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Chomsky on the Mass Media

A Summary of the Propaganda Model




The Western mass media is seen, and sees itself, as generally antagonistic to established power. In the recent British election, there was a debate over whether figures in the media were displaying the proper respect for politicians in general, and political leaders in particular, or whether the aggressive attitude of interviewers such as the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman was going over the top.

A classic example of the supposedly “anti-establishment” nature of the press was the “Pentagon Papers” case, when the New York Times published a top secret internal history of the Vietnam War compiled by the US Government.

US Judge Gurfein, deciding in favour of press freedom in the Pentagon Papers case (when the US government attempted to suppress the publication of the leaked documents), declared that the United States had ‘a cantankerous press, an obstinate press, a ubiquitous press’, which ‘must be suffered by those in authority in order to preserve the even greater values of freedom of expression and the right of the people to know.’

Supreme Court Judge Powell, in another case, argued that as ‘no individual can obtain for himself [or herself] the information needed for the intelligent discharge of his [or her] political responsibilities. The press performs a crucial function in effecting the societal purpose of the First Amendment’, by enabling the public to exert control over the political process. (1)




For Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, two US academics who have written extensively on the functioning of the mass media, the ‘Free Press’ serves a rather different ‘societal purpose’:

‘It is the societal purpose served by state education as conceived by James Mill in the early days of the establishment of this system: to “train the minds of the people to a virtuous attachment to their government”, and to the arrangements of the social, economic, and political order more generally’. It is the societal purpose of ‘protecting privilege from the threat of public understanding and participation’. (2)

This purpose is achieved, according to Chomsky and Herman, through what they describe as ‘brainwashing under freedom’.

No central authority determines ‘the party line’ and dictates to the organs of public expression what can and cannot be said.

Intellectual conformity is not achieved through violence or the threat of violence, as in the Stalinist system of propaganda.



The Chomsky/Herman ‘Propaganda Model’ of the US mass media is a ‘guided free market’ model, in which thought is controlled by market forces operating in a highly unequal society.

Media institutions are themselves large profit-seeking corporations, ‘which are closely interlocked, and have important common interests, with other major corporations, banks and government.’ (3)

They are also dependent on advertising revenue from other businesses, who gain a ‘de facto licensing authority’ (James Curran and Jean Seaton) over the mass media. (4)

Complementing these and other institutional factors at the ‘macro’ level is the process of education, selection, and cooption, by which individual reporters become attuned to the dominant ideology.

Recruitment to a mass media organisation is predicated on the candidate possessing the ‘right’ attitudes.

For those few who, once recruited, display an unacceptable independence of mind, pressures are soon brought to bear to help them develop a politically correct set of ‘news values’.

Much the same is true in academia, Chomsky observes:

‘To put it in the simplest terms, a talented young journalist or a student aiming for a scholarly career can choose to play the game by the rules, with the prospect of advancement to a position of prestige and privilege and sometimes even a degree of power; or to choose an independent path, with the likelihood of a minor post as a police reporter or in a community college, exclusion from major journals, vilification and abuse, or driving a taxi cab.’

Given such choices, ‘the end result is not very surprising.’ (5)

Another, ‘supportive’, factor is ‘elemental patriotism’ - ‘the overwhelming wish to think well of ourselves, our institutions and our leaders’. (6)



Chomsky argues that thought control in free societies is most effectively achieved when, rather than setting down a single party line to be followed, the institutions of indoctrination set down the boundaries of acceptable opinion, and then allow debate to flourish within these confines:

‘in a properly functioning system of propaganda... [debate should not be stilled] because it has a system-reinforcing character if constrained within proper bounds.’

What is essential is to set the bounds firmly. ‘Controversy may rage as long as it adheres to the presuppositions that define the consensus of elites, and it should furthermore be encouraged within these bounds, thus helping to establish these doctrines as the very condition of thinkable thought while reinforcing the belief that freedom reigns.’ (7)



Thus, in the case of the Vietnam War, the official version was that US intervention was needed to defend the Republic of South Vietnam against its aggressive, Communist, northern neighbour.

When the ‘Pentagon Papers’, the US government’s own history of the Vietnam War, were leaked in 1972, those US citizens who cared to know learned that when Washington determined on its major escalation of the war in February 1965, US intelligence know of no regular North Vietnamese units in South Vietnam; and five months later, while implementing the plan to deploy 85,000 troops, there was only concern about the ‘increasing probability’ of such units in South Vietnam or Laos. (8)

‘In the light of these facts,’ Chomsky observes, ‘the discussion of whether the US was defending South Vietnam from an “armed attack” from the North - the official US government position - is ludicrous.’ (9)

Nevertheless, this ‘ludicrous’ assertion, converted into an unquestioned assumption, continues to govern discussion of the Vietnam War in the United States and elsewhere in the West.

Mainstream debate turns on whether it was wise to attempt to defend South Vietnam.

The notion that the United States did not defend the people of South Vietnam, but rather attacked them, does not figure even as a theoretical possibility.

A Pentagon analyst, writing in the Pentagon Papers, noted that South Vietnam was ‘essentially the creation of the United States’. (10) This ‘creation’ of the United States was the allegedly ‘legitimate local authority’ which invited US military intervention.

