On Fake News and Other Societal Woes

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Irene

NoOne’s Listening, December 7, 2005

Interviewer: Hi Professor Chomsky.

Chomsky: Speaking.

Interviewer: This is Irene from No One’s Listening, but in honor of your appearance on the show today we’re entitling it Noam’s listening.

Chomsky: Oh, well, that’s nice.

Interviewer: So our show today is about video news releases.

Chomsky: Video news releases?

Interviewer: Video news releases and fake news. I imagine you don’t have time to watch much tv since you’ve written 90 books but I think the reason you’d be so good for this show is because you could give a historical analysis of the print media.

Chomsky: Well there was a period, in the mid-19th century, that’s the period of the freest press, both in England and in the US. And it’s quite interesting to look back at it. Over the years, that’s declined. It declined for two basic reasons. One reason is the increased capital that was required to run a competitive press. And as capital requirements increased, that of course lead to a more corporatized media. The other effect is advertisement. In the 19th century, the United States had something kind of approximating a market system. Now we have nothing like a market–they may teach you [that] in economics courses, but that’s not the way it works. And one of the signs of the decline of the market is advertisement. So if you have a real market you don’t advertise: you just give information. For example, there are corners of the economy that do run like markets–for example stock markets. If you have ten shares of General Motors that you want to sell, you don’t put up an ad on television with a sexy model holding up the ten shares saying “ask your broker if this is good for you; it’s good for me,” or something like that. What you do is you sell it at the market price. If you had a market for cars, toothpaste, or whatever, lifestyle drugs, you would do the same thing. GM would put up a brief notice saying here’s the information about our models. Well, you’ve seen television ads, so I don’t have to tell you how it works. The idea is to delude and deceive people with imagery. And the same has happened to the print media. Take the New York Times for example. They have something called the news hole. When the editors lay out tomorrow’s newspapers, the first thing they do is the important things – they put the ads around. Then they have a little bit left that’s called the news hole, and they stick little things there. Quite apart from that the media are just big corporations and of course represent the interests of their owners, their markets, which are advertisers, and for the elite newspapers, more or less the managerial class, the educated population they deal with. The end result is that you get a very narrow perspective of what the world is like.

Interviewer: Well then what would be the alternative. That’s where I’m searching.

Chomsky: The alternative would be a free press. It’s not hard to imagine, there actually was one in the mid-nineteenth century. So that would mean a press that isn’t reliant on massive capital concentration, corporate ownership, that is not reliant on advertising for its revenue, and would involve engaged people who are interested in understanding the world and participating in a reasoned discussion about what it should be like. I mean that’s not inconceivable.

Interviewer: Right. I don’t know if you know how these video news releases work. There are actually PR agencies that don’t try to be covert about it. They’ll be called VNR PR agency.

Chomsky: It’s very open. Take say television. In the industry when they have an hour of program, whatever it is, a comedy, a cop show, or whatever. In the industry there’s what’s called content and fill. The content is the advertising. The fill is the car chase or the sex scene or something, that’s supposed to keep you going between ads. And if you look at a television program, actually I do it some times because I’m intrigued, the creativity and the imagination and the expenses and so on are for the ads; the car chase you can pull off the shelf. And in fact this has led to a serious deterioration of the political system. I mean we don’t have anything resembling a democracy anymore. Take a look at the last campaign. The campaign is run by the same people who sell toothpaste, exactly the same PR agencies. And when they sell a candidate they do it the exact same way they sell a lifestyle drug. You don’t put up information about the candidate, what you do is create delusional images that delude and deceive. The population knows it. A very small number of the population, about 10% of the voters, literally, knew the stands of the candidates on the issues. And it’s not because they are stupid or uninterested. It’s just like you don’t know the characteristics of toothpaste.

Interviewer: Hopefully we can change that and people can start questioning..

