Three decades ago, Professor Noam Chomsky, who is seen by some as the most brilliant and courageous intellectual alive and by others as an anti-US conspiracy theorist, penned his powerful critique of the Western corporate media in his seminal book Manufacturing Consent, with co-author Edward S Herman. The book had a profound impact on my perception of the mainstream media in my teenage years, and was crucial in some ways to my decision to start Byline with my co-founder Daniel Tudor. By cutting out the advertiser and political bias of the proprietor, we believed that crowdfunding had the potential to democratise the media landscape and support independent journalism.
In “Manufacturing Consent,” Noam Chomsky posits that Western corporate media is structurally bound to “manufacture consent” in the interests of dominant, elite groups in society. With “filters” which determine what gets to become ‘news’ – including media ownership, advertising, and “flak”, he shows how propaganda can pervade the “free” media in an ostensibly democratic Western society through self-censorship. However, lot has changed since then. We now have the Internet. The so-called legacy media organisations which have been “manufacturing consent” according to Chomsky are in massive financial trouble. Has any of his analysis changed? I recently interviewed Noam Chomsky at his MIT office, to find out his views on the current media landscape.
Seung-yoon Lee: Twenty-seven years ago, you wrote in ‘Manufacturing Consent’ that the primary role of the mass media in Western democratic societies is to mobilise public support for the elite interests that lead the government and the private sector. However, a lot has happened since then. Most notably, one could argue that the Internet has radically decentralised power and eroded the power of traditional media, and has also given rise to citizen journalism. News from Ferguson, for instance, emerged on Twitter before it was picked up by media organisations. Has the internet made your ‘Propaganda Model’ irrelevant?
Noam Chomsky: Actually, we have an updated version of the book which appeared about 10 years ago with a preface in which we discuss this question. And I think I can speak for my co-author, you can read the introduction, but we felt that if there have been changes, then this is one of them. There are other [changes], such as the decline in the number of independent print media, which is quite striking.
As far as we can see, the basic analysis is essentially unchanged. It’s true that the internet does provide opportunities that were not easily available before, so instead of having to go to the library to do research, you can just open up your computer. You can certainly release information more easily and also distribute different information from many sources, and that offers opportunities and deficiencies. But fundamentally, the system hasn’t changed very much.
Seuny-yoon Lee: Emily Bell, Director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, said the following in her recent speech at Oxford: “News spaces are no longer owned by newsmakers. The press is no longer in charge of the free press and has lost control of the main conduits through which stories reach audiences. The public sphere is now operated by a small number of private companies, based in Silicon Valley.” Nearly all content now is published on social platforms, and it’s not Rupert Murdoch but Google’s Larry Page and Sergei Brin and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg who have much more say in how news is created and disseminated. Are they “manufacturing consent” like their counterparts in so-called ‘legacy’ media?
Noam Chomsky: Well, first of all, I don’t agree with the general statement. Say, right now, if I want to find out what’s going on in Ukraine or Syria or Washington, I read The New York Times, other national newspapers, I look at the Associated Press wires, I read the British press, and so on. I don’t look at Twitter because it doesn’t tell me anything. It tells me people’s opinions about lots of things, but very briefly and necessarily superficially, and it doesn’t have the core news. And I think it’s the opposite of what you quoted – the sources of news have become narrower.
So for example, take where we are now, Boston. Boston used to have a very good newspaper, The Boston Globe. It still exists but it’s a pale shadow of what it was twenty or thirty years ago. It used to have bureaus around the world, fine correspondents, and some of the best journalism on Central America during the Central American wars, and good critical journalism on domestic events and on many other topics. Go to a newsstand and have a look now. What you see is local news, pieces from the wire services, some pieces from The New York Times, and very little else.
