excerpts from the book
Burning All Illusions
a guide to personal and political
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
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
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
'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
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
" 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
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
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
'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
'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
... 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.'
'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
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
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
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?