Chomsky: There’s really two separate questions about the media which are usually muddled. One is what they’re trying to do and the second one is what’s the effect on the public. The effect on the public isn’t very much studied but to the extent that it has been it seems as though among the more educated sectors the indoctrination works more effectively. Among the less educated sectors people are just more skeptical and cynical.

Interviewer: So what can we do because now because I’m depressed.

Chomsky: Well look I think it’s a very optimistic future, frankly.

Interviewer: Really?

Chomsky: Yes very much so. There’s something we know about the country, this country, more than any other. We know a lot about public opinion, it’s studied very intensively. The results are very rarely reported but you can find them. It’s an open society and you can find them. What they show is remarkable. What they show first of all is that both political parties and the media are far to the right of the general population on a whole host of issues and the population is just disorganized, atomized and so on. This country ought be an organizers paradise. And that’s why the media and the campaigns keep away from issues. They know that on issues they’re going to lose people. So therefore you have to portray George Bush as a – look he’s a pampered kid from a rich family who went to prep school and elite university, and you have to present him as an ordinary guy, who makes grammatical errors, which I’m sure he’s trained to make, he didn’t talk that way at Yale, fake Texas twang, and he’s off to his ranch to, you know, cut brush or something.

Interviewer: Right, to go fishing.

Chomsky: That’s like a toothpaste ad and i think a lot of people know it. Given the facts about public opinion, it means what’s needed is something not very radical. Let’s become as democratic as say the second largest country in the hemisphere, Brazil. I mean their last election was not between two rich kids who went to the same elite university and joined the same secret society where they’re trained to be members of the upper class and they can get into politics because they have rich families with a lot of connections. I mean people were actually able to elect a president from their own ranks. A man who was a peasant union leader, never had a higher education, and comes from the population. They could do it because it’s a functioning democratic society. I mean there were tremendous obstacles, repressive state, huge concentration of wealth, much worse obstacles than we have. But they have mass popular movements. They have actually actual political parties, which we don’t have. There’s nothing to stop us from doing that. I mean we have a legacy of freedom which is unparalleled. It’s been won by struggle over centuries, it was never given, and you can use it, or you can abandon it. It’s a choice.

Interviewer: But don’t you think to some extent maybe people don’t even realize their own discontent because of the media?

Chomsky: No I think people are very discontented and their attitudes towards the media are very cynical and skeptical.

Interviewer: The attitudes towards the media [are skeptical] but because we’re not banding together they almost feel that sort of detachment. They don’t know where to get angry or who to band with.

Chomsky: That’s true. But that’s again the lack of democratic structures. I mean if you have popular movements. Well why are unions so detested by elites? Because Unions are one of the few ways in which people without great privilege, working people, can actually get together – for workers education, for interaction, for participation in the political arena and so on. So therefore they have to be destroyed. It’s true that it’s a very atomized society, and there are a lot of reasons for that. The last 25 years things have gotten much worse. The US has gone through a unique period of economic history. Real wages for the majority of the population have stagnated or declined. Working hours have gone way up – they’re now the highest in the highest in the industrial world, wages are the lowest. And people are deluged from infancy. You know I watch children’s television with my grandchildren sometimes. From practically infancy you are deluged with propaganda that says your life depends, your value as a human being depends on how many useless commodities you consume. So you have a working family, you know, husband and wife, working to keep food on the table, their kids want to buy everything there is even though they don’t need it or want it. Then you go deeply in debt and then you’re trapped. You don’t have time to talk to people – you don’t know what your neighbors think. Popular attitudes are just not reported. Sometimes it’s fantastic. So after the federal budget came out last february, the major public opinion institute in the country did a careful poll of people’s attitudes toward the budget. It was just like a mirror image of what the budget was. Where federal spending is going up – military, Iraq, Afghanistan – people wanted it to go down, large majorities; where it was going down, same large majorities, people wanted it to go up: social spending, education, renewable energy, support for the united nations, so on. A huge majority wants Bush to rescind tax cuts for the rich, people with over $200,000 income and so on. Well how was that reported? Well a friend of mine did a database search and nothing. Zero. Only one newspaper in the country – some small town newspaper in Iowa.

