Studying the Media
What Makes Mainstream Media Mainstream
From a talk at Z Media Institute June 1997
By Noam Chomsky
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 the media.
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
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 that system.
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
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
If youíve read George Orwellís Animal
Farm which he wrote in the mid-1940s, it was a satire on the
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
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 system.
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
During the first
World War, the relations changed. And they changed more dramatically during the
second World War. After the second
World War the
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.