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American Journalism Review
How U.S. Newspapers Are Like Pravda Used to Be  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Books
From AJR,   July/August 1993

How U.S. Newspapers Are Like Pravda Used to Be   

Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media
By Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman

Book review by Jim Anderson
Jim Anderson, former diplomatic reporter for UPI, is a correspondent for Deutsche Presse-Agentur, the German Press Agency. He is a former president of Overseas Writers and a member of its board of directors.      

Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media
By Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman
307 pages; $14.95 paper

The appearance in Washington, New York and San Francisco movie houses of the documentary "Manufacturing Consent" (Zeitgeist Films) has attracted a surprising amount of attention, especially for a three-hour film that at times has an almost amateurish, frantic, undergraduate quality.

More important than its modest box-office success, perhaps, the documentary has revived interest in the 1988 book of the same rather awkward title, derived from a Walter Lippmann quote describing how newspapers create public support for government policies.

The film is a sometimes self-indulgent and disjointed tribute to linguistics professor Noam Chomsky, co-author of the book, and his libertarian- anarcho-socialist ideas, particularly those about the wrongs committed in the name of U.S. foreign policy. More particularly, it's about how the American "elite media" have become the government's accomplice, by commission or omission.

The book, which Chomsky wrote with Edward S. Herman, is thoughtful and disturbing. Written from an unabashedly leftist point of view by two professors (Herman is an emeritus professor of finance at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School; Chomsky is at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), it methodically examines how the news media carry out their assignment of keeping the American public informed about U.S. foreign policy in a way that is supportive of that policy.

The outrageous conclusion of the semi-scholarly work is that the elite press (including the New York Times, Washington Post, Time, Newsweek and the three major television networks) did about as well for the U.S. government in such cases as Vietnam as Pravda did for the Kremlin in Afghanistan. Although the process of subservience is obviously different in the two systems, the effect was much the same. In both cases, the media at first followed the patriotic line about the need to support friendly governments against foreign aggression. But when the excursions went sour both the U.S. and Soviet press sensed and expressed the panic inside their respective governments and led the rush to the exits, thus satisfying their journalistic self-esteem and credibility as fighters for the people's will.

In selected instances the book scores some direct hits to prove the thesis that the U.S. press — consciously or unconsciously — marches in lock step with the State Department. It cites Vietnam, El Salvador and the Bulgarian connection in the papal assassination attempt, and contrasts those cases with the media's averted gaze as, for example, a third of the population of East Timor was massacred over the last 15 years by U.S.-supplied Indonesian troops.

The fact that the book was not widely reviewed supports their thesis. Among the elite press only the New York Times Book Review noticed it, carrying a lukewarm assessment by Walter LaFeber alluding to some of the book's "compelling indictments" of the news media's role, but insisting they are undermined by its "unfortunate" overstatements. There was no evidence of any serious attention by any journalism magazines, including this one.

Some employees of the book's targets, such as Karl Meyer of the New York Times and Jeff Greenfield of ABC, argue in the film that Chomsky and Herman are somewhat loony conspiracy theorists who must have learned about journalism on Neptune.

But the book's ideas are not so easily dismissed by those who force themselves to think about what the authors call a "propaganda model." In the authors' terms, a propaganda model serves "to mobilize support for the special interests that dominate the state" and the private business community. In each case study, Herman and Chomsky try to figure out how news organizations conformed to this model when covering U.S. foreign policy initiatives, say in Guatemala or in Indochina. They found the general media position to be: Ignore those massacres committed by U.S.-trained-and-equipped troops because they are part of the larger fight against communism. Concentrate instead on wrongs committed by the other side.

The process, as described in the book, works through a series of "filters."

First is the undeniable fact that the elite media are mainly owned by large, generally profitable corporations that want to remain big and successful. NBC is owned by General Electric, the Washington Post and Newsweek by the Washington Post Co., Time by Time Warner, and so on. The question about whether this ownership affects news coverage brings us to the second filter: advertising. Large ad buyers, the theory goes, spend or withhold their money, thus influencing content and coverage. For good economic reasons, the ad-buying system tends to favor conservative publications, which are usually the dominant ones. Ad buyers are not usually interested in serious investigative journalism, especially if it cuts close to their bones.

