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Indicting the System with Noam Chomsky


On Feb. 26th, four bumbling fools made their way up to Noam Chomsky’s office. We were going to record an interview with a man who had been an entrance point to radical politics for us. I can still remember the first day I got Chomsky on Anarchism in the mail, the criticisms it made of our society, and its call for more and more freedom. I had a copy, in Spanish, of that very book on hand to get it signed. On that day, we wanted to ask about manufacturing consent, about the hypocrisy of US foreign policy, about how the media frames the debate to effectively exclude the idea that what is being done in every American citizens’ name is morally reprehensible and quite often a grave crime. In this 30-minute interview Noam brings once more to bear on current and historical events his eviscerating analysis of power systems.

This interview originally aired on Houston’s Pacifica Radio Station, 90.1 KPFT FM!


A: I am here with Noam Chomsky, longtime political activist, who over several decades has been critic of US media and foreign policy. A principal part of Noam’s media criticism has been the development of a propaganda model. Theoretically this was worked out by his co-author, Edward S. Herman, another longtime US media critic. Noam, would you elaborate on what exactly is the propaganda model?

N: I should say that my co-author, who crafted the basic framework, is a specialist on corporate power and corporate control. In fact, his book Corporate Control, Corporate Power is one of the classics in the field. What he looked at is pretty simpleminded and straight forward.

Take a look at the structure of the media system. The major media institutions are great corporations, some of them parts of megacorporations. Like other businesses, they sell a product to a market. The product that they sell is audiences. The market is other corporations, because they survive pretty much on advertising in the modern period. It wasn’t always like this. There are other external influences, primarily state power, which itself is very heavily under corporate control, and which has its own propaganda institutions, called public diplomacy or something like that. And also, a constant flow of people in top government and corporate media positions, and very close interactions of other kinds.

That’s the basic structure. What do you expect to come out as the media product of a system of major corporations selling audiences to other corporations in close interaction with a major power system, state power, that there all very much interlocked with? That’s basically common sense.

The rest of the work we have done is giving examples illustrating the way it works, and I think, you can always debate examples, that we’ve tried to pick crucial cases. Even cases that the media regard as their highest, greatest achievement. And we looked at them and argued that in fact it conforms to the common sense expectation. Actually, an interesting aspect of the book, Manufacturing Consent, which journalists and commentators haven’t noticed, is that about a third of the book is defense of the media against attack from a liberal institution, Freedom House.

Freedom House had a huge attack on the media in a big two volume study by Peter Braestrup that they funded, arguing essentially that the media are responsible for losing the Vietnam War. The first volume is a collection of denunciations. The second volume is the data backing it up. We simply went through it, pretty carefully, you can read it and see, and showed that the charges were completely refuted by the data. However, what the data actually showed is that the media performed courageously, professionally, but within a patriotic framework which was never questioned, which is that we are trying to do the right thing, but we are failing, we are making mistakes, if we could achieve the goals effectively that would be fine. Within that framework the reporting was honorable, courageous, and accurate, and the criticisms were completely wrong.

There’s a deeper critique, which in fact actually holds for liberal ideology altogether. So, one of the things I’ve done is if you study the end of the war, 1975, there were, of course, retrospectives from almost everybody across the spectrum. If you look at them, on the right the major claim is, well we were betrayed, it was a noble cause all along, we should’ve won, we could’ve won if we kept going. That’s the right critique of the war. On the left, you get people like Anthony Lewis, maybe the most extreme critic of the war within the mainstream. His position was that the war began with benevolent efforts to do good, but by 1969 it was clear that it was a disaster because we could not achieve our ends in South Vietnam at a cost acceptable to us. That’s the left critique of the war.

How about the question, was it right to carry out the worst crime after the Second World War? Attacking a country, killing millions of people, destroying the country? Was it right or wrong? That question just never raised, you can’t raise that question.

So, that’s the presupposed framework of discussion. Within that presupposed framework we can have honest discussion and commentary. And you know that’s pretty typical, even of the way journalism schools operate. If you go to a journalism school, the best journalism school, you’re taught to be objective, not biased, and objectivity has a meaning. Objectivity means report accurately what’s going on within the Beltway. So, within the basic framework of discussion set by power systems, and discuss that accurately. But, if you go beyond that, and you raise a question about the fundamental assumptions of the power systems, then you’re biased.

For example, global warming; some people say it’s serious, some people say it isn’t happening, so report those two positions. But, don’t go beyond that. Don’t ask if it has something to do with the institutional structure of society that might destroy us all. Don’t ask that.

A: So, following from this framework, I am analyzing New York Times coverage of the 43 disappeared students in Mexico and the arrest and detention of Leopoldo López in Venezuela. One of the first things I noticed is that in 45 articles covering the 43 students, not once is the Merida Initiative mentioned. Is that kind of decontextualized coverage within this “objectivity of the Beltway”?

