Beyond Totalitarianism

Noam Chomsky and the Propaganda Model of Media Control

excerpted from the book

Burning All Illusions

by David Edwards

South End Press, 1996


"Our whole social system rests upon the fictitious belief that nobody is forced to do what he does, but that he likes to do. This replacement of overt by anonymous authority finds its expression in all areas of life: Force is camouflaged by consent; the consent is brought about by methods of mass suggestion."

Erich Fromm, The Art of Being


Proceed With Caution ! The Pitfalls of Common Sense

Psychologists advise caution in situations where we find either ourselves or other people dismissing an argument out-of-hand as absurd or incomprehensible. It seems that several very different motives may account for our response.

First, rejection may of course be a rational response to the nonsense of a demonstrably irrational argument. Secondly, however, it may be triggered by the accurate but uncomfortable nature of an argument- we may reject an idea as 'nonsense' precisely because we recognize (perhaps unconsciously) that it raises a profoundly unpleasant truth we would rather not confront. Thirdly, the argument may be so contrary to our common sense view of the world that it strikes us as being simply ridiculous (the word derives from the Latin ridere meaning 'to laugh'; we tend to find ridiculous, or funny, that which dramatically contradicts our usual conception of the world). Fourthly, we may simply be lying when we dismiss an argument that we perceive as damaging to our interests.

In short, immediate rejection of an argument may be based on rational, emotional, or self-interested motives. While it may often be difficult to establish which motivation, or mixture of motivations, is involved at any given time, rejections based on emotional discomfort, intellectual sloth and/or self-interest will tend to claim a greater level of certainty than those based on reason; reason, after all, is not in the business of absolute certainty, while emotion and self-interest often tolerate nothing less.

Unfortunately it is when we claim to be most certain about what is or is not a 'common sense' argument, that our judgment is most suspect. In the face of this all-too-human predicament, our only realistic strategy would appear to be to rely on our powers of doubt and reason, to put aside our (perhaps) irrationally-motivated knee-jerk response and take a careful look as possible at the facts.

This, I would like to suggest, is the course of action demanded of anyone encountering for the first time the dissident political writings of linguist Noam Chomsky. For, in his criticism of the abuse of contemporary economic, political and military power in the United States and beyond, Chomsky presents a view of the world that is in extreme conflict with the 'common sense' version held by the majority of people. In fact, his argument is at such odds with the view of the world presented, for example, by the mass media, that an emotionally-motivated dismissal seems almost guaranteed. Similarly, the nature of his attacks on vested interests are such that responses motivated by self-interest also seem extremely likely.

In short, Chomsky's views are so contrary to what most people believe and to what some people would like most people to believe, that it is easy to imagine that he rarely receives a fair intellectual hearing. The factual record does not disappoint us. A typical example of the sort of out-of-hand dismissal he generally receives was provided by the New York Times:

"Arguably the greatest intellectual alive, [Chomsky's political writing is]... maddeningly simple-minded."

According to this view, immediate rejection is demanded by the self evidently absurd nature of Chomsky's arguments. Yet the reader will agree that the statement itself presents us with a bewildering problem for, the author of these 'simple-minded' political views is indeed one of the truly great intellectuals of our time. We might feel inclined to pose the question differently, then, and ask how it might be that a thinker with Chomsky's spectacular intellectual track-record could come to be adjudged to be simple-minded when he chooses to criticize the powerful?

Thus we come to the crux of the matter: is it Chomsky's intellectual competence which deserts him when he criticizes the powerful, or is it the willingness of Chomsky's critics to perceive that competence which deserts them? Is this great mind so fatally flawed by an eccentric, irrational, anti-authoritarian bent that his political arguments can be dismissed out-of-hand? Or is it possible that critics are in some way influenced by emotional, and/or self-interested prejudices, thus ensuring that Chomsky's work is met with ridicule and silence in such a way that they suppress the dissident criticisms of one of the clearest thinking, most rational intellects of this, or any other, age. Intellectual responsibility surely requires-no matter how absurd or pointless we might initially consider the task-that we look at the facts of the argument in a rational manner.

