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 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
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
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
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 system.
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,"
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 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 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.