Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Chapter 1: Democracy and the Media Segment 4/6
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There are, by now, thousands of pages of documentation supporting the conclusions of the propaganda model. By the standards of the social sciences, it is very well confirmed, and its predictions are often considerably surpassed. If there is a serious challenge to this conclusion, I am unaware of it. The nature of the arguments presented against it, on the rare occasions when the topic can even be addressed in the mainstream, suggest that the model is indeed robust. The highly regarded Freedom House study, which is held to have provided the conclusive demonstration of the adversarial character of the media and its threat to democracy, collapses upon analysis, and when innumerable errors and misrepresentations are corrected, amounts to little more than a complaint that the media were too pessimistic in their pursuit of a righteous cause; I know of no other studies that fare better.24
There are, to be sure, other factors that influence the performance of social institutions as complex as the media, and one can find exceptions to the general pattern that the propaganda model predicts. Nevertheless, it has, I believe, been shown to provide a reasonably close first approximation, which captures essential properties of the media and the dominant intellectual culture more generally.
One prediction of the model is that it will be effectively excluded from discussion, for it questions a factual assumption that is most serviceable to the interests of established power: namely, that the media are adversarial and cantankerous, perhaps excessively so. However well-confirmed the model may be, then, it is inadmissible, and, the model predicts, should remain outside the spectrum of debate over the media. This conclusion too is empirically well-confirmed. Note that the model has a rather disconcerting feature. Plainly, it is either valid or invalid. If invalid, it may be dismissed; if valid, it will be dismissed. As in the case of eighteenth-century doctrine on seditious libel, truth is no defense; rather, it heightens the enormity of the crime of calling authority into disrepute.
If the conclusions drawn in the propaganda model are correct, then the criticisms of the media for their adversarial stance can only be understood as a demand that the media should not even reflect the range of debate over tactical questions among dominant elites, but should serve only those segments that happen to manage the state at a particular moment, and should do so with proper enthusiasm and optimism about the causes -- noble by definition -- in which state power is engaged. It would not have surprised George Orwell that this should be the import of the critique of the media by an organization that calls itself "Freedom House."25
Journalists often meet a high standard of professionalism in their work, exhibiting courage, integrity, and enterprise, including many of those who report for media that adhere closely to the predictions of the propaganda model. There is no contradiction here. What is at issue is not the honesty of the opinions expressed or the integrity of those who seek the facts but rather the choice of topics and highlighting of issues, the range of opinion permitted expression, the unquestioned premises that guide reporting and commentary, and the general framework imposed for the presentation of a certain view of the world. We need not, incidentally, tarry over such statements as the following, emblazoned on the cover of the New Republic during Israel's invasion of Lebanon: "Much of what you have read in the newspapers and newsmagazines about the war in Lebanon -- and even more of what you have seen and heard on television -- is simply not true."26 Such performances can be consigned to the dismal archives of apologetics for the atrocities of other favored states.
I will present examples to illustrate the workings of the propaganda model, but will assume the basic case to have been credibly established by the extensive material already in print. This work has elicited much outrage and falsification (some of which Herman and I review in Manufacturing Consent, some elsewhere), and also puzzlement and misunderstanding. But, to my knowledge, there is no serious effort to respond to these and other similar critiques. Rather, they are simply dismissed, in conformity to the predictions of the propaganda model.27 Typically, debate over media performance within the mainstream includes criticism of the adversarial stance of the media and response by their defenders, but no critique of the media for adhering to the predictions of the propaganda model, or recognition that this might be a conceivable position. In the case of the Indochina wars, for example, U.S. public television presented a retrospective series in 1985 followed by a denunciation produced by the right-wing media-monitoring organization Accuracy in Media and a discussion limited to critics of the alleged adversarial excesses of the series and its defenders. No one argued that the series conforms to the expectations of the propaganda model -- as it does. The study of media coverage of conflicts in the Third World mentioned earlier follows a similar pattern, which is quite consistent, though the public regards the media as too conformist.28
The media cheerfully publish condemnations of their "breathtaking lack of balance or even the appearance of fair-mindedness" and "the ills and dangers of today's wayward press."29 But only when, as in this case, the critic is condemning the "media elite" for being "in thrall to liberal views of politics and human nature" and for the "evident difficulty most liberals have in using the word dictatorship to describe even the most flagrant dictatorships of the left"; surely one would never find Fidel Castro described as a dictator in the mainstream press, always so soft on Communism and given to self-flagellation.30 Such diatribes are not expected to meet even minimal standards of evidence; this one contains exactly one reference to what conceivably might be a fact, a vague allusion to alleged juggling of statistics by the New York Times "to obscure the decline of interest rates during Ronald Reagan's first term," as though the matter had not been fully reported. Charges of this nature are often not unwelcome, first, because response is simple or superfluous; and second, because debate over this issue helps entrench the belief that the media are either independent and objective, with high standards of professional integrity and openness to all reasonable views, or, alternatively, that they are biased towards stylishly leftish flouting of authority. Either conclusion is quite acceptable to established power and privilege -- even to the media elites themselves, who are not averse to the charge that they may have gone too far in pursuing their cantankerous and obstreperous ways in defiance of orthodoxy and power. The spectrum of discussion reflects what a propaganda model would predict: condemnation of "liberal bias" and defense against this charge, but no recognition of the possibility that "liberal bias" might simply be an expression of one variant of the narrow state-corporate ideology -- as, demonstrably, it is -- and a particularly useful variant, bearing the implicit message: thus far, and no further.
