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THE BIG IDEA - INTERVIEW WITH NOAM CHOMSKY - Noam Chomsky
1996-02-01  -   -  9.3

British Broadcasting Corporation, 1996


The following is a transcript of "The Big Idea" - a half hour interview between Noam Chomsky and British journalist Andrew Marr, first aired by the BBC in February, 1996.

Marr:

Professor Chomsky, could we start by listening to you explain what the "Propaganda Model", as you call it, is. For many people, the idea that propaganda is used by democratic, rather than merely authoritarian governments, will be a strange one.

Chomsky:

Well... the term "propaganda" fell into disfavour around the Second World War, but in the 1920ís and the 1930ís, it was commonly used, and in fact advocated, by leading intellectuals, by the founders of modern political science, by Wilsonian progressives and of course, by the public relations industry, as a necessary technique to overcome the danger of democracy. The institutional structure of the media is quite straightforward - weíre talking about the United States, itís not very different elsewhere - there are sectors, but the agenda-setting media, the ones that set the framework for everyone else (like the New York Times and the Washington Post, and so on), these are the major corporations, parts of even bigger conglomerates. Like other corporate institutions, they have a product and a market: Their market is advertisers, that is, other businesses; their product is relatively privileged audiences, more or less...

So theyíre selling audiences to...

Theyíre selling privileged audiences - these are big corporations selling privileged audiences to other corporations. Now the question is, what picture of the world would a rational person expect to come out of this structure? Then we draw some conclusions about what you would expect, and then we check, and yes - thatís the picture of the world that comes out.

And is this anything more than the idea that, basically, the press is relatively right wing, with some exceptions, because itís owned by big business - which is a truism, itís well known?

Well, I would call the press relatively liberal. Here I agree with the right wing critics. So, especially the New York Times and the Washington Post, which are called, without a trace of irony - the New York Times is called the "establishment left" in say, major foreign policy journals - and thatís correct, but whatís not recognised is that the role of the liberal intellectual establishment is to set very sharp bounds on how far you can go - "this far, and no further".

Give me some examples of that...

Well, letís take say, the Vietnam War - probably the leading critic, and in fact one of the leading dissident intellectuals in the mainstream, is Anthony Lewis of the New York Times, who did finally come around to opposing the Vietnam War about 1969 - about a year and a half after Corporate America had more or less ordered Washington to call it off, and his picture from then on is that the war (as he put it) began with blundering efforts to do good, but it ended up by 1969 being a disaster and costing us too much - and thatís the criticism...

So, what would the "non-propaganda model" have told Americans about the Vietnam War at the same time?

Same thing that the mainstream press was telling them about Afghanistan. The United States invaded South [Vietnam]... had first of all in the 1950s set up a standard Latin American-style terror state, which had massacred tens of thousands of people, but was unable to control local uprising (and everyone knows - at least every specialist knows - thatís what it was), and when Kennedy came in, in 1961, they had to make a decision, because the South [Vietnamese] government was collapsing under local attack, so the U.S. just invaded the country. In 1961 the U.S. airforce started bombing South Vietnamese civilians, authorised Napalm crop destruction... then in 1965 - January, February 1965 - the next major escalation took place against South Vietnam, not against North Vietnam - that was a sideshow - thatís what an honest press would be saying, but you canít find a trace of it.

Now, if the press is a censoring organisation, tell me how that works - youíre not suggesting that proprietors phone one another up, or that many journalists get their copy "spiked", as we say?

Itís actually... Orwell, you may recall, has an essay called "Literary Censorship in England" which was supposed to be the introduction to Animal Farm, except that it never appeared, in which he points out "look, Iím writing about a totalitarian society, but in free, democratic England, itís not all that different", and then he says unpopular ideas can be silenced without any force, and then he gives a two sentence response which is not very profound, but captures it: He says, two reasons - first, the press is owned by wealthy men who have every interest in not having certain things appear but second, the whole educational system from the beginning on through gets you to understand that there are certain things you just donít say. Well, spelling these things out, thatís perfectly correct - I mean, the first sentence is what we expanded...

This is what I donít get, because it suggests - I mean, Iím a journalist - people like me are "self-censoring"...

