Chomsky Redeemed (Almost)

Written on May 30, 2008 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in Arts & Cultures & Societies, International Relations

Rolf Strom-Olsen

Back in my halcyon undergraduate days, I entertained a fairly lengthy, if low-key, intellectual debate with a friend of mine (of the Birkenstocks and alpaca sweater variety) over the merits of Noam Chomsky‘s views of the mass media. This was, at its brightest, a 15-watt argument defined as much by opposing political and ideological viewpoints as actual informed discussion: i.e. I had not actually read Chomsky, but I was willing to argue against his positions anyway, which I concede is a powerful testament to undergraduate hubris. Chomsky’s famous 1988 study, Manufacturing Consent, which he coauthored with Edward Herman, argued (or so I was told) that the media plays an active role in promoting the agenda of what Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex. "The media’s function," write Chomsky and Herman (and I can quote them here because I finally bought the book)

"is to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfill this role requires systematic propaganda."

Central to supporting this argument is their claim that media coverage during the
Vietnam war, and especially US intervention in Laos and Cambodia,
was complicit in advancing US government policy. At the time, I was
happy to dismiss such claims as mere piffle and nonsense. Now I am not so sure.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? asked Juvenal. The answer in modern democracies has traditionally been the fourth estate. Over the course of the Bush administration, however, the mainstream media in the US have all too often been at best supine and indifferent and at worst actively hawking the scaremongering freakshow that has been post-9/11 US policy. The case of New York Times reporter Judith Miller is one well-documented and notorious instance of a once-independent-reporter-turned-heedless-boob. Miller was manipulated into reporting on various aspects of Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction program. In an act of breathtaking dishonesty, the Bush administration used Miller to plant stories in the New York Times. Senior officials then used this same coverage to justify the case for war. But Miller was not just a victim of these crass, cynical and calculating tactics; she was an active participant to her own manipulation, repeatedly failing to substantiate or even question critically the claims being made by her administration-backed sources. Miller was not alone. Over the last years, one could be easily forgiven for mistaking the White House press corps  as largely a bunch of spineless yes-men.

All this has apparently left at least one former Bush official in high dudgeon. Scott McClellan, White House Press Secretary from July 2003 to April 2006, was the hapless Caspar Milquetoast lackey who provided the daily spin to reporters as the Bush administration slipped from bad to worse. In his forthcoming memoir, Mr. McClellan "calls the news media “complicit enablers” in the White House’s
“carefully orchestrated campaign to shape and manipulate sources of
public approval” in the march to the Iraq war in 2002 and 2003." (NYT – registration required). You know things are bad when a former Republican White House Press Secretary starts to sound like Noam Chomsky.

Yessir, apparently Scott McClellan feels that, even as he was spinning out anodyne reassurances about the  conduct of the Iraq war, the Katrina disaster and the other missteps, errors, fumbles, gaffes, miscues and outrages of the Bush White House, the press corps was not doing enough to see through his tergiversation and half-truths.

"If anything, the national press corps was probably too
deferential to the White House and to the administration in regard to
the most important decision facing the nation during my years in
Washington, the choice over whether to go to war in Iraq. The collapse
of the administration’s rationales for war, which became apparent
months after our invasion, should never have come as such a surprise. …
In this case, the ‘liberal media’ didn’t live up to its reputation. If
it had, the country would have been better served.”

Now that it doesn’t really matter anymore, the US press has seized upon
Mr. McClellan’s remarks and engaged in a weak bout of soul-searching,
limited introspection and anemic self-criticism. Based on what I’ve seen so far, the
excuse-du-jour is some variant on the
mood after … wait for it … 9-11. That kind of response is so
achingly predictable and so intellectually lazy that it almost makes me
a Chomskyite.

Almost but not quite. Chomsky
grounded the manufacture of consent in the relationship between the
media and money. Since the business of news is generally in the hands
of large corporations there is no incentive to challenge the underlying
system which makes it profitable and powerful. But recent history
suggests an alternative explanation. The press censored itself to fit
the popular mood. Who wanted to spoil America’s bloodlust following
9-11 by pointing out uncomfortable facts?  Media
servility was an auto-response to  market demand which, in 2002 and ’03, was heavily skewed towards support for a further aggressive, military response.

The media, in other words, was giving the public what it wanted to hear by way of disseminating what the Administration wanted to sell. Chomsky suggested that the "media was subordinate to state authority," but it might be closer to the truth to say that the media is subordinate to the market forces of consumption.   


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