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Manufacturing Dissent:

Noam Chomsky on Journalism

By Peter Cronau
January 1995

Noam Chomsky has described a world where an underlying consensus structures the news media to manage public opinion. However Chomsky says there is scope for individual journalists to resist these trends. Peter Cronau spoke with Chomsky during his recent visit to Australia.

He has been described as "the world's greatest dissident" and "arguably the most important intellectual alive today". Professor Noam Chomsky, the softly spoken Professor of Linguistics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston USA, delivers an analysis of the media that makes many uncomfortable.

From his young days selling newspapers on his uncle's news-stand in New York, Chomsky has now become reportedly the world's most quoted intellectual.

As well as giving his scathing critique of Western foreign policy and media performance, Chomsky is of course also famous for his (then) revolutionary theories on the origins of language, that language is wired-in at birth.

Australia's Foreign Minister, Senator Gareth Evans, who has come in for stinging criticism from Chomsky for his obsequious attitude to Indonesia, is on the record as saying he thinks Chomsky "should confine himself to linguistics".

Chomsky's move to `dissident voice' occurred in 1964 during the Vietnam War, and since then he has written and spoken out about injustice and repression around the world. His many books include The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism, American Power and the New Mandarins, For Reasons of State, Fateful Triangle: The US, Israel and Palestine, Towards a New Cold War, The Culture of Terrorism, Manufacturing Consent, Deterring Democracy, and Year 501: The Conquest Continues.

In January, Chomsky made his first visit to Australia. In eight days he addressed ten sell-out audiences on topics as varied as human rights and East Timor, democracy and the New World Order, the Middle East, the intellectual responsibility of writers, through to linguistics.

Chomsky views the media as an ideological system serving the powerful elites in society. He explains how governments get away with lying, how academics and intellectuals manufacture consent to the actions of government, and how the media confine debate to the conservative middle ground.

Chomsky argues the Western media have neglected their questioning role, instead repeatedly giving primary access to intellectuals who defend the role of Western governments. He sees the media's role as producing consensus amongst the public towards the ruling elites in government and business.

"The [media's] current mission is to ensure that any thought of controlling their destiny must be driven from the minds of the rascal multitude," he has written in, Year 501: The Conquest Continues. And, in Deterring Democracy, he writes: "The goal is to eliminate public meddling in policy formation".

Probably Chomsky's most known book in this country is Manufacturing Consent: the political economy of the mass media, which he wrote in 1988 with Edward Herman, a professor of finance at the University of Pennsylvania.

The Propaganda Model sketched out in this book describes the structures and influences that Chomsky believes produce systematic propaganda in the media.

"It traces the routes by which money and power are able to filter out the news fit to print, marginalise dissent, and allow government and dominant private interests to get their messages across to the public."

The model puts forward five filters on our news:

* The size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth and profit orientation of the dominant media outlets;

* Advertising as the primary source of income for most media;

* The reliance of the media on information provided by government, business, and `experts' funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power;

* `Flak' - criticism by the powerful of negative media statements - used as a means of disciplining the media;

* Control mechanisms of `anticommunism', `muslim fundamentalism', and so on.

Chomsky (and Herman) don't try to suggest some conspiracy theory at work in setting the media agenda, but mainly a form of self-censorship at work.

"Most biased choices in the media arise from the preselection of right-thinking people, internalised preconceptions, and the adaptation of personnel to the constraints of ownership, organisation, market, and political power," they write in Manufacturing Consent.

While the propaganda model describes a global system that results in the ignoring or suppression of voices of dissent, Chomsky does not argue that it is an all-encompassing theory. Reportage asked whether the model allows scope for journalists wanting to remain independent and to avoid becoming a mouthpiece for the ruling elites.

"It's intended to pick out major factors that frame the way an institution functions," says Chomsky. "Now as any scientist knows you start a rational inquiry by trying to identify the major factors and then there's a whole set of secondary and tertiary factors that interfere. If you really look down into the details you'll find all sorts of other things going on. I'll mention one which is known to any serious investigative journalist, and a lot of them use it.

