Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Noam Chomsky: "What Makes Mainstream Media Mainstream"

From Z Magazine via The Noam Chomsky Website:

Part of the reason why I write about the media is because I am interested in the whole intellectual culture, and the part of it that is easiest to study is the media. It comes out every day. You can do a systematic investigation. You can compare yesterday’s version to today’s version. There is a lot of evidence about what’s played up and what isn’t and the way things are structured.

My impression is the media aren’t very different from scholarship or from, say, journals of intellectual opinion—there are some extra constraints—but it’s not radically different. They interact, which is why people go up and back quite easily among them.

You look at the media, or at any institution you want to understand. You ask questions about its internal institutional structure. You want to know something about their setting in the broader society. How do they relate to other systems of power and authority? If you’re lucky, there is an internal record from leading people in the information system which tells you what they are up to (it is sort of a doctrinal system). That doesn’t mean the public relations handouts but what they say to each other about what they are up to. There is quite a lot of interesting documentation.

Those are three major sources of information about the nature of the media. You want to study them the way, say, a scientist would study some complex molecule or something. You take a look at the structure and then make some hypothesis based on the structure as to what the media product is likely to look like. Then you investigate the media product and see how well it conforms to the hypotheses. Virtually all work in media analysis is this last part—trying to study carefully just what the media product is and whether it conforms to obvious assumptions about the nature and structure of the media.

Well, what do you find? First of all, you find that there are different media which do different things, like the entertainment/Hollywood, soap operas, and so on, or even most of the newspapers in the country (the overwhelming majority of them). They are directing the mass audience.

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. In fact, what just happened at San Jose Mercury News is a dramatic example of this. 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.

The real mass media are basically trying to divert people. Let them do something else, but don’t bother us (us being the people who run the show). Let them get interested in professional sports, for example. Let everybody be crazed about professional sports or sex scandals or the personalities and their problems or something like that. Anything, as long as it isn’t serious. Of course, the serious stuff is for the big guys. “We” take care of that.

What are the elite media, the agenda-setting ones? The New York Times and CBS, for example. Well, first of all, they are major, very profitable, corporations. Furthermore, most of them are either linked to, or outright owned by, much bigger corporations, like General Electric, Westinghouse, and so on. They are way up at the top of the power structure of the private economy which is a very tyrannical structure. Corporations are basically tyrannies, hierarchic, controled from above. If you don’t like what they are doing you get out. The major media are just part of that system.

What about their institutional setting? Well, that’s more or less the same. What they interact with and relate to is other major power centers—the government, other corporations, or the universities. Because the media are a doctrinal system they interact closely with the universities. Say you are a reporter writing a story on Southeast Asia or Africa, or something like that. You’re supposed to go over to the big university and find an expert who will tell you what to write, or else go to one of the foundations, like Brookings Institute or American Enterprise Institute and they will give you the words to say. These outside institutions are very similar to the media.....


HT: Caitlin Johnstone