Media Criticism

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Shelagh Rogers

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, March 21, 1995

QUESTION: Noam Chomsky has a multi-hued career: linguist, distinguished lecturer, university professor, researcher and public intellectual. But it’s as a critic of politics, government and the media that Noam Chomsky is best known. His indictment of the media of North America fills volumes and, more often than not, his critique of how the media does their job is ignored by the very media that he indicts. Noam Chomsky was in Vancouver last week and I spoke with him then.

You’re in Vancouver for a little celebration of a film about you. Does the popularity of the film surprise you? Because it’s enormous.

CHOMSKY: Well, actually, it’s the first I’ve heard that I’m here for a celebration of the film but — Does the popularity surprise me? Yeah, I think it was amazing. Actually, it’s not popular in some circles. I haven’t seen it and I was kind of skeptical about the whole project but I liked the people [who made it] very much. But, yes, you’re right: worldwide, the reaction has been astounding.

QUESTION: I’m surprised you’ve never seen it.

CHOMSKY: Well, partly, because I’m not much attuned to the video culture…. I wasn’t part of the project — I mean, I was part of it in the sense that the moon is part of the project of filming the moon. And I have various reservations about it. With all the efforts that I’m sure they made, there’s something inherent in the medium that personalizes the issues. And these are not personal issues. I mean, they followed me around giving talks all over the place just as I’m giving talks all over the place here. But the reason I’m doing that is because somebody else is doing the real work, the work that counts, the work that matters: the organizing and the planning, follow-ups and so on. I’m just participating in other people’s activities. And I doubt that there’s any way of conveying that in a film.

QUESTION: As we speak, your country and our country are arguing about Cuba. And the mass media in the United States are filled with stories about Cuba. Could we use Cuba as a case study for a moment? Tell me what we learn about the way the media works by the way the Cuba story is being dealt with.

CHOMSKY: Not only is the Cuba story being dealt with but the front page story right now is Palestinian terrorism. And in fact in the case of Cuba, it’s an act of terrorism — that is, shooting down two civilian planes, actually probably within the range of international conventions — but surely an unwarranted act, maybe a terrorist act. So, terrorism’s a big issue: shooting down unarmed planes and so on. And we’re worried about terrorism in the Middle East. On the other hand, for years, our client state, Israel, has been intercepting ferry boats and other boats in international waters — say, ferry boats going from Cyprus to Lebanon — sinking them, killing people in the water, kidnapping people and putting them in Israeli jails. This has been going on for years. That’s way beyond anything Cuba’s accused of or, for that matter, anyone else in the international arena. But that’s not considered terrorism. Well, that’s a pretty striking example.

Let’s keep to Cuba. In the case of Cuba, for say thirty years or so, the sort of official line in the United States is that we have to defend ourselves against Cuba because it’s an outpost of Soviet imperialism and threatening us. By that logic, the Soviet Union had every right to carry out a terrorist war against Denmark and to embargo it and so on because surely Denmark was a far greater threat to the Soviet Union than Cuba is to us. But let’s put that aside. November 1989 the Berlin Wall collapses. Okay. No more Soviet threat. What happens to U.S. policy towards Cuba? Well, it becomes harsher. Becomes harsher from the liberal Democrats, incidentally. They pressed Bush from the right to finally pass a bill which he originally vetoed — because it’s so contrary to international law — which makes the embargo against Cuba harsher. That’s because the threat of the Russian empire is gone. Well, the media reacted to that without batting an eyelash. Turns out all these years we weren’t afraid of the Soviet threat: it was that we have so much love for democracy that we therefore have to carry out a terrorist war against Cuba and embargo it and strangle it and so on and so forth. In fact, going back to the beginning, the U.S. officially determined — we now have the documents — to overthrow the government of Cuba at a time when Castro was anticommunist and there were no Russians around but he was showing signs of independence. U.S. planes were attacking Cuba from Florida within months after Castro’s takeover and a few months later, March 1960, a formal decision was made to overthrow the government. Now since that time, the United States has, first of all, invaded Cuba, but then carried out extraordinary terrorist attacks against it for years. Probably, Cuba was the target of more international terrorism than probably the rest of the world combined — certainly nothing to compare with it — at least up until [the U.S.-sponsored attack on] Nicaraugua in the 1980s which did exceed it as a terrorist attack. But that’s considered legitimate. It’s never discussed. The U.S. is presented as the victim: Cuba is taunting us, tweaking our nose…

QUESTION: It’s presented by whom?

