Part of the reason why I write about the media is
because I am interested in the whole intellectual culture, and the part of it
that is easiest to study is the media. It comes out every day. You can do a
systematic investigation. You can compare yesterdayís version to todayís
version. There is a lot of evidence about whatís played up and what isnít and
the way things are structured.
My impression is the media arenít very different from
scholarship or from, say, journals of intellectual opinionóthere are some
extra constraintsóbut itís not radically different. They interact, which is
why people go up and back quite easily among them.
You look at the media, or at any institution you want to
understand. You ask questions about its internal institutional structure. You
want to know something about their setting in the broader society. How do they
relate to other systems of power and authority? If youíre lucky, there is an
internal record from leading people in the information system which tells you
what they are up to (it is sort of a doctrinal system). That doesnít mean the
public relations handouts but what they say to each other about what they are
up to. There is quite a lot of interesting documentation.
Those are three major sources of information about the
nature of the media. You want to study them the way, say, a scientist would
study some complex molecule or something. You take a look at the structure and
then make some hypothesis based on the structure as to what the media product
is likely to look like. Then you investigate the media product and see how
well it conforms to the hypotheses. Virtually all work in media analysis is
this last partótrying to study carefully just what the media product is and
whether it conforms to obvious assumptions about the nature and structure of
Well, what do you find? First of all, you find that
there are different media which do different things, like the
entertainment/Hollywood, soap operas, and so on, or even most of the
newspapers in the country (the overwhelming majority of them). They are
directing the mass audience.
There is another sector of the media, the elite media,
sometimes called the agenda-setting media because they are the ones with the
big resources, they set the framework in which everyone else operates. The
New York Times and CBS, that kind of thing. Their audience is mostly
privileged people. The people who read the New York Timesópeople who
are wealthy or part of what is sometimes called the political classóthey are
actually involved in the political system in an ongoing fashion. They are
basically managers of one sort or another. They can be political managers,
business managers (like corporate executives or that sort of thing), doctoral
managers (like university professors), or other journalists who are involved
in organizing the way people think and look at things.
The elite media set a framework within which others
operate. If you are watching the Associated Press, who grind out a constant
flow of news, in the mid-afternoon it breaks and there is something that comes
along every day that says "Notice to Editors: Tomorrowís New York Times
is going to have the following stories on the front page." The point of that
is, if youíre an editor of a newspaper in Dayton, Ohio and you donít have the
resources to figure out what the news is, or you donít want to think about it
anyway, this tells you what the news is. These are the stories for the quarter
page that you are going to devote to something other than local affairs or
diverting your audience. These are the stories that you put there because
thatís what the New York Times tells us is what youíre supposed to care
about tomorrow. If you are an editor in Dayton, Ohio, you would sort of have
to do that, because you donít have much else in the way of resources. If you
get off line, if youíre producing stories that the big press doesnít like,
youíll hear about it pretty soon. In fact, what just happened at San Jose
Mercury News is a dramatic example of this. So there are a lot of ways in
which power plays can drive you right back into line if you move out. If you
try to break the mold, youíre not going to last long. That framework works
pretty well, and it is understandable that it is just a reflection of obvious
The real mass media are basically trying to divert
people. Let them do something else, but donít bother us (us being the people
who run the show). Let them get interested in professional sports, for
example. Let everybody be crazed about professional sports or sex scandals or
the personalities and their problems or something like that. Anything, as long
as it isnít serious. Of course, the serious stuff is for the big guys. "We"
take care of that.
What are the elite media, the agenda-setting ones? The
New York Times and CBS, for example. Well, first of all, they are
major, very profitable, corporations. Furthermore, most of them are either
linked to, or outright owned by, much bigger corporations, like General
Electric, Westinghouse, and so on. They are way up at the top of the power
structure of the private economy which is a very tyrannical structure.