Chomsky cites the observation of the London Economist in connection with Afghanistan, ‘an invader is an invader unless invited in by a government with a claim to legitimacy’. He comments, ‘outside the world of Newspeak, the client regime established by the United States had no more legitimacy than the Afghan regime established by the USSR.’ (11)


The power of the US propaganda system is demonstrated by the extraordinary uniformity of articulate US opinion with regard to Vietnam.

This is another example of what Chomsky has termed ‘Orwell’s Problem’. In philosophy, ‘Plato’s Problem’ is how, given so little evidence of the world as we grow up, we end up knowing so much about it.


What Chomsky calls ‘Orwell’s Problem’ is ‘the problem of explaining how we can know so little, given that we have so much evidence.’

George Orwell was concerned with the power of totalitarian systems to instill beliefs that were firmly held and widely accepted despite being without foundation, ‘and often plainly at variance with obvious facts about the world around us.’




Herman and Chomsky comment:


‘That the media provide some information about an issue... proves absolutely nothing about the adequacy or accuracy of media coverage. The media do in fact suppress a great deal of information, but even more important is the way they present a particular fact - its placement, tone, and frequency of repetition - and the framework of analysis in which it is placed.’ (12)


They explain that, ‘the enormous amount of material that is produced in the media and books makes it possible for a really assiduous and committed researcher to gain a fair picture of the real world by cutting through the mass of misrepresentation and fraud to the nuggets hidden within.’ (13)


‘That a careful reader, looking for a fact can sometimes find it, with diligence and a skeptical eye, tells us nothing about whether that fact received the attention and context it deserved, whether it was intelligible to most readers, or whether it was effectively distorted or suppressed.’ (14)


Chomsky sums up many years of work, with collaborators and associates, by suggesting that ‘thousands of pages of detailed documentation’ have demonstrated ‘beyond any reasonable doubt’ that in democratic societies too, ‘the doctrines of the state religion are firmly implanted and widely believed, in utter defiance of plain fact, particularly by the intelligentsia who construct and propagate these doctrines.’(15)




Throughout his career, Chomsky has insisted that ‘the level of culture that can be achieved in the United States is a life-and-death matter for large masses of suffering humanity.’ (16)


The level of honesty and decency in US society - the commitment of the general public to the weak form of Enlightenment values - can restrain US interventionism.


The more that the general public pierces the fog of propaganda and comes to understand the realities of US foreign policy, the more vocal and widespread is the dissent, and the more constrained US policy makers become, sometimes with enormous benefits for potential victims in far-off lands.


Furthermore, unless and until the general public is able to break free from ‘brainwashing under freedom’, hopes for a revitalised left-wing movement able to replace present institutions with more humane alternatives must be rather dim.


Therefore, Chomsky urges, ‘For those who stubbornly seek freedom, there can be no more urgent task than to come to understand the mechanisms and practices of indoctrination.’(17)


What is needed is what Chomsky calls ‘intellectual self-defence’ by the general public against the media and the state.



For more material by Noam Chomsky, visit his official website.

To order Milan Rai’s Chomsky’s Politics, if you are in the UK, send an SAE and a cheque for £12 to ‘JNV’, 29 Gensing Road, St Leonards on Sea, East Sussex, TN38 0HE.


1. Cited in Anthony Lewis, ‘Freedom of the Press - Anthony Lewis distinguishes between Britain and America’, London Review of Books, 26 November 1987, cited in Noam Chomsky, Necessary Illusions (London, Pluto Press, 1989, also available online <http://www.zmag.org/chomsky/ni/ni-contents.html>), p. 2

2. Necessary Illusions, pp. 13, 14.

3. Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York, Pantheon, 1988), p. 14.

4. James Curran and Jean Seaton, Power without Responsibility: The Press and Broadcasting in Britain (London, Methuen, 1985, 2nd ed.), p. 31.

5. Noam Chomsky, Towards a New Cold War, p. 14.

6. Manufacturing Consent, p. 305.

7. Necessary Illusions, p. 48.

8. Noam Chomsky, ‘The Pentagon Papers as propaganda and as history’, in Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, eds., The Pentagon Papers: The Senator Gravel Edition, vol. V: Critical Essays (Boston, Beacon Press, 1972), p. 195.

9. Chomsky, ‘The Pentagon Papers as propaganda and as history’, p. 196.

10. Cited in Towards a New Cold War, p. 376 n. 27.

11.The Chomsky Reader, p. 225.

12 Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, ‘Propaganda Mill: The Media Churn Out the “Official Line” ’, The Progressive, June 1988, p. 15. This article was a summary of their book Manufacturing Consent.

13 Towards a New Cold War, p. 14.

14 Herman and Chomsky, ‘Propaganda Mill’, p. 15.

15. Noam Chomsky, Knowledge of Language: Its nature, origin, and use (Praeger, 1986), pp. xxv, xxvi.

16. Noam Chomsky, American Power and the New Mandarins (London, Penguin/Pelican, 1971), p. 249.

17. The Chomsky Reader, p. 136.

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