An authority on linguistics, prolific writer and theoretician on the media and its subversive tactics, Noam Chomsky was in India recently. P. Sainath interviewed him for Humanscape.
This interview is especially interesting in the light of the just announced Indian government decision to maintain the ban on the entry of foreign media firms into the country.
An editor wrote of Noam Chomsky that 'in a saner world, his tireless efforts to promote justice would long since have won him the Nobel Peace Prize, but the committee keeps giving it to people like Henry Kissinger.'
The foremost figure of 20th century linguistics, Noam Chomsky teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Boston, where he became a full professor at 32. Equally at ease with political science, contemporary international relations, and activism, he draws full houses across the world -- at meetings often fixed years in advance.
At least one American newspaper has called him 'arguably the most important intellectual alive'. Noam Chomsky is certainly the most cited living author among intellectuals.
Yet, Chomsky does not suffer 'intellectualism' gladly. At an interface with the media in Hyderabad, a participant began asking him a lengthy question about 'post-modernism'. Chomsky's response: 'Post-modernism? I don't know what that means. But I suspect it's a scam thought up by intellectuals to keep themselves employed.'
In India for just a week recently (July, 1996), he gave Humanscape this exclusive interview, specifically on media issues. Here are some excerpts.
What does globalisation of the media mean, generally, and what would it mean for the press and othe media here, especially with the 'opening up' of the skies?
For one thing, it means huge increases in advertising, especially of foreign commodities. Because their resources could overwhelm anything that India can have. It also means much narrower concentration of media sources... It will reflect the points of view of those who can amass the huge capital to run international media. Diversity and information will decline, media will get more and more advertiser-oriented.
Is globalisation an accurate word? Wouldn't 'transnationalisation' be more accurate?
I would call it the extension of transnational, corporate tyranny. These are tyrannical, totalitarian institutions, mega-corporations. They are huge command economies, run from the top, relatively unaccountable, and interlinked in various ways. Their first interest is profit -- but much broader than that, it's to construct an audience of a particular type. One that is addicted to a certain life-style with artificial wants. An audience atomised, separated from one another, fragmented enough so that they don't enter the political arena and disturb the powerful. It's completely natural.
Quite a few newspaper-owning corporate houses here believe they're entering a partnership, and that the Indian press is mature enough to hold its own (presently, foreign ownership is not allowed in the press, but the situation could change).
That's a joke. If a local food place joins up with McDonald's, they may be very mature. But McDonald's has the resources to overwhelm them and has an interest in incorporating them within its system. That's more profitable and again helps create the kind of market that they need.
It's like opening up India to international narco-traffickers, claiming that people here are mature enough to resist. Well, sure, they can resist. But when they start going after school children with free drugs, and the children get addicted, it doesn't matter how mature you are. TV and advertising are simply cultivated addictions, designed to control people in a particular way. In fact, in some ways more insidious. Narco-traffickers have to sell their stuff and addict you to it. Whereas this creates a particular kind of person.
So the media's primary function is to sell?
Their primary function is selling audiences to advertisers. They don't make money from their subscriptions. CBS news doesn't make money when you turn on your television. They make money when an advertiser pays them. Now advertisers pay for certain things. They're not going to pay for a discussion that encourages people to participate democratically and undermine corporate power.
To sell life-styles, or values, or free market principles...
That's a fraud. They believe in free market principles for others, not for themselves. The major corporations in every society, in fact all the advanced sectors of business, rely very heavily on state subsidy and state intervention. They want to tell you to join the free market. They're not going to do it.
How did you react to the liberalisation debate here being conducted as if it were something new?
I was struck by this when reading the press here, the idea that somehow there's something new about neo-liberalism. There's nothing new about neo-liberalism. India has been subjected to neo-liberalism for 300 years -- which is why it's India and not England or the United States. Which is why you broke away from Britain.