"There are periodic scandals - meaning some horrible thing that happened by accident escapes, that's called a scandal - and the media feeders have to pretend to be very irate: how can our democracy survive etcetera etcetera.

"It is well known among serious journalists that after a major scandal, like say Watergate or Iran-Contra or something, there is a period of a couple of months when the media tend to be more open. And then you can sneak in the stories that you've been storing up.

"So if you take a close look at the media you'll discover that the really smart reporters often are coming out with things in that window of opportunity that opens up in reaction to the scandal.

"On top of that there is just plenty of people with integrity and who are really working hard to stretch the limits, and sometimes they get things through."

Chomsky describes a good friend of his who is a leading television reporter for ABC News in the United States. The journalist, Charles Glass, is a specialist on the Middle East. Chomsky heard about a story he was working on when they shared a cross-Atlantic flight.

"He'd been working hard to find out something on the Iraqi biological warfare capacities. They were being denied in the United States, because Saddam Hussein was a big friend so it was denied that this was going on. This was a couple of months before the invasion of Kuwait."

Glass had discovered the information through some high level Iraqi leaks, and by examining material from French commercial satellites - something US spy satellites would have also discovered.. "He had put together a solid story and the American ABC was willing to allow him to run it.

"He got to New York and went on television and had his two minutes," says Chomsky.

"Then ABC News immediately shifted to their correspondent in Washington, some big shot who interviewed a Pentagon official, who said, no nothing of this sort was happening. Of course it was true but it wasn't the right story at the time.

"If you happened to be watching televison from the outside it would look like some reporter went off on a loose end, and dug up some nutty stuff, but serious people deny it.

"But if you were paying attention [you] would probably say that was true otherwise they wouldn't be bothered denying it that promptly. And besides it makes perfect sense anyway after the gassings and so on, and of course it was true.

"Well those are ways in which material leaks through thanks to the integrity of particular people."

So, Chomsky says, there are all sorts of complexities, but still the major factors of the Propaganda Model are demonstrated to be correct. "In fact the bulk of that book is documentation of the way it worked in particular and dramatic cases. As far as I know it is the best established thesis of the social sciences by a long shot, that factors like these determine the media product."

In Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky argues that the media establishes and defends the agenda of the dominant privileged groups in society. "The media serve this purpose in many ways: through selection of topics, distribution of concerns, framing of issues, filtering of information, emphasis and tone, and by keeping debate within the bounds of acceptable premises."

But Chomsky believes journalists can try to do things differently.

"There's plenty of opportunities to do very good work," says Chomsky. "Take say Brian Toohey, he gets things through. There's plenty of other people.

"There's going to be strains, and you'll be pressing against limits. If you go too far they'll turn you off; if you keep at it too much you may be thrown out. But within that framework there are plenty of things to do.

"Actually academic scholarship isn't all that different. If people start breaking out of the expected framework - if they are esoteric enough it may not matter - but if they are anywhere near issues of policy of power, they may find themselves in trouble.

"I know plenty of journalists who've been told look you're getting too emotional why don't you take off a bit of time and go to the metro desk and work on that sort of thing.

"The famous case in the United States, Ray Bonner, who was a freelance journalist, was working for the Times. They didn't have any journalist in El Salvador in the early 80s, and he's a good serious honest journalist - no special training, but afterall what's it take?

"He discovered a huge massacre, and the State Department denied it. Of course it's completely true - we know by now exactly it was true - and the Times pulled him out. They claimed that they pulled him out because he needed more experience.

"So they sent him off to the financial desk where he'd kind of really learn the trade of being a journalist. He's no fool and he just quit after a while."

Chomsky says there are many examples of journalists' efforts being stymied, particularly in reporting matters from the US's immediate region. "The first major massacre in El Salvador happened to be in May in 1980 under Carter. It was a crucial moment when the land reform was starting and the government wanted to make sure that everybody got the idea - there's going to be formal land reform but don't lift your head.

