Project Censored 25th Anniversary

by Noam Chomsky

excerpted from the book

Project Censored 2001

by Peter Phillips and Project Censored

Seven Stories Press, 2001, paper



... Media service to the corporate sector is reflexive: the media are major~l corporations. Like others, they sell a product to a market: the product is audiences and the market is other businesses (advertisers). It would be surprising indeed if the choice and shaping of media content did not reflect the interests and preferences of the sellers and buyers, and the business world generally. Even apart from the natural tendency to support state power, the linkage of the corporate sector and the state is so close that convergence of interests on major issues is the norm. The status of audiences is more ambiguous. The product must be available for sale; people must be induced to look at the advertisements. But beyond this common ground, divisions arise.

We can make a rough distinction between the managerial class and the rest. The managers take part in decision-making in the state, the private economy, and the doctrinal institutions. The rest are to cede authority to state and private elites, to accept what they are told, and to occupy themselves elsewhere. There is a corresponding rough distinction between elite and mass media, the former aiming to be instructive, though in ways that reflect dominant interests, the latter primarily to shape attitudes and beliefs, and to divert "the great beast," as Alexander Hamilton termed the annoying public.

The managers must have a tolerably realistic picture of the world if they are to advance "the permanent interests of the country," to borrow the phrase of James Madison, the leading framer of the constitutional order, referring to the rights of men of property. The world view of planners and decisionmakers should conform to the permanent interests, not just parochially but more broadly. The great beast, in contrast, must be caged. The public must have faith in the leaders who pursue what is commonly called "America's mission," perhaps subject to personal flaws, or making errors in an excess of good will or naivete, but dedicated to the path of righteousness. Firm in this conviction, the public is to keep to pursuits that do not interfere with the permanent interests. It must accept subordination as normal and proper; better still, it should be invisible, the way life is and must be.

The political order is largely an expression of these goals, and the doctrinal institutions-the media prominent among them-serve to reinforce and legitimate them. These are tendencies that one would be inclined to expect on elementary assumptions, and there is ample evidence to support such natural conjectures.

The realities are commonly revealed during the electoral extravaganzas. The year 2000 was no- exception. As usual, almost half the electorate did not participate and voting correlated with income. voter turnout remained "among the lowest and most decisively class-skewed in the industrial world.'' This feature of so-called "American exceptionalism," reflecting the unusual dominance and class consciousness of concentrated private power, has been plausibly attributed to "the total absence of a socialist or laborite mass party as an organized competitor in the electoral market." The same is true of the "media market": it is virtually 100 percent corporate, with a "total absence of socialist or laborite" mass media. In both respects, the system works.

Control of the media market by private capital is no more a law of nature than its control of the electoral market. In earlier days, there was a vibrant labor-based and popular press that reached a mass audience of concerned and committed readers, on the scale of the commercial press. As in England, it was undermined by concentration of capital and advertiser funding; one should not succumb to myths about markets fostering competition Unlike in most of the world, business interests are so powerful in the United States that they quickly took control of radio and television, and are now seeking to do the same with the new electronic media that were developed primarily in the state sector over many years-a terrain of struggle today with conslderable long-term implications

Most of the population did not take the year 2000 presidential elections very seriously. Three-fourths of the population regarded the process as a game played by large contributors (overwhelmingly corporations), party leaders, and the PR industry, which crafted candidates to say "almost anything to get themselves elected," so that one could believe little that they said even when their stand on issues was intelligible. On most issues citizens could not identify the stands of the candidates-not because of ignorance orlack of concern; again, the system is working. Public opinion studies found that among voters concerned more with policy issues than "qualihes, the Democrats won handily. But issues were displaced in the political-media system in favor of style, personality, and other marginalia that are of 1ittle concern to the concentrated private power centers that largely finance campaigns and run the government. Their shared interests remained safely off the agenda, independently of the public will.

Crucially, questions of economic policy must be deflected. These are of great concern both to the general population and to private power and its p a representatives, but commonly with opposing preferences. The business world and its media overwhelmingly support "neoliberal reforms" corporate-led versions of globalization, the investor-rights agreements callei free trade agreements," and other devices that concentrate wealth and power. The public tends to oppose these measures, despite near-uniform e e ration. And unless care is taken, people might find ways to articulate and even implement their concerns. Opponents of the international economic arrangements favored by the business-government-media comp ex have an "ultimate weapon," the Wall Street Journal observed ruefully: the general public, which must therefore be marginalized.

For the public, the trade deficit had become the most important economic issue facing the country by 1998, outranking taxes or the budget deficit- the latter a concern for business, but not the public, so that lack of public interest must be portrayed as the public's "balanced-budget obsession.

