excerpts from the book

Burning All Illusions

a guide to personal and political freedom

by David Edwards

South End Press, 1996, paper


We can of course be controlled by simply not being informed, by limiting our access to the facts so that we perceive no need to be concerned or take action; but we can also be pacified by the framework of presupposed ideas into which we are born, by the assumption, for example, that the search for truth is the business of 'experts', that understanding the world is not possible or important for that mythical creature the average man in the street ...

... it is not enough simply to succeed in unearthing the facts about, say, our government's complicity in human rights atrocities abroad, because fundamental areas of our belief system may have been subject to the same influences which made the recovery of those facts so difficult. We may have gained the facts, but not the belief that is up to us to do anything about them; either because we are not 'experts', or because truth, compassion and understanding seem a side issue and even a hindrance in our lives devoted to improving our 'standard of living' and 'having fun'. The world is full of examples of individuals who have glimpsed the horror of what is being done in their name in the Third World, or who have collided with the limits

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 pressures from 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) on 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 the 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 organisations 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 organisations 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:

,...an 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 Guif & 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 in all sentiment or spiritual motivation. The manager of corporate communication for General Electric (which ... owns NBC-TV) has said: 'We insist on a program environment that reinforces our corporate messages."

If advertisers, and corporate sponsors generally, tend to support media 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.

'Advertisers will want ... 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? (Manufacturing Consent - Chomsky/Herman, pp 17-18)

Editors are well aware that a failure to maintain advertiser-friendly content and tone will result in the loss of critical advertising 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 sourcing 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 subsidising 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 easy for news organisations... 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 behaviour abroad and controlling critics of corporate behaviour 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.'

By April 1992, sanctions were killing children under five at the rate of 300 per day. In September 1992, a special report by the New England Journal of Medicine based on research by an international group of researchers independent of the Iraqi government showed that:

'The Gulf War and trade sanctions caused a threefold increase in mortality among Iraqi children. We estimate that an excess of more than 46,900 children under five years of age died between January and August 1991.

What has been the media reaction to the spectacle of a wrecked country strewn with the corpses of 250,000 men, women and children (for the loss of 148 allied lives)? Ted Koppel, presenter of ABC's 'Nightline', described the 'efficiency and humanity' of Operation Desert Storm, being 'in military terms, a work of art'--a version repeated endlessly around the world. The truth about the extent of the allied destruction of a country unable to defend itself against far superior air and ground forces has not yet been reported by our media.

'Nothing I had experienced prepared me for the conduct of the media during the Gulf crisis... What occurred was not merely the presentation of a false picture or the failure to adequately inform the public. Instead, there was a massive media campaign to persuade the public of the righteousness of the American cause and conduct, including an intense promotion of US. military actions. It required justifying violence by creating hatred toward and dehumanising Iraq, and concealing or misrepresenting anything that conflicted with that purpose."' Ramsey Clark

Ramsey Clark, The Fire This Time, pxii

The media, owned by the wealthy, speaking for the plutocracy, has the dual role of anaesthetizing the public to prevent serious consideration or debate of such staggering human issues as world hunger, AIDS, regional civil wars, environmental destruction, and social anarchy, and emotionahzing the people for aggression, all 'without a serious military threat in sight.

Noam Chomsky, Deterring Democracy

''A properly functioning system of indoctrination has a variety of tasks, some rather delicate. One of its targets is the stupid and ignorant masses. They must be kept that way, diverted with emotionally potent oversimplifications, marginalized and isolated."

... our culture needs to be infused with a 'buying environment', it needs to be swamped in 'muzak' encouraging us to have fun-and fun requires that we do not consider anything too seriously. For were we to do so, the version of common-sense reality to which we are continually encouraged to adhere (that fun, status and consumption are everything) would be revealed for the childish absurdity that it is.

R.D. Laing, The Politics of Experience

'The 'normally' alienated person, by reason of the fact that he acts more or less like everyone else, is taken to be sane... The condition of alienation, of being asleep, of being unconscious, of being out of one's mind, is the condition of the normal man. Society highly values its normal man. It educates children to lose themselves and to become absurd, and thus to be normal. Normal men have killed perhaps 100,000,000 of their fellow normal men in the last fifty years.'


"All societies we know of are governed by the selfish interests of the ruling class or classes."