Now that’s happened around the country, and in fact, around the world. And it’s a narrowing of these sources of journalism about what’s happening on the ground. That doesn’t mean that reports in the NYT have to be read uncritically, or those in The Guardian or The Independent or anywhere else. Sure, they have to be read critically, but at least they’re there. There are journalists there on the scene where major events are taking place and, now there are fewer of them than before, so that’s a narrowing of the sources of news. On the other hand, there is a compensating factor. It’s easier now to read the press from other countries than it was twenty years ago because of instead having to go to the library or the Harvard Square International Newsstand, I can look it up on the Internet. So you have multiple effects. As far as Silicon Valley is concerned, say Google, I’m sure they’re trying to manufacture consent. If you want to buy something, let’s say, you look it up on Google. We know how it works. The first things on the list are the ones that advertise. That doesn’t mean that they’re the most important ones. But it’s a reflection of their business model, which is of course based on advertising, which is one of the filters [in our model], in fact.
I use Google all the time, I’m happy it’s there. But just as when I read The New York Times or the Washington Post, or the Wall Street Journal knowing that they have ways of selecting and shaping the material that reaches you, you have to compensate for it. With Google, and others of course, there is an immense amount of surveillance to try to obtain personal data about individuals and their habits and interactions and so on, to shape the way information is presented to them. They do more [surveillance] than the NSA.
Seung-yoon Lee: In his essay “Bad News about News,” Robert G. Kaiser, former Editor of the Washington Post says, “News as we know it is at risk. So is democratic governance, which depends on an effective watchdog news media. Both have been undermined by changes in society wrought by digital technologies—among the most powerful forces ever unleashed by mankind.” Not only are the biggest news organisations like the New York Times, and the Washington Post (which was sold to the founder of Amazon for US$250 million, a small fraction of its worth just a few years before), and others are financially suffering and lack a clear roadmap for survival, but also numerous local newspapers across the United States and United Kingdom are shutting down every week. I know you see some of these organisations as “manufacturers of consent,” but how can we fund quality journalism in this new digital age?
Noam Chomsky: How is the BBC funded?
Seung-yoon Lee: By the public.
Noam Chomsky: And take the United States. When the United States was founded, there was an understanding of the first amendment that it has a double function: it frees the producer of information from state control, but it also offers people the right to information. As a result, if you look at postwar laws, they were designed to yield an effective public subsidy to journals in an effort to try to provide the widest range of opinion, information, and so on. And that’s a pretty sensible model. And it goes back to the conception of negative and positive liberty. You have only negative liberty, that is, freedom from external control, or you have positive liberty to fulfill your legitimate goals in life – in this case, gaining information. And that’s a battle that’s been fought for centuries. Right after the Second World War, in the United States, there was major debate and controversy about whether the media should serve this double function of giving both freedom from x amount of control – that was accepted across the board – and additionally, the function of providing the population with fulfilling its right to access a wide range of information or opinion. The first model, which is sometimes called corporate libertarianism, won out. The second model was abandoned. It’s one of the reasons why the US only has extremely marginal national radio businesses compared to other countries. It relates to what you’re asking–an alternative model is public support for the widest possible range of information and analysis and that should, I think, be a core part of a functioning democracy.
Seung-yoon Lee: In the absence of a good business model, new media organisations from Buzzfeed to Vice have pioneered so-called “native advertising,” a form of online advertising that seeks to fool the consumer into believing that they are reading “editorial” content rather than paid advertisements. Basically, they are advertorials. Ironically, even a progressive newspaper like The Guardian publishes sponsored content from Goldman Sachs. What’s your view on native advertising?
Noam Chomsky: This [native advertising] is exaggerating and intensifying a problem that is serious and shouldn’t even exist in the first place. The reliance of a journal on advertisers shapes and controls and substantially determines what is presented to the public. Again, if you go back to our book, it’s one of the filters. And if you look back, the very idea of advertiser reliance radically distorts the concept of free media. If you think about what the commercial media are, no matter what, they are businesses. And a business produces something for a market. The producers in this case, almost without exception, are major corporations. The market is other businesses – advertisers. The product that is presented to the market is readers (or viewers), so these are basically major corporations providing audiences to other businesses, and that significantly shapes the nature of the institution. You can determine by common sense that it would, but if you investigate it up front as well, it does [bear out], so what you’re now talking about is an intensification of something which shouldn’t exist in the first place.