No - not self-censoring. Thereís a filtering system that starts in kindergarten and goes all the way through and - it doesnít work a hundred percent, but itís pretty effective - it selects for obedience and subordination, and especially...

So, stroppy people wonít make it to positions of influence...

Thereíll be "behaviour problems" or... if you read applications to a graduate school, you see that people will tell you "he doesnít get along too well with his colleagues" - you know how to interpret those things.

Iím just interested in this because I was brought up, like a lot of people, probably post-Watergate film and so on, to believe that journalism was a crusading craft, and that there were a lot of disputatious, stroppy, difficult people in journalism, and I have to say, I think I know some of them.

Well, I know some of the best... best-known investigative reporters in the United States - I wonít mention names - whose attitude toward the media is much more cynical than mine. In fact, they regard the media as a sham. And they know, and they constantly talk about how they try to... play it like a violin: If they see a little opening theyíll try to squeeze something in that ordinarily wouldnít make it through. And itís perfectly true that this is a crusading profession, adversarial, "We stand up against power", very self-serving view. On the other hand, in my opinion, I hate to make a value judgement but, the better journalists, and in fact, the ones who are often regarded as the best journalists, have quite a different picture and, I think, a very realistic one.

How can you know that Iím self-censoring? How can you know that journalists are...

I donít say youíre self-censoring - Iím sure you believe everything youíre saying; but what Iím saying is, if you believed something different, you wouldnít be sitting where youíre sitting.

We [the UK] have a press which has, it seems to me a relatively wide range of views - there is a pretty schmaltzy Conservative majority but there are left-wing papers, and there is a pretty large offering of views running from the far right to the far left, for those who want them. I donít see how a propaganda model...

Thatís not quite true. I mean there have been good studies of the British press and you could look at them - James Curran is the major one - which point out that, up until the 1960s there was indeed a kind of a social democratic press, which sort of represented much of the interests of working people, and ordinary people and so on, and it was very successful - I mean, the Daily Herald for example had not only more... it had far higher circulation than other newspapers, but also a dedicated circulation. Furthermore, the tabloids at that time - the Mirror and the Sun - were kind of labour based. By the í60s, that was all gone, and it disappeared under the pressure of capital resources. What was left was overwhelmingly the... sort of... centre to right press with some dissidence - itís true, I mean...

Weíve got I would say, a couple of large circulation newspapers, which are left of centre and which are putting in neo-Keynesian views which - you call them elites - are strongly hostile to.

Itís interesting that you call neo-Keynesian "left of centre" - Iíd just call it straight centre. "Left of centre" is a value term...

Sure.

... there are extremely good journalists in England, a number of them, they write very honestly, and very good material; a lot of what they write wouldnít appear here [the US]. On the other hand, if you look at the question overall, I donít think youíre going to find a big difference, and the few (there arenít many studies of the British press), but the few that there are have found pretty much the same results, and I think the better journalists will tell you that. In fact, what you have to do is check it out in cases. So letís take what I just mentioned - the Vietnam War. The British press did not have the kind of stake in the Vietnam War that the American press did, because they werenít fighting it. Just check sometime, and find out how many times you can find the American war in Vietnam described as a US attack against South Vietnam, beginning clearly with outright aggression in 1961, and escalating to massive aggression in í65. If you can find 0.001% of the coverage saying that, youíll surprise me, and in a free press, 100% of it would have been saying that. Now thatís just a matter of fact - it has nothing to do with left and right.

Let me come up to a more modern war, which was the Gulf War which, again, looking at the press in Britain and watching television, I was very, very well aware of anti-Gulf War dissidence...

Were you?

The "no blood for oil" campaigns, and I have the...

Thatís not the dissidence...

"No blood for oil" isnít the dissidence?

No. Saddam Husseinís attack on Kuwait took place on August 2nd. Within a few days, the great fear in Washington was that Saddam Hussein was going to withdraw and leave a puppet government, which would be pretty much what the US had done in Panama. The U.S. and Britain therefore, moved very quickly to try to undercut the danger of withdrawal. By late August, negotiation offers were coming from Iraq, calling for a negotiated Iraqi withdrawal. The press wouldnít publish them here, they never publish them in England. It did leak however...

There was a great debate about whether there should have been a negotiated settlement...

