How the Media Works

This excerpt on how the media works comes from the book “How the World Works,” by Noam Chomsky. It is reproduced here with kind permission from Mr. Chomsky.

Whether they’re called “liberal” or “conservative,” the major media are large corporations, owned by and interlinked with even larger conglomerates. Like other corporations, they sell a product to a market. The market is advertisers – that is, other businesses. The product is audiences. For the elite media that set the basic agenda to which others adapt, the product is, furthermore, relatively privileged audiences.

So we have major corporations selling fairly wealthy and privileged audiences to other businesses. Not surprisingly, the picture of the world presented reflects the narrow and biased interests and values of the sellers, the buyers and the product.

Other factors reinforce the same distortion. The cultural managers (editors, leading columnists, etc.) share class interests and associations with state and business managers and other privileged sectors. There is, in fact, a regular flow of high level people among corporations, government and media. Access to state authorities is important to maintain a competitive position; “leaks,” for example, are often fabrications and deceit produced by the authorities with the cooperation of the media, who pretend they don’t know.

In return, state authorities demand cooperation and submissiveness. Other power centers also have devices to punish departures from orthodoxy, ranging from the stock market to an effective vilification and defamation apparatus.

The outcome is not, of course, entirely uniform. To serve the interests of the powerful, the media must present a tolerably realistic picture of the world. And professional integrity and honesty sometimes interfere with the overriding mission. The best journalists are, typically, quite aware of the factors that shape the media product, and seek to use such openings as are provided. The result is that one can learn a lot by a critical and skeptical reading of what the media produce.

The media are only one part of a larger doctrinal system; other parts are journals of opinion, the schools and universities, academic scholarship and so on. We’re much more aware of the media, particularly the prestige media, because those who critically analyze ideology have focused on them. The larger system hasn’t been studied as much because it’s harder to investigate systematically. But there’s good reason to believe that it represents the same interests as the media, just as one would anticipate.

The doctrinal system, which produces what we call “propaganda” when discussing enemies, has two distinct targets. One target is what’s sometimes called the “political class,” the roughly 20% of the population that’s relatively educated, more or less articulate, playing some role in decision-making. Their acceptance of doctrine is crucial, because they’re in a position to design and implement policy.

Then there’s the other 80% or so of the population. These are Lippmann’s “spectators of action,” whom he referred to as the “bewildered herd.” They are supposed to follow orders and keep out of the way of the important people. They’re the target of the real mass media: the tabloids, the sitcoms, the Super Bowl and so on.

These sectors of the doctrinal system serve to divert the unwashed masses and reinforce the basic social values: passivity, submissiveness to authority, the overriding virtue of greed and personal gain, lack of concern for others, fear of real or imagined enemies, etc. The goal is to keep the bewildered herd bewildered. It’s unnecessary for them to trouble themselves with what’s happening in the world. In fact, it’s undesirable – if they see too much of reality they may set themselves to change it.

That’s not to say the media can’t be influenced by the general population. The dominant institutions – whether political, economic or doctrinal – are not immune to public pressures. Independent (alternative) media can also play an important role. Though they lack resources, almost by definition, they gain significance in the same way that popular organizations do: by bringing together people with limited resources who can multiply their effectiveness, and their own understanding, through their interactions – precisely the democratic threat that’s so feared by dominant elites.

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