Being an historian and a bibliophile, I probably get overly impressed at the extent to which certain past and forgotten authors anticipated and even to some degree transcended subsequent better-known authors and schools of analysis. Having admitted that up front, let me ask any and all fellow progressive critics of American corporate communications a simple bibliographic question: have you ever read or even heard of onetime communications professor Herbert Schiller’s thirty-six year-old book The Mind Managers (Boston, MA: Beacon, 1973)?
Dedicated to the notion that “the flow of information in a complex society is a source of unparalleled power,” his book was an important early effort to show how corporate thought-controllers” used “mainstream” (corporate) media and other means to conduct “a national communications pageant” (Schiller 1973, p.6) in support of “the state-capitalist [United States] economy” and its vast global and military reach. To a degree that I (perhaps naively) find surprising, his book is missing from the endnotes, indexes, and bibliographies of left media analysts. It disappeared in the bibliographical mist even as it seems to have anticipated numerous critical and important themes in a subsequent and impressive literature of left media and propaganda criticism in the U.S.
“TAKING THE RISK OUT OF DEMOCRACY”
If you, like me, are a dedicated enemy of the United States’ corporate media, culture, and propaganda empire, then you are probably aware of some or all of the following classic texts in U.S. left media analysis: Ben Bagdikian’s Media Monopoly (1983/1997); Michael Parenti, Inventing Reality: The Politics of the Mass Media (1986); Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988/2002); Noam Chomsky, Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies (1989); Noam Chomsky, Letters From Lexington: Reflections on Propaganda (1990/2004); Noam Chomsky What Uncle Sam Really Wants (1992); Robert W. McChesney Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy (1997); Robert McChesney, Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times (2000); Robert McChesney and John Nichols, It’s the Media Stupid (2000); Alex Carey, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty (Urbana, IL: 1997); and Howard Friel and Richard Falk, The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misreports U.S. Foreign Policy (2004 ).
Prerequisites for Democracy
Together these authors and books show how and why domestic U.S. democracy is undermined by concentrated corporate control of the means of communication and culture. As McChesney explained more than a decade ago, meaningful participatory democracy requires three interrelated things to be in place: (1) rough equality in wealth, income, and property ownership, since large class and socioeconomic disparities undercut the ability of citizens to act as equals and confer disproportionate political, policy, and cultural influence on those with superior resources; (2) a sense of community between individuals – a sense that each individual’s well-being is positively connected to the common good, since a democratic political culture cannot take root in a society whose members are simply out to serve their own selfish interests; (3) an effective system of communications that accurately informs and engages the citizenry, encouraging their intelligent participation in political life. The need for accurate, un-biased information is especially urgent for viable democracy in a large and complex modern society like the United States, where the scope and scale of political and societal affairs is so vast and multifaceted as to be beyond immediate observation (McChesney 1997, 5-6)
These three critical prerequisites for meaningful participatory democracy are intimately interrelated with each other, McChesney noted. A society in which wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small elite will see its economic masters work to sustain and eternalize inequality through control of the communications system (media). The masters will own a disproportionate share of that media. They will insist upon a media that filters, shapes, “spins,” and otherwise distorts information and shapes popular perceptions and values in ways consistent with continued ruling-class domination. That media system (whose ownership and control becomes ever more concentrated under capitalism) will privilege selfish and authoritarian values over positive notions of the common good and social justice.
A Company Paper Writ Large
It is no mere coincidence that each of McChesney’s three democracy requirements is largely missing in the U.S. For some time now the U.S. has been the most unequal and wealth-top-heavy society in the industrialized world by far. The top 1 percent controls 40 percent of U.S. wealth and 57 percent of claims on wealth (interest, dividends and the like, leaving the remaining 99 percent to fight it out for less than two-thirds of the nation’s net worth. The top 10 percent owns more than two-thirds of the nation’s wealth and a probably larger share of the nation’s politicians and policy makers (Democrats as well as Republicans).
