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Talking Radical Media With Noam Chomsky

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(Heuler Andrey / AFP via Getty Images)

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For anyone critical of the media and politics at the turn of the century, Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent was essential reading. The book’s “propaganda model” provided a useful framework for understanding how typical news coverage filters out some types of evidence while emphasizing others, ultimately privileging dominant narratives. One key lesson from this analysis was clear: To change the world, we must first change our media.

In the early 2000s, such thinking led me to the media reform movement and to the academic field of communication, where I hoped to learn about the limitations of, and alternatives to, the hyper-commercialized US media system. But I was disheartened to find in graduate school a mix of hostility and indifference toward critical media analysis. Over the years, I found pockets of radical scholarship, especially in the subfield of political economy, that focused on critical and historical analyses of media, but such work remained marginalized. Today, with the rise of new digital monopolies, fear of fascism, and the collapse of journalism, there’s renewed interest in structural analyses of our news and information systems, but too often it’s stripped of radical critique.

Chomsky has long provided a steady radical voice on these matters. I recently spoke to him about the contemporary relevance of his and Herman’s media critique, and why he first turned to media as an important site of struggle. I wondered if his analysis had changed; if anything had surprised him over the decades; and, most importantly, whether he thought a more democratic media system was imaginable and achievable.

At 92, Chomsky is still leveling sharp critique and astute analysis. In our Zoom conversation, he seamlessly drew from that day’s New York Times to exemplify various points we were discussing. I was especially struck by his nuanced optimism—while he saw the same structural pathologies afflicting our commercial news media systems today, he also discerned meaningful progress in news coverage, especially in confronting historical atrocities that mainstream media accounts had ignored or misrepresented in the past.

—Victor Pickard

VP: The subtitle of your famous book with Ed Herman is The Political Economy of the Mass Media, yet political economy is marginalized within media studies. Coming from outside the field, what led you to focus on critical media analysis?

NC: My primary interest is the general intellectual culture and that’s what I’ve mostly written about. One manifestation of this is the elite media. You read The New York Times and you’re not very far from the Harvard Faculty Club. It’s pretty much the same cultural environment. So, here you have manifested clearly, day by day, an easily researchable collection of materials that reflects pretty well the general intellectual culture and offers a window into it. Ed Herman and I slightly differed on this emphasis. He was much more specifically interested in the media, my own interest was more on the elite media as a reflection of the general intellectual culture. This didn’t make any difference, we cooperated very easily. But that’s basically my own entry into the area. So, for example, I don’t bother writing about Fox News.

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VP: Right, Fox News offers a window into a different discourse. I want to probe this difference—your aim is to scrutinize elite discourses while Ed’s was focused more on our media system’s economic structures?

NC: Right, that part of our book is totally his. And it was his professional interest as well. For example, a major book of his was, Corporate Power, Corporate Control.

VP: Yet, media’s economic structures such as monopoly power and commercialism often privilege dominant discourses. Do you see any differences in how media institutions perpetuate elite discourses today? I know you get this question sometimes—but is the propaganda model still relevant in our digital age?

NC: Ed [Herman] and I updated the book to consider the rise of the 
Internet, but we basically concluded that nothing much had changed. The sources of information are still the same. If you want to know what’s happening in Karachi, you can’t find reliable information on Facebook or Instagram other than what’s being filtered from mainstream media. So the first thing I do in the morning is read The New York Times, Washington Post, Financial Times, and so on. That’s where the information is coming from.

VP: So despite the surface-level appearance of diverse forms of information, much of it still traces back to the same mainstream sources?

NC: Right. You can get information from other sources—the Internet allows you to read the foreign press if you’re interested. But I think the Internet’s main effect is to narrow the range of information that most people access by driving them into social media bubbles. The propaganda model is basically the same.

