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Noam Chomsky's Media Control

by Patrick Harrington

This is one of a series of pamphlets, first published during the Gulf War, in order to redress what those concerned saw as gross media distortion and misinformation about that conflict. This particular pamphlet – entitled Media Control : The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda – is by the long-time political activist and writer Noam Chomsky. Its scope goes far beyond the war itself and focuses on the functioning of democracy within a media-dominated society.

At the beginning of the pamphlet we are offered two differing conceptions of democracy :

One conception of democracy has it that a democratic society is one in which the public has the means to participate in some meaningful way in the management of their own affairs and the means of information are open and free. If you look up democracy in a dictionary you’ll get a definition something like that.

An alternative conception of democracy is that the public must be barred from managing their own affairs and the means of information must be kept narrowly and rigidly controlled….. it’s important to understand that it is the prevailing conception.

Chomsky analyses the arguments of those theorists who seek to justify such a restrictive concept. Their idea of a “properly run democracy” is one in which there are certain classes of citizens within society. Firstly there is the small class of people who wield real power, these are the ones who own the society. Then there is the specialised class, the ones who serve the interest of the owners. These people are responsible for the executive functions, which means they do the thinking and planning and generally run things. Then there is the vast majority, what has been called “the bewildered herd”. Their function is merely to spectate, not participate in the action. Occasionally they are allowed to choose one member or another of the specialised class to be their leader; that’s called an election and is what distinguishes a democracy from a totalitarian state. But after the election the herd is supposed to sink back into the mud and become spectators, but not participants, in the running of their society and their lives. That is the idea of a “properly run democracy”.

Elitist Concept

Surprisingly, Chomsky does not counter the arguments used to justify such an elitist concept of democracy. I feel that this is a mistake, for as Chomsky himself admits :

There’s a certain logic to it. There’s even a kind of compelling moral principle behind it. The compelling moral principle is that the mass of the public is just too stupid to be able to understand things. If they try to participate in managing their own affairs, they’re just going to cause trouble. Therefore it would be immoral and improper to permit them to do this. We have to tame the bewildered herd, not allow them to rage and trample and destroy things. It’s pretty much the same logic that says it would be improper to allow a three year-old to run across the street. You don’t give a three year-old that kind of freedom because the three year-old doesn’t know how to handle that kind of freedom. Correspondingly you don’t allow the bewildered herd to become participants in the action. They’ll just cause trouble.


How then would Chomsky answer such arguments? How would he respond to the assertion that to allow everyone – regardless of intelligence, training, moral character or ability – an equal say in the running of national government is an irresponsible folly? After all, there are thousands upon thousands of people whose views on key issues are diametrically opposed to the political parties they actually vote for! Now you can argue all you want about media bias and access to information, but surely voters who support parties they don’t agree with, whether out of blind faith or tradition, must be missing much, much more than just the facts!

Even in ancient Athens – the birthplace of modern democracy – participation in the democratic process was not open to everyone, it was restricted to an elite and, unlike contemporary society, conducted on a small-scale.

Political Decentralisation

Perhaps this makes a case for political decentralisation. For while not everyone has the knowledge or inclination to concern themselves with all national issues, the same people would probably have a knowledge of and interest in the affairs of their area, of their community. Modern mass liberal democracy relies on the mass media to function. The media, and in particular television forms a barrier between the populace and the politicians seeking election — they do not know the person seeking their vote, his ability, honesty or character, or indeed any of his attributes. All they know is what the media chooses to tell them, and through the medium of television even the most incompetent, dishonest crook can be transformed into a world-statesman like figure. Image, not substance, is what matters in contemporary political life.

Of course even in a small community a political charlatan could present himself for election. But in most communities there would be at least a few discerning judges of character who could see through the facade and raise the alarm. Such a smaller, human-scale process as this could not so easily be distorted by the mass media, as people would have a personal contact with their area and the issues in their area.

How can a system where one individual represents (ie. does as he thinks best regardless of the wishes of the constituents) tens of thousands, who he has never met, in an area in which he is probably unfamiliar, be described as democratic?

Totalitarian Culture

The sad reality today is that we are living in a “spectator democracy”. A spectator democracy, however, can only be successful for those running it if the people remain spectators. And that’s where the role of the media comes in. For it is the media that provides distractions from the real issues and instils orthodox values in the conscious and unconscious minds of the public. According to those who run society :

The rest of the population ought to be deprived of any kind of organisation, because organisation just causes trouble. They ought to be sitting along in front of the TV and having drilled into their heads the message, which says the only value in life is to have more commodities or live like that rich American middle-class family you’re watching and to have nice values like harmony and Americanism. That’s all there is in life.

The media also has another important function, that of engineering public opinion. Preventing the mass from organising by distracting them with trivia and keeping them uniformed is not always enough, sometimes a “common enemy” has to be created :

International terrorists and narco-traffikers and crazed Arabs and Saddam Hussein, the new Hitler, is going to conquer the world. They’ve got to keep coming up one after the other. You frighten the population, terrorise them, intimidate them so they’re too afraid to travel and cower in fear. Then you have a magnificent victory over Grenada, Panama, or some other defenceless Third World county that you can pulverise before you even bother to look at them – which is exactly what happened. That gives relief… that’s one of the ways in which you can keep the bewildered herd from paying attention to what’s really going on around them, keep them diverted and controlled.

So, by a process of selective information, misinformation, and downright propaganda the media is able to engineer public opinion to support the values and actions of the establishment consensus. The statement “propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to the totalitarian state” certainly rings true. Instead of smashing people over the head in order to make them toe the line, the ‘democratic’ state uses the more subtle techniques of propaganda.

It is unclear whether Chomsky regards the Gulf War as part of this process. It is, however, a little difficult to accept that this particular conflict was merely a diversionary technique to distract the masses back home. The need to preserve Israel’s super-power status in the Middle East by halting any Arab nuclear development, the need to deter any Pan-Arab solidarity, the need for cheap fuel for the “New World Order” — all these considerations weigh more heavily than merely providing a distraction for the voting, consuming masses back home.

Media Hypocrisy

The pamphlet offers numerous examples of media hypocrisy during the Gulf conflict. The fact the we were told we must go to war to uphold the sovereignty of a country, in this case Kuwait; that aggression cannot be rewarded and must be quickly reversed. Where, asks Chomsky, were these principles that we supposedly uphold over the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, which has resulted in around 200,000 casualties. Why didn’t we go to war over that? How about the Israeli invasion of Lebanon which killed 20,000 people, 80% of whom were civilians, why didn’t we go to war with Israel over that? Or for that matter the USA over its invasions of Grenada or Panama? What about the Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon for thirteen years, in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions; or its annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights and East Jerusalem?

How many voices in the media pointed any of this out, or mentioned that if the West was justified in attacking Iraq over its conquest of another country’s territory, then by the same morality and logic Saddam Hussein was justified in attacking Israel. The fact that virtually no-one in the media pointed this out, that no real debate was permitted and that coverage reflected only the ‘official’ view, is a matter of grave concern :

That again is the hallmark of a totalitarian culture. It ought to frighten us that we are so deeply totalitarian that we can be driven to war without reason being given for it and without anyone noticing it or caring.

In conclusion, Chomsky states : The issue is much broader. It’s whether we want to live in a free society or what amounts to a form of self-imposed totalitarianism…. That’s the choice you have to face. The answer to those questions is very much in the hands people exactly like you and me.


Copies of this pamphlet may be obtained by writing to :

PO Box 2726
New Jersey 07091


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