These kinds of inequality numbers make meaningful democracy a very difficult (if not impossible) thing to achieve in the U.S today. The American (and global) Few’s assets include the 10 media corporations that together owned more than 50 percent of all U.S. media (print and electronic) at the end of the last century. The main media institutions are owned and operated by giant profit-based state-capitalist super-conglomerates like General Electric (owner and part owner of NBC, A&E, American Movie Classics, Biography Channel, Bravo, CNBC, Court TV, History Channel, MSG Network, MSNBC, National Geographic Worldwide and more), Time Warner (owner of film and music production companies, theme parks, sports teams, magazines, websites and book publishers as well as Turner Broadcasting), Walt Disney (ABC, Disney Channel/Network, Lifetime Network, ESPN, Classic Sports, E! and more), Viacom (CBS, Paramount, Blockbuster, theme parks, music publishing, book publishing, Nickelodeon, MTV, TNN, and more), the News Corporation (FOX Channel, Fox News, Wall Street Journal, New York Post, 20th Century Fox, London Times, TV Guide, the LA Dodgers, many stadiums, five New York sports teams, FOX Family Channel and more).
As Noam Chomsky once observed, expecting NBC News (owned by the leading “defense” contractor General Electric) to give an objective and un-biased account of world affairs would be like expecting General Motors’s company newspaper to give a truthful and detached account of working conditions in its automobile plants. That paper is a form of propaganda meant to sell a specific corporation’s values and agenda to its employees. It is a mechanism for engineering assent within and to the firm.
In a similar vein, U.S. corporate media functions in accord with a “propaganda model” that sells specific favored foreign and domestic policies of dominant interrelated business, government, and imperial interests (Chomsky and Herman, 1988/2002). More broadly, it also advances existing overall hierarchical global-imperial and societal arrangements through the regular and ubiquitous dissemination of a number of authoritarian notions, including the following (see Chomsky 1992):
* Democracy is a system in which the key decisions are monopolized by the “leading sectors of the business community and related elites” (Chomsky) and the public are “spectators, not active participants.”
* The public is best off spending most of its time in depoliticized atomization and isolation, focusing mainly on small personal and family matters and leaving big policy decisions to supposedly “expert” and benevolent masters. Ordinary non-elites should keep their minds and mouths shut and stay out of the “elite’s hair by not interfering in the public arena, where we don’t belong” (again, I am quoting Chomsky).
* Democracy refers only to the political system and cannot have anything to do with the economic system. There can be no real popular input on how the economy is run or how the workplace is structured. “Democracy” is about going to the polls every few years or so to pick your outward rulers from within a small circle of ruling-class candidates approved in advance by corporate and imperial elites.
* America does not expand and exercise global power out of any venal or self-interested or imperialist objectives but simply out of concern for the well-being of humanity.
* The United States is a benevolent, forward-looking, humanistic, and democratic world power. Uncle Sam is a “force for good in the world.”
* Those who resist and criticize U.S. global force projection (and Empire) are enemies of freedom, democracy, justice, and civilization.
* There are no viable or worthwhile alternatives to “free market [really state] capitalism” and top-down corporate tyranny and business class rule when it comes to structuring workplace, community, and overall political-economic relations. The authoritarian profits system is the only viable form of “economy.”
No Paradox: Thought Control in a Democratic Society
It might seem paradoxical that citizens living in a “free speech” country with strong democratic and civil-libertarian traditions would be subjected to authoritarian propaganda by “free” media. But as Chomsky (1989) and Carey (1997) argued, there’s no real inconsistency or contradiction in this. Free speech and a democratic political inheritance are wonderful things in and of themselves. But they are an invitation to thought-control when they exist side-by-side with the stark socio-economic inequalities and the related expansionist and militarist imperatives of state capitalism.
The invitation arises from two things. First, ordinary Americans are human beings endowed with a basic sense of moral decency. They are not born with some sort of self-hating impulse to like corporate rule, class inequality, and imperial militarism. Second, they are comparatively free to express dissatisfaction of existing social arrangements and policies without fear of violent assault by the powers that be. And since they can’t generally be dominated in purely coercive ways (that could change and pure repression remains a real force in American and Western life), they must be controlled more softly, through pacifying propaganda that seeks to create the oxymoronic and Orwellian tragedy of “corporate-managed democracy” (Carey’s term [p.139], also recently used by political scientist Sheldon Wolin in his chilling book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism ) Because they are fairly free to speak their minds, their minds must be controlled (“managed” in Schiller’s terms). Thus, there’s a huge top-down investment in the U.S. in what Chomsky and Herman famously called “manufacturing consent.” There’s no such thing as a free-speech lunch under the rule of capital and militarism.
