Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Chapter 5: The Utility of Interpretations Segment 10/11
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Discussing "our un-free press" half a century ago, John Dewey observed that criticism of "specific abuses" has only limited value:

The only really fundamental approach to the problem is to inquire concerning the necessary effect of the present economic system upon the whole system of publicity; upon the judgment of what news is, upon the selection and elimination of matter that is published, upon the treatment of news in both editorial and news columns. The question, under this mode of approach, is not how many specific abuses there are and how they may be remedied, but how far genuine intellectual freedom and social responsibility are possible on any large scale under the existing economic regime.
Publishers and editors, with their commitments to "the public and social order" of which they are the beneficiaries, will often prove to be among the "chief enemies" of true "liberty of the press," Dewey continued. It is unreasonable to expect "the managers of this business enterprise to do otherwise than as the leaders and henchmen of big business," and to "select and treat their special wares from this standpoint." Insofar as the ideological managers are "giving the public what it `wants'," that is because of "the effect of the present economic system in generating intellectual indifference and apathy, in creating a demand for distraction and diversion, and almost a love for crime provided it pays" among a public "debauched by the ideal of getting away with whatever it can."65

To these apt reflections we may add the intimate relations between private and state power, the institutionally determined need to accommodate to the interests of those who control basic social decisions, and the success of established power in steadily disintegrating any independent culture that fosters values other than greed, personal gain, and subordination to authority, and any popular structures that sustain independent thought and action. The importance of these factors is highlighted by the fact that even the formal right to freedom of speech was gained only by unremitting popular struggle that challenged existing social arrangements.66

Within the reigning social order, the general public must remain an object of manipulation, not a participant in thought, debate, and decision. As the privileged have long understood, it is necessary to ward off recurrent "crises of democracy." In earlier chapters, I have discussed some of the ways these principles have been expressed in the modern period, but the concerns are natural and have arisen from the very origins of the modern democratic thrust. Condemning the radical democrats who had threatened to "turn the world upside down" during the English revolution of the seventeenth century, historian Clement Walker, in 1661, complained:

They have cast all the mysteries and secrets of government...before the vulgar (like pearls before swine), and have taught both the soldiery and people to look so far into them as to ravel back all governments to the first principles of nature... They have made the people thereby so curious and so arrogant that they will never find humility enough to submit to a civil rule.67
Walker's concerns were soon overcome, as an orderly world was restored and the "political defeat" of the democrats "was total and irreversible," Christopher Hill observes. By 1695 censorship could be abandoned, "not on the radicals' libertarian principles, but because censorship was no longer necessary," for "the opinion-formers" now "censored themselves" and "nothing got into print which frightened the men of property." In the same year, John Locke wrote that "day-labourers and tradesmen, the spinsters and dairymaids" must be told what to believe. "The greatest part cannot know and therefore they must believe." "But at least," Hill comments, "Locke did not intend that priests should do the telling: that was for God himself."68 With the decline of religious authority in the modern period, the task has fallen to the "secular priesthood," who understand their responsibility with some clarity, as already discussed.

Despite these insights, some have continued to be seduced by the "democratic dogmatisms" that are derided by those dedicated to the art of manipulation. John Stuart Mill wrote: "Not the violent conflict between parts of the truth, but the quiet suppression of half of it, is the formidable evil. There is always hope when people are forced to listen to both sides." Coming to the present, the Code of Professional Conduct of the British National Union of Journalists enjoins the journalist to "eliminate distortion" and "strive to ensure that the information he/she disseminates is fair and accurate, avoid the expression of comment and conjecture as established fact and falsification by distortion, selection, or misrepresentation."69 The manipulation of the public in the 1960s elicited the concerns expressed in 1966 by Senator Fulbright, quoted earlier. A year later, Jerome Barron proposed "an interpretation of the first amendment which focuses on the idea that restraining the hand of government is quite useless in assuring free speech if a restraint on access is effectively secured by private groups," that is, "the new media of communication": only they "can lay sentiments before the public, and it is they rather than government who can most effectively abridge expression by nullifying the opportunity for an idea to win acceptance. As a constitutional theory for the communication of ideas, laissez faire is manifestly irrelevant" when the media are narrowly controlled by private power.70

Many viewed such ideas with alarm. The editors of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, for many years one of the more independent segments of the local quality press, agreed that the newspaper "has an obligation to the community in which it is published to present fairly unpopular as well as popular sides of a question," but "such a dictum" should not be enforced by law. "As a practical matter," they held, "a newspaper which consistently refuses to give expression to viewpoints with which it differs is not likely to succeed, and doesn't deserve to."71

The editors were wrong in their factual assessment, though their qualms about legal obligations cannot be lightly dismissed. In reality, only those media that consistently restrict "both sides" to the narrow consensus of the powerful will succeed in the guided free market.

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65 Jo Ann Boydston, ed., John Dewey: The Later Works, vol. II, from Common Sense, Nov. 1935.

66 See appendix V, section 8.

67 Quoted by Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, 72.

68 Ibid., 385, 353.

69 See Mark Hollingsworth, The Press and Political Dissent (Pluto, London, 1986), for which Mill's statement serves as epigraph.

70 Barron, "Access to the Press," 1656.

71 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Aug. 24, 1967, cited by Jerome A. Barron, "An Emerging First Amendment Right of Access to the Media?," George Washington Law Review (March 1969), 498. See Aronson, The Press and the Cold War, 273-74, for discussion.