No, sorry, no there was not a debate - there was a debate about whether you should continue with sanctions, which is a different question... because the fact of the matter is, we have good evidence that by mid- or late-August the sanctions had already worked, because these stories were coming from high American officials in the State Department - former American officials like Richard Helm - they couldnít get the mainstream press to cover them, but they did manage to get one journal to cover them - Newsday - thatís a suburban journal in Long Island, the purpose obviously being to spook out the NYT, cause thatís the only thing that matters. It came out in Newsday and this continued (I wonít go through the details), but this continued until January 2nd. At that time, the offers that were coming were apparently so meaningful to the State Department, that State Department officials were saying that "Look, this is negotiable, meaningful, maybe we donít accept everything, but itís certainly a basis for a negotiated withdrawal". The press would not cover it. Newsday did. A few other people did - I have a couple of op-eds on it, and to my knowledge - you can check this - the first reference to any of this in England is actually in an article I wrote in the Guardian, which was in early January. You can check and see if thereís an earlier reference.

Okay - letís look at one of the other key examples, which youíve looked at too, which would appear to go against your idea, which is the Watergate affair...

Watergate is a perfect example - weíve discussed it at length in our book in fact, and elsewhere - itís a perfect example of the way the press was subordinated to power. In fact...

But this brought down a President!

Just a minute - letís take a look. What happened there... here itís kind of interesting, ícause you canít do experiments on history, but here history was kind enough to set one up for us. The Watergate exposures happened to take place at exactly the same time as another set of exposures; they were the exposures of COINTELPRO.

Sorry - youíll have to explain that to us.

Itís interesting that I have to explain it, because itís vastly more significant than Watergate - that already makes my point. COINTELPRO was a program of subversion carried out, not by a couple of petty crooks, but by the national political police - the FBI - under four administrations. It began in the late Eisenhower administration, ran up until...

This is the end of the Socialist Workers Party in America?

The Socialist Workers Party was one tiny fragment of it. It began... by the time it got through (I wonít run through the whole story), it was aimed at the entire New Left, at the Womenís movement, at the whole Black movement; it was extremely broad - itís actions went as far as political assassination. Now whatís the difference between the two? Very clear. In Watergate, Richard Nixon went after half of US private power, namely the Democratic Party, and power can defend itself. So therefore, thatís a scandal. He didnít do anything... nothing happened - look, I was on Nixonís enemies list. I didnít even know, nothing ever happened. But...

Nonetheless, you wouldnít say it was an insignificant event, to bring down a President...

No, it was a case where half of US power defended itself against a person who had obviously stepped out of line. And the fact that the press thought that was important shows that they think powerful people ought to be able to defend themselves. Now, whether there was a question of principle involved happens to be easily checked in this case. One tiny part of the COINTELPRO program was itself far more significant in principle than all of Watergate; and if you look at the whole program, I mean, itís not even a discussion. But you have to ask me what COINTELPRO is. You know what Watergate is. There couldnít be a more dramatic example of the subordination of educated opinion to Power, here in England, as well as the United States.

I know youíve concentrated on foreign affairs, and some of these key areas...

Iíve talked a lot about domestic problems.

Well, Iíd like to come onto that, because it still seems to me that, on a range of pretty important issues for the Establishment, there is serious dissent...

Thatís right.

... Gingrich and his neo-conservative agenda in America has been pretty savagely lampooned. The apparently fixed succession for the Republican candidacy at the Presidential election has come apart. Clinton, who is a powerful figure, is having great difficulty with Whitewater. Everywhere one looks, one sees disjunctions, openings.

Within a spectrum so narrow that you really have to look hard to find it - let me give you...

Can I just stop you there, because you say that the spectrum is narrow, but on the one hand...

Let me illustrate...

... Weíve got flat tax...

Can I illustrate?

... flat tax Republicans, right the way through to relatively big state Democrats.