CHOMSKY: By the U.S. media. So, occasionally they’ll say — as [they did] the day before, yesterday, when I left Boston — the headline said that there is bitter animosity between the two governments. As if it was somehow symmetrical. Like we’re embargoing and attacking Cuba and Cuba’s embargoing and attacking us, sort of. That’s about at the outer limits. Well, you know, this is pretty remarkable if you think about it. It’d be pretty hard to carry something like that off in a totalitarian state.

QUESTION: When you co-wrote the book Manufacturing Consent in the mid to late eighties, one of the issues you raised concerned media concentration — and you wrote before Time-Warner or Disney-ABC. Has media concentration increased significantly since you wrote Manufacturing Consent?

CHOMSKY: I should clarify something — which was also one of the reasons I was skeptical about the film. The book that you’re referring to is a co-authored book and in fact the lead author who more or less did the framework for it is Edward Herman. He’s an economist at the University of Pennsylvania. And the work that you’re describing is his work. He’s a specialist on corporate control and he did the work on media concentration. I mean, I agree with [my] co-author but it’s his work. However, I should tell you that, personally, I don’t regard that as a huge issue. It’s true that media concentration is increasing and getting worse and that’s a bad thing but the differences are not enormous. Let’s take Warner, which you mentioned. Back in 1974, before the concentration, twenty years ago, Warner Communications, part of Warner Brothers, it was a big outfit but not a huge mega-conglomerate. They had a publisher, a rather successful textbook publisher, which published a book critical of U.S. foreign policy that an executive in the Warner offices didn’t like. He ordered the publisher to stop distributing the book. When they didn’t — refused to stop distributing it — he put the whole publisher out of business and destroyed their entire stock. Well, that book happened to have been written by Edward Herman and me. It was our first joint book. Nobody batted an eyelash about this. This isn’t censorship, it’s just corporate tyranny — which is ‘freedom.’ But that was before they became a huge conglomerate. Well, how much worse can it get? Have you heard of an example like that — where a conglomerate not only stops the distribution of a book but puts their entire stock out of existence ’cause they don’t like one book they published?

QUESTION: Quite a story.

CHOMSKY: Incidentally, this story’s been well known for twenty years but it doesn’t bother anyone. In fact, about the only person I know who’s even commented on it is Ben Bagdikian who has written very well about media concentration and who also mentioned this case.

QUESTION: And why do you suppose that is?

CHOMSKY: Because we’re at the dissident fringe. It’s just like not reporting terrorism when it’s carried out by your own state or client state and the victims are permissable victims. I mean, this is obviously not on the scale of terrorism but it’s the same logic.

QUESTION: So what social purpose do you see the media playing?

CHOMSKY: Well, you can’t characterize it in a phrase. It’s complicated. But to a sort of a first approximation, the media behave exactly as you would expect institutions of that character to behave. I mean, take, say, the commercial media. These are big conglomerates, big corporations, very profitable ones, parts of even bigger conglomerates and, as you say, now becoming, you know, going into mega-merger stages. They have a product, namely audiences. They sell it to a market, namely advertisers. The major media — like the New York Times and the Washington Post, the ones that kind of set the agenda for others — they’re directed to privileged sectors of the population, decision-making sectors, managerial sectors, cultural managers, and so on. So they are huge profitable businesses selling privileged audiences to other businesses. Well, what kind of picture of the world would a sane person expect to emerge from that interaction? Not hard to figure out. And there is, by now, thousands of pages of pretty solid documentation showing that what you expect, you get. Hardly surprising. On more or less minimal free market assumptions, that’s about what you’d expect. The interest of the work is showing that the expectation is not only verified but is overwhelmingly verified. On the other hand, there are conflicting factors, so if you look more closely, you find that there are plenty of journalists who have just plain professional integrity and honesty and want to get to the truth. Some of them, incidentally — some of the best known of them — are even more cynical about the media than I am but find ways to work within them [and] kind of often get off quite important things. Another conflicting factor is that the major media — say the national media, the ones I mentioned — they have a sort of an internal contradiction, just the way the schools and the universities do. I mean, on the one hand they have a kind of an indoctrination function and it’s real. On the other hand, they have the responsibility to present to important people — people who make big decisions — to present them with a tolerably realistic picture of the world. And those two demands enter into conflict. You see it pretty dramatically in a journal like the Wall Street Journal, which has some of the best reporting in the country because their audience had better know what the facts are if they’re, you know, making money and things like that. On the other hand, when you turn to the editorial pages, it’s not even a comic strip.

