What Makes Mainstream Media Mainstream
by Noam Chomsky
from a talk at Z Media Institute June 1997
Z magazine, October 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 hand outs 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
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, controlled 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 out side 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 socialization
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 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
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 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 (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, an other point
you think it's there. You take the same position.
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 l9th 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
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
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 be came 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 no body 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 be hind 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 an other. From that, I think, you can predict what
you would expect to find.
Control and Propaganda