Now, there have been other changes of various kinds. One change, of course, is just the decline of media. So, for example, I lived most of my life in Boston, and The Boston Globe, when I was there, was a real newspaper. It had some of the best reporting in the country on, say, Central America. Today, it’s not even worth subscribing to. Now it’s mostly wire services. Same with The San Francisco Chronicle and many other newspapers. There’s a lot of narrowing of mainstream news sources.

On the other hand, if you look at a newspaper like The New York Times, it has been affected significantly by the changes in the general level of consciousness and awareness. The civilizing effect of the activism of the 1960s and its aftermath has affected the journalists, the editors, content, and so on. A lot of what you read today in the Times would have been unimaginable a couple of decades ago. Take this morning: There’s a lead story on the destruction of Gaza.

VP: The shift in media coverage has been remarkable.

NC: You wouldn’t have had that a couple of years ago, right? That’s an effect that popular activism has had in changing the way the country understands things. Of course, there’s a backlash, so you get the opposite as well. The 1619 Project got the anticipated carping from historians—a footnote was wrong and so on. But it was a real breakthrough—the very fact that you could look at 400 years of atrocities in a mainstream newspaper. You go back to, say, the 1960s, and that would be inconceivable. Now we’re at the beginnings of facing some of this history.

Today’s newspaper also happens to have an important story on the Canadian atrocities against the Indigenous population, the murder of hundreds of children, maybe thousands of children in a Catholic-run residential schools from which they were essentially kidnapped and forced into these re-education schools. In the 1960s, you couldn’t even talk about this. Even professional historians and major anthropologists were telling us, “Well, there were just a few hunter gatherer stragglers running around the country, basically nothing was here.” It’s all radically changed, and that’s true on issue after issue. I don’t want to exaggerate it. I still would say the same kinds of critical things I’ve been saying for years, but the framework has changed. Activism has created significant openings.

VP: I share some of that optimism, despite it all. And yet, we’re also clearly suffering from much misinformation and propaganda in our increasingly degraded news media. Do you see other forms of censorship that might explain the constriction of our political imagination?

NC: Oh, sure—there are very intense efforts at censorship. Take another story this morning: The governor of Florida is pushing legislation to study students’ opinions in Florida colleges to make sure there’s what he calls “diversity”—meaning enough right-wing ideology. He wants to make sure that far-right opinions have a huge role, instead of just the major role they already have. It’s straight-up Stalinist-style thought control.

VP: Meanwhile, they keep concocting imaginary left-wing villains and thoughtcrimes.

NC: The striking example of this is the attack on what’s called “critical race theory” in the Republican states. Of course, they haven’t the slightest idea what critical race theory is, but what it means to them is any discussion about things like the 1619 Project, any willingness to face the actual history of the country and the terrible legacy it left. Can’t do that because it might break the dominance of white supremacy. We have to ensure that can’t happen with direct efforts at censorship within schools and universities. Similarly, the right-wing digs up claims about some small school somewhere, I forget where, that indoctrinated third graders into supporting transgender rights and now it’s all over the right-wing network. These types of censorship are certainly happening and are significant, but they’re a counterpart to the broader efforts to cut back voting and ensure that somehow white Christian supremacy doctrines will be able to dominate regardless of their popular basis.

VP: Beyond such overt forms of censorship, do you see more subtle means of narrowing the debate?

NC: Yes, you see it every time you open the newspaper. So, again, take this morning’s New York Times: They reported the recent UN vote, 184-2, on the US embargo that’s crushing Cuba, which is an international scandal. It’s interesting to see their phrasing. They said it was a way for “critics of the United States” to kind of blast off. The critics of the United States happened to be the entire world outside of Israel, which must go along with the US because it’s a client state. So basically, according to the Times, it’s the entire world just having an opportunity to demonstrate their irrational criticism of the United States. The narrative could never be that the US is committing a major crime that the world hates and opposes. That’s not direct censorship, but it’s instructing you how you’re supposed to look at things—that the world is out of step with the US, for some reason.