We call a society free to the extent to which it permits an individual to choose his or her own path. In reality, however, the difference between the power of dictatorship to force individuals to conform through violence and of 'free' democracy to persuade individuals to conform through propaganda is far less clear cut than we might like to imagine.

Most of us are simply not able to assert the authority of our own selves against the massive conforming power of our 'free' society and question its aims.

Susan George, How the Other Half Dies, 1991, pp16-17

'Every time weaker nations have attempted to reallocate their resources and undertake land reform [to feed starving populations], powerful interests emanating from the rich world and its multilateral bodies have thwarted their efforts.'

Gore Vidal

'Although AIDS can ,discussed as a means of hitting out at unpopular minorities, the true epidemic can never be discussed: the fact that every fourth American now alive will die of cancer. This catastrophe is well kept from the public by the tobacco companies, the nuclear power companies (with their bungled waste disposal) and other industries that poison the earth so that corporate America may enjoy the freedom to make money without the slightest accountability to those they are killing."

Even open-minded people will often find themselves unable to take seriously the likes of Chomsky, Herman, Zinn and George on first encountering their work; it just does not seem possible that we could be so mistaken in what we believe. The individual may assume that these writers must be somehow joking, wildly over-stating the case, paranoid, or have some sort of axe to grind. We may actually become angry with them for telling us these terrible things about our society and insist that this simply 'can't be true'. It takes real effort to keep reading, to resist the reassuring messages of the mass media and be prepared to consider the evidence again.

Fritjof Capra, The Turning Point

'The numerous horror stories of corporate behaviour in the Third World which have emerged in recent years show convincingly that respect for people, for nature, and for life are not part of the corporate mentality. On the contrary, large-scale corporate crime is today the most widespread and least prosecuted criminal activity.

John Pilger, Distant Voices, 1993, p13

A group of Russians touring the United States before the age of glasnost were astonished to find, after reading the newspapers and watching television, that all the opinions on the vital issues were the same. "In our country", they said, "to get that result we have a dictatorship, we imprison people, we tear out their fingernails. Here you have none of that. So what's your secret-how do you do it?"

... many politicians and captains of industry today declare that they are serving the cause of humanity, in the 'developing world' perhaps, arguing that profit maximisation will lead to a golden technological age for all. In a superficial way they may even believe such nonsense. The point is that no one likes to see their own actions as monstrous or destructive; we all want to believe we are 'good guys' and so we all tend to rationalize what we do in terms of grand ideals we are doing our duty, controlling the 'bewildered herd' for their own good, bringing God to the backward races, fulfilling our 'manifest destiny', building a great benevolent empire, administering economic medicine that will lead to a bright future for all, only doing what someone else would have done anyway so it doesn't matter, or whatever else happens to fit the bill. The important thing is to declare these things, but not look too closely at the actual facts of destruction and the real motivation behind it...

This ability to hold a view with apparent sincerity; but to actually believe it simply because it is convenient to do so and not on the basis of a reasoned consideration of the facts, is the reason psychologists are able to argue that someone is unhappy despite the fact that they claim to be happy--a counter-claim that some people find shocking. It is quite possible for us to declare that we love our jobs, our work, our country; or that we are happy, not because it is true (free association and analysis of our dreams may reveal that we hate our jobs and are deeply unhappy) but because it is 'normal', what people expect from us, and so we say these things in order to belong... Clearly, those in a position to determine what is normal in society can use the innate human desire to belong to their advantage, and this is one of the great supports of the propaganda system as a weapon of thought control. Through endless repetition the mass media determine what is normal, and rapidly manipulate the views of the populace towards the 'accepted' goal.

The cliché' of the transformation of a young socialist into old conservative is not a change from idealism to pragmatism, but from rationality to rationalization.

We can only assume from our mass media that deeper questioning, critical thinking and doubt are either irrelevant to life - with dissidents being simply paranoid neurotics, psychologists being more mad than their patients, philosophers being lost in semantics, religious thinkers draped pathetically over crutches of wishful thinking - or deeper questioning, critical thinking and doubt are somehow being discouraged by society.

[Noam] Chomsky's truly great contribution to the struggle for human freedom is that he has taken what we have been persuaded to believe is an insane idea, a product only of individual neurosis-the idea that society is not free and quite possibly not even sane-and shown it to be empirically, demonstrably true; he has provided the vital support for the individual to be able to declare him- and herself sane against the insanity of society; despite a million voices declaring that it is the occasional doubter who is mad.

