The book was first published in 1988. The edition I have was revised in 2002 with a 2008 Afterword. While some of the case studies feel a little out of data the basic model seems as applicable now as then.
Chapter One – A Propaganda Model
In this chapter Chomsky and Herman offer an explanation as to how the Western, chiefly US in practice, media is constituted and operates. We are taught to think of the media as “free”, in contrast, of course to (nowadays) “Russian state media” – which, of course, always produces what they are told to by the Kremlin. But the structure of the Western media explain why in fact it produces narratives aligned with the goals of the political-corporate establishment in the West:
The propaganda model, spelled out in detail in chapter 1, explains the broad sweep of the mainstream media’s behavior and performance by their corporate character and integration into the political economy of the dominant economic system.
As Chomsky and Herman (hereafter just Chomsky, for convenience), argue:
It is much more difficult to see a propaganda system at work where the media are private and formal censorship is absent.
The task of their propaganda model is to cut through the mystique and explain how Western media is propagandistic. Their model has 5 headings. I am quoting in full:
(1) the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth, and profit orientation of the dominant mass-media firms;
(2) advertising as the primary income source of the mass media;
(3) the reliance of the media on information provided by government, business, and “experts” funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power;
(4) “flak” as a means of disciplining the media; and
(5) “anticommunism” as a national religion and control mechanism.
(1) the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth, and profit orientation of the dominant mass-media firms;
In discussing how media ownership is concentrated in the hands of the wealthy (the pattern is often for a media outlet to be part-owned by a family with the rest owned by the public sale of shares) Chomsky gives some useful history of the media in 19th century England. In the mid-nineteenth century there was a healthy market in working class daily newspapers. What finished them was not government legislation but economies of scale. The smaller, independent, publishers could not muster the level of capital required to enter the markets and keep the price of their publications competitive. This trend towards concentration has continued and even though there are a large number of players in the US media market the field is dominated by a small number of highly-capitalized ‘producers’. These ones are close to government and corporate-financial circles and tend to set news agendas which others follow. The general pattern for media ownership is for a percentage of the stocks of the media businesses to be owned by a family and the remainder freely traded. These ultra-wealthy families set the tone for the media outlets by choosing the top management. Chomsky then points out similarities in structure between large media businesses and other large businesses; these are profit-orientated businesses with, for example, bankers on the board and links to investment bankers. In fact large media companies are simply part of the corporate nexus. Media companies own non-media businesses and, in some cases, non-media businesses own media companies; for example General Electric owns the NBC network through an intermediary. (This is no longer the case; the stake was sold in 2013 ). All large firms have a symbiotic relationship with government as they are directly affected by tax and investment regimes. In the case of GE (at the time) it was heavily dependent on government as parts of its business were subsidized by government. Media outlets which gain commercial revenue by sales abroad depend on the government’s foreign policy outreach to support their efforts. Chomsky sums up:
In sum, the dominant media firms are quite large businesses; they are controlled by very wealthy people or by managers who are subject to sharp constraints by owners and other market-profit– oriented forces; 40 and they are closely interlocked, and have important common interests, with other major corporations, banks, and government. This is the first powerful filter that will affect news choices.
(2) advertising as the primary income source of the mass media
Chomsky develops the argument he made in the previous section. As technology developed the capital investment required to launch a newspaper grew. This was one factor which put pressure on a working class press. A second factor was advertising. Advertisers prefer an affluent audience. Chomsky gives specific examples of how independent Labour-leaning newspapers in post-war Britain were edged out because they did not get a large enough share of advertising money. Television in particular is highly dependent on advertisers. In addition; the different television companies are in competition with one another. These pressures means their output is conditioned by the demands of the advertisers. Critical public affairs programmes are likely to be less favoured than soft-touch programmes which put people into a buying mood.
(3) the reliance of the media on information provided by government, business, and “experts” funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power
Media organisations have budgets; they cannot place reporters and camera crews all over the world. In the interests of economy they will tend to get their news from places where the sources are concentrated. This is likely to mean government. In addition news from government and corporate sources tends to be quite reliable:
These bureaucracies turn out a large volume of material that meets the demands of news organizations for reliable, scheduled flows.
