The Propaganda System
Noam Chomsky, 1986
excerpted from the book
Stenographers to Power
media and propaganda
David Barsamian interviews
Common Courage Press, 1992,
Introduction: Resisting Thought Control
The popular cultural representation of
the U.S. media is that they are adversarial to, and independent
of, state and corporate power. This well cultivated and consciously
promoted image quickly dissolves under the lens of scrutiny.
The actual purpose which the media serve
very effectively is to inculcate and defend the economic, social
and political agenda of privileged groups that dominate | domestic
society and state. Myriad techniques are employed including: selection
of topics, distribution of concerns, framing of issues, story
placement, filtering of information, emphasis and tone, Orwellisms,
photographs, etc. The media inoculate the public against reality
creating a cordon sanitaire between fact and fiction. History
and context, if not ignored is distorted. Thus, Iraq invades Kuwait.
War happens. It breaks out like measles or smallpox. No background
is offered. The Gulf War is a textbook example of "nuzak"
where journalists were virtually indistinguishable from stenographers.
The reasons for this pattern are clear.
The media are corporations that have a market: other businesses
that advertise through the media. The media are selling their
advertisers a product, namely readers and audiences. From an institutional
point of view that is what the corporate media are: enterprises
out to make money, like other businesses. Their behavior is rational.
They reflect the interests of their owners. The media are a tool
for constraining political debate within limits that serve the
interests of the ruling elite by controlling our understanding
of what is politically possible.
The Propaganda System
October 24, 1986
NC: ... Walter Lippmann, the famous American journalist, said
in 1921 that the art of democracy requires what he called "manufacture
of consent," what the public relations industry calls "engineering
of consent", another Orwellism meaning "thought control".
The idea was that in a state in which the government can't control
the people by force it had better control what they think.
... in the important study called Crisis of Democracy ... published
by the Trilateral Commission, a group of international, essentially
liberal elites, people of whom [President] Carter was a kind of
representative, the ones who staffed his administration, they
refer to the schools as institutions responsible for the indoctrination
of the young." Of course, they're talking to one another
there, that's not what you say in public. But that's the way they're
understood. They are institutions for indoctrination, for imposing
obedience, for blocking the possibility of independent thought,
and they play an institutional role in a system of control and
coercion. Real schools ought to provide people with techniques
of self-defense, but that would mean teaching the truth about
the world and about the society, and schools couldn't survive
very long if they did that.
DB: C.P. Otero, who has edited a collection of your essays entitled
Radical Priorities, has written in the preface of that book, "The
totalitarian system of thought control is far less effective than
the democratic one, since | the official doctrine parroted by
the intellectuals at the service of the state is readily identifiable
as pure propaganda, and this helps free the mind." In contrast,
he writes, the democratic system seeks to determine and limit
the entire spectrum of thought by leaving the fundamental assumptions
NC: ...the Soviet Union ... a country
run by the bludgeon, essentially. It's a command state: the state
controls, everybody basically follows orders. It's more complicated
than that, but essentially that's the way it works. There, it's
very easy to determine what propaganda is: what the state produces
is propaganda... One of the reasons it's so popular is because
it's kind of trivial, and another reason is that it's talking
about our enemies, so that makes it popular. If he was dealing
with a serious problem, ourselves, then it wouldn't have been
popular; in fact, it probably wouldn't have been published. In
a country like that, where there's a kind of Ministry of Truth,
propaganda is very easily identifiable. Everybody knows what it
is, and you can choose to repeat it if you like, but basically
it's not really trying to control your thought very much; it's
giving you the party line. It's saying, "Here's the official
doctrine; as long as you don't disobey you won't get in trouble.
What you think is not of great importance to anyone. If you get
out of line well do something to you because we have force."
Democratic societies can't really work
like that, because the state can't control behavior by force.
It can to some extent, but it's much more limited in its capacity
to control by force. Therefore, it has to control what you think.
And again, democratic theorists have understood this for 50 or
60 years and have been very articulate about it. If the voice
of the people is heard, you'd better control what that voice says,
meaning you have to control what they think ... One of the ways
you control what people think is by creating the illusion that
there's a debate going on, but making sure that that debate stays
within very narrow margins. Namely, you have to make sure that
both sides in the debate accept certain assumptions, and those
assumptions turn out to be the propaganda system. As long as everyone
accepts the propaganda system, then you I can have a debate.
The Vietnam War is a classic example.
In the major media, the New York Times or CBS or whatever-in fact,
all across the spectrum except at the very far-out periphery which
reaches almost no one-in the major media which reach the overwhelming
majority of the population, there was a lively debate. It was
between people called "doves" and people called "hawks."
The people called hawks said, "If we keep at it we can win."