Find one - find a big state Democrat. The position now is exactly what Clinton said: "The year of big government is over, big government has failed, the war on poverty has failed, we have to get rid of this entitlement business" - that was Clintonís campaign message in 1992. Thatís the Democrats. What you have now is a difference between sort of moderate Republicans, and extreme Republicans. Actually, itís well known that thereís been a long standing... sort of split in the American business community; itís not precise, but itís sort of general, between high-tech, capital-intensive, internationally-oriented business, which tends to be whatís called "liberal", and lower-tech, more nationally-oriented, more labour-intensive industry, which is whatís called "conservative". Now, between those sectors, there have been differences and in fact, if you take a look at American politics, it oscillates pretty much between those limits (thereís good work on this incidentally - the person whoís done the most extensive work is Thomas Ferguson, heís a political scientist...)

One more example, which will have some resonance in Britain and Europe, is the great argument over the North American Free Trade Association - the NAFTA argument - where...

This is an interesting one.

... if there is something which one could describe as a global opposition movement, that is, trade union-, environmental-, community-based, then it was certainly present in the anti-NAFTA...

Shall I tell you what happened?

Well...

Shall I tell you what happened?

What I was going to say is that...

Never reported...

... those arguments were well... we were well aware of those arguments.

No! That is flatly false. They were not permitted into the press, and I documented this. Iíll give you references if you like.

We read all about it in Britain is all I will say.

No you did not; for example...

Iím sorry, but we did...

Well, let me ask you: Did you read the report of the Office of Technology Association of Congress?

Well...

Sorry - did you read the report of the Labour Advisory Committee?

Well, I donít get these reports, but I read...

Sorry, thatís...

... I read many articles about the anti-NAFTA argument thatís very...

Iím sorry. Well if youíre interested in the facts, Iíll tell you what they are, and Iíll even give you sources. The NAFTA argument was signed more or less in secret by the three presidents, in mid-August, right in the middle of the presidential campaign. Now, thereís a law in the United States - the 1974 Trade Act - which requires that any trade-related issue be submitted to the Labour Advisory Committee, which is union-based, for assessment and analysis. It was never submitted to them. A day before they were supposed to give their final report, in mid-September, it was finally submitted to them. The unions are pretty right wing, but they were infuriated. They had never been shown this. Even at the time that they had to write the... they were given 24 hours to write the report... they didnít even have time to look at the text. Nevertheless, they wrote a very vigorous analysis of it, with alternatives presented, saying "Look, weíre not against NAFTA, weíre against this version of it" - they gave a good analysis, happened to be very similar to one that had been given by the Congressional Research Service, the Office of Technology Assessment - none of this ever entered the press. The only thing that entered the press was the kind of critique that they were willing to deal with: Mexico-bashing, right wing nationalists, you know, and so on. That entered the press. But not the critical analysis of the labour movement. Now...

But somehow, by a process of osmosis or something, I picked up quite a lot of anti-NAFTA arguments, on the basis of worker protection, environmental degradation...

May I continue? This goes on in the press, right until the end... there were big popular movements opposing it - it was extremely hard to suppress all of this, to suppress everything coming out of the labour movement, out of the popular movements, and so on - but they did. At the very end it had reached such a point that there was concern that they might not be able to ram this through. Now, take a look at the New York Times and the Washington Post - say the "liberal" media and the national ones in the last couple of weeks - Iíve written about it and Iíll tell you what you find. What you find is a hundred percent support for NAFTA, refusal to allow any of the popular arguments out, tremendous labour-bashing...

Can I come back, to make sure that I understand the point about the liberal press as against the conservative press because, in Britain over the last 2 years, politicians I come across are deeply irritated, ranging on furious, about attacks on them in the press, day after day, on issues which have come to be known as "sleaze". They feel that they are harassed, that they are misunderstood and that the press has got above itself, is "uppity" and is destructive: Thatís the message that they are giving to us. Now, are you saying that that whole process doesnít matter, because itís all part of the same...

Itís marginal... Same thing is true here - when the press focuses on the sex lives of politicians, reach for your pocket, and see whoís pulling out your wallet, because those are not the issues that matter to people. I mean, theyíre very marginal interest. The issues that matter to people are somewhere else, so as soon as you hear, you know, the press and presidential candidates and so on, talking about "values", as I say, put your hand on your wallet - you know that something else is happening.

But itís been much more than... certainly with us, itís been much more than "bed-hopping", itís also been about taking money, itís been about the corporations paying for political parties...

Corruption, sure... corrupt judges - fine topic...

