. For one thing because it — you know, it offers people something to pay attention to that’s of no importance. [audience laughs] That keeps them from worrying about — [applause] keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about. And in fact it’s striking to see the intelligence that’s used by ordinary people in [discussions of] sports [as opposed to political and social issues]. I mean, you listen to radio stations where people call in — they have the most exotic information [more laughter] and understanding about all kind of arcane issues. And the press undoubtedly does a lot with this.
You know, I remember in high school, already I was pretty old. I suddenly asked myself at one point, why do I care if my high school team wins the football game? [laughter] I mean, I don’t know anybody on the team, you know? [audience roars] I mean, they have nothing to do with me, I mean, why I am cheering for my team? It doesn’t mean any — it doesn’t make sense. But the point is, it does make sense: it’s a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority, and group cohesion behind leadership elements — in fact, it’s training in irrational jingoism. That’s also a feature of competitive sports. I think if you look closely at these things, I think, typically, they do have functions, and that’s why energy is devoted to supporting them and creating a basis for them and advertisers are willing to pay for them and so on.