News supplied by government sources can be presented as factual and “unbiased”. Unlike news provided by, for example, a citizen’s pressure group, government information can generally be presented as fact, without checking. Government media departments provide journalists with material and access to public figures. They are aware of media schedules and provide materials in a timely fashion. Government has enormous resources to devote to briefing the media. Large corporations also have dedicated PR operations who can supply the media with raw material – for free. All this encourages media organisations to rely heavily on government and corporate sources. (An example would be how so many “Health” stories in print media, at least in the UK, seem to be lightly worked over adverts for the products of pharmaceutical companies; it is much easier to write an article based on a piece of research, provided by a drug company and quite possibly funded by the drug company, about some new wonder drug, than it would be to write a critical article based on testimony from a small grassroots pressure group who are concerned about the drug. The latter would require more research, fact checking and legal checks. It would be seen negatively by advertisers).
Once this relationship, between government press managers and journalists, is established it can be manipulated by government. If journalists do not produce the required stories, or go off message, they will find that their access to the briefings or, in some cases, permission to go to a war zone, for example; is rescinded. This is a very good example of the kind of hierarchical, manipulative, dependency-inducing relationship criticised by Ivan Illich in his book Deschooling Society. 
The media sometimes turns to independent experts. But here too, power has already used its resources to make sure that its viewpoint is heard most loudly. Government and corporate sources support a large number of “independent” think tanks. Many of the experts who work in these institutions have moved there from careers in the military. Chomsky gives the example of the Centre for Centre and International Studies. At the time he was writing, 1988, this organisation was supported by corporate sources and provided a revolving door for ex CIA staffers. This think-tank is often cited by Western media on the current Ukraine war.
(4) “flak” as a means of disciplining the media
Flak means negative criticism designed to “punish” a media outlet for producing a particular story. The fear of flak can lead media organisations to avoid producing programmes which are critical of powerful groups. Chomsky is particularly sensitive to how powerful groups can support Conservative (Republican) politicians and use these to bear down on the media. Of course; this book was written before “cancel culture” where liberal-progressives try to maintain total control of media narratives by having anyone who expresses alternative views sacked or exiled in some way. Chomsky discusses how the corporate world funded several “media watchdog” type institutions in the US in the 1980s with the specific aim of putting pressure on the media to produce a more corporate-friendly and “right-wing” line of coverage.
I would add that I first became aware of “flak” when I became interested in ADHD in the UK.  At that time, the BBC’s flagship Panorama programme produced a piece about ADHD. The foundation of the piece was public commentary by a scientist who had been involved in a major piece of “research” used to promote ADHD drugging. He said:
I think that we exaggerated the beneficial impact of medication in the first study. We had thought that children medicated longer would have better outcomes. That didn’t happen to be the case. There’s no indication that medication’s better than nothing in the long run.
This was a disaster for the ADHD drugging business. A BBC programme which attracts millions of viewers creating doubt about the ADHD-drugging narrative. The response was a concerted and determined pushback. The pushback went through two BBC oversight committees. The second Committee consulted a well-known ADHD promoter in the UK. They came to the conclusion that the Panorama programme had made mistakes and obliged them to issue an on-air apology. In fact it is evident from their report that the BBC Editorial Standards Committee did not understand the basic scientific questions involved. They simply deferred to the establishment. (For a detailed review of this flawed process see my study into ADHD. ) The BBC refused to tell this writer who had made the complaint. We have no idea; was it a pharmaceutical company, someone “with ADHD” who is a staunch defender of the wonders of stimulants (such people abound), or perhaps someone involved with one of the drug company funded “ADHD patients’ groups”. At any event I cite this as a very good example of what Chomsky means by “flak”. The effect would have been to discourage the BBC and other media organisations from questioning the ADHD-drugging narrative.
(5) “anticommunism” as a national religion and control mechanism.