Worse Than the Soviet Union: “The Ideological Control Exercised in the U.S. is Far More Insidious”
The results of American state-capitalism’s impulse towards thought-control are about as bad, likely worse than what we would expect in an openly totalitarian society. According to Alex Carey, writing (in an essay titled “The Orwell Diversion”) near the end of the Cold War era, George Orwell did a disservice to the cause of democracy by focusing people so heavily on Soviet totalitarianism when the deepest “danger” to “the freedoms of liberal democracy” has “always come from the Respectable Right” It comes “in the form of a widespread social and political indoctrination, an indoctrination which promotes business interests as everyone’s interests and in the process fragments the community and closes off individual and critical thought.” Considerably more potent than the mass consciousness-manipulation efforts of Stalinist or Nazi communications and ideological authorities, Carey argued, U.S. domestic corporate-totalitarian mind-influencers draw special strength from the sophistication of their techniques (forged in the hothouse of advanced mass-consumer advertising and corporate struggle with a once-strong democratic political tradition) and from the fact that it “appears uncoercive” and is thus “more or less ignored by the community” (Carey 1997, 133-139).
Corporate and imperial thought-control American-style operates in a dangerously stealth fashion – more covert and difficult to discern – than cruder, classically totalitarian variants. In the Soviet Union and in China today, everyone knew (and knows) that their nation’s state-based communications system was (is) censored and filtered. At the bottom of each day’s Pravda and Izvestia (the New York Times and Wall Street Journal of the Soviet state), you could actually see the “daily censors’” initials. And everybody knew it. In the U.S., by contrast, censorship is much more dangerously cloaked, hiding under the deceptive named “free speech” and objective, “fair and balanced” journalism. As the prolific Marxist author and media analyst Michael Parenti noted in 1986:
“The sinister commandant who tortures Winston in Orwell’s 1984 lets us know he is an oppressor. The vision of the future is of a boot pressing down on a human face, he tells his victim. The ideological control exercised in the U.S. today is far more insidious. Power is always more secure when cooptive, covert, and manipulative than when nakedly brutish. The support elicited through the control of minds is more durable than the support extracted at the point of a bayonet. The essentially undemocratic nature of the mainstream media, like the other business-dominated institutions of society, must be hidden behind a neutralistic, voluntaristic, pluralist façade” (M. Parenti, Inventing Reality: The Politics of the Mass Media , p .24).
THE MIND MANAGERS
Schiller’s little 1973 book did not remotely anticipate Chomsky and Herman’s justly famous “propaganda model” for breaking down imperial bias in dominant U.S. media news content. Schiller gave no intricate, deeply researched history (ala McChesney) of government communications policy and how (largely through government action on behalf of private media monopoly) U.S. corporate media came into existence He advanced no sophisticated analysis (ala Bagdikian, McChesney, and Herman) of deepening corporate media concentration (far more advanced today than in 1973) and no ideas (ala McChensey and Nichols) for media reform. He lacked Carey’s elegant sense of the historical factors (the conflict between corporate power and the democratic tradition, the special thought-controlling skills and means afforded by American advertising and communications technology, and the ready availability of cultural and political symbols and mindsets conducive to elite mind-control) that would lead to the United States becoming the most heavily propagandized society in history (Carey 1997, 11-17). He naturally brandished none of the advanced media content research tools (e.g. Lexis-Nexis, various Internet search functions, and much more) that were available only to subsequent investigators. And he curiously failed to relate his findings to relevant warnings from important past thinkers like James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Theodore Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Herbert Marcuse.
