Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Appendix I Segment 6/15
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Some care has to be taken in selecting such examples. Thus, suppose we were to argue that the Boston Globe applies a double standard to the city of Boston, subjecting it to unfair criticism. To prove the point, we take paired examples: say, corruption in the city government in Boston and Seattle, or a murder traceable to the police in Boston and in Karachi. Doubtless we would find that coverage of the Boston cases is far greater, thus proving the point: the editors and staff are "self-hating Bostonians."
The argument is plainly absurd. Obviously, comparison must begin by setting as a baseline the ordinary level of coverage of affairs in Boston, Seattle, and Karachi in the Globe, and the reasons for the general selection. It must also consider such factors as the level of favorable coverage of the three cities. Correcting for the obvious errors, the theory of self-hating Bostonians quickly collapses.
These points are so trivial that it is rather startling to discover that they are commonly ignored. Thus, a familiar condemnation of the media -- very probably the most common, as measured by letters to the editor, impassioned commentary, etc. -- is that they are unfair to Israel and apply a "double standard" to it, perhaps because of anti-Semitism, or because the journalists are self-hating Jews or in love with left-wing fascists or Third World terrorists. The proof typically offered for the thesis is that Israeli crimes receive more coverage than comparable or worse crimes in Syria, South Yemen, and other Arab and Third World states.21
The fallacy is transparent; it is exactly the one just discussed. The level of media coverage of Israel is vastly beyond that of the examples cited to prove a "double standard," and is totally different in character. One would have to search a long time to find a favorable word about Syria, South Yemen, etc., or any word at all. Such coverage as there is is uniformly negative, generally harshly so, with no mitigating elements.
Coverage of Israel is radically different in scale and in character. The Israeli elections of 1988, for example, received extensive and prominent coverage in the national media, second only to the United States itself.22 The same is true of other cases one might select. Furthermore, coverage of Israel is extremely favorable, even obsequious, as illustrated by examples cited earlier and below; overwhelmingly, events are reported and interpreted from an Israeli point of view. Of course, it also follows that when Israeli atrocities become too extreme to overlook, the coverage will be more substantial than in the case of countries that are generally reviled or ignored, much as in the case of Boston and Karachi. Furthermore, if any country that approached Israel in the scale and laudatory character of coverage (none exists, to my knowledge) were to carry out atrocities of the kinds in which Israel has regularly engaged, or if Jews in the Soviet Union or elsewhere were subject to the kind of treatment regularly meted out to Arabs, there is little doubt what the media reaction would be. I return to some examples, and there is extensive literature demonstrating the protectiveness of the media towards Israel, which will be obvious to anyone familiar with them. My point here, however, is to clarify the methodological point. Once we understand it, this large literature can be dismissed, with scarcely an exception.
A fair number of examples that I think are properly selected have been discussed in the literature, in the references cited, and again here. There are enough complexities so that a challenge to any particular choice is always in order. No serious ones have been raised, to my knowledge. There are, however, some methodological issues that are worth thinking through carefully if the analysis of ideological systems is to be pursued in a serious way. Let us consider some of these.
A propaganda model makes predictions at various levels. There are first-order predictions about how the media function. The model also makes second-order predictions about how media performance will be discussed and evaluated. And it makes third-order predictions about the reactions to studies of media performance. The general prediction, at each level, is that what enters the mainstream will support the needs of established power. The first-order predictions are those we have been concerned with throughout. The second-order prediction is that media debate will be bounded in a manner that satisfies these external needs, thus limited to the question of the alleged adversarial stance of the media; the point has been discussed in chapter 1, and I will return to it in the next section. But suppose that some study of the media escapes these bounds, and reaches unwanted conclusions. The model yields third-order predictions about this case as well: specifically, it predicts that such inquiry will be ignored or bitterly condemned, for it conflicts with the needs of the powerful and privileged. A few examples have already been mentioned,23 but a closer look is in order, because the matter is of some significance for inquiry into the ideological system. It is worth understanding the devices that are used to prevent such inquiry.
Since the matter can become intricate, let us take a concrete example. Consider the examination in Political Economy of Human Rights of three categories of atrocities: what we called there "constructive," "benign," and "nefarious" bloodbaths. "Constructive bloodbaths" are those that serve the interests of U.S. power; "benign bloodbaths" are largely irrelevant to these concerns; and "nefarious bloodbaths" are those that can be charged to the account of official enemies and are thus useful for mobilizing the public.
The first-order prediction of a propaganda model is that constructive bloodbaths will be welcomed (with perhaps some clucking of tongues and thoughts about the barbarity of backward peoples), benign bloodbaths ignored, and nefarious bloodbaths passionately condemned, on the basis of a version of the facts that need have little credibility and that may adopt standards that would merely elicit contempt if applied in the study of alleged abuses of the United States or friendly states. We presented a series of examples to show that these consequences are exactly what we discover.
The second-order prediction of the model is that within mainstream circles, studies of this kind will not be found, and that is quite correct. But now we have an example that escapes these bounds. We therefore turn to the third-order predictions: what will the reactions be?
At this level, the model predicts that exposure of the facts would be rather unwelcome. In fact, one might draw an even sharper conclusion: exposure will be ignored in the case of constructive bloodbaths; it may be occasionally noted without interest in the case of benign bloodbaths; and it will lead to great indignation in the case of nefarious bloodbaths. The reasons are clear: the welcome afforded constructive bloodbaths cannot be acknowledged, if only because it exposes the hypocrisy of the furor over nefarious bloodbaths and enemy abuses generally; exposure of the lack of attention to benign bloodbaths is not too damaging, at least if the U.S. role in implementing these atrocities is suppressed; and exposure of the treatment of and reaction to nefarious bloodbaths not only again reveals the hypocrisy and the social role of the "specialized class" of privileged intellectuals, but also interferes with a valuable device for mobilizing the public in fear and hatred of a threatening enemy.
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21 Cases offered are often quite absurd (see the next section for some examples), but real ones can be found. See my Fateful Triangle, 371, on major slaughters that were suppressed while the media briefly focused attention on the Sabra-Shatila massacres, before adopting the conclusions of the Israeli government's Kahan investigating commission. This selective focus does merit the charge of hypocrisy leveled by the Israeli government and its apologists, as discussed in Fateful Triangle. The Kahan Commission report was a shameful whitewash; see Fateful Triangle, chapter 6, and Shimon Lehrer, Ha'ikar Hehaser ("The Missing Crucial-Point"; Amit, Jerusalem, 1983). In a close critical analysis of the events and the Kahan Commission report, Lehrer shows that its conclusions were untenable and argues that the Defense Minister and Chief of Staff should have faced 20-year jail sentences for premeditated murder under Israeli law. While sharply criticized in Israel, in the U.S. the Kahan Commission report was depicted, without analysis, as most impressive or even approaching the sublime.
22 It would be interesting, for example, to compare the coverage of the Israeli elections with that of the Canadian elections at the same time, a neighboring country voting on an issue quite significant for U.S. business interests, the "free trade" agreements.
23 See Manufacturing Consent, chapter 1, for discussion of some others.