Friday, June 25, 2004

Chomsky is Right

Many people I read and respect in the Blogosphere have an attack-dog reaction to the name "Chomsky." But people who mock and dismiss him should read him first. They may find much that will have them nodding in agreement.

Chomsky's politics are execrable, and his world-view is warped. But one aspect of his spiel is a critique of media bias. And it's worth reading.

He does actually do something for a living, beside discover how Everything is America's Fault. He's a linguist, but not a nuts-and-bolts type who studies the structures of languages and how they evolved. You can read dozens of the best books on that topic (as I have) without ever encountering his name.

Chomsky's work is in a more theoretical realm: language as something that happens inside the human brain. He develops and tests theories about how grammar happens, on the subconscious level. It's really more psychology than linguistics, I think.

His observations about human behavior are often insightful. And he has studied the media carefully. And guess what? He thinks it's badly biased. So do a lot of people who don't agree with him about almost anything else. But while his opponents tend to regard media bias as a "given," an article of faith that doesn't have to be explained, Chomsky has carefully gone about explaining how it happens.

He writes ably about how the "elite media" set the agenda for the rest. By "elite media" he means generally the same set of names the rest of us do -- The New York Times, CBS, the handful of corporations on that plane.

Now, here's the rub: to Chomsky, these media are biased because they're too conservative. OK, when you stop laughing, please note that his analysis of the system, of the method by which the slant becomes institutionalized, is politics-neutral. It can as easily explain any sort of bias -- against the war, for white people, against religion, for cheap beer. It can even be applied to Chomsky himself, who is a media phenomenon.

The idea of "manufactured consent," which Chomsky rides hard in his writing on the media, likewise does not imply an ideology. He describes it like this: "We [i.e. the media] can make it [people's right to vote] irrelevant because we can manufacture consent and make sure that their choices and attitudes will be structured in such a way that they will always do what we tell them, even if they have a formal way to participate. So we'll have a real democracy. It will work properly."

I found this in a piece by Chomsky published by Z Media Institute in June 1997.

There is another sector of the media, the elite media, sometimes called the agenda-setting media because they are the ones with the big resources, they set the framework in which everyone else operates. The New York Times and CBS, that kind of thing. Their audience is mostly privileged people. The people who read the New York Times -- people who are wealthy or part of what is sometimes called the political class -- they are actually involved in the political system in an ongoing fashion. They are basically managers of one sort or another. They can be political managers, business managers (like corporate executives or that sort of thing), doctoral managers (like university professors), or other journalists who are involved in organizing the way people think and look at things.

The elite media set a framework within which others operate. If you are watching the Associated Press, who grind out a constant flow of news, in the mid-afternoon it breaks and there is something that comes along every day that says "Notice to Editors: Tomorrow's New York Times is going to have the following stories on the front page." The point of that is, if you're an editor of a newspaper in Dayton, Ohio and you don't have the resources to figure out what the news is, or you don't want to think about it anyway, this tells you what the news is. These are the stories for the quarter page that you are going to devote to something other than local affairs or diverting your audience. These are the stories that you put there because that's what the New York Times tells us is what you're supposed to care about tomorrow.

If you are an editor in Dayton, Ohio, you would sort of have to do that, because you don't have much else in the way of resources. If you get off line, if you're producing stories that the big press doesn't like, you'll hear about it pretty soon. ... So there are a lot of ways in which power plays can drive you right back into line if you move out. If you try to break the mold, you're not going to last long. That framework works pretty well, and it is understandable that it is just a reflection of obvious power structures.

OK, well, that's not quite right, but it wouldn't be Chomsky if he got it quite right. The New York Times sends out a wire item every afternoon slugged "AM-PAGE1-CONSIDER-NYT." It tells what the paper's top stories will be for the next day, and it goes only to subscribers of the New York Times wire, which is a different thing than the AP wire. But the AP also sends out its page 1 recommendations every day, and, with the exception of enterprise pieces that one or the other is working on, the list is essentially the same for the AP and the NYT.

I work as a copy editor for a small-city Pennsylvania newspaper (Dayton would be a good comparison). On nights when I sit at the wire desk, I read the wires and put together my "page one recommendation" lists, and pitch those stories at our daily budget meeting. I always have done this without reference to the AP and NYT recommendations. But it doesn't matter. My boss, the editor, always checks the AP tip sheet, and also looks to see what "the boys on 42nd Street" are doing in their newspaper, and no matter what I recommend, he adjusts his story choices accordingly.

The next day, we see the WaPo, NYT, Philly Inquirer, etc. And nothing makes my boss more pleased than to see that his front page design that morning is exactly like theirs. Same stories, same pictures, same placement. That proves, to him, that he has "good news judgment." It proves he belongs in the same league as the big boys. My pitching other stories, instead of some of those on the "recommendation" list, confirms my boss in the belief that I lack good news judgment. I don't want to make this personal, but I am pretty sure it's one reason he's never left me to run the newspaper on days when he's away.

So who is this boss? If you read down the posts on this blog you'll get a beginning of a picture. He doesn't read much more than what is on the newswires, but to him, there was no sane connection between Iraq and the terror attacks of Sept. 11, and therefore the war to overthrow Saddam was illegal and unjust. To him, stories about death and chaos and American failure in occupied Iraq are "what the readers want," and any other kind of stories are irrelevant.

But of course my boss would deny that his agreement with NYT coverage was evidence of a "bias," which, after all, is a word freighted with menace and subterfuge. He would deny that it is part of a systematic inclination in the media. Chomsky anticipates this, and anticipates the response.

They say, quite correctly, "nobody ever tells me what to write. I write anything I like. All this business about pressures and constraints is nonsense because I'm never under any pressure." Which is completely true, but the point is that they wouldn't be there unless they had already demonstrated that nobody has to tell them what to write because they are going say the right thing. If they had started off at the Metro desk, or something, and had pursued the wrong kind of stories, they never would have made it to the positions where they can now say anything they like.

And that's essentially correct. And it works as well to explain a "liberal" bias as a (presumed) conservative one. Even Chomsky says this, in discussing why this whole topic is taboo in journalism schools. "Again, it is not purposeful censorship. It is just that you don't make it to those positions. That includes the left (what is called the left), as well as the right. Unless you have been adequately socialized and trained so that there are some thoughts you just don't have, because if you did have them, you wouldn't be there." [italics added]

Of course, Chomsky also goes on to say, in this article, that the agenda-setting media are controlled by corporations, and thus by a corporate structure that he compares to fascism. He goes on to say that this means the news agendas are set by wealthy, parasitic elites, to protect their interest. He talks about propaganda and world domination. He is Chomsky, after all. Along the way he makes the astonishing observation that, "The U.S. [before World War I] was a very pacifist country. It has always been."

But if you can peel away the paranoia and focus on the media critique, and the explanation of the system by which it happens, you can learn something useful from Chomsky sometimes.