Corporations are basically tyrannies, hierarchic, controled from above. If you
donít like what they are doing you get out. The major media are just part of
What about their institutional setting? Well, thatís
more or less the same. What they interact with and relate to is other major
power centersóthe government, other corporations, or the universities. Because
the media are a doctrinal system they interact closely with the universities.
Say you are a reporter writing a story on Southeast Asia or Africa, or
something like that. Youíre supposed to go over to the big university and find
an expert who will tell you what to write, or else go to one of the
foundations, like Brookings Institute or American Enterprise Institute and
they will give you the words to say. These outside institutions are very
similar to the media.
The universities, for example, are not independent
institutions. There may be independent people scattered around in them but
that is true of the media as well. And itís generally true of corporations.
Itís true of Fascist states, for that matter. But the institution itself is
parasitic. Itís dependent on outside sources of support and those sources of
support, such as private wealth, big corporations with grants, and the
government (which is so closely interlinked with corporate power you can
barely distinguish them), they are essentially what the universities are in
the middle of. People within them, who donít adjust to that structure, who
donít accept it and internalize it (you canít really work with it unless you
internalize it, and believe it); people who donít do that are likely to be
weeded out along the way, starting from kindergarten, all the way up. There
are all sorts of filtering devices to get rid of people who are a pain in the
neck and think independently. Those of you who have been through college know
that the educational system is very highly geared to rewarding conformity and
obedience; if you donít do that, you are a troublemaker. So, it is kind of a
filtering device which ends up with people who really honestly (they arenít
lying) internalize the framework of belief and attitudes of the surrounding
power system in the society. The elite institutions like, say, Harvard and
Princeton and the small upscale colleges, for example, are very much geared to
socialization. If you go through a place like Harvard, most of what goes on
there is teaching manners; how to behave like a member of the upper classes,
how to think the right thoughts, and so on.
If youíve read George Orwellís Animal Farm which
he wrote in the mid-1940s, it was a satire on the Soviet Union, a
totalitarian state. It was a big hit. Everybody loved it. Turns out he wrote
an introduction to Animal Farm which was suppressed. It only appeared
30 years later. Someone had found it in his papers. The introduction to
Animal Farm was about "Literary Censorship in England" and what it says is
that obviously this book is ridiculing the Soviet Union and its totalitarian
structure. But he said England is not all that different. We donít have the
KGB on our neck, but the end result comes out pretty much the same. People who
have independent ideas or who think the wrong kind of thoughts are cut out.
He talks a little, only two sentences, about the
institutional structure. He asks, why does this happen? Well, one, because the
press is owned by wealthy people who only want certain things to reach the
public. The other thing he says is that when you go through the elite
education system, when you go through the proper schools in Oxford, you learn
that there are certain things itís not proper to say and there are certain
thoughts that are not proper to have. That is the socialization role of elite
institutions and if you donít adapt to that, youíre usually out. Those two
sentences more or less tell the story.
When you critique the media and you say, look, here is
what Anthony Lewis or somebody else is writing, they get very angry. They say,
quite correctly, "nobody ever tells me what to write. I write anything I like.
All this business about pressures and constraints is nonsense because Iím
never under any pressure." Which is completely true, but the point is that
they wouldnít be there unless they had already demonstrated that nobody has to
tell them what to write because they are going say the right thing. If they
had started off at the Metro desk, or something, and had pursued the wrong
kind of stories, they never would have made it to the positions where they can
now say anything they like. The same is mostly true of university faculty in
the more ideological disciplines. They have been through the socialization
Okay, you look at the structure of that whole system.
What do you expect the news to be like? Well, itís pretty obvious. Take the
New York Times. Itís a corporation and sells a product. The product is
audiences. They donít make money when you buy the newspaper. They are happy to
put it on the worldwide web for free. They actually lose money when you buy
the newspaper. But the audience is the product. The product is privileged
people, just like the people who are writing the newspapers, you know,
top-level decision-making people in society. You have to sell a product to a
market, and the market is, of course, advertisers (that is, other businesses).
