Talking Radical Media

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Source: The Nation

For anyone critical of the media and politics at the turn of the century, Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent was essential reading. The book’s “propaganda model” provided a useful framework for understanding how typical news coverage filters out some types of evidence while emphasizing others, ultimately privileging dominant narratives. One key lesson from this analysis was clear: To change the world, we must first change our media.

In the early 2000s, such thinking led me to the media reform movement and to the academic field of communication, where I hoped to learn about the limitations of, and alternatives to, the hyper-commercialized US media system. But I was disheartened to find in graduate school a mix of hostility and indifference toward critical media analysis. Over the years, I found pockets of radical scholarship, especially in the subfield of political economy, that focused on critical and historical analyses of media, but such work remained marginalized. Today, with the rise of new digital monopolies, fear of fascism, and the collapse of journalism, there’s renewed interest in structural analyses of our news and information systems, but too often it’s stripped of radical critique.

Chomsky has long provided a steady radical voice on these matters. I recently spoke to him about the contemporary relevance of his and Herman’s media critique, and why he first turned to media as an important site of struggle. I wondered if his analysis had changed; if anything had surprised him over the decades; and, most importantly, whether he thought a more democratic media system was imaginable and achievable.

At 92, Chomsky is still leveling sharp critique and astute analysis. In our Zoom conversation, he seamlessly drew from that day’s New York Times to exemplify various points we were discussing. I was especially struck by his nuanced optimism—while he saw the same structural pathologies afflicting our commercial news media systems today, he also discerned meaningful progress in news coverage, especially in confronting historical atrocities that mainstream media accounts had ignored or misrepresented in the past.

—Victor Pickard

VP: The subtitle of your famous book with Ed Herman is The Political Economy of the Mass Media, yet political economy is marginalized within media studies. Coming from outside the field, what led you to focus on critical media analysis?

NC: My primary interest is the general intellectual culture and that’s what I’ve mostly written about. One manifestation of this is the elite media. You read The New York Times and you’re not very far from the Harvard Faculty Club. It’s pretty much the same cultural environment. So, here you have manifested clearly, day by day, an easily researchable collection of materials that reflects pretty well the general intellectual culture and offers a window into it. Ed Herman and I slightly differed on this emphasis. He was much more specifically interested in the media, my own interest was more on the elite media as a reflection of the general intellectual culture. This didn’t make any difference, we cooperated very easily. But that’s basically my own entry into the area. So, for example, I don’t bother writing about Fox News.

VP: Right, Fox News offers a window into a different discourse. I want to probe this difference—your aim is to scrutinize elite discourses while Ed’s was focused more on our media system’s economic structures?

NC: Right, that part of our book is totally his. And it was his professional interest as well. For example, a major book of his was, Corporate Power, Corporate Control.

VP: Yet, media’s economic structures such as monopoly power and commercialism often privilege dominant discourses. Do you see any differences in how media institutions perpetuate elite discourses today? I know you get this question sometimes—but is the propaganda model still relevant in our digital age?

NC: Ed [Herman] and I updated the book to consider the rise of the 
Internet, but we basically concluded that nothing much had changed. The sources of information are still the same. If you want to know what’s happening in Karachi, you can’t find reliable information on Facebook or Instagram other than what’s being filtered from mainstream media. So the first thing I do in the morning is read The New York Times, Washington Post, Financial Times, and so on. That’s where the information is coming from.

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