Seung-yoon Lee: I was shocked to see that the global PR firm Edelman did some research on whether readers can actually tell whether what they are reading is an advertisement or an article… and 60% of readers didn’t notice that they were reading adverts.
Noam Chosmky: And that’s always been true. The effect of advertiser reliance and public relations firms is noticeable in the nature of what the media produce, both in their news and commentary. And how could it be otherwise, that’s the market.
Seung-yoon Lee: Recently, The Guardian and The Washington Post revealed widespread secret surveillance by the National Security Agency through Edward Snowden. Such reporting surely undermines the idea of what you would call the ‘elite interest’ that dominates the government and private sector. Does this case undermine your propaganda model or is it an exception to the rule?
Noam Chomsky: For the propaganda model, notice what we explain there very explicitly is that this is a first approximation – and a good first approximation – for the way the media functions. We also mention that there are many other factors. In fact, if you take a look at the book ‘Manufacturing Consent’, about practically a third of the book, which nobody seems to have read, is a defence of the media from criticism by what are called civil rights organisations – Freedom House in this case. It’s a defence of the professionalism and accuracy of the media in their reporting, from a harsh critique which claimed that they were virtually traitors undermining government policy. We should have known, on the other hand, that they were quite professional.
The media didn’t like that defence because what we said is – and this was about the Tet Offensive – that the reporters were very honest, courageous, accurate, and professional, but their work was done within a framework of tacit acquiescence to a propaganda system that was simply unconscious. The propaganda system was ‘what we’re doing in Vietnam is obviously right and just’. And that passively supports the doctrinal system. But on the other hand, it was also undermining the government. It was showing that government claims are false. And take, say, the exposure of Watergate, or the exposure of business corruption. One of the best sources of information on business corruption is the businessperson. The media do quite a lot of very good exposes on this, but the business world is quite willing to tolerate the exposure of corruption. The business world is also quite willing to tolerate exposure of governments intervening in personal life and business life in a way that they don’t like, as they don’t want a powerful and intrusive state. That’s not to criticise The Guardian and The Post for providing an outlet for the Snowden/Greenwald material – of course they should have, they’re professional journalists. There are a lot of factors, but we picked out factors we think are very significant but not all-inclusive, and as a matter of fact, we gave counter-examples.
Seung-yoon Lee: And do you think this is a counter-example, in some sense
Noam Chomksy: It’s not a counter example, it’s a demonstration that there are other things. That in addition to the major factors, there are also minor factors which we discussed, like professionalism and professional integrity, which is also a factor.
Seung-yoon Lee: Do you think that crowdfunding can help make journalism more independent?
Noam Chomsky: I think it’s a good general principle that almost anything that increases the variety and range of available media is beneficial. Of course, this particular approach will have its own problems. Every approach does. There’s no ideal type with no problems connected with it, but in general the wider the range of variety of what’s available, the better off you are.
Seung-yoon Lee: Can I ask your opinion on Charlie Hebdo? What do you think of this ‘freedom of speech no matter what’ principle?
Noam Chomsky: Well, I think we should strongly support freedom of speech. I think one of the good things about the United States, incidentally, as distinct from England, is that there is much higher protection of freedom of speech. But freedom of speech does not mean a lack of responsibility. So for example, I’m in favour of freedom of speech, but if somebody decided to put up a big advertisement in Times Square, New York, glorifying the sending of Jews to gas chambers, I don’t think it should be stopped by the state, but I’m not in favour of it.
Seung-yoon Lee: Also, regarding the specific incident of Charlie Hebdo, do you think the cartoonists lacked responsibility?
Noam Chomsky: Yes, I think they were kind of acting in this case like spoiled adolescents, but that doesn’t justify killing them. I mean, I could say the same about a great deal that appears in the press. I think it’s quite irresponsible often. For example, when the press in the United States and England supported the worst crime of this century, the invasion of Iraq, that was way more irresponsible than what Charlie Hebdo did. It led to the destruction of Iraq and the spread of the sectarian conflict that’s tearing the region to shreds. It was a really major crime. Aggression is the supreme international crime under international law. Insofar as the press supported that, that was deeply irresponsible, but I don’t think the press should be shut down.