When the People “Escape Total Suppression”: The State-Capitalist Imperative for the Manipulation of Consciousness
Still, Schiller advanced a nuanced understanding, partly foreshadowing Chomsky and Carey, of why the hidden corporate manufacture-of-consent project could “reach its highest development in the United States” (Schiller 1973, p. 4). By Schiller’s account, the U.S. was a “state capitalist” society based on durable class divisions between “haves” and “have-nots” and directed from the top down by “a small group of corporate and governmental decision-makers” (p.3). But it was also a nation in which “pure suppression” was largely unavailable to the ruling class and where corporate and state “media managers” therefore found it particularly necessary to became systematic “manipulators” of mass consciousness. When the populace “escapes total suppression” but still lives under the “the profit system,” Schiller explained, “control of the informational and ideational process” becomes an especially pivotal aspect of how the small minority of “haves,” “winners,” and “order-givers” maintain rule over the majority of “have-nots,” “losers,” and “order-receivers.” By Schiller’s account, critical means for such elite control were provided by the simple fact of the capitalist class’s ownership of radio, television, newspapers, magazines, movie-making, recreational industries (e.g. Disney’s theme parks), and book publishing – all “largely in the hands of corporate chains and media conglomerates” (p.4).
“Intentionally Devitalized Programming”
In Schiller’s analysis, America’s powerful means of communications and mass culture were naturally enlisted in service to their owners’ quest for “maintenance of the status quo” (p. 29). They were employed to induce mass “passivity” and a paralyzing “diminution of mental activity,” with “a pacifying impact on critical consciousness” (p.30). As Schiller noted, “the aim of television and radio programming and films in a commercial society is not to arouse but to lessen concern about social and economic realities” (p. 31) – a goal that went far beyond the media’s related function of helping capitalists sell goods and services through advertising. Consistent with this deeply authoritarian objective, the leading U.S. communications organs were run by “consciousness controllers” who structured “intentionally devitalized programming” (p. 31) around five conservative, power-serving themes:
1. The possessive-individualist idea that meaningful human freedom and agency can be attained only at the individualized level and only in accord with “privatist” notions of purely personal choice and autonomy, without concern for larger social obligations and consequences.
2. The false notion that government, media, education, and other leading social institutions are “socially neutral” and thus beyond the controlling reach of corporate, state-capitalist ideology and interests. As Schiller explained, “for manipulation to be most effective, evidence of its presence should be nonexistent…It is essential, therefore, that people are manipulated believe in the neutrality of their key social institutions” (Schiller 1973, p.11).
3. The belief that the existing acquisitive and egoistic profits system and its military, repressive, and narrow-spectrum two-party political apparatuses accurately reflect an unchanging competitive, depraved, and anti-social “human nature.”
4. The absence of meaningful social conflict or protest and the related presentation of conflict as “almost always an individual matter in its manifestation and in its origin.” (“The social roots of conflict just don’t exist for the cultural-information managers,” something that helped explain “the banality of most programming, especially that which concerns momentous social events,” consistent with “elite control[‘s]” requirement of “the omission and distortion of social reality” [p.17]).
5. The “myth of media pluralism,” which confuses the technical abundance (rich) of media outlets with diversity of content (scarce): Americans are dazzled by the “multi-channel communications flow,” which lends [false] credibility to the notion of free informational choice” and cloaks preservation of the cultural and ideological status quo through the sameness and ideologically thin spectrum of content.
Corporate Media as a Central Part of the State Capitalist Establishment
Schiller’s list of dominant media’s power-serving master narratives fell short of what he might have noted in his time. It was weak on foreign policy, omitting key propagandistic themes (see Chomsky 1989 and Chomsky and Herman 1992), relating to the supposed “benevolence” of U.S actions abroad, especially (of particular relevance in the time Schiller wrote) in Southeast Asia (where the American Empire was still in the process of murdering millions) .
Nonetheless, The Mind Managers deserves retrospective respect for precociously identifying the core state-capitalist (and imperial) structure, character and content of modern U.S. communications and media. Schiller comprehended that content as a logical corporate-state effort to manufacture consent to dominant domestic and global hierarchies and doctrine. Conceptualizing dominant U.S. media as leading and central part of the state capitalist Establishment, he related its content to corporate ownership and to its intimate connection to the American state, not merely to dependence on capitalist advertisers. It is understandable that he focused on the media’s role in justifying dominant top-down domestic societal arrangements in the wake of the great internal and democratic social rebellions that rocked the United States in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Beyond Media and the U.S.