That the US is not a fully market society (is known)... but social security and similar interventions are the fringe of the system of state subsidy of private power. Discussing the US as a market society without mentioning the Pentagon is like talking about the USSR and not mentioning the Politburo. The Pentagon is the massive core of the welfare state for the rich. It pours public funds under the guise of security into advanced industry in every large sector of the economy.
How do the forms of media and thought control in the US differ from, say, those of a totalitarian state?
A totalitarian state has a ministry of truth. They present quite publicly what the truth is. You have to adhere to that truth. If you don't, there are various penalties. Here, there's no ministry of truth. There's just a common consensus among extremely narrow sectors of power as to the way the world should be perceived and as to what kind of people there should be.
Is there any real spectrum of opinion in the US media?
On Saddam Hussein there was no spectrum. When he offered to withdraw from Kuwait, there was a media consensus that you don't say it. So that was suppressed. But there's a spectrum... Take the major issue in American politics today: balancing the budget. The media tell you Americans have voted for it. The Republicans want it done in seven years and the Democrats in seven and a half. That's your spectrum. The American people are against it by large majorities. But their opinion is not part of the spectrum.
Besides, the Pentagon budget is going up. The public opposes that by six to one, but that doesn't matter. There's the information system and the business community it represents. That makes up the spectrum. Within it there are certain differences.
Some people are optimistic about the Internet throwing up certain possibilities... more democratic, less control. What do you believe will happen?
The state of the Internet right now is rather like the state of the electronic media back in the 1920s. In most countries, radio or a large part of it was handed over to the public interest. So you get the BBC or Canadian Broadcasting and that's as democratic as the society is. There was a struggle about that in the USA. Church groups, unions and others wanted a similar system. But they were overwhelmed by private power. And radio was mostly handed over to huge corporations.
Later, with television, there was no struggle at all. They just handed it over to private power. Now, you've got the Internet. Like all the rest of modern technology, it's funded by the public. It comes out of the Pentagon and the National Science Foundation and so on. Just like computers and the rest of electronics. The public pays the cost, then you hand it over to private power.
Even with print, there was a large, independent press in both England and the USA earlier this century. In England, it was on the scale of the commercial press. They were gradually overwhelmed by corporate power. So with the Internet, we have to wait and watch. Will corporate power be able to do what it wants? They'd like to turn it into a home shopping service and a way of addicting even more people, even more totally. Well, a lot of the public has different ideas. A struggle will take place and you can't predict the outcome.
What about content? Like everywhere else, there's been a shift here in coverage patterns: entertainment, titillation, selective scandal busting. Where does that leave journalism of the sort that used to record contemporary reality or people's lives?
But with the US media, in England and Europe, it's quite clear. News content is declining and narrowing and getting homogenised. So the European press now seems increasingly a pale copy of the New York Times and the Washington Post. It's just like with TV news stations. There's much less funding going into reporting altogether. It gets marginalised.
Now if you're the owner of Westinghouse, a mega-corporation, and a huge advertiser, that's what you want.
Why do the educated classes line up quickest behind media-constructed reality? Say, in the liberalisation debate in India?
That's very common. It's natural.
Are you saying that the schools and colleges are part of this training?
Oh, surely. George Orwell pointed this out 50 years ago in Animal Farm which is, of course, a satire on the Soviet Union. There was a preface to it which was not published incidentally. It was on literary censorship in England in which he said look, I'm satirising the Soviet Union, but look at England...
And he talked about how unwanted ideas can be silenced without the need for an official ban. And he described the measures. He said one reason is that the press is owned by wealthy men who have every interest in having certain ideas expressed and not others. Another is the process of socialisation that takes place through the educational system and particularly the elite educational system...in which you just internalise certain values. Where, as he put it, you learn there are certain things that just won't do.
So you can have a total disconnect between what millions of people are thinking and this discourse?
Yes. In a business-run society, if you're spending a couple of billion of dollars on public relations, you want to know how to package things so as to overcome public opposition... Public attitudes are usually quite divorced from the spectrum of educated opinion, often wildly at variance.
