Anyone who has ever read any of the ‘independent’ press, either here in Australia, the UK or the US, or online at sites like Znet, will be aware of Noam Chomsky’s writings. A noted academic, intellectual and ‘dissident’, Chomsky has written on a wide variety of issues, including international politics and the role and performance of the media. His numerous criticisms of government, the corporate world and what he (and others) see as the duplicity of the media have not won him many friends among the mainstream, yet they offer interesting implications (if they are accurate) for those of us who study the media and its relation to power.
Chomsky uses a model of media performance, attributed mostly to collegue Edward Herman, called the Propaganda Model. The central thesis of the model is that, rather than being about “speaking truth to power” in a democratic society, most mainstream news media, either consciously or unconsciously, “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.” It goes without saying that this model is based on the idea (or observation) that modern Western societies aren’t, despite all the rhetoric, very democratic.
Chomsky has applied this model many times to the media, particularly to the performance of the mainstream ‘quality’ press (especially the ‘agenda setting’ US east-coast news dailies, Washington Post, New York Times, Wall St. Journal, etc) and its presentation of serious news events – “The media I talk about in my books are mostly the élite media, the agenda-setting media. I don’t talk much about the diversionary media, which are the real mass media.” By necessity, much of his analysis is dependent on his and other’s research and information gleaned from independent media outlets and other sources found outside of the mainstream press – how else does one find out what the media has omitted?
However, it is here, in uncovering the undemocratic heart of Western society, that Chomsky attracts criticism and controversy. Much of what he reveals in his analyses goes heavily against what is accepted ‘conventional wisdom’ – at least as portrayed in the mainstream media. To a mind reared on a diet of mainstream media, his evidence and conclusions often seem startling, challenging, and open to accusations of conspiracy theory. Yet there is no denying the sheer scholarship and bulk of evidence, including detailed sources and references, found in Chomsky’s writings. The overall conclusion of these analyses is, to put it politely, of an inconsistent application of human rights and economics policies on the part of the so-called “special interests that dominate the state and private activity”, and a confirmation of Chomsky’s (and Herman’s) thesis about the media.
An important reason why the Propaganda Model looks to be a useful tool for understanding the performance of the media, is because it accommodates exceptions. For example, Chomsky’s analysis is largely centred on reporting that originates from the US East coast, which is a “centre of power and authority,” and “quite rigid ideologically”; however, Chomsky himself makes the qualification that “controls ease as one moves away. It’s easy to find things on NPR in Laramie that would never make it to Boston. The reasons for this are, according to Chomsky, because “to those with real power, it’s not too important what marginal actors (most of the population here, and the vast majority of the world) think and believe; it makes a lot of difference what educated elites think in centers of power and authority.”
Exceptions also occur when grass-roots activists stir up enough commotion and opposition about issues, as in the protesters who disrupted the World Trade Organisation Conference in Seattle, that the media has no option but to put the issue on the agenda. Although for Chomsky this is a hopeful sign, he also observes that ‘unwelcomed’ issues that make it onto the media’s agenda are often then subject to “vast distortions”.
Perhaps one flaw in the Propaganda Model is that it seems to indicate a level of contempt and cynicism for the public on the part of the media (not unlike Chomsky’s own apparent attitude towards the media) that goes beyond what many people would accept. Not only are the opinions of the public seen as unimportant, but it is presumed that they are easily manipulated and further marginalized by what Chomsky calls “the diversionary media”: “professional sports or sex scandals or the personalities and their problems or something like that. Anything, as long as it isn’t serious. Of course, the serious stuff is for the big guys. ‘We’ take care of that.”
Chomsky’s views, including his interpretation of what is ‘serious news’, are somewhat at odds with media theorists, like Australian *Catharine Lumby, who emphasises the importance of pop culture and what she sees as the public’s often vital responses to it. While the Propaganda Model looks at the question of media influence from one end of the spectrum (the media, its owners and the power structures within which they operate, ‘serious news’, hidden agendas, directed audience), pop culture theorists like Lumby focus on the other end (the variety and importance of audience response, a wider definition of ‘serious news’, the value of popular culture, more open or even naive agendas). Both offer valuable perspectives on the media’s influence and operation, and a rigorous comparison and application of both would be useful – but that is a topic for another article.
All Chomsky quotes from Manufacturing Consent, by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman. Extensive further material from both can be found online at Znet.