At the same time, Schiller partly anticipated a key component of Chomsky and Herman’s “propaganda model” – the informational filter of government-provided information – in his second (“The Knowledge Industry: The Governmental Component”) and third (“The Military-Corporate Component”) chapters. He wrote precociously about the multi-dimensional, multi-media nature of the corporate communications empire, noting critical emergent ownership and related informational and ideological synergies between television, radio, magazines, books, newspapers and other conglomerated business-class cultural assets. He also went beyond much contemporary left media analysis and the Chomsky-Herman propaganda model in some critical ways, showing an at once more wide-ranging , subtle and psychologically nuanced sense of how mass consciousness is manipulated in the U.S.
The Mind Managers tackled not just media content but also the incursions of corporate and military contractors and agencies into K-12 schools and academia, raising important alarms about the expansion of the corporate and military state into the critical consciousness-shaping world of education. It dedicated an important chapter to the corporate state’s use of the then-expanding polling industry to “measure and manufacture opinion” in accord with business and military goals (largely through the crafting of painfully narrow policy and societal “choices” and the provision of opinion data that helped elites more effectively sell products, services, policies, and ideological values). Another chapter brilliantly examined the role of U.S. corporate and political informational, advertising, educational, and public-relations institutions in violating the cultural and socioeconomic sovereignty of other nations by advancing the “global extension of the business system and its values.”
Entertainment as Indoctrination: Killing Us Softly
Turning back to domestic U.S. media content, Schiller’s most significant early step beyond where Chomsky and Herman (heavily focused on news and public affairs content) through not Parenti (see his 1992 book Make-Believe Media: The Politics of Entertainment) would go was to include “entertainment and recreational” content in his understanding of how corporate culture-coordinators manufactured consent to existing hierarchies and policies. Schiller’s interesting fourth chapter (titled “Recreation and Entertainment: Reinforcement of the Status Quo”) demonstrated how three “important and representative cultural-informational institutions” – TV Guide, National Geographic, and Walt Disney Productions – advanced messages that “far from being value-free, are deliberately designed to promote dominant institutional outlooks and behavior.” Schiller was adamant in arguing that “the recreational-entertainment products of the Madison Avenue-Hollywood work and image factories” and “all the familiar forms of popular culture – comic books, animated cartoons, movies, TV and radio shows, sports events, newspapers, and magazines” were about much more than “momentary escapism and a happy state of relaxation.” All these media forms played significant top-down “educational” roles, functioning as “propaganda” and even “indoctrination” for the existing capitalist and military order. Beneath claims of value-free neutrality, TV Guide and the influential “para-educational institution” National Geographic were “permeated” by “ideology.” The first magazine, he showed, advanced commercial over supposedly “left-wing” public media and criticized European media for allegedly excessive criticism of “American institutions.” The second magazine white-whitewashed Western colonialism-imperialism and portrayed the Vietnamese “liberation struggle” (Schiller’s accurate characterization) in a vaguely menacing and distinctly negative light (Schiller 1973, pp. 81-94).
His entertainment content analysis was brief and thin, but Schiller scored a bulls-eye here. As numerous subsequent authors including Robert Cirino (We’re Being More Than Entertained, 1977), Michael Puette (Jaundiced Vision: How Media Views Organized Labor, 1992), Marc Crispin Miller (Boxed In: The Culture of TV, 1986), Michael Parenti (Make-Believe Media: the Politics of Entertainment, 1992), and Stephen Macek (Urban Nightmares: The Media, The Right, and the Moral Panic Over the City, 2006) have made clear, its not just the “hard” (news and public affairs) media that works to marginalize resistance and manufacture consent to dominant domestic and imperial hierarchies and doctrines. “Soft” entertainment media does this too. (I have given a large number of examples in a recent ZNet essay titled “The Resistance Gap: on Time, Media, and the Curious Absence of Riots,” [February 10, 2009], read at www.zcomm.org/znet/viewArticle/20528). As these and other authors demonstrate, we should not set up an overly strong dichotomy (as Neil Postman did in his clever book “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business” ) between (i) “Orwellian” news media that is about propaganda and ideology and (ii) “Huxlean” entertainment media that is about pure infantilization, amusement, diversion and distraction of the masses. There’s quite a bit of cross-fertilization between (i) and (ii) in fact and contemporary corporate entertainment culture remains (as Schiller put it) “permeated by ideology.”