N: Yes. In fact, that’s very much like one of the chapters Manufacturing Consent, our book. Maybe the first example we gave was comparing the liberal media’s, mainly, coverage of 100 religious martyrs in Central America, including a murdered Archbishop [Oscar Romero in El Salvador], six leading Jesuit intellectuals [Ignacio Ellacuría, Ignacio Martín-Baró, Segundo Montes, Juan Ramón Moreno, Joaquín López y López, and Amando López] who brains blown out by US-backed forces, Americans nuns [Jean Donovan, Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, and Dorothy Kazel] who were murdered. All with impunity, all of them done either by the governments we supported and backed, the forces we supported and backed, that we are armed, trained, and so on. That’s one group. We compared that with one Polish priest who was killed. His killers were immediately found, punished by the authorities, Communist Party, it was a crime, went immediately to sentencing and punishment. There was more coverage of the polish priest than the 100 religious martyrs, whose deaths we were responsible for. What you are giving is another example of the same kind, very standard.

In fact, I’ve seen it with just my own experience. I’m constantly involved in protests against human rights violations, pretty serious ones. I’m often asked to make statements, give video presentations, on and on all over the world. One has been reported. I protested criminal state repression of a Venezuelan judge. That was a big article in the New York Times, London’s Guardian, all over the place, a major, major issue. The others at the same time, never mentioned, much more serious cases. It’s normal and understandable. It follows almost automatically from an investigation into the fundamental nature of these institutions.

I must say, in my own view this model is subject to criticism. It doesn’t go far enough in my opinion. I think this is not only true of the media, but also its pretty much true of the general intellectual community, academic scholarship, public intellectuals, and so on. One thing this model leaves out and should be expanded to cover, is there is a general intellectual culture of which the media are an institutionalized crystallization. So, they represent it in a very clear, specific form, but you find pretty much the same thing in the general intellectual world.

Furthermore, that goes back to the earliest recorded history. In ever society there’s something like a general intellectual community. You know, they don’t call them intellectuals necessarily, but there are people who are privileged, educated, have some opportunity to articulate and reach the public, who deal with public affairs. What we call intellectuals, they didn’t used to call them that, it’s a modern term. Historically, what you find is overwhelmingly this group is supportive of power. There’s usually a fringe of dissidents who are treated pretty badly.

So, there’s one of them up there [points at portrait-size photo], Bertrand Russell. He protested the First World War, he was in jail, he lost his academic position, you know, he was a leading figure of the twentieth century. That’s normal. In fact, at the time of the First World War, there was overwhelming support for the war on the part of each country, Germany, France, England, the United States. The intellectual classes overwhelmingly supported their own states. There was a fringe of dissidents, Russell for example, who were in jail; Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknicht, in jail; Eugene Debs, in jail. That’s the standard picture throughout history. We find it right now.

We are familiar with it in enemy states. So for example, everyone respects Andrei Sakharov or Vaclav Havel, who stood up against the communist authorities. How about the six Jesuit intellectuals who were murdered by US-backed, US-trained forces in Latin America? They’re not even called dissidents. In fact, who knows their names. Can you even mention one of them? Highly respected people. But they weren’t on our side. So that kind of dissidence, they’re not even called dissidents. The term is pretty much restricted to critics on the enemy’s side, who we honor and respect. On our side, they’re subjected to one or another form of punishment.

It’s not severe punishment in a pretty free country like the United States, unless you happen to be Black, or from one of the vulnerable parts of the populations. But, it always comes with some form of marginalization. As I said, it goes right back through recorded history. Classical Greece, who was it that was forced to drink the hemlock? The guy who was corrupting the youth of Athens by asking too many questions.

If you take a look at the Bible, there is a class of people who are called prophets. Bad translation of an obscure Hebrew word. They were basically critical intellectuals. They were condemning the crimes of the King, the evil King, doing geopolitical critique, calling for mercy and justice for widows and orphans. What happened to them? They were jailed, they were driven into the desert, they were bitterly condemned, and then centuries later they were honored, not at the time. People who were honored at the time were the flatterers of the court, centuries later called false prophets. That model goes right back through history with very rare exceptions.

And, I think we see that in the general intellectual community of the West, with the media being a more easily studied example. I don’t want to suggest that it is 100%. So, in the intellectual world, in the academic world, you do get respected dissidents at the fringe, but not the mainstream.

A: We see this with the coverage of the 43 students in Mexico, part of a socialist federation of students, who are not seen as dissidents. And then, in the coverage of Leopoldo Lopez in Venezuela, who was receiving money from the US government, he is automatically labeled a dissident. There have been five editorials from the New York Times covering his arrest and sentencing.