"So they carried out a huge massacre. It was actually a joint operation of the Salvadorans and the Honduran Armies."

Chomsky believes the action was co-ordinated by the United States. "It's called the Rio Sumpul massacre," he says. "One big massacre, and maybe 600 people, women and children, were slaughtered."

There were plenty of witnesses to the events, says Chomsky, including local people and priests. It received brief coverage in the international media. "A very good British journalist David Blundy, who's since died, he reported it in the Times," Chomsky says.

"In the United States, it still has not been mentioned. I mean I've written about it, but it has not been mentioned. That's the first big massacre co-ordinated action of the two armies that were anything but friendly which suggests something. And it is not mentioned.

"The UN Truth Commission report just released a study of it and it included it, and then it got like a line somewhere, but that's it. This happens all the time. Wrong story, totally wrong story."

There's some even more dramatic cases," says Chomsky. "In Cambodia, which people pretend that they are concerned about, US bombing started around `69. By 1971 about a third of the population were already refugees, according to US government sources, so who knows what happened.

"Doubtless tens of thousands of people were killed. By 1973 there were over a million refugees in Phnom Penh. Then the serious bombing started. The peak bombing was early `73 through late `73.

"There were plenty of reporters in Phnom Penh including the ones like Sydney Schanberg who's considered the conscience of the press, you know a big hero. He was the Times reporter there.

"I went through all of his reporting - it's in Manufacturing Consent. ... Sort of like [William] Shawcross and the Timorese."

In Chomsky's 1993 book Year 501, he describes Shawcross explaining that East Timor failed to get the extent of coverage as did Cambodia due to "a comparative lack of sources".

"What happened in the early half of the decade is virtually unknown. What happened in the latter half of the decade is the main focus of inquiry because you can blame it on someone else. The CIA which wouldn't be likely to underestimate it, estimates in its demographic study, 600,000 killed in the first half of the decade. So it's not small whatever it was.

"Try to find out something about it and the reason nothing is known is because the journalists refused to report it. They wouldn't talk to the refugees.

"Actually it is even more nuanced if you look at it closely. There was one atrocity which was reported. In fact if you saw the film, The Killing Fields, it starts off with an American atrocity - they bombed a village.

"And that one was reported for three solid days. Shocked Schanbergs went out there, why? They hit the wrong village. It was a mistake. You know they were aiming at some other village. So therefore you could report it within the framework: `you were allowed to make mistakes'.

"So yes, that was graphically reported, with the torn up bodies: `Isn't it awful we made a mistake'. How about the times we didn't make a mistake? You know that we don't report it.

"If you internalise these values you can make it in the media. If you don't like those values and you report one of the other ones, you'll get cut off somewhere along the line."

Some media theorists, such as Stuart Hall, refer more to the structures of news production such as the professional demands on journalists for impartiality, balance and objectivity as the cause of over-accessing to the media of those in powerful and privileged institutional positions. Fact and opinion become distinguished not by the journalist but by their `accredited sources'.

But Chomsky believes that those professional qualities in journalists need not necessarily lead to over-accessing of the social realities of the powerful. He thinks that it is possible for journalists to remain independent while working according to professional standards.

"Yes I do. Here I disagree with a lot of my friends. I think objectivity and impartiality are goals that one can try to achieve," says Chomsky."You're not going to achieve them. You know you always have too many biases and preconditions and so on. But you try to become aware of them.

"It's just like science. You can't do scientific work without preconceptions of what you expect to find and so on, but if you are rational at least you try to be conscious of them and hold them up to inquiry, willingly to give them up.

"But objectivity is a goal to which you can strive, knowing perfectly well that there's many factors that are going to prevent you from succeeding.

"Some of the best journalists I know of - I don't know them personally - are people that think they are either apolitical or politically pretty reactionary, but just very good at telling you what's there."

