What Makes Mainstream Media
by Noam Chomsky
Z Media Institute, June 1997
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 yesterday's version to today's version. There
is a lot of evidence about what's played up and what isn't and
the way things are structured.
My impression is the media aren't very
different from scholarship or from, say, journals of intellectual
opinion-there are some extra constraints-but it's 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 you're 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 doesn't
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
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 part-trying 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 Times-people who are wealthy or part
of what is sometimes called the political class-they 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: Tomorrow's New York Times is going
to have the following stories on the front page." The point
of that is, if you're an editor of a newspaper in Dayton, Ohio
and you don't have the resources to figure out what the news is,
or you don't 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
that's what the New York Times tells us is what you're supposed
to care about tomorrow. If you are an editor in Dayton, Ohio,
you would sort of have to do that, because you don't have much
else in the way of resources. If you get off line, if you're producing
stories that the big press doesn't like, you'll 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, you're not going to last long. That
framework works pretty well, and it is understandable that it
is just a reflection of obvious power structures.
The real mass media are basically trying
to divert people. Let them do something else, but don't 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 isn't
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 don't like what they are doing you get out. The major media
are just part of that system.
What about their institutional setting?
Well, that's more or less the same. What they interact with and
relate to is other major power centers-the 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. You're 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 it's
generally true of corporations. It's true of Fascist states, for
that matter. But the institution itself is parasitic. It's 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 don't adjust to
that structure, who don't accept it and internalize it (you can't
really work with it unless you internalize it, and believe it);
people who don't 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 don't do
that, you are a troublemaker. So, it is kind of a filtering device
which ends up with people who really honestly (they aren't 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 you've read George Orwell's 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 don't
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 it's 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 don't adapt to that, you're
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 I'm never
under any pressure." Which is completely true, but the point
is that they wouldn't 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
Okay, you look at the structure of that
whole system. What do you expect the news to be like? Well, it's
pretty obvious. Take the New York Times. It's a corporation and
sells a product. The product is audiences. They don't 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, it's big
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 you'd make assuming nothing further.
The obvious assumption is that the product of the media, what
appears, what doesn't 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 wouldn't 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.
There's 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 didn't 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, that's 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 don't. Again, it is not purposeful censorship. It is just
that you don't 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 don't have, because if you did have them, you
wouldn't be there. So you have a second order of prediction which
is that the first order of prediction is not allowed into the
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 (I'm 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. It's because you are obedient and
subordinate to power and that other person may be independent,
and so on. But you don't 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 (I'm 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 that's part of the reason why it's 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 it's because basically it is the same
position. You're not making much of a switch. You're just making
a different estimate of where power lies. One point you think
it's here, another point you think it's there. You take the same
@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 wasn't huge, like Britain, but it became a substantial
actor in the world for the first time. That was one change, but
there were other changes.
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 didn't 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 don't
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 they'll 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? It's 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 Rockefeller's 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 techniques.
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
didn't smoke in those days and he ran huge campaigns for Chesterfield.
You know all the techniques-models 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 we'll have a real
democracy. It will work properly. That's applying the lessons
of the propaganda agency.
Academic social science and political
science comes out of the same thing. The founder of what's 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 before-those 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 wouldn't
be a private men's 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 people's thoughts.
That's 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
don't read the classics about how to control peoples minds.
Just like you don't 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 can't 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.
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