QUESTION: Back in 1988 when your book, which you co-wrote, was published — Manufacturing Consent, we’re speaking about — we were just beginning to see the emergence of what’s been called the 500 channel universe. Do you think that the multiplicity of TV channels is good news or bad news?

CHOMSKY: You could ask the same question about the discovery of the printing press. Depends how it’s used. Technology is usually pretty neutral. It doesn’t care whether you use it to coerce people or you use it to free and liberate people. And all the communications technology from print to radio to television to the Internet has coercive potential and it has liberatory potential. It depends who’s in charge. If it’s democratically run and controlled, it can reflect public interests and serve public interests. If it’s privatized, put under the control of private tyrannies — or totalitarian states and so on — which aren’t responsive to not only the public will but don’t encourage — in fact, discourage — public participation, well, then, it’ll be something quite different. Depends which way it goes. Right now, there’s a struggle over the Internet. And also over the multiple channels. If the multiple channels just become more and more ways for the same tyrannical organizations to carry out their agenda… Their agenda is very clear: you can read it in the manuals of the public relations industry where they’re quite frank about it and have been for a long time. Their agenda is to carry out what the leading guru of the PR industry, Edward Bernays, years ago called the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinion of the masses. Which he regarded as a central part of democracy. He was, incidentally, no reactionary. He was a Kennedy-Roosevelt liberal, highly respected around Cambridge. And what he was presenting — this happened to be in the main manual of the PR industry but it reflected general intellectual attitudes — that means creating artifical wants, atomizing people, separating them from one another, making sure they don’t disturb us important folk in the political arena, turning them into isolated atoms of consumption, obedient, having the ‘right’ opinions which don’t bother us, and properly jingoistic and supportive of power. That’s the agenda. And they’re happy to tell you about it. And they spend huge amounts of money on it. Well, if that’s what the 500 channels turn into, [it’s] just another technique of coercion. But they don’t have to.

QUESTION: Professor Chomsky, how wired are you?

CHOMSKY: Oh, I’m a kind of a Luddite. I very reluctantly agree to use any technology. In fact, about the only reason I have a computer is because my teenage son was beginning to look at me with such contempt and ridicule that I thought I’d better do it.

QUESTION: Are you on the net?

CHOMSKY: No. Although indirectly I am because I have a lot of friends who are, you know, involved in this stuff so they send stuff off to me. Including my wife, who’s a high tech freak.

QUESTION: Oh, yeah? What an interesting household you must live in.

CHOMSKY: Yeah, I don’t know a radio from a tape recorder but she goes around fixing everything and all that stuff. Incidentally, I’ve been in an electronics lab for forty years so it takes a little work not to know it.

QUESTION: Is it hard to be… to be you?

CHOMSKY: It’s… yeah, the hardest thing that I find is, you know, staying up at night, not sleeping, thinking of all the thousands of requests that I’ve got there that I’d really like to fulfill because the people are really doing extremely important and often very courageous things and I just cannot do it. It’s physically impossible. That’s really frustrating.

QUESTION: Your work is often reviewed without, as you have said, the batting of an eyelash. Do you never get discouraged?

CHOMSKY: I’m not expecting to be applauded by people in faculty clubs and editorial offices but that’s not my audience. I mean, I feel good about it when I… Well, I was in India a couple of weeks ago and visited rural, self-governing villages and the people there were happy to see me. I was in Australia before at the invitation of Timorese refugees and, you know, they were glad that I was helping them. Last night, gave talks at a labor federation — I’ve done that in the United States often — and those are the people I want to talk to. As long as the circles of people who matter to me seem to find it helpful and want it — and are sometimes grateful and so on — what else should I care about?

QUESTION: Is it perhaps proof that you’re at least partly right that for the most part your ideas and analysis of the media are ignored by the media?

CHOMSKY: It’s not just the media, incidentally. It’s a little bit misleading. I mean, I do write about the media but that’s because they’re visible. Basically, I write about the doctrinal system. That includes journals, media (mostly elite media), the schools, universities, a good part of scholarship, what’s called the intellectual community and so on. The easist one to study systematically, [if] you really want to do careful systematic analysis and comparisons and so on, well, then you use the daily media because you have a data base which you can sort of run experiments on.

QUESTION: In reviews of your work, the comparison between you and Bertrand Russell or George Orwell surfaces. Are you comfortable with those comparisons?