The people called doves said, "Even if we keep at it we probably
can't win, and besides, it would probably be too costly for us,
and besides maybe we're killing too many people," something
like that. Both sides, the doves and the hawks, agreed on something:
we have a right to carry out aggression against South Vietnam.
In fact, they didn't even admit that that was taking place. They
called it the a defense" of South Vietnam, using "defense"
for "aggression" in the standard Orwellian manner. We
were in fact attacking South Vietnam, just as much as the Russians
are attacking Afghanistan. Like them, we first established a government
that invited us in, and until we found one we had to overturn
government after government. Finally we got one that invited us
in, after we'd been there for years, attacking the countryside
and the population. That's aggression. Nobody thought that was
wrong, or rather, anyone who thought that was wrong was not admitted
to the discussion. If you're a dove, you're in favor of aggression,
if you're a hawk you're in favor of aggression. The debate between
the hawks and the doves, then, is purely tactical: "Can we
get away with it? Is it too bloody or too costly?" All basically
irrelevant. The real point is that aggression is wrong. When the
Russians invaded Czechoslovakia, they got away with it, they didn't
kill many people, but it was wrong because aggression is wrong.
We all understand that. But we can't allow that understanding
to be expressed when it relates to the violent actions of our
state, obviously. If this were a totalitarian state, the Ministry
of Truth would simply have said, "It's right for us to go
into Vietnam," period. Don't argue with it. People would
have known that that's the propaganda system and they could have
thought what they wanted. They could have seen that we were attacking
Vietnam just like we can see that the Russians are attacking Afghanistan.
You couldn't permit that understanding of reality in this country;
it's too dangerous. People are much more free, they can express
themselves, they can do things. Therefore, it was necessary to
try to control thought, to try to make it appear as if the only
issue was a tactical one: can we get away with it? There's no
issue of right or wrong. That worked partially, but not entirely.
Among the educated part of the population it worked almost totally.
There are good studies of this that show, with only the most marginal
statistical error, that among the more educated parts of the population
the government propaganda system was accepted unquestioningly.
On the other hand, after a long period of popular spontaneous
opposition, dissent and organization, the general population got
out of control As recently as 1982, according to the latest polls
I've seen, over 70 percent of the population still was saying
that the war was, quoting the wording of the Gallup poll, "fundamentally
wrong and immoral," not "a mistake." That is, the
overwhelming majority of the population is neither hawks nor doves,
but opposed to aggression. On the other hand, the educated part
of the population, they're in line. For them, it's just the tactical
question of hawk vs. dove. This is, incidentally, not untypical.
Propaganda very often works better for the educated than it does
for the uneducated. This is true on many issues. There are a lot
of reasons for this, one being that the educated receive more
of the propaganda because they read more. Another thing is that
they are the agents of propaganda. After all, their job is that
of commissars; they're supposed to be the agents of the propaganda
system so they believe it. It's very hard to say something unless
you believe it. Other reasons are that, by and large, they are
just part of the privileged elite so they share their interests
and perceptions, whereas the general population is more marginalized.
It, by and large, doesn't participate in the democratic system,
which is an elite game overwhelmingly, and people learn from their
own lives to be skeptical, and in fact most of them are. There's
a lot of skepticism and dissent and so on. But this is a typical
example. Here's a case which is an interesting one because, while
the technique of thought control worked very effectively, in fact
to virtually 100 percent effectiveness among the educated part
of the population, after many years of atrocities and massacres
and hundreds of thousands of people killed and so on, it began
to erode among the general population. There's even a name for
that: it's called the "Vietnam Syndrome," a grave disease:
people understand too much. But it's very striking, very illuminating
to see how well it worked among the educated. If you pick up a
book on American history and look at the Vietnam War, there is
no such event as the American attack against South Vietnam. It's
as if in the Soviet Union, say, in the early part of the 21st
century, nobody will have ever said there was a Russian invasion
of Afghanistan. Everyone says it's a Russian defense of Afghanistan.
That's not going to happen. In fact, people already talk about
the Russian invasion of Afghanistan- maybe they defend it, maybe
not-but they admit that it exists. But in the United States, where
the indoctrination system is vastly more effective, the educated
part of the population can't even see that it exists. We cannot
see that there was an American invasion of South Vietnam, and
it's out of history, down Orwell's memory hole.
NC: The experts in legitimation, the ones who labor to make what
people in power do legitimate, are mainly the privileged educated
elites. The journalists, the academics, the teachers, the public
relations specialists, this whole category of people have a kind
of an institutional task, and that is to create the system of
belief which will ensure the effective engineering of consent.
And again, the more sophisticated of them say that. In the academic
social sciences, for example, there's quite a tradition of explaining
the necessity for the engineering of democratic consent. There
are very few critics of this position. There are a few: there's
a well-known social scientist named Robert Dahl who has criticized
this, and he pointed out-as is obviously true-that if you have
a political system in which you plug in the options from a privileged
position, and that's democracy, it's indistinguishable from totalitarianism.