Tools of the trade: Chomsky as man of the Enlightenment

Intellectually, Chomsky is a man of the Enlightenment. As such, his revolutionary work in linguistics has been founded on a simple, rigorous application of the basic tools of scientific method. Chomsky argues that all intellectual problems should be approached in the same way-by gathering all the available facts, constructing provisional hypotheses to account for them and by then testing and refining, or rejecting and replacing those hypotheses in the light of the available facts. This is a simple restatement of Popper's process of 'conjecture and refutation' and while it does not claim to deliver absolute certainty, it does seek to advance the most plausible hypotheses in the light of the available data. There is no room (or ability) here to detail Chomsky's success in applying this method within the field of linguistics; suffice it to say that the history of linguistics is commonly divided into two ages-BC (Before Chomsky) and AD (After his Discoveries).

Thus, of course, proves nothing about the rationality of Chomsky's political writings, but it does provide significant circumstantial evidence for Chomsky's capacity for rational thought. However, in accordance with the method favoured by Chomsky himself, let us turn to the facts of some of the simple-minded political ideas he is proposing.

Manufacturing consent: media as propaganda

In their book Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky and Edward Herman propose a hypothesis which they call a Propaganda Model. (Although we are focusing on Chomsky's political writing, it should be noted that much of this model was actually formulated by Edward Herman.) This model:

" ... reflects our belief, based on many years of study of the workings of the media, that they serve to mobilize support for the special interests that dominate the state and private activity, and that their choices, emphases, and omissions can often be understood best, and sometimes with striking clarity and insight, by analyzing them in such terms."

Chomsky and Herman, Manufacturing Consent.

It is important to be clear that this propaganda model of media performance is not merely intended to account for the capacity of dominant interests to loosely influence the general direction of mass media. Rather, it is intended to account for a dramatically effective system of control by which dominant interests are able to manipulate media behaviour from the broadest direction of strategy down to the minutest detail of stress and intonation in individual journalistic reporting. In fact, this model is intended to account for a system of control far tighter than anything imagined by Orwell, or practised by totalitarian governments. The achievement of this extreme level of control, it is argued, is ultimately facilitated precisely by the fact that it is almost completely invisible. The ultimately secure system of control, after all, would be one presenting every appearance of complete freedom - for who, then, would perceive any need to challenge it? This would represent a system of control far beyond any based on totalitarian force.

It is here that we confront what has been described (by Chomsky himself ) as the 'Neptune factor' when considering Chomsky's ideas. For at first sight the notion that even the tiniest detail of journalistic reporting might somehow be controlled by the powerful institutions of society, may indeed give the impression that Chomsky is 'fresh in from Neptune'. The reasons for this reaction are clear enough.

Whilst we might be prepared to admit the possibility that the higher echelons of state and business power exert influence over what does or does not appear in our media, we find it frankly ridiculous to suggest that everyone-from the editor down to the most junior hack on the street in all the newspapers, magazines, TV and radio studios around the world-is involved in some kind of global conspiracy to advance the interests of the elites by which they are employed. This, we know, is simply not realistic. As a matter of common sense, we know that such a conspiracy would have been exposed: we would have heard about it from close friends or family members, and anyway, we may in fact know some journalists and they find the whole notion utterly risible. As an English commentator, whilst discussing the issue of freedom, recently asked: 'Who are these people controlling us, restricting our freedom? I just don't see them!'

And yet is not some sort of active conspiracy of precisely this type implied, even demanded, by the suggestion that modern democracies are in thrall to a system of control so complete that it surpasses anything achieved by totalitarianism? Chomsky and Herman's reply to this suggestion is a disconcerting one:

"We do not use any kind of 'conspiracy' hypothesis to explain mass media performance. In fact, our treatment is much closer to a 'free market' analysis, with the results largely an outcome of the workings of market forces."

Chomsky and Herman argue that maintenance of control over the media (and society generally) does not even necessarily require conscious planning (although this does take place), but simply happens as the result of 'free market' forces operating to meet the needs of the day. Their theory as to how this works is reminiscent of the old school chemistry experiment designed to demonstrate the formation of crystalline structures.