Corrupt parties?

Yeah - corrupt parties. Big Business is not in favour of corruption, you know, and if the press focuses on corruption, Fortune Magazine will be quite happy, they donít care about that - they donít want the society to be corrupt, they want it to be run in their interest - thatís a different thing. Corruption interferes with that. So, for example, when I was, letís say... I just happened to have come back from India: The Bank of India released an estimate - economists there tell me itís low - that a third of the economy is "black", meaning mostly rich businessmen not paying their taxes. Well, that makes the press, because in fact, certainly trans-nationals donít like it. They want the system to be run without corruption, robbery, bribes and so on - just pouring money into their pockets. So yes, thatís a fine topic for the press. On the other hand, the topics Iíve talked about are not fine topics, ícause theyíre much too significant.

What would a press be like, do you think, without the Propaganda Model? What would we be reading in the papers that we donít read about now?

Iíve just given a dozen examples. On every example - itís only youíve picked, I havenít picked, I mean I could pick my own, but Iím happy to let you pick íem - on every one of those examples I think you can demonstrate that thereís been a severe distortion of what the facts of the matter are - this has nothing to do with left and right as Iíve been stressing - and it has left the population pretty confused and marginalised. A free press would just tell you the truth. This has nothing to do with left and right...

And given the power of Big Business, the power of the press, what can people do about this?

They can do exactly what people do in the Haitian slums and hills - organise - and Haiti, which is the poorest country in the hemisphere, they created a very vibrant, lively civil society, in the slums, in the hills, in conditions that most of us couldnít even imagine. We can do the same, much more easily.

Youíve got community activists in America...

Yes we do.

... Iím not talking about the so-called "Communitarian" movements, but Iím talking about the local community activists and writers, all over the place....

All over the place... all over the place... take say, a city like Boston, with all sorts of people: They donít even know of each otherís existence. Thereís a very large number of them. One of the things Iíll do consistently is run around the country giving talks; one of my main purposes, and the purpose of the people who invite me, is to bring the people together, people in that area, who are working on the same things and donít know of each otherís existence, because the resources are so scattered, and the means of communication are so marginal, there isnít just much they can do about it. Now, there are plenty of things that are happening. So take say, community-based radio, which is sort of outside the system...

I was going to ask you about that, and about the Internet, which has certainly got pretty open access, at the moment.

Well, the Internet, like most technology, is a very double-edged sword. Like any technology, including printing, it has a liberatory potential, but it also has a repressive potential, and thereís a battle going on about which way itís going to go, as there was for radio, and television, and so on.

About ownership and advertising...

Right - and about just whatís going to be in it, and whoís going to have access to it. Remember, incidentally, that the Internet is an elite operation. Most of the population of the world has never even made a phone call, you know, so thatís certainly not on the Internet. Nevertheless, it does have democratising potential, and thereís a struggle going on right now as to whether thatís going to be realised, or whether itíll turn into something like a home marketing service, and a way of marginalising people even further. That discussion went on in the 1920s (it was Radio) - thatís interesting how it turned out - it went on over Television, itís now going on over the Internet. And, thatís a matter of popular struggle. Look: We donít live the way we did 200 years ago, or even 30 years ago - thereís been a lot of progress. It hasnít been gifts from above. Itís been the result of people getting together, and refusing to accept the dictates of authoritarian institutions. And, thereís no reason to think that thatís over.

Youíve been portrayed, and some would say, occasionally portrayed yourself, as a kind of lonely dissident voice - you clearly donít feel lonely at all.

I say nothing like that. I certainly do not portray myself that way. I canít begin to accept a fraction of the invitations from around the country: Iím scheduled two years in advance. And at that, Iím only selecting a fraction...

And youíre speaking to big audiences.

Huge audiences. And these are not elite intellectuals either. These are mostly popular audiences. I probably spend 20 or 30 hours a week just answering letters, from people all over the country, and the world. I wish I felt a little more lonely. I donít. Of course, Iím not in PR, you know, I wouldnít be in the mainstream media, but I wouldnít expect that. Why should they offer space to somebody whoís trying to undermine their power, and to expose what they do? But thatís not loneliness.

Professor Chomsky, thank-you very much.

 


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