Whether it is television or newspapers, or whatever, they are selling
audiences. Corporations sell audiences to other corporations. In the case of
the elite media, itís big businesses.
Well, what do you expect to happen? What would you
predict about the nature of the media product, given that set of
circumstances? What would be the null hypothesis, the kind of conjecture that
youíd make assuming nothing further. The obvious assumption is that the
product of the media, what appears, what doesnít appear, the way it is
slanted, will reflect the interest of the buyers and sellers, the
institutions, and the power systems that are around them. If that wouldnít
happen, it would be kind of a miracle.
Okay, then comes the hard work. You ask, does it work
the way you predict? Well, you can judge for yourselves. Thereís lots of
material on this obvious hypothesis, which has been subjected to the hardest
tests anybody can think of, and still stands up remarkably well. You virtually
never find anything in the social sciences that so strongly supports any
conclusion, which is not a big surprise, because it would be miraculous if it
didnít hold up given the way the forces are operating.
The next thing you discover is that this whole topic is
completely taboo. If you go to the Kennedy School of Government or Stanford,
or somewhere, and you study journalism and communications or academic
political science, and so on, these questions are not likely to appear. That
is, the hypothesis that anyone would come across without even knowing anything
that is not allowed to be expressed, and the evidence bearing on it cannot be
discussed. Well, you predict that too. If you look at the institutional
structure, you would say, yeah, sure, thatís got to happen because why should
these guys want to be exposed? Why should they allow critical analysis of what
they are up to take place? The answer is, there is no reason why they should
allow that and, in fact, they donít. Again, it is not purposeful censorship.
It is just that you donít make it to those positions. That includes the left
(what is called the left), as well as the right. Unless you have been
adequately socialized and trained so that there are some thoughts you just
donít have, because if you did have them, you wouldnít be there. So you have a
second order of prediction which is that the first order of prediction is not
allowed into the discussion.
The last thing to look at is the doctrinal framework in
which this proceeds. Do people at high levels in the information system,
including the media and advertising and academic political science and so on,
do these people have a picture of what ought to happen when they are writing
for each other (not when they are making graduation speeches)? When you make a
commencement speech, it is pretty words and stuff. But when they are writing
for one another, what do people say about it?
There are basically three currents to look at. One is
the public relations industry, you know, the main business propaganda
industry. So what are the leaders of the PR industry saying? Second place to
look is at what are called public intellectuals, big thinkers, people who
write the "op eds" and that sort of thing. What do they say? The people who
write impressive books about the nature of democracy and that sort of
business. The third thing you look at is the academic stream, particularly
that part of political science which is concerned with communications and
information and that stuff which has been a branch of political science for
the last 70 or 80 years.
So, look at those three things and see what they say,
and look at the leading figures who have written about this. They all say (Iím
partly quoting), the general population is "ignorant and meddlesome
outsiders." We have to keep them out of the public arena because they are too
stupid and if they get involved they will just make trouble. Their job is to
be "spectators," not "participants."
They are allowed to vote every once in a while, pick out
one of us smart guys. But then they are supposed to go home and do something
else like watch football or whatever it may be. But the "ignorant and
meddlesome outsiders" have to be observers not participants. The participants
are what are called the "responsible men" and, of course, the writer is always
one of them. You never ask the question, why am I a "responsible man" and
somebody else is in jail? The answer is pretty obvious. Itís because you are
obedient and subordinate to power and that other person may be independent,
and so on. But you donít ask, of course. So there are the smart guys who are
supposed to run the show and the rest of them are supposed to be out, and we
should not succumb to (Iím quoting from an academic article) "democratic
dogmatisms about men being the best judges of their own interest." They are
not. They are terrible judges of their own interests so we have do it for them
for their own benefit.