Framing conditions and 'accidental' necessity

At first sight, it seems extraordinary that snowflakes and other crystalline structures are able to form almost perfect, symmetrical shapes in the complete absence of conscious control or design. The mechanism by which this occurs can easily be demonstrated by setting out a flat, box-like framework on a table. By pouring a stream of tiny balls over this frame, we find that we eventually, and inevitably, end up with a more or less perfect pyramid shape. Because the most stable resting position in the structure (given the square framework and the spherical shape of the balls) is always one that contributes to the construction of a perfect pyramid, any ball that settles inevitably builds, while all others in less stable positions are moved into more stable positions or bounce out. No one is designing the pyramid, or forcing the balls into place; the pyramid is simply an inevitable product of the framing conditions of round objects falling onto a square wooden frame.

In an analogous way, I would suggest, Chomsky and Herman argue that powerful state and business elites seek to determine the basic framework of modern social goals: maximum economic growth generated by maximized corporate profit, fueled by mass production, fueled by mass consumerism. By 'pouring' news, information and ideas into this basic economic framework, a version of reality progressively suited to the requirements of the framework is inevitably produced, As with the crystal model, conscious design is not at all required beyond the initial framing of conditions (which Chomsky and Herman argue business elites do consciously try to maintain: any threat to compromise the basic, unchallengeable goal of maximum economic growth from maximum corporate profit is vigorously and consciously opposed at home and abroad). So long as the basic framework is maintained, the pyramid will simply 'build itself'. Thus supportive media, editors and journalists will find a stable place in the economic pyramid, while their unsupportive counterparts will either be moved, or will bounce out (of business).

If we accept the basic plausibility of this model, we have to at least admit the theoretical possibility of extreme levels of control without coercion or planning (beyond that required for the maintenance of the framework). Similarly, we must admit the possibility that a state of extreme lack of freedom might be able to exist in an ostensibly 'free', 'non - totalitarian', 'democracy'.

Let us now look at some of the framing conditions which, according to the propaganda model, provide the basis for a system of media control of near-crystalline and extra-totalitarian perfection.

The Five Reality Filters

Chomsky and Herman argue for the existence of 'filters' by which money and power are able to filter out news 'fit to print', marginalize dissent, and allow government and dominant private interests to get their message across to the public. (The details here refer to state and business control of the US media).

The First Filter: the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth, and profit-orientation of the dominant mass-media firms

Media ownership is limited by the substantial cost involved in running even small media entities. With the industrialization of newspapers, for example, the cost of machinery required for even very small newspapers has for many years run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. As has been ironically suggested, anyone is free to open their own newspaper, so long as they have a couple of million dollars to spare. Thus the first filter is the limitation on ownership, by the large amount of investment required, of media with any significant influence.

In 1986, there were some 25,000 media entities (daily newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations, book publishers and movie studios) in the United States. Of these, many were small, local news dispensers heavily dependent on the large national companies for all but local news. Also, despite the large numbers of media, the twenty-nine largest media systems accounted for over half the output of newspapers and for most of the sales and audiences in magazines, broadcasting, books and films.

These top companies are of course all large, profit-seeking corporations, owned and controlled by wealthy people. Many of them are fully integrated into the stock market and, consequently, face powerful stockholders, directors and bankers to focus on profitability. Despite often being in competition, all have a basic framework of identical interests:

'These control groups obviously have a special stake in the status quo by virtue of their wealth and their strategic position in one of the great institutions of society [the stock market]. And they exercise the power of this strategic position, if only by establishing the general aims of the company and choosing its top management.

Mark Hertsgaard has commented (in conversation with David Barsamian), how this commitment to the status quo means that major media corporations tend to avoid reporting that seeks out root causes of the problems that afflict our world:

" ... that's the kind of reporting that raises very serious and pointed questions about the way our society is organized, about power relations in our society, about the advantages of and problems with a capitalist system. It raises real questions about the status quo. Those questions are not going to be asked on a consistent basis within news organizations that are owned by corporations that have every interest in maintaining the status quo. Those corporations are not going to hire individuals to run those organizations who care about that kind of reporting. Therefore, those individuals are not going to hire reporters who do that kind of reporting, and so you're not going to see it.... Generally, if you start as a reporter early in your career you pick up the messages and it becomes almost instinctive. You don't even realize all of what you've given up, all of the small compromises that you've made along the way."