Incidentally, over 80% of the American public think there's no functioning democracy, that government works for a few special interests. That's one reason people don't bother voting.
Where does all this leave journalists in the mainstream who do not share the values of corporatised media? Are we wasting our time?
No. Not at all... Take the USA. I'm very critical about the media but they're better than they were 30 years ago. Basically, the activism of the 60s led to considerable ferment, out of which came major changes in American culture... There are always popular constituencies which relate to individual journalists and they're mutually supportive. They get information from them, give them information.
So it's worth staging a kind of guerrilla action within such media systems?
It's always worth pushing any totalitarian system to its limits, obviously.
There is this romanticised idea of the American media having brought the war in Vietnam to an end and exposed Watergate. How do you react to that kind of stuff?
The media were very hawkish on Vietnam. The media were always very pro-war... By around 1970, about 70% of the population regarded the war as fundamentally wrong and immoral and a mistake and that remained steady in the polls till the early 90s when the latest ones were taken. And that point of view was virtually never expressed in the media. The most critical comment you could have in the media was, say, Anthony Lewis of the New York Times, who was kind of off the spectrum. By 1969, he decided that although the war had been started with the noblest of intentions, it was now costing the US too much. So now he wondered if we shouldn't get out of it.
So it's a myth?
A total myth. In fact, if you're interested I've got hundreds of pages of documentation running through the media coverage. Case after case after case right through the war. In the early 1970s for example, when the media were supposed to have been adversarial, the US began the bombing of Cambodia. It was the worst bombing of civilians in history. Hundreds of thousands were killed. Probably a million and a half refugees fled up to Pnom Penh. We know nothing about it. Because Sidney Schanberg and others who are called the consciences of the press, were sitting in Pnom Penh -- and refused to walk across the street to interview a refugee. Those would have been the wrong stories.
Watergate was a tea party. In fact, Watergate was almost a controlled experiment. The Nixon administration collected a bunch of petty crooks who entered the Democratic Party Headquarters for no known purpose and stole a couple of files, okay. Right at the same time, there were other things. There was an enemies list. Privately, Nixon called some people bad names -- me, for example. I was on the enemies list. Nothing ever happened to anybody on the enemies list. That's Watergate.
The same time that Watergate was exposed, it came out that in the courts, in classified documents, under the freedom of information act, that four administrations, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, had enlisted not a few petty crooks, but the national political police, the FBI, to attack and undermine legal, legitimate dissent...
The COINTELPRO scandal, as it was known, got zero importance. This, despite direct FBI involvement in the political assassination of two black leaders. Not only didn't it get the same importance, it apparently never existed, the way it was treated.
It was totally blacked out?
Well, there might have been a few lines here and there. But it was of no interest and that demonstrates something very simple. The people in the media have no concerns for democracy or freedom or anything else. What they're concerned with is protecting power from people. When Fred Hampton, a black organiser, was murdered by the FBI and the Chicago police -- that was okay, it wasn't an issue.
But Thomas Watson, the head of IBM... you can't call him bad names (as Nixon did on the tape: PS). Do that and democracy collapses. When the media present Watergate as an instance of their adversarial, courageous character, you can hardly even laugh. Furthermore, they can't understand that once you tell them because they're so indoctrinated.
You spent a day in the Bengal countryside. What did you think of village and panchayat set-up you saw in West Bengal?
Very interesting. I've seen plenty of rural development programmes and this was quite striking, I thought. There was a lot of engagement and it's pretty obvious that the villagers have things under control. They seemed to answer the questions you asked them very easily and well.
You think it's quite a democratic set-up at the village level?
As far as I can tell. I mean it certainly looked like very active participation with a lot of people knowing what's going on and eager to talk about it.
Well, that's not how the media here see it.
No? That's their problem. But I can only tell you what I saw.