The alternative press is also at times guilty of partisan reporting, of blindly repeating statements. Chomsky says that such reporting can be "very distorted". "Some of the best reporting around is in journals like the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times of London. They have professional reporting."

The reason that governments manipulate the media and lie to their publics is because of their fear of what the public may do with knowledge about what is really going on around them, argues Chomsky. He says that with East Timor, the US and Australian governments have tried to keep secret the truth of events there.

"They are afraid they can't keep their own public in check," he says.

"Take the United States which has played the decisive role. It's not playing the decisive role any more; it's backing off. It's not that they got to be nice people. There's just enough pressure. And the pressure is interesting, it's not from the left.

"So a lot of the strongest opponents of the US involvement here happen to very rightwing people who it's been brought to their attention. And they don't like it, but they're human beings.

"It's been brought to their attention not because they read it in the New York Times. It was brought to their attention by activists and the church, and public efforts, pressure groups etcetera."

Chomsky says there is no shortage of examples of this.

"The first major story, really good story in the US media on East Timor, the first accurate story, and to this day one of the best anywhere, happened to be in the Boston Globe [Chomsky's home-town paper].

The way it came about was this: The Boston Globe ran one of these standard State Department handouts, you know, full of lies and so on. And I wrote a letter to the editor of the Sunday section, and I told him this is all lies, you shouldn't publish that kind of stuff.

"He wrote me back and he called me, he didn't believe a word I said. And he said `well can you prove anything you said', and I said `sure I can do it, but why believe me. Why don't you get one of your reporters to look into it?'.

"So he did, and it was good that he picked a local reporter. He didn't pick an international correspondent. He picked some local guy who worked out of the police court - a guy whose instincts are those of a journalist, to tell the truth.

"The guy didn't have very much international experience, but he was just a very honest local reporter - there are plenty of people like that. He called me and asked me what I knew. I gave him what I knew and I told him contacts. But I told him not to pay too much attention to them. You know, just write. Why should he pay attention to me?

"He followed it up. He dug all kinds of stuff. He got this guy in the State Department who'd been kicked off the Indonesia Desk because he was protesting internally and then started leaking stuff to him, all kind of things. And he wrote a terrific story. It's the first real story that came out.

"Well that kind of thing can happen," says Chomsky. All of these are little pieces of something. Everytime that one of these things happens, it lays the basis for the next thing.

"The same is true with the New York Times I should say. I can trace out in precise detail how they got to the point of starting to report East Timor.

"These things add up. It gradually gets to the point where perceptions change, and expectations change and it's gotten to the point where the US is backing off. Now that's an indication of how little it can take."

But as an informed public begins to want to act on what they are now beginning to find out, won't the level of media manipulation merely increase?

"Sure, but they don't have to win," Chomsky says. "They don't have to win. They can lose, and in this one they are losing.

"It's kind of dramatic now in Australia. The US Congress finally just stopped the sale of small arms. Okay, Australia moves in. Well you know you can stop it here just as easily as you can there.

"In Britain there's the dramatic case. Britain realised that the US is backing off supplying the big arms, not rifles but jet planes. So they're delighted to move in and kill as many people as they can as long as you can make money from it.

"People like John Pilger are giving them a hard time. One of the reasons the government hates him - much to his credit - and tells all kind of lies about him, is because he's really giving them a hard time.

"He exposes what they are doing. People read it. When his documentary [Death of a Nation, a film on East Timor] came out, the BBC switchboards were just jammed for hours by people who were furious to know. They don't want their government to be doing this, and governments have to respond. Even totalitarian governments have to respond to that kind of thing, and certainly relatively democratic ones do.

"That leads to changes, and it also opens room for good journalists, serious journalists. Once you have a space you can push a little harder, and your editors won't stop you, and the owners won't stop you. And things just interact, so finally you get substantial changes, on domestic things too."

Chomsky's message for journalists is that there is a way of bringing information to the public that many would prefer to see kept secret. His message, in the face of his own theories of media dominance by the powerful elites, is given with a surprising optimism.


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