People understand that the trade deficit translates into loss of jobs; for example, when U.S. corporations establish plants abroad that export to the domestic market. But free capital mobility is a high priority for the business world: it increases profit and also provides a powerful weapon to undermine labor organizing by threat of job transfer-technically illega, ut highly effective, as labor historian Kate Bronfenbrenner has demonstrated in important work. Such threats contribute to the "growing worker insecurity" that has been hailed by Alan Greenspan and others as a significant factor in creating a "fairy-tale economy" by limiting wages and bene its, thus increasing profit and reducing inflationary pressures that would be unwelcome to financial interests. Another useful effect of these measures is to undermine democracy. Unions have traditionally offered people ways to pool limited resources, to think through problems that concern them co - lectively, to struggle for their rights, and to challenge the monopoly o t e electoral and media markets. Capital mobility provides a new way to avert these threats, one of several that are cleaner than the resort to violence to crush working people that was another feature of "American exceptionalism" over a long period.

No such matters are to intrude into the electoral process: the general population is induced to vote (if at all) on the basis of peripheral concerns.

Higher income voters favor Republicans, so that the class-skewed voting pattern benefits the more openly pro-business party. But more revealing than the abstention of those who are left effectively voiceless iS the way they vote when they do participate. The voting bloc that provided Bush with iS greatest electoral success was middle-to-lower income white working-class voters, particularly men, but women as well. By large margins they favored Gore on major policy issues, insofar as these arose in some meaningful way during the campaign. But they were diverted to safer preoccupations.

The public is well aware of its marginalization. In ... earl[ier] years ... about half the population felt that the government iS run by "a few big interests looking out for themselves." During the Reagan years, as "neoliberal reforms" were more firmly instituted, the figure rose to over 80 percent. In 2000, the director of Harvard's Vanishing Voter Project reported that "Americans'feeling of powerlessness has reached an alarming high, with 53 percent responding "only a little" or "none" to the question:

How much influence do you think people like you have on what government does? The previous peak, 30 years ago, was 41 percent. During the campaign, over 60 percent of regular voters regarded politics in America as "generally pretty disgusting." In each weekly survey, more people found the campaign boring than exciting, by a margin of 5 to 3 in the final week.

The election was a virtual statistical tie, with estimated differences within the expected error range. A victor had to be chosen, and a great deal of attention was devoted to the process and what it revealed about the state of American democracy. But the major and most revealing issues were largely ignored in favor of dimpled chads and other technicalities. Among the crucial issues sidelined was the fact that most of the population felt that no election took place in any serious sense, at least as far as their interests were concerned.

A leading theme of modern history is the conflict between elite sectors, who are dedicated to securing "the permanent interests," and the unwashed masses, who have a different conception of their role in determining their fate and the course of public affairs. Over the centuries, rights have been won by constant and often bitter popular struggle, including rights of workers, women, and victims of a variety of other forms of discrimination and oppression; and the rights of future generations, the core concern of the environmental movements. The last 40 years have seen notable advances in this regard. But progress is by no means uniform. New mechamsms are constantly devised to restrict the rights that have been gained to formal exercises with little content

The political order was consciously designed to defend the "permanent interests against the "levelling spirit" of the growing masses of people who wi labor under all the hardships of life, and secretly sigh for a more equal distubution of its blessings," Madison feared, and may seek to improve their conditions by such measures as agrarian reform (and today, far more). The political system must "protect the minority of the opulent against the majority, Madison advised his colleagues at the Constitutional Convention. Forty years later, reflecting on the course and prospects of the system of which he was the most influential designer, Madison observed that power was to be in the hands of "the wealth of the nation," not the great masses of peop e without property, or the hope of acquiring it," who "cannot be expected to sympathize sufficiently with [the rights of the propertied minority or] to be safe depositories of power" over these rights.

The problems and conflicts persist, though their nature has radically changed over time. A particularly important shift took place with the "corporatization of America" a century ago, which sharply concentrated power and create a new and different America" in which "most men are servants of corporations," Woodrow Wilson observed. This different America was "no longer a scene of individual enterprise,... individual opportunity and individual achievement," he continued, but a society in which "small groups of men in control of great corporations wield a power and control over the wealth and business opportunities of the country," administering markets and becoming "rivals of the government itself"-more accurately, becoming barely distinguishable from government. Wilsonian progressivism also gave a new cast to the traditional vision of the political order. In his so-called "progressive essays on democracy," Walter Lippmann, the most influential figure in American journalism in the twentieth century, described the public as "ignorant and meddlesome outsiders" who should be mere "spectators of action" instead of participants, their role limited to periodic choice among the "responsible men" who are to function in "technocratic insulation," in World Bank lingo.

The doctrine, labelled "polyarchy" by democratic political theorist Robert Dahl, is conventional in elite opinion. It has been given still firmer institutional grounds by the reduction of the public arena under the "neoliberal reforms" of the past 20 years, which shift authority even more than before to unaccountable private concentrations of power, under the cynical slogan "trust the people." Democracy is to be construed as the right to choose among commodities. Business leaders explain the need to impose on the population a "philosophy of futility" and "lack of purpose in life," to "concentrate human attention on the more superficial things that comprise much of fashionable consumption." People may then accept and even welcome their meaningless and subordinate lives, and forget ridiculous ideas about managing their own affairs. They will abandon their fate to the responsible men, the self-described "intelligent minorities" who serve and administer power-which lies elsewhere, a hidden but crucial premise. It is within this general framework that the media function.

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