It's very rare that people point that out. In the public relations
industry, which is a major industry in the United States and has
been for a long time, 60 years or more, this is very well understood:
in fact, that's their purpose. That's one of the reasons this
is such a heavily polled society, so that business can keep its
finger on the popular pulse and recognize that, if attitudes have
to be changed, we'd better work on it. That's what public relations
is for, very conscious, very well understood. When you get to
what these guys call the institutions responsible for "the
indoctrination of the young," the schools and the universities,
at that point it becomes somewhat more subtle. By and large, in
the schools and universities people believe they're telling the
truth. The way that works, with rare exceptions, is that you cannot
make it through these institutions unless you've accepted the
indoctrination. You're kind of weeded out along the way. Independent
thinking is encouraged in the sciences but discouraged in these
areas, and if people do it they're weeded out as radical or there's
something wrong with them. It doesn't have to work 100 percent,
in fact, it's even better for the system if there are a few exceptions
here and there; it gives the illusion of debate or freedom. But
overwhelmingly, it works. In the media, it's still more obvious.
The media, after all, are corporations integrated into some of
the major corporations in the country. The people who own and
manage them belong to the same narrow elite of owners and managers
who control the private economy and who control the state, so
it's a very narrow nexus of corporate media and state managers
and owners. They share the same perceptions, the same understanding,
and so on. That's one major point. So, naturally, they're going
to perceive issues, suppress, control and shape in the interest
of the groups that they represent: ultimately the interests of
private ownership of the economy-that's where it's really based.
Furthermore, the media also have a market-advertisers, not the
public. People have to buy newspapers, but the reason is that
otherwise advertisers won't advertise there. The newspapers are
designed to get the public to buy them so that they can raise
their advertising rates. But the newspapers are essentially being
sold to advertisers via the public, which is part of the medium
for selling newspapers to advertisers. Since the corporation is
selling it and its market is businesses, that's another respect
in which the corporate system or the business system generally
is going to be able to control the contents of the media. In other
words, if by some unimaginable accident they began to get out
of line, advertising would fall off, and that's a constraint.
State power has the same effect. The media want to maintain their
intimate relation to state power. They want to get leaks, they
want to get invited to the press conferences. They want to rub
shoulders with the Secretary of State, all that kind of business.
To do that, you've got to play the game, and playing the game
means telling their lies, serving as their disinformation apparatus.
Quite apart from the fact that they're going to do it anyway out
of their own interest and their own status in the society, there
are these kinds of pressures that force them into it. It's a very
narrow system of control, ultimately. Then comes the question
of the individual journalist, you know, the young kid who decides
to become an honest journalist. Well, you try. Pretty soon you
are informed by your editor that you're a little off base, you're
a little too emotional, you're too involved in the story, you've
got to be more objective, there's a whole pile of code words for
this, and what those code words mean is "Get in line, buddy,
or you're out." Get in line means follow the party line.
One thing that happens then is that people drop out. But those
who decide to conform usually just begin to believe what they're
saying. In order to progress you have to say certain things; what
the copy editor wants, what the top editor is giving back to you.
You can try saying it and not believing it, but that's not going
to work, people just aren't that dishonest, you can't live with
that, it's a very rare person who can do that. So you start saying
it and pretty soon you're believing it because you're saying it,
and pretty soon you're inside the system. Furthermore, there are
plenty of rewards if you stay inside. For people who play the
game by the rules in a rich society like this, there are ample
rewards. You're well off, you're privileged, you're rich, you
have prestige, you have a share of power if you want, if you like
this kind of stuff you can go off and become the State Department
spokesman on something or other, you're right near the center
of at least privilege, sometimes power, in the richest, most powerful
country in the world, and you can go far, as long as you're very
obedient and subservient and disciplined. So there are many factors,
and people who are more independent are just going to drop off
or be kicked out. In this case there are very few exceptions.
NC: ... In March 1986, came the major vote on contra aid. For
the three months prior to that, the administration was heating
up the atmosphere to try to reverse the congressional restrictions
on aid to the terrorist army that's attacking Nicaragua, what
they internally call a "proxy army," a proxy terrorist
army attacking Nicaragua, which is of course what it is.
DB: Also called "freedom fighters."
NC: To the public they call them freedom
fighters. If you look at the internal documents they're a proxy
army engaged in terrorism, but that's internal, so I'll call them
by the accurate internal terms: proxy terrorist army. So the question
is: Could we reverse the congressional restrictions on this? That
was the government's problem. The first three months of that year
were very interesting in that respect: how were the media going
to respond to the government campaign to try to reverse the congressional
vote on contra aid. I was interested, so I took the two national
newspapers, the Washington Post and the New York Times, and I
went through all their opinion pieces, every column written by
one of their own columnists, every authored submitted opinion
piece and so on for January, February and March. There were 85.