Why does the US President talk of his hope that the 'peace process' in the Middle East will be guided by the 'wisdom and compassion of the Almighty', when few people believe in this type of God any more, when the system he fronts has no regard whatsoever for Christian ideals, when those managing that system would advise psychiatric help for anyone who actually believed the observance of such ideals was a guiding principle of policy? Why are leaders who speak in this way not roundly denounced for attempting to deceive the public? Why is the historical and documentary record not raised to demonstrate the deceit? Why are such banal lies allowed to become axiomatic truths through the silence of journalists, religious leaders, teachers and the rest? Why do intellectuals merely sit and laugh cynically at such lies when they are not irrelevant, not a joke, when they have a powerful effect on what people come to believe, when history shows that such deceptions are a cornerstone of exploitative power?

Why do we never discuss or understand anything in depth? Why does nobody understand why the United States, rather than the United Nations, is 'mediating' in the Middle East and Haiti? Why the West furiously railed against 'the New Hitler' Saddam Hussein's destruction of the Iraqi Kurds (although only when it served our purpose), while Yeltsin's assault on the people of Chechnya, with the barbaric cluster-bombing of civilian populations, is met with barely a murmur of disapproval, with US Secretary of State Warren Christopher describing the Russian assault as merely 'ill-conceived and ill-executed'? When UN condemnation of Indonesia's invasion of East Timor was vetoed by the West? When the United States itself invaded Panama, killing 3,000 civilians to arrest one man?

'Why are we so obsessed with keeping up with current events but not with understanding those events? Why does no one discuss the fact that it is often literally impossible to make sense of what is happening on the basis of the reports we see on the news (certainly the case with regards to Haiti)? Why is this not a source of outrage in democracies whose life-blood is supposed to be the free flow of information, when our representatives are acting and even killing other human beings in our name, but we have no understanding of what they are doing or why? Is this all a way of making us feel we are seeing the truth, when all we are seeing is a stream of useless, meaningless facts?

Why can we not vote on the issues we want to see investigated in the news, when the fate of places like Haiti, Iraq, Panama, Grenada and Chechnya show such a marked tendency to be 'disappeared' from the news? Why can we not vote for the commentators we would like to see giving their perspective on the news, when Fairness In Accuracy And Reporting found that of 1,530 guests interviewed on the prestigious US Nightline public affairs programme, 92% were white, 89% were male and 80% were professionals, government officials, or corporate representatives, with the issues covered 'closely aligned with the agenda of the US government'?

Why do governments and companies justify their actions on the basis of the need to 'create jobs', as if profit was a secondary issue, as if everyone gained equally, as if the quantity and not the quality of jobs was the only issue? Why does not everyone who has ever worked for a corporation, who knows the truth, not expose such nonsense, such complete reversals of the truth, for the transparent deceptions they are? Why are jobs 'created' but never 'destroyed'-only 'lost'? Why are politicians protected from the public, from all genuinely awkward questions, when it is we who are their leaders? Why are our political representatives treated with such reverence and awe in a democracy that is supposed to place 'the people' in highest regard? Why can we not see that people like john Major, Bill Clinton and George Bush are just men, just individual people like you and I (regardless of the podium they stand on and the cut of their suits) who need to give account of themselves, who need to convince us that they are worthy of our attention, let alone our respect?

... Why does our society find it unworthy of discussion that we and our precious, impressionable children are continuously hounded by advertisers with the same set of interests (profit from mass consumption) propounding the same essential view of the world (happiness and status through unrestrained consumption)?Why does it not occur to us that this continuous flood of propaganda might be a threat to our view of reality, might be a threat to our independence and sanity? Why does that not send even the tiniest chill up our spines?

... We are required to misinterpret our own problems because like this book the alternatives seem to make no sense in the 'real' world that continuously assaults our senses. The world tells us that 'of course this is the right way to live-there is no other way', so the problem must he outside the political and economic system.

Everyone wants to find answers to life. Everyone needs genuine relationship with other people, peace of mind, fulfillment, a sense of community and belonging. Everyone wants to be free from crippling stress and dullness and boredom. Everyone wants life to continue on this planet.

Let us, then, put a last question as simply as possible-how on earth can we ever hope to answer these questions adequately, if we are not free to consider or answer them in ways that do not suit the requirements of corporate consumerism?

Burning All Illusions

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