Possibly this last aspect of the “propaganda model” is the least relevant these days – though, thinking about the UK media, it is even here (at a distance of time and space from the days of extreme anti-communism in the US) obvious that “Communist” or “hard-left” views would not be given any space in the mainstream media. We could add that at the present time “anticommunism” seems to be being replaced with “anti-Russianism”. It is nearly impossible to get even a balanced view on Russia into the mainstream press. I don’t have the link but I have a vivid memory of the UK academic Mary Dejevsky being interviewed as a guest on a major US network show, before the current war. She said something which countered the narrative of blindly aggressive Russia. I think she said something quite innocuous like “the Russians have a point of view too”. The anchor just rolled her eyes wildly at the camera as if to say “look what a nutcase they have given me to interview”. The author and academic Jeffrey Sachs recently mentioned in an interview (on YouTube) that he had found it impossible to get a balanced article on Russia accepted by any print media outlet.
Summary of Chomsky’s Propaganda Model
In summary; despite the appearance, and claim, of an “independent” media, the media in the West is anything but. It is connected to and dependent on government and large corporations and largely tells the stories these groups and actors prefer to be told. Media organisations are necessarily large because of economies of scale and as any other large business are plugged into a world of banking and investment capital. Advertisers support the “free” media and they prefer affluent audiences and don’t like to see articles or programmers critical of their businesses practices. Both governments and corporations excel at using their deep (publicly funded in the case of government) resources to provide the raw material which media organisations use – because it is convenient and free. If they are tempted to go off-piste and produce articles critical of the corporate-government machine they are subject to organised attacks by well-funded organisations funded/supported by corporations. Media organisations can adopt and promulgate a “religion” which essentially forbids certain viewpoints being expressed in the media; currently any view which tries to see the Ukraine war from the point of view of Russia is outlawed in Western media.
Dichotomization and propaganda campaigns
Here Chomsky introduces a theme which he will discuss in more detail in the next chapter. By ‘dichotomization’ he means a tendency to give certain stories much more weight than others based not on their objective meaning, but according to where they fit into the filter system given by the propaganda model. Thus, Polish dissidents, (this was the 1980s), are highly favoured by the US government and so receive a lot of coverage. But human rights activities in, say Turkey, do not; because these represent a cause which is in fact inconvenient for corporate-government interests, which, at the time, (according to Chomsky), were quite happy to do business with Turkey’s “martial-law government”. Chomsky provides another example of ‘dichotomization’, the vastly different ways the Soviet shooting down of a South Korean civilian aircraft in 1983 and the shooting down by Israel of a civilian airliner in 1973 were handled. It is not that the former is not a valid story – it is that only one of the two stories is amplified and broadcast. We see this today; alleged human rights abuses by targets of Western regime change operations, such as in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or in Syria, are heavily amplified. But abuses in the post regime change Iraq or by opponents of Assad’s government are of little interest. They don’t make it through the filter system.
Chomsky describes how once a particular propaganda theme is adopted it will be carried by all the media, becomes accepted truth, and it becomes easy to inflate it with exaggerations. I particularly like this:
If the theme collapses of its own burden of fabrications, the mass media will quietly fold their tents and move on to another topic.If
Which is exactly what happened to the media story that the lab-leak origin theory for Covid 19 was a fringe “conspiracy theory”. This view was propagandised for the best part of a year but collapsed when even government agencies started admitting quietly that there is a good chance this theory is correct. Even now one can find in the media attempts to downplay the lab-leak theory and one sees few serious articles in support of it even though there is a wealth of circumstantial evidence to support it and very little to support the alternative zoonotic spillover theory. Chomsky’s model explains this; the lab leak theory is inconvenient for governed because it will upset relations with China and is inconvenient for powerful industry players and investors and academia whose own work and activities in the field of bio-genetics could be called into question. So; it does not make it past the filters. Imagine had it been Russia and not China who had been doing work (funded by the US government) on mutating infectious viruses in an insecure lab just a few kilometres from where the pandemic started. Would the media have called it a “conspiracy theory” to suggest that the virus leaked from the Russian lab? No; you would have been called a conspiracy theorist had you suggested not.