Of the 85, all were anti-Sandinista. On that issue, no discussion
was even tolerable. So, 85 out of 85 followed the party line:
Sandinistas are bad guys. Incidentally, it's interesting that
there is one person of those 85 who has written elsewhere, in
a more nuanced fashion, but not here. Perhaps he knows that he
never could have gotten in unless he took that position. So on
the major issue: Are we against the Sandinistas?: 100 percent
control. Not a whisper of debate. Now comes the next point. There
are two very striking facts about the Sandinista government as
compared with our allies in Central America: Honduras, Guatemala,
El Salvador. These facts are undeniable, whatever you think about
them. One is that the Sandinistas, among these Central American
countries, are unique in that the government doesn't slaughter
its population. That's just not open to discussion. That's a fact.
Second, it's the only one of those countries in which the government
has tried to direct services to the poor, has in fact diverted
resources to social reform. Again, that's not under discussion.
You can read that in the Inter-American Development Bank reports
or anywhere you like. So these are two rather striking facts that
differentiate Nicaragua from Guatemala, El Salvador and in fact
even Honduras, where about half the population is starving to
death. Those three countries, especially Guatemala and El Salvador,
are among the world's worst terrorist states. In the 1980s, they
have slaughtered maybe over 100,000 of their own citizens with
ample U.S. support and great enthusiasm. They are simply violent,
terrorist states. They don't do anything for their population
except kill them. Honduras is more like a government where the
rich rob the poor, that's the government. They do some killing,
but not on the scale of their major allies, but maybe half the
population is starving. In contrast, the Sandinista government,
whatever you think about them, has not slaughtered the population
and has diverted resources to them. That's a big difference. So
the next thing I looked at was: How often were those two facts
mentioned in these 85 editorials? The fact that the Sandinistas
are radically different from our allies in that they don't slaughter
their population was not mentioned once. No reference to that
fact. The fact that they have carried out social services for
the poor was referred to in two phrases in 85 columns, both sort
of buried. One was an oblique reference which said that because
of the contra war they can't do it any more. It didn't say what
they were doing. The other was a passionate attack against the
Sandinistas as totalitarian monsters and so forth and so on, which
said that well, of course, they did divert resources to the poor.
So, two phrases in 85 columns on that crucial issue, zero phrases
in 85 columns on the not-insignificant fact that, as distinct
from our allies, they haven't slaughtered their population, they
haven't killed 100,000 people. Again, that's really remarkable
After that, I went through all the editorials
in the New York Times from 1980 to the present-just editorials-on
El Salvador and Nicaragua, and it's essentially the same story.
For example, in Nicaragua on October 15, 1985, the government
instituted a state of siege. This is a country under attack by
the regional superpower, and they did what we did in the Second
World War in Hawaii: instituted a state of siege. Not too surprising.
There was a huge uproar: editorials, denunciations, it shows that
they're totalitarian Stalinist monsters, and so on. Two days after
that, on October 17, El Salvador renewed its state of siege. This
is a state of siege that had been instituted in March 1980 and
has been renewed monthly since, and it's far more harsh than the
Nicaraguan state of siege. It blocks freedom of expression, freedom
of movement, virtually all civil rights; it's the framework for
mass slaughter within which the army we organized has carried
out massive torture, slaughter, and is still doing it, in fact.
All you have to do is look at the latest
Amnesty International report. So here, within two days, Nicaragua
instituted a state of siege, and El Salvador renewed its state
of siege under which they had carried out a major mass slaughter
and torture campaign. The Nicaragua state of siege was a great
atrocity; the El Salvador state of siege, which was far harsher
in its measures and its application, literally was not mentioned.
Furthermore, it has never been mentioned. There is not one word
in about 180 editorials which mentions it, because that's our
guys, so we can't talk about it, they're a budding democracy so
they can't be having a state of siege. In fact, the editorial
comment and the news reporting on El Salvador is that this is
somehow a moderate centrist government which is under attack by
terrorists of the left and terrorists of the right, which is complete
nonsense. Every human rights investigation, the church in El Salvador,
even the government itself in its own secret documents, concedes
that the terrorism is by the centrist government; they are the
terrorists. The death squads are simply the security squads. Duarte
is simply a front for terrorists, as he knows. But you can't say
that publicly because it gives the wrong image. You can go on
and on, but these are very dramatic examples of the utter servility
of the media right at the top. They will not even permit opinion
pieces, not only editorials, even opinion pieces won't be permitted
which stray from the party line, because it's just too dangerous.
Similarly, throughout the whole Vietnam War there was never an
opinion piece in the New York Times or any other newspaper that
I know of that said that the United States was wrong to attack
NC: ...the corporations so totally own the government that it
never gets out of line.