Chomsky and Herman have experienced this first-hand. One of their earlier books, "Counter-Revolutionary Violence," published by a Warner Communications subsidiary, was recalled in 1973 and shredded when Warner executive William Sarnoff suspected that it would be another Pentagon Papers case that would embarrass the government and the parent firm. The adventurous Warner subsidiary later folded after its chief editors resigned in protest. Warner Communications itself was subsumed by Time Warner.

Next comes filter number three. Reporters and editors — as well as the publications they work for — prosper or die on their ability to establish and foster a symbiotic relationship with sources, mainly in government. Depending on how well they behave, reportvrs and publishers will be rewarded with inside stuff or, alter- natively, will be punished by deprivation of access.

The fourth filter is the ability of the government and other important sources to denigrate or cast doubt on any stories that don't reflect the official line. Their weapons, according to Chomsky and Herman, are letter campaigns, high-level complaints to executives, boycotts and government "corrections" that undermine unwelcome deviations from the status quo. Those corrections would include suggestions that a reporter's conclusion would be different "if he only knew what we know, but we can't tell you, because it's classified."

Their fifth and final filter is a sense of Cold War solidarity, the patriot's call, the ultimate exhortation: "Whose side are you on anyway?" Even after the disappearance of the Soviet Union, there are enemies or phantom ones, identified as such by the current administration or other important sources (e.g. Serbs, Iraq, Iran, terrorists).

I would add a sixth filter: a shrinking job market. Since the 1988 publication of the book, the loss of permanent positions in an embattled news industry increases every journalists' sensitivity to the other five. Increasingly, it is in a reporter's interests to play it safe and cultivate official sources. This extends beyond foreign policy.

Critics may say the Herman-Chomsky thesis is wrong-headed, but it is not trivial. While the two authors do present evidence selectively and occasionally overstate their case, it is not easily dismissed. For example, the allegation that Bulgarian secret police, acting as surrogates for the Soviet KGB, hired a mentally disturbed, right-wing Turk to murder the pope remains unsubstantiated despite the opening of the KGB and Bulgarian secret police files. Even with the Reagan administration's fervent Cold War attitude — which affected how the press treated the communist world — the "evidence" of the conspiracy was so flimsy that investigative reporters and their editors had to stretch their imaginations to accept it. But accept it they did, especially at the New York Times and NBC News, where the story received an enormous amount of coverage.

In another case, guess which story got more ink and air time: the murder of a single Polish priest by the Polish secret police, or the killing of 100 religious figures, including four American churchwomen and the archbishop in San Salvador, by U.S.-supported groups in Central America? According to the book's analysis, the combined coverage in the elite U.S. press of all the 100 Latin American murders was 80 percent of the amount given to the single Polish killing. The murder and extended coverage of the trial of the Polish secret policeman served to prove the U.S. government-approved point that communist secret police are thugs. Most of the Central American murders never came to trial (often because of the murder or intimidation of judges and witnesses), and when they did the attention of the American press was focused elsewhere.

Chomsky and Herman make the point another way: The U.S. government has categories for "worthy" and "unworthy" victims, and these are reflected by the coverage in the American press. Victims of totalitarian communism were worthy of extensive coverage. Victims of U.S.-supported dictatorial regimes ("authoritarian" in former U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick's formulation) were not.

The Cold War ended after the book was published, but it is easy to apply the lessons and come up with a current list of similar "worthy" and "unworthy" victims. Kurds killed by Iraqis are worthy; those killed by the Iranians and the Turkish government are not. Bosnian Muslims are currently worthy victims; Bosnian Serbs are unworthy. Palestinian stone-throwers are unworthy; armed Israeli settlers deserve extensive coverage — but this is a volatile market, so stay tuned. Vietnamese, for the most part, remain unworthy, except when compared to the even more unworthy Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Both are highly insignificant compared to the American MIAs, if they in fact exist. Or even if they don't.

The weakest point of the Herman-Chomsky book, paradoxically and unintentionally, presents the strongest warning about the danger of the elite media uncritically supporting government policies. When listing ways to counteract the system they criticize, they suggest listening to and using grassroots, accessible media outlets, such as local radio or alternative networks or publications.

In other words, Pacifica Radio and the Washington City Paper will balance out CBS and the Washington Post. Right.



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