The control groups of the media giants are brought into close relationship with the mainstream of the corporate community through boards of directors and social links. This relationship is intensified by the fact that the corporate parents of media giants like NBC, Group W television and cable systems are themselves corporate giants dominated by corporate and banking executives (here General Electric and Westinghouse respectively).

The Second Filter: advertising

Before advertising became prominent, the price of a newspaper had to cover the costs of production. With the growth of advertising, however, newspapers attractive to advertisers were able to lower their copy price below the production cost. This put newspapers which attracted less advertising at a serious disadvantage their prices would tend to be higher, which reduced sales, and they would also have less profit to invest in improving saleability through quality, format, promotions and so on. For this reason, an advertising-based system will tend to drive into the margins, or out of existence all together, media entities that depend on revenue from sales alone.

'From the time of the introduction of press advertising, therefore, working-class and radical papers have been at a serious disadvantage. Their readers have tended to be of modest means, a factor that has always affected advertiser interest.'

Chomsky and Herman cite several examples of media that have failed for this reason. The British Daily Herald newspaper, for example, failed despite having double the readership of The Times, the Financial Times and The Guardian put together. A significant reason was the fact that, whilst the Herald had 8.1 percent of national daily circulation, it received only 3.5 percent of net advertising revenue. Apart from the lower disposable income of its readers, an additional reason the Herald received so little advertising was clearly the fact that it promoted:

' alternative framework of analysis and understanding that contested the dominant systems of representation in both broadcasting and the mainstream press.' James Curran, Advertising And The Press

That is, the Herald challenged the status quo and was not as business-friendly as other newspapers competing for advertising revenue. Chomsky and Herman go on to cite several examples of advertisers and corporate sponsors clearly (and quite naturally) supporting periodicals and television programmes which support their interests, while withdrawing support from media deemed 'anti-business'.

In 1985, the public television station WNET lost its corporate funding from Gulf & Western after the station showed the documentary 'Hungry for Profit', which contained material critical of multinational corporate activities in the Third World. Even before the programme was shown, station officials 'did all we could to get the program sanitized' (according to a station source).The Chief Executive of Gulf&Western complained to the station that the programme was 'virulently anti-business if not anti-American,' and that by carrying the programme the station was clearly not a 'friend' of the corporation. The Economist reported that WNET is unlikely to make the same mistake again. In similar vein, Proctor & Gamble instructed their advertising agency that

'There will be no material on any of our programmes which could in any way further the concept of business as cold, ruthless and lacking inn all sentiment or spiritual motivation." The manager of corporate communication for General Electric (which, as we have discussed, own NBC-TV) has said: 'We insist on a program environment that reinforces our corporate messages"

If advertizers, and corporate sponsors generally, tend to support media a which boost their message, and these media consequently tend to flourish relative to those not so supported, then we have one example of a tight system of control that does not at all require a conspiracy theory, but simply the operation of market forces. For advertiser control clearly extends to the detail of the contents and tone of media. This influence can be extremely subtle and far-reaching (the beginnings, perhaps, of the invisible hand of total control implied by the pyramid model above). A truly advertiser-friendly TV station, for example, will be supportive of the advertiser's desire for the maintenance of a 'buying environment' in between commercials,

'Advertizers will want, more generally, to avoid programs with serious complexities and disturbing controversies that interfere with the "buying mood". They seek programs that will lightly entertain and thus fit in with the spirit of the primary purpose of program purchases-the dissemination of a selling message."

Editors are well aware that a failure to maintain advertiser-friendly content and tone will result in the loss of critical advertizling revenue to the competition - a double blow. According to Lewis Lapham, former editor of Harper's magazine, New York editors 'advise discretion when approaching topics likely to alarm the buyers of large advertising space.' He goes on:

'The American press is, and always has been, a booster press, its editorial pages characteristically advancing the same arguments as the paid advertising copy.'