Actually, it is very similar to Leninism. We do things
for you and we are doing it in the interest of everyone, and so on. I suspect
thatís part of the reason why itís been so easy historically for people to
shift up and back from being, sort of enthusiastic Stalinists to being big
supporters of U.S. power. People switch very quickly from one position to the
other, and my suspicion is that itís because basically it is the same
position. Youíre not making much of a switch. Youíre just making a different
estimate of where power lies. One point you think itís here, another point you
think itís there. You take the same position.
@PAR SUB = How did all this evolve? It has an
interesting history. A lot of it comes out of the first World War, which is a
big turning point. It changed the position of the United States in the world
considerably. In the 18th century the U.S. was already the richest place in
the world. The quality of life, health, and longevity was not achieved by the
upper classes in Britain until the early 20th century, let alone anybody else
in the world. The U.S. was extraordinarily wealthy, with huge advantages, and,
by the end of the 19th century, it had by far the biggest economy in the
world. But it was not a big player on the world scene. U.S. power extended to
the Caribbean Islands, parts of the Pacific, but not much farther.
During the first World War, the relations changed. And
they changed more dramatically during the second World War. After the second
World War the U.S. more or less took over the world. But after first World War
there was already a change and the U.S. shifted from being a debtor to a
creditor nation. It wasnít huge, like Britain, but it became a substantial
actor in the world for the first time. That was one change, but there were
The first World War was the first time there was highly
organized state propaganda. The British had a Ministry of Information, and
they really needed it because they had to get the U.S. into the war or else
they were in bad trouble. The Ministry of Information was mainly geared to
sending propaganda, including huge fabrications about "Hun" atrocities, and so
on. They were targeting American intellectuals on the reasonable assumption
that these are the people who are most gullible and most likely to believe
propaganda. They are also the ones that disseminate it through their own
system. So it was mostly geared to American intellectuals and it worked very
well. The British Ministry of Information documents (a lot have been released)
show their goal was, as they put it, to control the thought of the entire
world, a minor goal, but mainly the U.S. They didnít care much what people
thought in India. This Ministry of Information was extremely successful in
deluding hot shot American intellectuals into accepting British propaganda
fabrications. They were very proud of that. Properly so, it saved their lives.
They would have lost the first World War otherwise.
In the U.S., there was a counterpart. Woodrow Wilson was
elected in 1916 on an anti-war platform. The U.S. was a very pacifist country.
It has always been. People donít want to go fight foreign wars. The country
was very much opposed to the first World War and Wilson was, in fact, elected
on an anti-war position. "Peace without victory" was the slogan. But he was
intending to go to war. So the question was, how do you get the pacifist
population to become raving anti-German lunatics so they want to go kill all
the Germans? That requires propaganda. So they set up the first and really
only major state propaganda agency in U.S. history. The Committee on Public
Information it was called (nice Orwellian title), called also the Creel
Commission. The guy who ran it was named Creel. The task of this commission
was to propagandize the population into a jingoist hysteria. It worked
incredibly well. Within a few months there was a raving war hysteria and the
U.S. was able to go to war.
A lot of people were impressed by these achievements.
One person impressed, and this had some implications for the future, was
Hitler. If you read Mein Kampf, he concludes, with some justification,
that Germany lost the first World War because it lost the propaganda battle.
They could not begin to compete with British and American propaganda which
absolutely overwhelmed them. He pledges that next time around theyíll have
their own propaganda system, which they did during the second World War. More
important for us, the American business community was also very impressed with
the propaganda effort. They had a problem at that time. The country was
becoming formally more democratic. A lot more people were able to vote and
that sort of thing. The country was becoming wealthier and more people could
participate and a lot of new immigrants were coming in, and so on.