VP: So there’s still this unspoken boundary. It also, I think, comes into play when we’re talking about the role of capitalism and how our media operate within a capitalist system. You rarely hear about those connections in media—or even in much academic discourse?

NC: That’s beyond discussion. In fact, it’s kind of interesting to look at the history of discussion around capitalism. Even through the ’60s, contrary to what’s commonly believed, there were few anti-capitalist tendencies, even among the radical left. I remember a very dramatic talk by the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] President Paul Potter in 1965 where he argued that we must “name the system” when we’re talking about major social problems. But he never did—he never said the word capitalism. That was the ’60s. It’s different today. We can talk about capitalism, but only marginally. You still can’t really suggest that there might be something else other than capitalism.

VP: Speaking of alternatives to capitalism—we on the left are quick to critique corporate media, but less likely to discuss systemic alternatives. As you noted, there’s less actual journalism today and what’s left is increasingly degraded. Do you have any ideas for what a non-capitalist media system might look like?

NC: I got some ideas from reading your book, so I’m “bringing coals to Newcastle” by telling you what you wrote. But you discussed how the founders of the US Republic believed that the government ought to publicly subsidize the dissemination of diverse news media. In this light, the First Amendment should be understood as providing what’s called a “positive freedom”—not just “negative freedom.” It should create opportunities for free and independent media. Subsidizing news media was a primary function of the post office. The vast majority of post office traffic was composed of newspapers.

So that’s one alternative. In fact, just about every democratic country has a well-funded public media system, except the United States. Bob McChesney and your work goes through the history of how the US media system became more business-driven compared to other systems around the world. In the US, commercial interests and their allies were able to clamp down and destroy efforts in radio and television to set up more of a public media system as a counterpart to the privately owned sector, so it didn’t become firmly established in the US.

VP: It’s instructive to hear that you support media subsidies in trying to build a publicly owned, democratic system outside of the market—I obviously agree—but are there other approaches? What might a libertarian-socialist model look like?

NC: Public media subsidies are certainly one possibility within the current framework of institutions, not even changing them—merely going back to the ideas we’re supposed to revere, the famous framers. But there’s much more. Like in the late 19th century when we had a very diverse, lively, independent labor press. It featured very interesting work, including serious commentary, analysis, and discussion by working people, many of whom had little or no formal education, but generated very striking work—for example, work by the so-called factory girls—the young women driven into the mills, brought from the farms. A vibrant labor press lasted in the US for a long time, even persisting into the 1950s, condemning the “bought priesthood” who were serving private power in the mainstream media. But it was eventually overwhelmed by capital concentration and advertiser reliance.

All of that can be revived—lots of possibilities for media that are freed from corporate or state control. As for public media, they can, to some degree be more free than commercial media. The measure of their freedom largely depends on the level of democracy in the broader society. If it’s controlled by the state under Stalinist Russia, obviously it’s not going to be free, but if it’s the UK’s BBC, then yes, it can be reasonably free—not totally free by any means, but reasonably so.

VP: One last question that doesn’t involve media directly, but seems relevant, especially given recent attacks on progressive academics. In the popular imagination, the academy is overrun with raging leftists. But of course, we know that it’s predominantly a liberal institution, with leftists a small minority. Do you have advice for radicals today who are trying to make their way through this system, trying to be effective scholar activists?

NC: It’s difficult because there are many barriers. The academic world is basically centrist. It’s called liberal, which would mean by international standards, more or less centrist. It might be aligned with the Democratic Party, but it’s not even social democratic. If you try to break out of it by being more radical, you face difficulties. They’re often subtle, like just saying, “This isn’t the kind of topic you want to work on,” which is another of saying “you better shape up and do something else.” You must face the reality of the doctrinal system and try to press the limits. Sometimes you can find supportive colleagues who allow you to go beyond these limitations, but many will not. So you have to understand the nature of the institution, the nature of the factors that are leading it to function this way, and then try to find a path through the thicket of difficulties.

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