Chomsky on Propaganda

Chomsky on Propaganda, BBC The Big Idea, 1996, (3 mins)

This short clip from Andrew Marr’s interview of Noam Chomsky shows the astounding moment when Chomsky patiently explains to a perplexed Marr why the systemic bias of the media does not require journalists to self-censor.

To fully savour Chomsky’s devastating critique we recommend you to watch the entire 30 minute interview here.   For a detailed exposition of how corporate propaganda dominates in liberal democracies we recommend Herman and Chomsky’s book ”Manufacturing Consent”.  See also the full length documentary film “Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media” which can be watched here.  Further remarks on the significance of  Marr’s interview of Chomsky can be found below.


This interview from 1996 should be understood in its historical context. Following the disintegration of the USSR and the belated collapse of many residual illusions of western communists concerning the “socialist” nature of the former Soviet regime, this was a period of deep ideological confusion, rapid expansion of capitalism into new markets, and retreat of the left in much of the world.  In both the US and the UK neoliberal ideology appeared unassailable, and US triumphalism ascendent. In1992 the US academic Francis Fukuyama published an influential book entitled “The End of History and the Last Man”, which boldly proclaimed that humanity had reached “the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”.  To leftists of the period this thesis rightly seemed absurd, though few noted the dark but unintended alternative interpretation of the title.

At that time Chomsky’s formidable intellectual power and encyclopedic grasp of detail had already for more than 30 years shone a harsh beacon on imperial crimes, and had provided a source of political understanding and inspiration for generations of left activists.  However by the early nineties neoliberal ideology had become so pervasive that the political class and their media acolytes generally found it more convenient simply to dismiss or defame Chomsky, despite his acknowledged scientific stature, as an unworldly intellectual or, worse,  as a political conspiracy theorist. Engaging Chomsky directly in public political debate all too often ended in humiliation for some unfortunate imperial apologist.[1]

It is therefore fair to give Marr credit for his perhaps foolhardy decision to interview Chomsky, and in retrospect one might even feel that Marr was unlucky that the recording of the interview would for many come to play the role of paradigm example of the intellectual failure of his profession. The victim of Chomsky’s intellectual deconstruction, forever immortalised on video like a museum specimen, could after all have been almost any mainstream journalist of the day.  Nevertheless as Chomsky indicates in the interview there did exist a few fine journalists in the media who were quite aware of the ideological restrictions they were subject to, and who in Chomsky’s words, sought to play “like a violin” any small opening they could find;  if Marr knew any of them he did not appear to be aware of it. 

The last 25 years have seen two parallel developments:  on the one hand increasingly monopolistic media ownership and repressive legislation restricting press freedom supposedly for reasons of national security, and on the other hand the gradual development of an anarchic but vibrant ocean of small “alternative” online media sources of highly variable quality.   Throughout this period and especially after 2001, journalists who combine a certain level of personal integrity with a fine political intelligence have found it increasingly impossible to work as full time employees of any corporate media body in the US or UK.    Some have migrated to academia, others have managed successfully to operate semi-independently online, occasionally negotiating on their own terms with corporate outlets.  Marr however appears to have kept the faith.  Here you can see him in April 2003 outside 10 Downing Street extolling the virtues of Tony Blair at the beginning of the war on Iraq.

To be fair to him, Marr now says that he regrets his enthusiasm on that occasion; but after all isn’t the official wisdom now that the destruction of Iraq was a tragic “mistake”?

Marr’s own remarks on the interview are revealing.   Clearly he must have felt wounded by the experience and its subsequent publicity;  but did this cause him to reconsider his own role as an establishment journalist?  In April 2017 a Guardian reader asked him precisely this question. After remarking that during the interview Marr “had provided a perfect illustration” of Chomsky’s assertions about mainstream journalism by demonstrating his complete unfamiliarity with the FBI’s COINTELPRO program of harassment, false imprisonment, and targeted assassinations of US citizens, the reader cited the moment when Chomsky tells Marr  “I’m not saying you’re self-censoring. I’m sure you believe everything you say. But what I’m saying is if you believed something different you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting”. The reader then asked Marr:

“At this point in the interview, your reaction suggested that the proverbial penny had dropped for you regarding your role as, with respect, a cog in the well-oiled propaganda machine.  So I’m curious to know whether this exchange with Chomsky was an epiphany for you regarding your own journalism? And is there any difference in your philosophy of journalism pre-Chomsky interview and post-Chomsky interview?”