So what do you do? Itís going to be harder to run things
as a private club. Therefore, obviously, you have to control what people
think. There had been public relation specialists but there was never a public
relations industry. There was a guy hired to make Rockefellerís image look
prettier and that sort of thing. But this huge public relations industry,
which is a U.S. invention and a monstrous industry, came out of the first
World War. The leading figures were people in the Creel Commission. In fact,
the main one, Edward Bernays, comes right out of the Creel Commission. He has
a book that came out right afterwards called Propaganda. The term
"propaganda," incidentally, did not have negative connotations in those days.
It was during the second World War that the term became taboo because it was
connected with Germany, and all those bad things. But in this period, the term
propaganda just meant information or something like that. So he wrote a book
called Propaganda around 1925, and it starts off by saying he is
applying the lessons of the first World War. The propaganda system of the
first World War and this commission that he was part of showed, he says, it is
possible to "regiment the public mind every bit as much as an army regiments
their bodies." These new techniques of regimentation of minds, he said, had to
be used by the intelligent minorities in order to make sure that the slobs
stay on the right course. We can do it now because we have these new
This is the main manual of the public relations
industry. Bernays is kind of the guru. He was an authentic Roosevelt/Kennedy
liberal. He also engineered the public relations effort behind the U.S.-backed
coup which overthrew the democratic government of Guatemala.
His major coup, the one that really propelled him into
fame in the late 1920s, was getting women to smoke. Women didnít smoke in
those days and he ran huge campaigns for Chesterfield. You know all the
techniquesómodels and movie stars with cigarettes coming out of their mouths
and that kind of thing. He got enormous praise for that. So he became a
leading figure of the industry, and his book was the real manual.
Another member of the Creel Commission was Walter
Lippmann, the most respected figure in American journalism for about half a
century (I mean serious American journalism, serious think pieces). He also
wrote what are called progressive essays on democracy, regarded as progressive
back in the 1920s. He was, again, applying the lessons of the work on
propaganda very explicitly. He says there is a new art in democracy called
manufacture of consent. That is his phrase. Edward Herman and I borrowed it
for our book, but it comes from Lippmann. So, he says, there is this new art
in the method of democracy, "manufacture of consent." By manufacturing
consent, you can overcome the fact that formally a lot of people have the
right to vote. We can make it irrelevant because we can manufacture consent
and make sure that their choices and attitudes will be structured in such a
way that they will always do what we tell them, even if they have a formal way
to participate. So weíll have a real democracy. It will work properly. Thatís
applying the lessons of the propaganda agency.
Academic social science and political science comes out
of the same thing. The founder of whatís called communications and academic
political science is Harold Glasswell. His main achievement was a book, a
study of propaganda. He says, very frankly, the things I was quoting
beforeóthose things about not succumbing to democratic dogmatism, that comes
from academic political science (Lasswell and others). Again, drawing the
lessons from the war time experience, political parties drew the same lessons,
especially the conservative party in England. Their early documents, just
being released, show they also recognized the achievements of the British
Ministry of Information. They recognized that the country was getting more
democratized and it wouldnít be a private menís club. So the conclusion was,
as they put it, politics has to become political warfare, applying the
mechanisms of propaganda that worked so brilliantly during the first World War
towards controlling peopleís thoughts.
Thatís the doctrinal side and it coincides with the
institutional structure. It strengthens the predictions about the way the
thing should work. And the predictions are well confirmed. But these
conclusions, also, are not allowed to be discussed. This is all now part of
mainstream literature but it is only for people on the inside. When you go to
college, you donít read the classics about how to control peoples minds.
Just like you donít read what James Madison said during
the constitutional convention about how the main goal of the new system has to
be "to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority," and has to
be designed so that it achieves that end. This is the founding of the
constitutional system, so nobody studies it. You canít even find it in the
academic scholarship unless you really look hard.
That is roughly the picture, as I see it, of the way the
system is institutionally, the doctrines that lie behind it, the way it comes
out. There is another part directed to the "ignorant meddlesome" outsiders.
That is mainly using diversion of one kind or another. From that, I think, you
can predict what you would expect to find.