Sunday, 6 July 2008

Chomsky: What makes the mainstream media mainstream? (part one)

What follows are detailed notes of a talk Chomsky gave at the Z Media Institute in June 1997. The talk was called what makes the mainstream media mainstream?

The media readily lends itself to being studied. The evidence of what is and is not being reported, the focus of what is reported, what is ignored or suppressed, etc, can be analysed every day by looking at the press itself.

Studying the media - or any institution

Ask questions about its internal structure. How does it relate to other systems of power and authority? Internal records (memo's, letters, that sort of thing) from leading figures in the instituion can be highly revealing, valuable tools for understanding how the institution works.

Institutions should be studied as a scientist would study a complex molecule. You make a hypothesis about its nature and then see how it holds up under scrutiny. In the case of the media, make a hypothesis about what the media product will look like. How does the hypothesis hold up?

What do you find?

There are different media that do different things, such as entertainment/Hollywood, soap operas, newspapers, and so on.

One sector of the media is the "elite media". This is the "agenda-setting" media, the large media institutions with the vast resources. The New York Times, the Washington Post, CBS, for example.

So you have a news editor in Dayton, Ohio, who doesn't have the resources "to figure out what the news is"; who has to fill the quarter page he devotes to non-local stories and diverting his audience. Well, he puts there what the New York Times says he should. Local papers do not have the resources to do much else. They do not have 'foreign correspondants" littered around the world.

If you get out of line and start producing stories that the elite or agenda-setting media doesn't approve of, you'll soon hear about it. (Chomsky cites a recent San Jose Mercury News incident as a dramatic example of this.) If you try to break the mold, you simply won't last long. All of which is an understandable reflection of the obvious power tructures of corporations. They are tyrannical institutions.

"The real mass media are basically trying to divert people."

Let them do something else - watch sports, soap operas, etc - keep them occupied while we run the show, while we take care of the serious stuff and make the big decisions.

Who are the elite, agenda setting media?

Take the New York Times and CBS. They are major, highly profitable corporations. Most are either linked to or owned outright by much bigger corporations, for instance General Electric, Westinghouse, etc. They are way up in the power structure of an extremely tyrannical private economy, an economy that is hierachical, controlled from above.


The media are a doctrinal system, a sytem based on a body or set of principles, on dogma. The media interact closely with universities. A reporter writing about, for instance, Southeast Asia or Africa, is supposed to go to a big university and find an expert to tell him what to write; or to foundations such as the Brookings Institute or the American Enterprise Institute. These corporate funded foundations are very similar to the media.

"Universities are not independent institutions."

"There may be independent people scattered around in them, but that's true of the media as well." In fact that's generally true of corporations and of fascist states.

Universities are dependent on outside sources of support: from private wealth, big corporations, and from government, which is so closely linked with corporate power you can barely distinguish them.

People who don't accept this structure, and internalize it, are likely to be weeded out anywhere from kindergarden up. Conformity and obedience are rewarded, people who think independently are not. They are often marginalised, isolated.

[Part two will follow.]

1 comment:

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