N: Well the [Venezuelan opposition] has been particularly aided by the whole Western establishment. As I said in my own experience, that’s the one case of human rights violation that achieved major publicity in the major journals. Nothing else was ever mentioned.

A: Would we consider then that the formation of coverage aids countries which commit massive human rights abuses, while also demonizing countries that enact policies to reduce poverty, reduce hunger, increase literacy? Is that then another function of the media in this society?

N: It is a major function, and also of academic institutions. A couple of days ago somebody sent me a scholarly publication on terrorism from the University of Maryland. Take a look at the entries. One of the entries are the Sandinistas, they are a terrorist group. They were carrying out terroristic activities in the 1970s against an established government with the purpose of establishing a repressive, communist state, which they then imposed. What actually happened.

What actually happened is they were a guerilla force overthrowing a brutal, vicious dictatorship. Once they came into office they came under US attack, which was severe enough that the US was actually condemned by the World Court. In fact, it had to veto Security Council resolutions calling for the US to adhere to international law. They devastated the country. Although, I should say that Nicaragua suffered less than other countries in the region for a simple reason. Nicaragua had an army to defend itself against US-backed terrorists. In the other countries, the armies were the terrorists, in El Salvador, Guatemala, and so on. And they really suffered.

If you take a look at what is called the immigration crisis in the United States. Where are people fleeing from? There are people fleeing right here near Boston, people fleeing to this day from areas in Guatemala which were subjected to virtual genocide, strongly backed by Ronald Reagan, by the United States. The plurality of refugees recently are from Honduras. Why?! Because in 2009, this is not ancient history, there was a reformist president who was thrown out by a military coup, which then ran a pseudo-election. This was condemned by virtually the entire hemisphere, but for one exception. The United States supported it. It turned Honduras, a poor, repressed country into a monstrosity. The highest killing rate in Latin America, maybe the world. People fleeing from terrible abuse, fleeing toward the United States. We therefore have to build a wall to keep them out, pressure Mexico to keep ‘em out.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the press to its credit, did run a good story on a Guatemalan man who was picked up by the Obama administration, which is the champion in deportation of undocumented immigrants. He is a man who lived here, I think, for 25 years. He had a business, a family, no problems, productive member of the community, picked up and sent back to Guatemala. He was fleeing from the areas that were ravaged with our support. Therefore, we have to make sure to pick him up and throw him right back into the catastrophe left by our policies, which didn’t begin with Reagan. They go way back in history. But the main point that they go back to is 1954 when the US carried out a military coup to overthrow a reformist, democratic government. Since then, Guatemala has been a horror story.

But now we have to make sure to protect ourselves from the people fleeing from our crimes. Anybody discuss this? No.

A: On a closing note, could you elaborate further on refugees and people fleeing? For instance, in Mexico people are fleeing massive violence.

N: Yes, take Mexico. A lot of the fleeing is the result not so much of direct violence, as much as what are called trade treaties, NAFTA. You can pretty much tell that it was going to destroy Mexican agriculture. Mexican campesinos are highly efficient, but they cannot possibly compete with highly state subsidized US agro-business. So they are going to be driven off the lands. Driven to what? Well, conditions of poverty, joblessness, they’ll begin to flee across the border, then we push them away and begin to build walls, and pressuring Mexico to keep away Central Americans who are suffering even more our actions.

Incidentally, Europe is doing basically the same thing. They pressure Turkey to keep the refugees away. In fact, if you look at the whole refugee situation worldwide, say you’re a Martian looking at it, amazing. I mean, there are countries that generate refugees, like our invasion of Iraq, smashed up the country, instigating ethnic conflicts that are now tearing the region apart. The invasion itself probably created a couple of million refugees. It was one of the main factors inflaming the whole region, Britain helped. So, there are countries generating refugees, like us, in Latin America even more.

There are countries that accept refugees that have nothing to do with it, poor countries. Take Lebanon, about 25% of its population are Syrian refugees. That’s in addition to other flows of refugees, again from Western-backed actions, like Palestinian refugees. Jordan, flooded with refugees. Turkey has a couple million refugees.

Again, there are countries that accept refugees and countries that generate refugees and refuse to accept them, like us, like Western Europe. Western Europe claims to have a refugee crisis. So, there’s a couple countries that have had better records than the others. So, Sweden for example has one of the better records. It’s a country of eight million people with 40,000 refugees, half of one percent. Unlike Lebanon, a poor country, not a rich country, with probably over 25% of the population are refugees. Germany, a rich country with over 80 million people, taken in a million refugees, and they are crushed under the crisis.

There are refugees from Africa fleeing to Europe. Well, why would refugees be fleeing from Africa? Is there some relation between Europe and Africa over the past few centuries? Ya, there actually is, we don’t have to go into it.

That’s the refugee problem. It’s shocking.

A: Thank you very much for your time and insight Noam.


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Andrew Smolski is a writer and sociologist.

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