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One night over a bottle of Irish whiskey, Alexander Cockburn told me a story about Noam Chomsky’s teeth. One day the great brain went to the dentist for a check up after several years of neglect. During the examination, the tooth doctor noticed extreme wear on the enamel of Chomsky’s molars.
“Noam, do grind your teeth?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Well, the enamel is taking a real pounding. Perhaps you’re doing it at night. Can you ask your wife if she’s observed anything?”
Chomsky goes home Lexington, near the MIT campus and tells his wife Carol about his encounter with the dentist. That night and the next, Carol stays up after Noam has fallen asleep, keeping a close watch for any nocturnal grinding but notices no unusual dental machinations.
However, Carol did observe a furious gnashing each morning at the breakfast table as Noam read his way through the New York Times.
Chomsky taught two generations how to read the paper of record, how to detect the warps in its stories, the subtle biases and false constructions, the decisive elisions of context, and servility toward elite power. What Chomsky could do not was to teach us how to stop reading the New York Times. As a result, thousands of activists around the globe reach for the Times (or the Guardian or the Washington Post) each morning, with red pens in hand, begin marking it up and grinding the enamel off their teeth.
Being Luddites, Cockburn and I were late-comers to the web. Our journal CounterPunch didn’t go online until the late 1990s, as the sun was going down on the Clinton administration. But it wasn’t long before we realized the web offered an exit from what we called the Chomsky Paradox, an existential dilemma that often keeps the Left mired in a hostile environment fight phantoms—namely, political reality as constructed by the editors of the elite media.
After a few years of publishing on the web to an audience of more than a million readers a month, it became clear to us that the old David v. Goliath struggle of left pamphelteers battling the vast print combines of the news barons is beginning to equal up. On a laptop’s 12-inch screen CounterPunch stands as high as the New York Times or Rupert Murdoch, who shelled out $580 million for Myspace.com in 2006 when he belatedly realized the world had changed.
Jeff Bezos, the titan of Amazon, plunked down $250 million of the decrepit Washington Post. Why? Vanity? What’s an oligarch without his own paper? The old newspaper empires are dying or dead.
Twenty years ago the Los Angeles Times was a mighty power. Today it totters from once savage cost-cut and forced retirement to the next. Will the broadsheets and tabloids vanish? Not in the foreseeable future, any more than trains disappeared after the advent of the Interstate system. A mature industry will yield income and attract investors interested in money or power long after its glory days are over. But it’s a world in decline and a propaganda system in decay.
The left is so used to being underdogged that it is often incapable of greeting good fortune when it knocks at the door. Thirty years ago, many of the pieces we run daily in CounterPunch challenging the official nonsense peddled in the mass-market press, would have been doomed to small-circulation magazines or 30-second summaries on Pacifica radio. Thirty years ago, to find out what was really happening in Gaza, you would have needed a decent short-wave radio or a fax machine. Not any more. Now we can get a news report from Gaza or Ramallah or Oaxaca or Vidharba and have it out to a worldwide audience in a matter of minutes.
Naturally, the state doesn’t like the loosening of control. Of course, it could start policing the Net more heavily and start taking down sites more often. Cost of access could shoot up. All of these things could happen and, absent resistance, may well happen. But right now there are new opportunities to be explored and turned, at last, to the advantage of radicals.
A version of this piece originally appeared in the great Australian literary journal Overland.
Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.