In their seminal book on the American corporate media—Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman's Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988)—the authors posit a "'propaganda model' as a empirical framework for analysing the news product to which the American public is subjected.
Chomsky and Herman employ an institutional analysis in their propaganda model that has been so overwhelmingly supported by the evidence that their social thesis is now a truism.
In the process of analysing the evidence of their propaganda thesis, Chomsky has been vilified from everyone from Jacob Weisberg (Slate; "Left Behind," December 4, 2001) to the NYT/New Republic/Atlantic/New Yorker war-is-fine crowd.
Andrew Sullivan, an enthusiastic proponent of the neocon 2003 invasion of Iraq went to far as to blast Chomsky for his war opposition, saying: That “people who support the Soviet Union, as Chomsky did for so long … do not deserve fundamental respect” [November 5, 2004] joining the National Review and other reactionaries and liberals in their relentless fact-free denunciations of how corporate media supports power.
Chomsky, who was so despised in the Soviet Union that the state even banned distribution of his academic work on cognitive science and linguistics, nevertheless earned the old commie-peacenik derision in America during the Cold War, now since replaced by the imprecation, "anti-Semite."
Defending Chomsky in an article in CoreWeekly (Madison Newspapers Inc, (January 13, 2005), I reprinted a Chomsky reply e-mail to me after blasting Andrew Sullivan's laughable allusion to Chomsky's popularity among Soviet commissars.
I could imagine Noam laughing as he wrote about the range of denunciations from noted contemporary American totalitarians:
I don’t know if you are aware of how funny the line about my supporting Russia is. Two minutes research would have shown him that I've been strongly anti-Leninist throughout my life, in fact from childhood. He may not know it, but the Kremlin surely did. I was utter anathema there, so much so that my entire professional field [linguistics] was banned. I couldn’t even send technical papers to colleagues and friends in Eastern Europe because it would get them into trouble. It wasn’t until the mid-80s that there were any openings. One of the favorite weeks of my life was in about 1980, when I received two dailies denouncing me furiously for my work on transformational grammar: One was Izvestia, denouncing it as counterrevolutionary, and the other was Argentina’s La Prensa (at the peak of the neo-Nazi military dictatorship), denouncing it as dangerously revolutionary. They’re all basically alike, and Sullivan fits in probably better than he knows.As Gene Lyons implies today in Salon, Sullivan (since ludicrously branded an anti-Semite by The New Republic) and writers such as Jacob Weisberg (now a critic of Fox News) are measured and rigorous in comparison to what Fox News has become.
Fox News is something like the Party press Izvestia or the former Argentina’s neo-Nazi La Prensa; arguably worse as they exercise veto power over the Republican Party's major decisions and perhaps its 2012 presidential nominee.
In scope and power, one has to think long and hard to think of any political mass media organ like Fox News in American history.
Here's Lyons take:
Recently, I reread Orwell's "Looking Back at the Spanish War." The 1943 essay summarizes what he learned as a volunteer militiaman fighting for Spain's Socialist government against Franco's fascist-backed rebels -- a bitterly disillusioning experience that inspired his three greatest books: "Homage to Catalonia," "1984" and "Animal Farm."
In it, Orwell describes the corrosive effect of politicized mass media. In Spain, he wrote, "I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie. I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed ... I saw newspapers in London retailing these lies and eager intellectuals building emotional superstructures over events that had never happened. I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various 'party lines.' "
Welcome to the contemporary world. My own preoccupation with the awful harm caused by slipshod journalism concerned a less momentous but nevertheless troubling event. I can still recall exactly where I was sitting when I discovered that a front-page report of a highly publicized Little Rock murder trial bore no relationship to the actual courtroom testimony or crime scene photos introduced into evidence. I had the transcript and photos in front of me.
Rather, the article reflected the crackpot theories of a publicity-mad sheriff who used the case as a springboard for his political ambitions, ultimately ending up in the U.S. Congress. The effect was to cast suspicion upon an innocent man for allegedly murdering his wife -- a dark shadow he never entirely escaped despite being exonerated several times in courtrooms and grand juries. I used to think it was a peculiarly local event. The story is told in my book "Widow's Web."
Then came the great Whitewater hoax, during which the allegedly liberal Washington/New York press corps pummeled a Democratic president for eight years based upon transparently false, trumped-up charges. Most disturbing to me, as a journalist who'd long worked for many of the same magazines and newspapers pushing the scandal but who lived in Arkansas, was realizing that the "mainstream media" had acquired property rights in the bogus narrative. Correcting the record was seen as vandalism.
Reversing the errors and filling in the blanks would have made the "scandal" collapse like a soufflé. But that never happened, because everybody peddling the story (and feeding from the hands of the political apparatchiks who invented and sustained it) collectively agreed not to notice even clearly dispositive facts.
One time, a widely touted witness actually passed out and had to be helped from a Senate hearing room, never to return, after being confronted with documentary evidence contradicting her testimony. It was as farcical as a Monty Python skit, and broadcast nationally on C-Span. The newspapers and TV networks committed to the scandal highlighted her false accusations yet contrived not to mention the swoon.
I came to understand that the honor code according to which journalism allegedly regulates itself applied mainly at the lower levels. Big-time political journalism operates according to celebrity rules. Fake a byline in Des Moines and you're finished. Help start a war by trumpeting cherry-picked and downright fabricated "intelligence," as The New York Times, Washington Post and the same TV networks that promoted Whitewater subsequently did, and win a guest shot on "Meet the Press."
It also helps if Democrats are the victims of your malfeasance. Does anybody think that Dan Rather's ignominious exit from CBS News would have happened had the object of his unverifiable reporting been Barack Obama instead of George W. Bush? Republicans get even; Democrats act as if they believed all that humbug about liberal media bias.
Anyway, I wrote all that to say this: Even compared to the manifest swindles and perversions of the past 20 years or thereabouts, the United States has never seen anything like Fox News. The closest comparison to what Fox does daily would be the party-line propaganda sheets of the far left and extreme right that made Orwell worry "that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world."
Recently, the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland released yet another study documenting Americans' lamentable ignorance of public events. It found that regular Fox News viewers were "significantly more likely than those who never watched it to believe" many things that are objectively false: the economy is worsening, that most Republicans opposed TARP, that the stimulus contained no tax cuts, that their own income taxes had increased, that most scientists doubt global warming, etc.
A deluded citizenry can't effectively govern itself. Yet complacency and institutional cowardice causes "mainstream" media to play along with the fiction that Fox News is an ordinarily craven, celebrity-driven news organization.
People, we're in deep trouble.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.