Chapter 2 – Worthy and Unworthy Victims
In this Chapter Chomsky illustrates his thesis of uneven coverage determined by elite interests. He starts by comparing the case of a Polish priest, Jerzy Popieluszko, who was murdered by police in Warsaw Pact Poland in 1984 with the murders of priests and female religious workers in Latin American states within the US orbit, workers who were active in some cases in fighting for peasant rights against government and business interests. The difference in quantity of coverage, e.g. number of articles and column inches, is shown. He also argues that there is a difference in emotional quality. The murdered Polish priest is humanised to a greater extent than the religious figures in Latin America. Chomsky cites this as an example of the propaganda filters at work. One could argue somewhat against this case; the case in Poland was arguably of greater political significance and thus the greater media interest is understandable. In addition; there was a trial in Poland and this gave a focus for media reporting. It is easier to report on a trial than do dangerous investigative reporting in a country where people routinely disappear. Still; the essential point remains. The media was more focussed on the Polish case because this fitted the anti-USSR foreign policy agenda of the US, whereas reporting on the horrors of murders of innocents in badly run semi-dictatorship US client states did not serve the foreign policy agenda so well.
Chomsky then delves deeper into the media treatment of the murder of oppositional (to the government junta and death squads) Archbishop Romero in El Salvador in 1980. He finds a concerted effort to misrepresent the situation and he continues to draw parallels with the case of the murder of the Polish priest Jerzy Popieluszko. In the case of Jerzy Popieluszko the media was very interested in who had ordered the killing and worked to establish a link to the USSR. In the case of Archbishop Romero rather than do this (the trail led to the US supported junta) they posed as if they really had no idea:
Although Romero was far and away the most important establishment figure aligned with the popular movements, the media pretended at first that the affiliation of his killers was a complete mystery.
Chomsky then discusses the case of the murder of 4 US female religious workers by Salvadorian National Guardsmen. He shows how the State Department tried hard to minimise the case, for example by suggesting initially that the nuns had run a roadblock and later that they were connected to an opposition movement. Eventually family pressure in the US forced the US and El Salvadorian governments to enact a judicial process and some low-level operatives were found guilty. The media, according to Chomsky, played their part in keeping feelings of indignation low. Following our theme of applying Chomsky’s model to contemporary events we can’t help but notice the similarity to the murder of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov in Moscow in 2015. In this case the authorities did carry out an investigation and the actual trigger team were jailed but the investigation has, at least not yet, produced the people who ordered the hit. In this structurally similar case the Western media never stops generating feelings of outrage and indignation.
Chomsky then discusses Guatemala. In 1954 the US supported a coup which saw a democratic regime overthrown and instituted a reign by a military government which ruled by terror. Chomsky notes that the media did not provide this context (the US invasion of 1954) when discussing subsequent developments in the country. In a similar way we can note that the Western media in discussing the current war in Ukraine never discusses how the US aim of incorporating Ukraine into NATO could have been a provocative factor for Russia. There is a lack of context. Chomsky points out the government can rely on a certain degree of collusion from the media:
It is evident that we have here a consistent pattern that may be formulated into a quasilaw: in the case of a terrorist state with which the administration wants “constructive engagement,” things are always OK and improving; but when that regime is ousted, its record deteriorates ex post facto and looks most unfavorable compared with the humanistic and sensitive one now in power! This droll pattern of identical apologetics for each successor terrorist, and ex post denigration of the one ousted, is an Orwellian process that the Western press associates with totalitarian states, but it happens here. And it can only occur if the mass media are cooperative.
The essential theme of this chapter is how the murders linked to the state which took place in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s were not reported on to anything like the extent of the murder of Polish priest Jerzy Popieluszko and even when they were the reporting was qualitatively different; there was an attempt to play down the horrors and there was little media interest in establishing the connections to the state. The media was in general willing to go along with State Department lines, reproduced official propaganda such as a claim of a Cuban-based insurgency in Guatemala, and when they did report on human rights concerns did so weakly and with an evident desire to return to the official narrative as soon as possible. This is predicated by the propaganda model of Chapter 1, given the US economic and political interests in Latin America and official support for the murderous regimes.
