Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Appendix I Segment 3/15
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As for the media and Indochina, the facts are quite different from what is commonly alleged. Throughout the war, there were individual journalists who reported honestly and courageously, and made serious and sometimes successful efforts to escape the conventional reliance on government handouts and official premises, but the general picture presented by the media conformed with great precision to the official version.
In the early stages, several young journalists (David Halberstam and others) turned to officers in the field, whose accounts did not substantiate Washington rhetoric. Col. John Paul Vann was the major example, as is now regularly acknowledged. For this, they were bitterly attacked for undermining the U.S. effort. These facts helped create the picture of an adversarial press, but quite falsely. Reporters who turned to Vann for assessment of the military realities did not inform their readers of his conclusion that the government lacked any political base and that the rural population supported the NLF.12 Their reporting remained within the patriotic agenda; the South Vietnamese guerrillas were "trying to subvert this country" and it was only proper for the United States to defend its people against "Communist aggression" and to offer the peasants "protection against the Communists" by driving them "as humanely as possible" into strategic hamlets (David Halberstam, E.W. Kenworthy, Homer Bigart).13 The only issue was whether corruption and dishonesty were harming the prospects for a victory of U.S. arms, taken to be right and just. Contrary to what is often believed, there was little departure from this stand, and gross distortion and suppression in the interest of U.S. power remained a major feature of news reporting as of admissible commentary until the end, and indeed since. Reporters did not attempt to cover the war and the background social and political conflicts from the standpoint of the indigenous population, or the guerrillas; the Afghan resistance to the Soviet invasion, in contrast, was invariably and properly covered from this perspective. The media supported the U.S. attack with enthusiasm or at most skepticism about prospects, and within the approved assumptions of "defense of South Vietnam." It was well after elite circles had determined that the enterprise was too costly to pursue that criticisms were heard of these "blundering efforts to do good" (Anthony Lewis, at the outer limits of expressible dissent). Furthermore, again contrary to common belief, "the often-gory pictorial reportage by television" to which Landrum Bolling and others refer is largely mythical. Television played down such images, and the public impact of the media, particularly television, was if anything to increase public support for the war; this is true, in particular, of the coverage of the Tet offensive.
With regard to the Freedom House study of the Tet offensive that is widely assumed to have proven the case for the media's irresponsibility and adversarial stance, the massive evidence presented collapses under scrutiny. When dozens of crucial errors, misrepresentations, and outright falsehoods are cleared away, we find that the media performed very much in the manner predicted by the propaganda model: with professional competence in the narrow sense, but without any challenge to the doctrine that the U.S. forces demolishing South Vietnam were "defending" the country from the indigenous guerrillas.
The Freedom House critique reduces to the accusation that the media were overly pessimistic -- though in fact they were less pessimistic than internal assessments of U.S. intelligence, government officials, and high-level advisers. It is tacitly assumed by Freedom House that the responsibility of a free press is to cheer for the home team. Complaints of the Freedom House variety were voiced by the Soviet military command and Party ideologues with regard to Afghanistan. The Soviet Defense Minister "sharply critized the Soviet press for undermining public respect for the Soviet army" by its negative commentary. The mass circulation weekly Ogonyok was subjected to particularly sharp criticism because it had presented a "bleak picture" of the war in Afghanistan, describing "poor morale and desertion" among Afghan units, the inability of the Soviet forces to control territory, and drug use among Soviet troops, and publishing excerpts from a helicopter pilot's journal that describe "the sight and smell of colleagues' charred bodies" and imply that "helicopter losses are high." In December 1987, the Moscow News published a letter by Andrei Sakharov calling for the immediate withdrawal of Soviet troops; similar statements in the U.S. press regarding Vietnam were rare to nonexistent until well after the Tet offensive had convinced U.S. elites that the game was not worth the candle. There was even the remarkable example of Moscow news correspondent Vladimir Danchev, who, in radio broadcasts extending over five days in May 1983, denounced the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and called on the rebels to resist, eliciting justified praise in the West and outrage when he was sent to a psychiatric hospital, then returned to his position. There was no Vladimir Danchev in the United States during the American wars in Indochina -- or since.14
In a review of media coverage of the U.S. and Indochina from 1950 until the present, Herman and I show that these conclusions hold throughout, sometimes in a most astonishing way.15 To the best of my knowledge, the same is true in other cases that provide a test of the competing conceptions of the media.
As noted in the text, one of the predictions of the propaganda model, quite well confirmed, is that it must be effectively excluded from ongoing debate over the media despite its initial plausibility and its conformity to the needs of propaganda as articulated by the substantial segment of elite opinion who advocate "the manufacture of consent." While initial plausibility and elite advocacy do not, of course, prove the model to be correct, they might suggest that it be a candidate for discussion. But neither this thought nor the substantial empirical support for the model allows it to achieve such status.
By and large, the possibility of studying the functioning of the media in terms of a propaganda model is simply ignored. Within the mainstream, discussion of the media keeps to the narrow conservative-liberal spectrum, with its assumption that the media have either gone too far in their defiance of authority or that they are truly independent and undaunted by authority, committed to "the scrappy spirit of open controversy" that typifies American intellectual life (Walter Goodman), with no holds barred.16 On the rare occasions when the possibility of another position is addressed, the failure of comprehension and level of reasoning again indicate that the conception advanced is too remote from the doctrinal framework of the elite intellectual culture to be intelligible.
One example, already noted, is the reaction of Times columnist Tom Wicker to a study of the range of opinion permitted expression in the national press. As in this case, the reactions commonly reflect an inability even to perceive what is being said. Thus, a discussion of how media access might be diversified through listener-supported radio and other local initiatives can be understood by the national correspondent of the Atlantic Monthly, Nicolas Lemann, only as a call for state control over the media; the idea of diversified public access in local communities offers a "frightening" prospect of "a politicized press," he continues, as where the press is "controlled by a left-wing political order," Stalinist-style -- unlike the current system of corporate oligopoly, where the press is thankfully not "politicized." Or, to take another case, the executive editor of Harper's Magazine criticizes Michael Parenti's analysis of the media on the grounds that he "overlooks a key feature of American journalism," namely, that "the press generally defines the news as what politicians say." Parenti's thesis is that the same groups -- the "corporate class" -- control the state and the media, so the criticism amounts to the charge that the thesis is valid.17
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12 See For Reasons of State, 232-23; Manufacturing Consent, 181.
13 Ibid., 177, 191.
14 Bill Keller, NYT, Jan. 21, 1988; Paul Quinn-Judge, Christian Science Monitor, July 21, 1987; Extra!, monthly of FAIR, December 1987, for Sakharov letter. Danchev, see the excerpts from "Manufacture of Consent" in Peck, Chomsky Reader, 223f.
15 See Manufacturing Consent, chapters 5 and 6 and appendix III.
16 NYT, April 30, 1987.
17 Lemann, New Republic, Jan. 9, 1989; see chapter 1, note 32. Michael Pollan, NYT Book Review, April 6, 1986, reviewing Parenti, Inventing Reality.