For what it’s worth, I would include the ideological use of “entertainment and recreation” media as another factor that made American-style thought-control more powerful than more nakedly brutal forms of top-down “persuasion’ within and beyond the Soviet empire. The capitalist West and above all the U.S. have done something the Soviets never achieved: brilliantly supplementing the more classically “Orwellian” mechanisms of hard news media control (censorship) with the more “Huxlean” seductions of soft” but in fact heavily ideological entertainment media. My sense is that totalitarian state-capitalist China, building on its recent heavily media-managed Olympics extravaganza, is currently applying this key “western” lesson at an expanding pace.
Turning back to hard “news” and “public affairs” media, Schiller also treated two critical aspects of corporate communications beyond the important question of biased content. He noted the ubiquitous “mind-numbing” “fragmentation” in how the news is delivered through “the machine-gun like recitation of numerous unrelated items” devoid of any reasonable societal or historical framework for meaningfully contextualizing multitudinous and seemingly random facts or for sorting out their relative significance and interrelatedness (or lack thereof). This cognitively destructive method of informational dissemination was exacerbated by ubiquitous intermittent advertisements, which “further reduce the already minimal capacity of audiences to gain a sense of the totality of the event, issue, or subject being presented” (pp. 24-25).
Second, Schiller argued, corporate media’s instantaneous delivery of information shatters mass mental capacities further with “90-second news flashes relayed by space satellite.” According to Schiller, rapid, high-speed news transmission “destroys necessary links with the past and overloads information consumers (ala Huxley) with “ahistorical and, therefore, anti-informational messages” which “effectively prevent[s] popular comprehension” (p. 29). This was interesting commentary long before the term “sound bite” graced the modern media landscape.
“The Technology is Not At Issue:” State Capitalism as the Real Problem
Schiller stuck to his anti-capitalist guns in The Mind Managers. He refused to join technological determinists and theorists in ascribing corporate communications’ totalitarian impact to the inherent consequences of modern informational technologies and “mediums.” “The technology that permits and facilitates immediacy of information is not at issue,” Schiller argued. “What is of concern is the present social system’s utilization of the techniques of rapid communications delivery to blur or eradicate meaning while claiming that such speed enhances understanding and enlightenment. The corporate economy misapplies the techniques of modern communication. As presently employed, communications technologies transmit ahistorical and therefore anti-informational messages.” Shorn of the state-capitalist elite’s manipulative, mind-managing imperatives and subjected to popular-democratic control, these technologies could easily “supplement…the construction of meaningful contexts” and therefore enhance popular comprehension (p. 29).
Contrary to Marshal McLuhan’s argument that “the medium is the message,” Schiller argued “a study of TV, radio, or film products would reveal a similar, if not identical pattern” of conservative meaning related to shared corporate ownership by and functioning for the corporate and military state. As Schiller noted in a fascinating paragraph that cleverly linked National Geographic to the staging of a Super Bowl:
“An exploration magazine’s impact on readership cannot be measured against a televised professional football game’s audience arousal. Their formats and the reactions they generate are worlds apart. What can be noted and compared, however, are the social messages interspersed in each. Does the pro game’s intermission feature an Air Force fly-over, permitting thirty million viewers to participate vicariously in a military celebration masquerading as entertainment? Does the exploration magazine run feature articles about the United States Navy as a ‘force for peace,’ introducing its considerable readership to the benign and salutary effects of the Navy’s maneuvers?” (Schiller 1973, p. 81).
Schiller insisted that state-capitalist control, “free enterprise” ideology and nationalist and military doctrine were the real problems, not “technology.” In this and other ways, The Mind Managers was I think both usefully behind and ahead of its time. It was also an interesting reflection of precisely its time, when a significant democratic rebellion centered significantly in the higher-educational world opened the window for some remarkably forthright and left-leaning research and writing on the part of certain segments of the American professoriate.