Returning to the proposals of the Brazilian bishops, one reason they would appear superfluous or wrong-headed if raised in our political context is that the media are assumed to be dedicated to service to the public good, if not too extreme in their independence of authority. They are thus performing their proper social role, as explained by Supreme Court Justice Powell in words quoted by Anthony Lewis in his defense of freedom of the press: "No individual can obtain for himself the information needed for the intelligent discharge of his political responsibilities... By enabling the public to assert meaningful control over the political process, the press performs a crucial function in effecting the societal purpose of the First Amendment."
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24 For some further comments on these topics, discussed more extensively in the references of the preceding footnote, see appendix I, section 1.
25 On the role of Freedom House as a virtual propaganda arm of the government and international right wing, see Edward S. Herman and Frank Brodhead, Demonstration Elections (South End, 1984, appendix I), and Manufacturing Consent. According to a memo of NSC official Walter Raymond, Freedom House was one of the recipients of money raised by the Reagan administration propaganda apparatus (see note 45, below), a charge denied by Sussman, speaking for Freedom House. See Robert Parry and Peter Kornbluh, "Iran-Contra's Untold Story," Foreign Policy, Fall 1988; correspondence, Winter 1988-89. To demonstrate the impartiality and bona fides of Freedom House, Sussman states that "we cited the deplorable human rights record of the Sandinistas, as we publicize violators of human rights in many other countries, such as Chile and Paraguay." Nicaragua, Chile, and Paraguay are the three Latin American countries that the Reagan administration officially condemns for human rights violations, and, to the surprise of no one familiar with its record, Freedom House selects these three examples. Sussman does not, however, select El Salvador and Guatemala, where human rights violations are vastly beyond anything attributable to the Sandinistas, but are not deplored by the Reagan administration, which bears much of the responsibility for them. The fact that Freedom House is taken seriously, in the light of its record, is startling.
26 Martin Peretz, New Republic, Aug. 2, 1982. See my Fateful Triangle (South End, 1983), for more on this curious document and others like it; and appendix I, section 2.
27 See appendix I, section 1, for some comment.
28 Bolling, op. cit.. See appendix I, section 2, and Manufacturing Consent on the Vietnam war TV retrospective and others. On public attitudes towards the media as not critical enough of government and too readily influenced by power generally, see Mark Hertsgaard, On Bended Knee (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1988, 84-85).
29 Former Time senior editor Timothy Foote, who asserts that "any attentive reader" of that journal will know that its bias is sometimes "as obvious as the faces of Mount Rushmore" (Review of William Rusher, The Coming Battle for the Media, WP Weekly, June 27, 1988). Rusher condemns the "media elite" for distorting the news with their liberal bias. Press critic David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times, reviewing the same book in the New York Times Book Review, responds with the equally conventional view that "journalists love to challenge the status quo," and are "critics, nitpickers, malcontents" who "complain about everything."
30 For detailed analysis of media coverage of Cuba, see Tony Platt, ed., Tropical Gulag (Global Options, 1987). Wayne Smith, formerly head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana and a leading Cuba specialist, describes the study as offering "devastating" confirmation of the "overwhelmingly negative" treatment of Cuba in the media, in conformity with "the Department of State's version," citing additional examples of "lack of balance" and refusal to cover significant evidence refuting Reaganite charges; Social Justice, Summer 1988. See also appendix I, section 1.