Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Appendix I Segment 9/15
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2. On Critical Balance 34

As just discussed, a propaganda model makes predictions about the performance of the media, but it also yields second-order predictions about debate over how they perform: these too would be expected to be bounded in a manner that fits the needs of established power. We should expect, then, that debate over the media will turn on the question of their alleged anti-establishment zeal: critics of these adversarial excesses will be pitted against those who defend the media as balanced and without bias.35 The possibility that the media conform to the propaganda model -- a natural expectation on uncontroversial assumptions, as discussed earlier -- should be excluded from the debate, as offensive to the interests of the privileged. This is exactly what we discover.

As always, a complex social order permits a certain range of variation. There is, in fact, one notable circumstance in which critics of the media for their submissiveness to power are welcomed. Generally, the media tolerate or even welcome denunciation of their hostility to authority, for obvious self-serving reasons. But there are times when such attacks can become a real threat. To defend themselves, the media may then turn -- briefly -- to critics of their conformity. If they are accused of being unpatriotic, or too harsh towards creations of the public relations industry of the Reagan variety, they may request -- even feature -- critiques of their subordination to the state and awe of powerful figures. Media spokespersons can then observe that they are being criticized from both sides, so it must be that they are right in the middle, doing their work properly. The argument might have some force if the "criticism from both sides" were actually evaluated. Such is not the case, however; to serve the purpose at hand, it is enough that criticism of media subordination exist.

Even this departure from the norm has its limits. The critics of media conformity must keep to matters of personality and secondary issues, steering clear of the nature and functioning of dominant institutions or such eternal verities as U.S. benevolence and yearning for democracy.

There are some interesting examples of these minor effects, but I will put them aside and keep to the main predictions of the propaganda model with regard to tolerable controversy over media performance.

A number of examples have already been noted. A report of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy of Georgetown University on media coverage of conflicts in the Third World, summarizing a series of seminars, is one of the most natural choices for a more careful test of these second-order predictions.36 The published report focuses on coverage of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and conflicts in Central America. The contributions offer little evidence to sustain the critiques that are offered, but the study does provide an enlightening view of how these matters are perceived by people in and close to the media.

The agenda is set throughout by those who condemn the media for their alleged anti-U.S. and anti-Israel bias. The colloquy and documents37 debate the validity of these charges, with virtually no recognition that the opposite criticism is at least a logical possibility.

The basic assumptions are laid down by editor Landrum Bolling in his introductory remarks. He states that

whatever else may be said about them, American media reports on international affairs cannot be counted on to echo the pronouncements of official spokesmen, our own or others...the official version of things has no monopoly in the public print... On matters of controversy, contrary opinions are avidly sought and may, indeed, on occasion be given an attention they do not merit. The media thrives on the reporting of debate and more strenuous forms of conflict.
Bolling notes the contention that "the failure to win in Southeast Asia...was directly related to the broad, unrelenting and detailed coverage of that war by the U.S. mass media," and "particularly the often-gory pictorial reportage by television," which "produced in time a popular revulsion." Then comes the basic question: "Can a `free-press', democratic society defend itself and its friends and allies, in a dangerous world, against the totalitarian adversaries that do not have to contend with a free press and uncontrolled television?"

The framework for the discussion of the media, then, is that predicted by the propaganda model. The same is true of the assumptions concerning the U.S. government and its international relations, presented as truths so obvious that no evidence, questions, or qualifications are in order. Bolling holds that in the Third World, "success has continued to elude us -- until Grenada... What is wrong? Why cannot a nation of such vast wealth, power and good intentions accomplish its purposes more promptly and more effectively? ...why haven't we been more successful in the carrying out of our foreign policies in support of freedom...?" (my emphasis). Examples of our disturbing failures are cited, specifically Cuba, a "particularly painful [story] to the people and government of the United States. How could these dreadful things happen to and through a warm-hearted people only 90 miles off the Florida coast?" That Cubans generally share this assessment of Castro's Cuba as compared with the good old days under U.S. dominance is perhaps less than obvious, just as one might question whether those affected by policies carried out "through Cuba" agree that the consequences have been "dreadful."38 One also wonders whether other "dreadful things" may have happened to warm-hearted people not far away in the Caribbean-Central American region, including stories that might be painful to the people of the United States, were they to learn something of the role their government has played, guided by its unfailing "good intentions." No such questions trouble the proceedings.

Go to the next segment.

34 Addendum to p. 12.

35 For completeness, we may also find those who explain why the media err in their defiance of authority, thus reinforcing the required premise by tacit assumption.

36 Landrum R. Bolling, ed., Reporters Under Fire: U.S. Media Coverage of Conflicts in Lebanon and Central America (Westview, 1985).

37 These are mostly excerpts, though a few are given in full.

38 One might, for example, test Bolling's judgments in the Third World countries that regard Cuba as "an international superpower" because of the teachers, construction workers, physicians, and others involved in "international service" (Michael Stuehrenberg, Die Zeit (West Germany), World Press Review, Dec. 1988.) In 1985, he reports, 16,000 Cubans worked in Third World countries, more than twice the total of Peace Corps and AID specialists from the United States; "Today, Cuba has more physicians working abroad than any industrialized nation, and more than the UN's World Health Organization." Most of this aid is uncompensated, and Cuba's "international emissaries" are "men and women who live under conditions that most development aid workers would not accept," which is "the basis for their success." For Cubans, he continues, "international service" is regarded as "a sign of political maturity" and taught in the schools as "the highest virtue."