Why Schiller’s book hasn’t received attention and distinction in the prefaces, footnotes, and acknowledgements of contemporary left analysts (I have seen it cited only twice – once in Parenti’s Inventing Reality  and once and quite incidentally in Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism ) is something of a mystery to me. I say this not in a spirit of accusation but in one of curiosity and belated discovery, as if I had run across a forgotten rare painting. It strikes me that The Mind Manager’s dark and precocious thesis on insidious and covert state-capitalist thought control may have gotten lost in the briefly illusory strength the Watergate (1973-75) scandal gave to the false notion that U.S. media (the “fourth estate”) provides a powerful and independent check on concentrated power. Whatever the causes and bearing in mind my opening caveat, I strongly recommend Schiller’s book more than a generation after its publication to any and all readers interested in understanding and overcoming the great and still-developing historical beast that is American corporate thought-control.
Postscript: I was just yesterday on the phone with an old-time left faculty member (a radical and now retired physicist I’ve known for years) at the University of Illinois and I asked him if he had any recollections of Herbert Schiller. His voice lit up right away and he said, “oh yes, Herbert Schiller was one of the charismatic professors around here” back in the 1960s and early 1970s. Schiller would speak at antiwar rallies and the like and was apparently quite openly Left. Before his Mind Managers book was published, Schiller went to the University of California San Diego. So Communications professor Schiller (like sociologist John Leggett, who authored an interesting left pre-Chomsky-Herman content analysis of The New York Times – see note # 2 below) was part of the 1960s-1970s U.S. academic New Left – a group that seems to find few echoes in the contemporary American university. As the veteran left-liberal Princeton political scientist Sheldon Wolin noted lasted year in his chilling book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, NJ: 2008):
“Thought a combination of government contracts, corporate and foundation funds, joint projects involving university and corporate researchers, and wealthy individual donors, universities (especially so-called research universities), intellectuals, scholars, and researchers have been seamlessly integrated into the system. No books burned, no refugee Einsteins…During the months leading up to and following the invasion of Iraq, university and college campuses, which had been such notorious centers of opposition to the Vietnam War that politicians and publicists spoke seriously of the need to ‘pacify the campuses,’ hardly stirred. The Academy had become self-pacifying” (p.68).
“…Public universities, such as those as at Berkeley, Ann Arbor, and Madison, played a leading role in the organization of antiwar activities [during the late 1960s and early 1970s. That none of those institutions was ruffled by antiwar agitation at the time of the U.S, invasion of Iraq in 2003 testifies to the effective integration of universities into the corporate state” (pp. 165-166).
Paul Street (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a veteran radical historian, political commentator, and author in Iowa City, IA. He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Routledge, 2005); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History (Rowman & Littlefied, 2007), and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Paradigm, 2008). Street will speak on urban and institutional racism at North Central College’s Koten Chapel in Naperville, IL on Thursday, April 23, 2009, 7:30-9:00 pm. He will speak on President Obama’s First Hundred Days at the Urbana Civic Center on the evening of Thursday, April 30 (exact time pending) in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois.
1. Most of the authors and studies mentioned in this essay’s third paragraph (see above), including Chomsky and Herman’s famous Manufacturing Consent, have been quite explicitly focused on corporate media content, whereas Schiller was, like Alex Carey (Taking the Risk Out of Democracy, 1997), more broadly interested in corporate propaganda and thought control as a whole – within and beyond dominant media. Corporate media content is naturally just one part of that larger topic. For an ambitious and important study of U.S. corporate propaganda writ large (and in specific relation to the labor movement and New Deal liberalism), see Elizabeth Fones-Wolf, Selling Free Enterprise: The Business Assault on Labor and Liberalism (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, History of Communication Series,1995)
2. That specific content-based criticism of such themes was to some extent possible in the 1970s (prior to the age of Lexis Nexis and other digital research tools but with a team of researchers) is suggested is another interesting and forgotten piece of left media analysis from that decade: John Leggett et al., Allende, His Exit and Our “Times” (New Brunswick, NJ: New Brunswick Cooperative Press, 1978) – a detailed investigation and criticism of The New York Times’ conservative coverage of (and commentary on) the U.S.-supported coup that overthrew the democratic elected Chilean government of Marxist Salvador Allende in 1973. The Leggett study (directed by a radical New Left sociologist who was a good friend of my father’s during the late 1950s and 1960s) has also passed forgotten into the bibliographical mists.