Chapter 3 – Legitimizing versus Meaningless Third World Elections: El Salvador Guatemala Nicaragua
In this Chapter Chomsky compares and contrasts 3 elections, those held in Guatemala in 1984-95 and El Salvador in 1982 and 1984 with those held in Nicaragua in 1984. The elections held in El Salvador and Guatemala were designed to legitimise US supported regimes. In both cases the elections took place in the context of widespread state political terror. The election in Nicaragua was designed to legitimise the independent Nicaraguan government and took place in a context free of state terror. Chomsky examines how US media covered the different elections.
Chomsky discusses how the US government promoted different standards in each case. In the case of El Salvador they promoted the idea that the test of the election was what happened on election day, with observers monitoring polling stations and confirming that all was in order. In contrast, as concerns Nicurgaua, the standards were different; here the focus was on the conditions prior to election day, the freedom to form political parties, access to the media, and so on. (The OSCE which sometimes monitors elections stresses that these factors are an important part of election monitoring). Chomsky makes the point that we would expect the US government to do this, but that we would hope that the supposedly independent media would behave differently. In fact, as predicted by the “propaganda model”, that is by the fact that the US media operates largely in the direct service of government-corporate interests, the media went along with this double-standard, and, crucially, hides the fact that double-standards are being used.
Chomsky contrasts the pre-election situations in EL Salvador and Guatemala with the situation in Nicaragua. Citing evidence from Church groups, Oxfam and LASA (Latin American Studies Association) he aims to show that the pre-electoral climate in US client states El Salvador and Guatemala was much worse, in fact characterised by fear of state terror, than in Nicaragua where, despite some level of official harassment people were able to assemble and discuss political questions without fear. Chomsky contrasts the murder of journalists in EL Salvador and Guatemala and the inability of independent media to operate with a free and private media in Nicaragua, censored but not intimated out of existence.
Chomsky then turns to discussing US media coverage of these different elections. He finds evidence for his propaganda model. US media depicted the elections in El Salvador and Guatemala as being a triumph in the face of difficult conditions. High turnout in El Salvador was cited as evidence of this success – with no mention of the fact that voting was a legal requirement and people feared the consequences of not voting. In general the media did not provide the context of the election in El Salvador, for example, the killings of journalists, in the period leading up to the elections. In comparing the reporting of the Guatemalan elections and those in Nicaragua Chomsky notes that the opposition was treated differently. In Nicaragua the media determined that whether or not the opposition could run in the election was critical. But they did not make the same demands about the Guatemalan elections. Chomsky points out that the US media largely relied on the State Department for information about the elections in Guatemala. When they did cite an NGO they qualified it: “Americas Watch, a controversial group that is often accused of being too sympathetic to the left, called Guatemala ‘a nation of prisoners'”. (Time). Statements from, for example, a group of Bishops in Guatemala questioning the validity of the elections were scarcely reported. Positive aspects of the elections which were reported in the case of Nicaragua by an independent group from the Irish parliament such as pre-election work to ensure up to date lists of registered voters were not mentioned by the media. Aspects of the elections in El Salvador which should have given rise to concern, such as translucent ballot boxes, were reported on but the official explanation; this is to prevent fraud, was accepted. In El Salvador voting was obligatory. In Nicaragua it was voluntary. The media, according to Chomsky, buried both these facts, thus inflating the “success” of the election in US client state El Salvador and denigrating it in leftist Nicaragua.