Interviewer: So what’s going on? Are they scared? I mean I’ve interviewed some journalists on this show and..

Chomsky: Look they’ve just internalized the values. They’ll tell you, and they’re correct, that nobody is ordering them to do anything. That’s right. Nobody is ordering them to do anything. The indoctrination is so deep that educated people think they’re being objective. Actually this is a point that Orwell made. You and everybody else has read Animal Farm, I’m sure, but you and everybody else hasn’t read the introduction to Animal Farm. There’s a good reason for that: because it was suppressed. The introduction was found 30 years later in Orwell’s own published papers. The introduction to Animal Farm says look this book is a satire on a totalitarian state but I’m going to talk about England, Free England. In Free England it’s not that different. Without state coercion unpopular ideas can be suppressed and are. And then he described how. He didn’t go in much details but he said partly it’s because the press is owned by wealthy men who have every reason not to want certain ideas to be expressed. But the more important reason, he said, was because of a good education. By the time you’ve gone through, you know, Oxford and Cambridge and here you could say Harvard and Princeton and so on, and even less fancy places, you have instilled into you the understanding that there are certain things that just wouldn’t do to say, and that’s what a good deal of education is. So the people who come out of it – and there are many filters, if people go off and try to be too critical there are many ways of discouraging them or eliminating them one way or the other. Some get through, it’s not a uniform story. There are plenty of journalists with integrity and honesty. And many of them, some personal friends, will give a much harsher picture of the media than I do, because they have to live with it. But the basic points that Orwell made are fundamentally correct. The more educated you are the more indoctrinated you are. And you believe you are being free and objective, whereas in fact you’re just repeating state propaganda.

Interviewer: I feel like one of the things with academic readings is that you can trace the source.

Chomsky: Well for example you could trace what I just told you about popular attitudes about the budget. But the point is that you have to do an individual research project, and who’s going to do that? So some guy comes home from his 50 hour week, his wife is working 50 hours, the kids are demanding this and that, does he have time to do an individual research project? That’s what popular associations are for. When you have unions, political parties, women’s groups, whatever it may be, people can get together and do those sorts of things. Individuals can’t do them.

Interviewer: Well that’s what we’re trying to do over here. I think that’s one of the problems with the media..

Chomsky: The truth of the matter is NPR [National Public Radio] is not that different. So I listen to NPR when I’m driving for as long as I can stand it, that’s supposed to be the liberal media, just take a look at their reporting. So last night I was listening to the reporting on Bush’s speech about how to get victory in Iraq. Just imagine – just do a thought experiment. Suppose you were in Russia under Brezhnev or let’s say in the early 80s and you heard reports about the war in Afghanistan. Well, I’m sure it would have been the same thing. They would have discussed how can we get victory, how can we destroy the terrorists, will this tactic work, will that tactic work, we’re losing too many soldiers and so on. Well, just like the most liberal journal in the US. Did anybody ask the question in Russia: do we have a right to invade another country? Can you imagine anyone asking that question here? But in Russia there’s a difference. That was totalitarian control, if you said the wrong thing you’d go off to the gulag. Here it’s just willing subordination to power.

Interviewer: I think it’s because what makes it through the filter is the only thing people see, so they latch onto that and don’t even know to question other things..

Chomsky: It’s indoctrination so profound that educated people can’t even understand the question that I just raised. Try it with journalists. Ask them: can there be journalism on the Iraq war that can be something different from the college newspaper cheering for the home team.

Interviewer: Right. Ya I don’t know.

Chomsky: Ask. There can’t be because they can’t think of it. It’s like Orwell said: it’s just inculcated into you that there are certain things that it wouldn’t do to think.

Interviewer: But there are ways, that’s what’s so exciting about the internet.

Chomsky: And there are plenty of opportunities.