CHOMSKY: I don’t feel part of that company. Both of them are people who I very much admire. In fact, the one big picture up in my office is [of] Bertrand Russell and I was delighted and honored to be invited to give the memorial lectures in Cambridge at Trinity College after he died, which I did. A lot of Orwell’s work, I think, is terrific. I mean, Homage to Catalonia, which in my view is his greatest book, was an eye-opener to me when I read it, although at the time I already knew a lot about the Spanish Civil War. Russell’s a complicated figure but I think he’s a really outstanding figure — one of the outstanding figures of the twentieth century. And recall that he was reviled and denounced bitterly because he wasn’t just sort of sitting there making occasional comments about the world but — in his eighties — was out in the streets protesting, involved with people who were trying to stop atrocities and so on. And he was bitterly reviled — you should read what the New York Times was writing about him in the sixties.

QUESTION: That’s in the [New York Times] index, isn’t it?

CHOMSKY: Yeah, that’s in the index. Bitter denunciations of this monster who’s daring to criticize U.S. atrocities in Vietnam and to call for an end to nuclear weapons and so on. Well, that goes with the turf. You try to do something that has moral value and people in power aren’t going to like it. I mean, you can trace that back to Biblical times. Just remember that the people who we call the Prophets were not the people who were respected in those days. The respected intellectuals in those days were the ones who centuries later were called false prophets. Take a look at what happened to the people who centuries later were called Prophets — well, same with Russell, in my opinion. And same throughout history. That’s what you expect.

The work that Orwell’s most famous for is not his best work. It’s work which was kind of easy. It’s satirical criticism of the official enemy, a totalitarian state, which is sort of the easiest target. And, of course, particularly easy because he happened to be lining up with power in this case — not that he was dishonest about it — but that he was. On the other hand, Orwell did occasionally say something about the much more significant and more important topic, namely, doctrinal controls in free societies. Obviously, that’s far more important. For one thing, it’s more challenging and difficult but for another thing, it’s right here, and it’s always more important to — I mean, elementary moral considerations say you should focus on what you’re doing and not what some enemy’s doing. That’s obvious. Orwell did have one essay in particular on “Literary Censorship in England” which was written as an introduction to Animal Farm, back in the early forties. And in it he said that England’s a very free society but he said that nevertheless ideas can be silenced without any official means. There are all sorts of ways of doing that. He didn’t go into it much, he just had basically two sentences. Here’s what he said. He said the press is owned by wealthy men who have every interest in not having certain ideas and opinions and attitudes expressed. And he said there’s also a process of socialization by which — particularly in the elite educational system — you sort of internalize values, as he put it: you learn that there are certain things that it just wouldn’t do to say. That’s part of a good education. And he said the effect of this is… To lead [Orwell] to the conclusion that ideas are silenced. The outcome is often not very different from a brutal totalitarian state of the kind that he was describing. Incidentally, that introduction was not published: it surfaced in his unpublished materials about thirty years later. And it’s still not very well known. I’ve quoted it — and it’s there, you can find it — but that’s the one case that I know of in which Orwell dealt with the challenging and morally significant problem for us of what we’re like. It’s always easy to denounce some other guy.

QUESTION: And fifty years later are you more optimistic or pessimistic than George Orwell?

CHOMSKY: I don’t regard the issue of optimism and pessimism as meaning anything. Say, back in the early sixties, when I started getting seriously active in [protesting] the war against Vietnam, I was hopelessly pessimistic. The U.S. by that time had been bombing South Vietnam for years, killed probably a hundred thousand people or more than that, was using napalm, crop destruction. You simply couldn’t get two people in a room together to talk about it. My own view was it would never be possible to see any organized opposition to the war. And I’ve felt the same about many other things. I mean, take, say, Timor. For years and years, I’ve been working on the Timor issue. Press wouldn’t cover it — true in Canada, as well. Half of the United States probably doesn’t know where France is. I mean, try telling them something’s going on in Timor. Well, you know, it finally got to the point where it became a significant issue, significant enough among the public so that Congress actually was impelled to put constraints on arms sales to Indonesia. Of course, Britain and Canada and Australia are delighted to go in and make as much money as they can by slaughtering Timorese but nevertheless when the biggest guy on the block indicates that he doesn’t like something, that has an effect. And it does have an effect. And it can get more [so]. So should you get optimistic or pessimistic? Well, over the years things slowly change — often for the better, sometimes for the worse — that’s the course of history. I mean, it’s because lots and lots of people are not succumbing to pessimism that we don’t live under feudalism and we don’t have slavery and we have parliamentary democracy and we have workers’ rights and some kind of social contract and so on and so forth.

QUESTION: Professor Chomsky, thank you for your time.

CHOMSKY: Glad to have a chance to talk to you.