In critiquing the reporting of one particular Time reporter, Chomsky makes the argument that the reporter, Stephen Kinzer was “reporting news in a way that fit the Times’s editorial position and the U.S. government agenda”. I have noticed this in general; journalists tend to be motivated not to “uncover the truth” or report objectively on a situation. They usually understand their task as being to produce copy which fits into the editorial demands of their paper. Editors are closer to management and closer to advertisers; the second plank in Chomsky’s propaganda model. The editors thus have a clear idea of the “style” of the newspaper, or magazine, and that includes its political position. Journalists, even staff journalists, are in a competitive field. They want to get their articles accepted, and not rejected, naturally. Thus they learn how to write for the publication – style, and political outlook. This is simply a process of natural selection and adaptation. Those who adapt for the required style and political outlook of the publication as determined by its editors will survive. Those who don’t will not be working in the media. It is not just in the field of politics that journalists write pieces based on a template. The same phenomenon affects all aspects of journalism; even a reporter on a small, local paper understands that there are stories “which sell” and, confronted with reality he, or she, will, naturally, try to fit reality into that template. Fitting reality into the editorial template happens at all levels of journalism. I came across what I would cite as an example of this recently, in reviewing an article about Russia in the New York Times.  In this case despite good quality writing and some keen observations the journalist has, despite having been on a fact-finding mission to Russia, produced a standard liberal story about “Russian aggression”, a story in which pro-Western Russian liberals are described as “truth-tellers operating from a moral compass” while normal Russians are described as being cowed and duped by state propaganda.
Chomsky discusses how, in discussing Nicaragua, the State Department and “lap-dog media” talked up Arturo Cruz as the “main opposition”. According to Chomsky Cruz was an expatriate who “now concedes he was on the CIA payroll”. Great play was made of how he was not allowed to run. This contrasts with El Salvador where what Chomsky calls the “real main opposition” was blocked from running. “No party of the left could organize and present candidates in the 1982 and 1984 elections in El Salvador.” The army had declared virtually all politicians of the left to be “traitors”. I don’t know anything about Arturo Cruz but the pattern of the State Department and compliant media deciding who is the “main opposition” sounds familiar from the Russian case. Here the State Department describes Navalny as “opposition leader” and Western media routinely described him as “the main rival to Putin”; though in reality his success came from a social media campaign focussing on corruption and by adopting a rather bland political programme which would attract as many people as possible. His designation as “the main opposition” was really a creation of the West.
One of Chomsky’s phrases resonates with this reviewer. Talking about how the media suppresses evidence of US attempts to interfere in the Nicaraguan elections he writes: “All substantive evidence is placed in the black hole.” A modern “black hole” in Western media would, of course, be the situation in Eastern Ukraine. It is easy to demonstrate that Ukraine is a divided country, that in the East of Ukraine support for a NATO-EU future is much less than it is in the North and West, that there is a greater concentration of ethnic Russians in the East,  and that support for the ousted Yanokovich was stronger in the East. There is a story to be told about this division in Ukraine which is extremely pertinent to the current (2023) conflict. The entire story of this division and more “pro-Russian” sentiment in the East disappears down one of Chomsky’s “black holes”. It is entirely suppressed. Instead the rebellion in Donbas following the Western-backed Maidan coup is almost universally described as “Russian-instigated separatism”. One further point; in a lot of reporting from the front-lines in Ukraine, especially in Autumn 2022, Western reporters were accurately reporting that some people they spoke to in the reclaimed by Ukraine territories were “pro-Russian”. These reports were absolutely contrary to the main editorial and political line (the one determined by the state and implemented by the corporate media) but they surfaced. What was happening? Firstly; journalists were meeting local people in a way that was probably somewhat uncontrolled by Ukranian media managers. Secondly; the reporters were filing fresh reports based on what was actually happening, rather than, as might happen in a less fast-moving environment, going out and producing commissioned reports. This is evidence that individual Western journalists are capable of honest reporting in certain circumstances. The problem is more located at the editorial level.
Chomsky concludes this chapter with a statistical analysis of articles in the New York Times. He shows that when covering the elections in El Salvador the New York Times focussed on topics such as rebel disruption, election mechanics and personalities but gave less emphasis to questions about whether or not the basic conditions for a free election had been set, for example freedom of the press and organisational freedom (possibly ