Still Manufacturing Consent: An Interview With Noam Chomsky


Noam Chomsky

Alan MacLeod interviewed Noam Chomsky via Skype on March 13, 2018, for MacLeod’s new book Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent. They discussed the origins of the classic work of media criticism (co-authored with Edward Herman) Manufacturing Consent, the role of that book’s “propaganda model” today, Google and Facebook, Donald Trump and Russia, fake news and Syria. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Alan MacLeod: I would first like to ask you about how Manufacturing Consent came about. How did you know Edward Herman? What was the division of labour with the book? What parts did you write and what parts did he write?

Noam Chomsky: Ed wrote the basic framework, the institutional analysis, the corporate structure, the relations to government programs and the fundamental institutional structure of the media—that was basically him. He also did parts on some of the specific studies, like on the coverage comparison of a hundred religious martyrs in Latin America with one Polish priest. He did the comparison of the elections, which was partly drawn from a book that he had already done on demonstration elections. I did all the parts on Vietnam and on the Freedom House attack on the media. Of course, we interacted on all the chapters, but the main division of labor was that.

AM: And what was the reaction to it when it came out? Was it celebrated? Ignored? Attacked?

NC: The reaction was quite interesting. Mostly the journalists and the media did not like it at all, of course. And, interestingly, they did not like the defense of the integrity of journalism: the last part, which investigated Peter Braestrup’s major, two-volume Freedom House attack on the media for having been treacherous, for having lost the Vietnam war, and so on (which turned out to be a total fraud).

I was probably the only person who read the actual document, both of the two volumes. One, the attack on the media, [the other] the documentary basis. Hardly any correlation between them! It was just literally total fraud!

And what the results showed was that the journalists were courageous, honorable; they had integrity, they did their work seriously—but, of course, all within the framework of US government ideology. Like all the coverage of the war, like, say, David Halberstam. It was honest, serious, but, almost without exception, within the framework of the assumption that the United States is making a mistake by trying to save democracy in South Vietnam from Communist aggression. That is the picture. The idea that the United States was carrying out a major war crime by invading another country and destroying the indigenous resistance…. the facts were there, but not the framework of discussion.

And they did not like that. Journalists would much prefer to be regarded as aggressive, independent, thinking for themselves, and if they were treacherous, well, OK, maybe they went overboard attacking the US government—that they much preferred. So as far as the journalists themselves were concerned, aside from a few exceptions, they did not like that picture of journalism as being honest, courageous and with integrity.

There were very few reviews of the book, but there was one critical discussion that I wrote about later, by Nicholas Lehmann [New Republic,  1/9/89], a well-known scholar of journalism, who wrote a review in which he disparaged it, saying, “This doesn’t mean anything.”

For example, he discussed the chapter comparing the assassinations of a hundred religious martyrs in Central America, including an archbishop, American nuns and leading Latin American intellectuals—where there was virtually no coverage—with the coverage of the assassination of one Polish priest, where the assassins were immediately apprehended, tried, sentenced to jail—where there was vast reportage. This was one of our many examples of the way in which “worthy victims” are treated, as compared with “unworthy victims.”

He said, “Well, this doesn’t mean anything, it is just because the media focused on one thing at a time, and they happened to be focusing on Poland, not El Salvador.” So, out of curiosity, I went to the New York Times index, and it turned out there was more coverage of El Salvador than of Poland during that period. But it does not matter, because this is a world of alternative facts. The media commentary is mostly propaganda and ideology. There were a few other critiques rather like that…but in the mainstream, it was basically ignored.

The first book that Ed and I wrote together, Counterrevolutionary Violence, was published by a small publisher that was doing quite well. They published 20,000 copies of it, and were ready to distribute it. The publisher was owned by a big conglomerate, Warner Brothers, now part of Time Warner. One of the Warner executives saw the advertising for the book, and did not like it. He asked to see the book, and when he saw it, he went berserk and ordered them to stop distributing it immediately.

The publisher at first did not agree. They said they would publish a critical volume with contrary views, but that was not enough. To prevent it from being published, in the course of the discussion, he just put the whole publisher out of business, destroying all their stock—not only our book, but all their books.

We brought this to the attention to some civil libertarians at the American Civil Liberties Union. They did not see any problem. It is not government censorship; it is just a corporation deciding to destroy a publisher to prevent them distributing a book.

We immediately started working on an expansion of the book: The Political Economy of Human Rights. The reaction to that was quite interesting. Many things were discussed, but there were two major chapters where we compared two huge atrocities going on at the same time in the same place, in South East Asia: one in Cambodia under Pol Pot; the other in East Timor, after the Indonesian invasion.

They were very similar. Per capita, the East Timor atrocities were worse, as they killed a larger portion of the population; but they were comparable. The fundamental difference between them was that in one case, you could blame it on an official enemy and there was absolutely nothing to do about it—nobody had a proposal as to how to stop it.

In the other case, we were responsible. The United States and its allies were crucially responsible. The US blocked action at the United Nations, provided the arms for Indonesia. The more the atrocities increased, the more the arms flowed. And there was everything you could do about it: You could just call it off.

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