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 yesterdays
version to todays version. There is a lot of evidence
about whats played up and what isnt and the way
things are structured.
My impression is the media arent
very different from scholarship or from, say, journals of
intellectual opinionthere are some extra
constraintsbut its not radically different. They
interact, which is why people go up and back quite easily
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
youre 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
doesnt 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 parttrying 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
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
Timespeople who are wealthy or part of what is
sometimes called the political classthey 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:
Tomorrows New York Times is going to have the
following stories on the front page." The point of that
is, if youre an editor of a newspaper in Dayton, Ohio
and you dont have the resources to figure out what the
news is, or you dont 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 thats what
the New York Times tells us is what youre
supposed to care about tomorrow. If you are an editor in
Dayton, Ohio, you would sort of have to do that, because you
dont have much else in the way of resources. If you get
off line, if youre producing stories that the big press
doesnt like, youll 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, youre not going to
last long. That framework works pretty well, and it is
understandable that it is just a reflection of obvious power
The real mass media are basically
trying to divert people. Let them do something else, but
dont 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 isnt 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 dont like what
they are doing you get out. The major media are just part of
What about their institutional setting?
Well, thats more or less the same. What they interact
with and relate to is other major power centersthe
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. Youre
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 its generally true of corporations. Its
true of Fascist states, for that matter. But the institution
itself is parasitic. Its 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
dont adjust to that structure, who dont accept it
and internalize it (you cant really work with it unless
you internalize it, and believe it); people who dont 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
dont do that, you are a troublemaker. So, it is kind of
a filtering device which ends up with people who really
honestly (they arent 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 youve read George
Orwells 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 dont 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 its 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 dont adapt to that, youre
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 Im never under any pressure."
Which is completely true, but the point is that they
wouldnt 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,
its pretty obvious. Take the New York Times.
Its a corporation and sells a product. The product is
audiences. They dont 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, its 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 youd make
assuming nothing further. The obvious assumption is that the
product of the media, what appears, what doesnt 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 wouldnt 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. Theres 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 didnt
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, thats 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 dont. Again, it is not purposeful
censorship. It is just that you dont 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 dont have, because if you did have them, you
wouldnt 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 (Im 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. Its because you are obedient and subordinate
to power and that other person may be independent, and so on.
But you dont 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
(Im 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
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 thats part
of the reason why its 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 its because basically it is the same
position. Youre not making much of a switch.
Youre just making a different estimate of where power
lies. One point you think its here, another point you
think its 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 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 wasnt huge, like
Britain, but it became a substantial actor in the world for
the first time. That was one change, but there were other
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
didnt 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 dont 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 theyll 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? Its 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
Rockefellers 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 didnt smoke in those days and he ran
huge campaigns for Chesterfield. You know all the
techniquesmodels 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
well have a real democracy. It will work properly.
Thats applying the lessons of the propaganda agency.
Academic social science and political
science comes out of the same thing. The founder of
whats 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 beforethose 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 wouldnt be a private
mens 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 peoples
Thats 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 dont read the
classics about how to control peoples minds.
Just like you dont 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 cant 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.