Perhaps the most prominent exponent of the seemingly deathless claim of media bias, still routinely invoked today, is Noam Chomsky. For over forty years, the pioneering linguist and political commentator has become a revered figure on the left, known for the precision and tightly clenched anger of his arguments over Vietnam, Cambodia, East Timor, Israel, Iraq, and other controversies. He has put forward his case in dozens of lectures, interviews, and in numerous books, including Deterring Democracy, Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies, What Uncle Sam Really Wants, and 9-11; his most famous title may be Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (co-authored with Edward Herman). First published in 1988, Manufacturing Consent was adapted into a film in 1992 and has become a touchstone for protesters and activists ever since. In 2013 Chomskyites continue to explain national and international events (in Syria, North Korea, Boston, or wherever) in terms of gulled populaces, and government-sanctioned deceit.
There is no denying that over his long career Chomsky has provided important correctives to pack journalism and round-the-clock news saturation. He has diligently reminded information consumers to look more deeply than the front-page headline or the ten-second sound bite for their coverage of current affairs. But Chomsky’s work has often lapsed into a dogmatic fixation on corporate control and a looming military-industrial complex that wields absolute power over nominally liberal social systems. Throughout his spoken and written polemics, the jaded sighs “Of course,” and “Here again we see…” are repeated, imparting his message that everything happens at the behest of the ruling order, and that any doubts of this only demonstrate the doubter’s own complicity in the coverup. The book of the documentary Manufacturing Consent quotes a debater pointing out that those whom Chomsky criticizes “fall into one of two categories: liars or dupes,” while writer Tom Wolfe in the film (from a Bill Moyers interview of the 1980s) scorns Chomsky’s suppositions of “a bunch of capitalists sitting around pulling strings.” Chomsky’s response to this is that, as a member of the “commissar class” himself, Wolfe’s derision is no more than a foreseeable dodge.
That rejoinder shows the major weakness of Chomsky’s reasoning: no matter what evidence to the contrary, it only cements his theory that powerful forces are always in charge. “There are all sorts of filtering devices that are designed to get rid of people who are a pain in the neck and think independently,” he has said, without explaining his own unfiltered celebrity as a bestselling author, in-demand public speaker, and infallible guru to several generations of poli-sci students. In Necessary Illusions, he writes that “The propaganda model does not assert that the media parrot the line of current state managers in the manner of totalitarian regimes; rather, that the media reflect the consensus of powerful elites of the state-corporate nexus generally, including those who object to some aspect of government policy, usually on tactical grounds.” (Perhaps this is why the cover blurb for a Canadian edition of Necessary Illusions proudly introduces it as “The National Bestseller.”) Even dissent isn’t really dissent, according to Chomsky – public condemnation of elites is useful to the elites because it fools the condemners into a false sense of autonomy. “As always, a complex social order permits a certain range of variation,” he says, again redefining debate or discord as things only “permitted.” After the attacks of September 11, 2001, Chomsky’s shrug of disapproval implied that he’d seen them coming and that the collapse of the World Trade Center neatly confirmed his analyses: “As usual, the primary victims were working people,” he told his acolytes, discounting the erstwhile business and media elites who’d occupied the buildings and the airliners flown into them. By constantly sidestepping any fresh news that undermines his notions of smothered expression, Chomsky commits the Conspiracy Theorist’s fallacy of making his own theories unfalsifiable.
Chomsky’s appropriation of the term “Manufacturing Consent” is from Walter Lippmann’s classic work of sociology Public Opinion (1922), but he does not mean it the way Lippmann did. In the original formulation, manufactured consent referred to the lay public’s deference to expert authority on a range of day-to-day administrative issues. Since it is not practical to give every ordinary person a vote on every decision of government, Lippmann believed, the details of poultry regulations, trade pacts, the lettering on traffic signs, and the like, were best left to specialists selected by elected legislators, who themselves are selected by and accountable to all citizens. “[I]t is impossible that all the contingencies shall be as vivid to the whole public as they are to the more experienced and the more imaginative,” argued Lippmann. “A fairly large percentage are bound to agree without having taken the time, or without possessing the background, for appreciating the choices which the leader presents to them. No one, however, can ask for more. And only theorists do.” Chomsky is the theorist, who exaggerates Lippmann’s matter-of-fact scenario into an alarmist portrayal of cynical masters dominating a benighted society: “Put in plain terms, the general public must be reduced to its traditional apathy and obedience, and driven from the arena of political debate and action, if democracy is to survive.” For him, then, democracy itself is a scam propped up by lies, as indeed any social structure more rigid than agrarian anarchy must be. No amount of openness or accommodation can be enough, as long as anyone still has authority over anyone else. Chomsky is not really calling for a freer press or a broader range of political expression. He is calling for a revolution.
Whenever the truism “The media is biased” is aired at a cocktail party or water cooler, it is inevitably followed with the elaboration, “I read about / saw a show about / took a class about / surfed a website about / heard a program about it.” The irony of attacking media bias in the Information Age, however contradicted by observation, logic, or common sense, is that the attacks go on to exacerbate the alleged problem, insofar as the more we fret over bias in one direction, the more we tend to respond with a bias the other way. Meanwhile, as Noam Chomsky and his intellectual heirs continue to highlight the alleged suppression of their ideas by some monolithic power, truth will continue to be truth, no matter how few or how many claim to have seen it first.