Marr replied:

“I remember this interview very well. I was – quite rightly – nervous of Chomsky, who is a formidable intellect. When he suggested that “if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting”, I immediately realised that this was not so much brilliant, as unanswerable. He comes quite close to the position that the propaganda model means “everybody who disagrees with me”. And the conversation was taking place in the context of me expressing disbelief, in his view, that all mainstream journalists were essentially the same – I had said that it seemed to me the Guardian and the Telegraph posed very different world views. And that journalists varied hugely in their own politics and temperament. He is brilliant, but he is a brilliant conspiracist, so therefore no, it wasn’t a matter of the proverbial penny dropping, still less an epiphany.”

Ironically this reply of Marr provides further evidence of the correctness of Chomsky’s analysis.  If we are to take his reply at face value, then he has learned nothing at all from his encounter with Chomsky: in fact he gives the impression of not even being able to understand what Chomsky was saying. Marr simply ignores the reader’s reference to the crucial point Chomsky makes in the video about Marr’s total ignorance of the COINTELPRO program.  Recall that COINTELPRO, which lasted for roughly two decades until at least the late 1970’s, involved a vast FBI program of illegal harassment and state terrorism, targeting an array of legitimate civil rights, black, indigenous, and socialist organisations and activists in the US.  One of the most brutal murders committed was the assassination in his bed in 1969 of the charismatic socialist and Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, the originator of the idea of a Rainbow Coalition.  By the time of the Watergate scandal two years later some of these horrific crimes had been accidentally discovered by the extraordinary action carried out by a tiny independent group of anti-war activists, and by subsequent legal suits. [4]  Chomsky’s point was that the press coverage of these horrific state crimes in 1971 was ephemeral at best and indeed has remained so, while the press coverage of Watergate, the White House sponsored break-in to Democratic party HQ, an utterly trivial crime by comparison, is routinely hailed as the press scoop of the century.[2]

Marr is able to occupy his position as a celebrity corporate journalist because he has constructed a personal worldview in which evidence which doesn’t fit inside the permitted walls is systematically ignored.  The mechanism for doing this is to interpret inconvenient facts as mere opinions, which are not even worthy of consideration, because those who present such facts as evidence are ipso facto ‘conspiracists’, no matter how unimpeachable their sources or ‘formidable’ their intellect.  In ignoring the substantive point about COINTELPRO, as he ignores all the rest of Chomsky’s detailed factual evidence, Marr reduces everything to a matter of subjective opinion.[3]

How else is one to interpret Marr’s oddly ungrammatical claim that Chomsky comes ‘quite close’ to the position that the ‘Propaganda Model’ means ‘everybody who disagrees with me’ ?  How else can one explain his lazy misattribution to Chomsky of the view that “all mainstream journalists are essentially the same”?  At this point Marr helpfully betrays the limits of his comprehension with his reference to the “very different world views” encompassed by the Telegraph and the Guardian.  It 

seems that the ideological filtration system posited by Chomsky has with Marr netted a journalist so perfectly attuned to the reproduction of existing relations of power that neither inconvenient facts nor rational argument can breach the boundaries of permissible thought.

[1]  See e.g. debates of Chomsky vs. Silber , Chomsky vs. Dershowitz

Chomsky  vs. Perle

[2]   The COINTELPRO program was so extensive that even Chomsky and some of his students at MIT were targeted for harassment.  In truth while COINTELPRO itself may have formally ceased in the late 1970’s, many of its practices never ceased, and since the US Patriot Act many of them have simply been declared legal. An excellent introduction is provided by the 56 min. video COINTELPRO 101.  In 1997 the MIT Committee on Race Relations held a public meeting at which Chomsky and the left activist and former Black Panther, Kathleen Cleaver, talked at length about their their experiences of  COINTELPRO, its significance, and lessons to be drawn.  The video can be found here.  The video is lengthy, but if you are only interested in the COINTELPRO part, start at 42:20.  See also Chomsky’s article here.  The history of the repression and of the COINTELPRO plots to demoralise and sow dissension between leftwing and black activists carries important lessons for the present, including for activists in the UK.  A moving account of Fred Hampton’s murder by contemporary witnesses can be found in this video clip from Democracy Now!  None of those responsible for any of the crimes of COINTELPRO has ever been brought to justice, but many of of its victims who were framed languished in prison for decades despite conclusive evidence of their innocence.

[3]  Such mental shackles were savagely characterised by Harold Pinter in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: 

“It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them…..It’s a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.”

See here (video) or here (text) 

[4]  The truly extraordinary story of how an independent group of eight anti-war activists who broke into an FBI office intending to destroy documents relating to the military draft discovered instead a cache of documents revealing the crimes of COINTELPRO, is related in the 2014 documentary film “Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI: 1971”  (1hr 26min) directed by Johanna Hamilton which can be viewed here. An informative review of the film can be found here.

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