The Third Filter: the souring of mass media news

The mass media, Chomsky and Herman suggest, are inevitably drawn into symbiotic relationship with powerful sources of information by economic necessity and mutual interest. As we know, the media must have a steady, reliable supply of news. For obvious economic reasons, they cannot have reporters everywhere around the globe, so resources are concentrated where significant news is likely to occur The White House, the Pentagon, and State Department are central news terminals of this type. Similarly, business corporations and trade groups also act as significant, regular news terminals. Their importance as news sources is a direct result of the fact that both corporate and state sectors have enormous resources dedicated to public relations and the dissemination of promotional material.

The US Air Force, alone, for example, publishes 140 newspapers every week and issues 45,000 headquarters and unit news releases a year. Similarly, in 1983 the US Chamber of Commerce had a budget for research, communications and political activities of $65 million. Among many other things, it produced its own weekly panel discussion programme carried by 128 commercial television stations. The scale of this influence dwarfs anything that might be mounted by the combined effort of, say, human rights, church and environmental groups, who might attempt to present a view of reality less in harmony with state and/or corporate goals (the leading dissident magazine currently publishing in the US - Z magazine - is run by a grand total of three people. By comparison, even as far back as 1968 the US Air Force PR effort involved 1,305 full-time staff, as well as countless thousands of staff with public relations duties).

The huge volume of state and business communications not only swamps dissenting voices, but provides the media with cheap and readily available news. This effective subsidizing of the media is another important factor in determining what tends to become news.

'To consolidate their pre-eminent position as sources, government and business-news promoters go to great pains to make things easily for news organizations. In effect, the large bureaucracies of the powerful subsidize the mass media, and gain special access by their contribution to reducing the media's costs of acquiring the raw materials of, and producing, news. The large entities that provide this subsidy become 'routine' news sources and have privileged access to the gates. Non-routine sources must struggle for access and may be ignored by the arbitrary decision of the gatekeepers.' Chomsky and Herman

The Fourth Filter: 'flak'

The term 'flak' refers to negative responses to a media statement or programme, which may take the form of letters, telegrams, phone calls, petitions, law-suits, speeches and bills before Congress as well as other modes of complaint, threat and punishment. One form of flak mentioned above is the threat of withdrawal of advertising revenue; this threat alone is often sufficient to persuade editors to review the contents of their product. Business organisations regularly come together to form flak machines. One such machine formed by a collection of corporate giants is Accuracy In Media (AIM), whose income rose from $5,000 in 1971 to $1.5 million in the early 1980s. At least eight oil companies were AIM contributors in the early eighties. The function of AIM is to generate flak and put pressure on the media to follow a corporate-friendly agenda.

Just as state and corporate communications power naturally tend to assist supportive media, so state and corporate flak machines tend to attack and undermine unsupportive media. These are both powerful factors tending to bias the viewpoint of media that are able to flourish. For example, it will be far safer for media to opt for uncontroversial, advertiser-friendly news proffered by state and corporate information machines which will not draw flak, than news proffered by isolated dissident sources which may draw intense flak from state and corporate institutions.

The Fifth Filter: anti-communism

Until recently, this has been especially useful for justifying corporate behavior abroad and controlling critics of corporate behavior at home. The creation of an 'evil empire' of one sort or another, Chomsky and Herman suggest, has long been a standard device for terrifying the population into supporting arms production and economic/military adventurism abroad (both important revenue-generators for the corporate community).

Before Communism, the role of 'evil empire' was played by the devilish Spaniards, the 'savage' American Indians, the 'treacherous' British, or the 'baby-eating 'Hun. More recently, since the collapse in credibility of any communist 'threat', the war against 'international drugs trafficking and terrorism' as well as skirmishes against various 'new Hitlers' and 'mad dogs' in the Middle East, have served to mobilize the populace around and against threats to elite interests in a similar way.

'This ideology helps mobilize the populace against an enemy, and because the concept is fuzzy it can be used against anybody advocating policies that threaten property interests or support accommodation with Communist states and radicalism.

Burning All Illusions

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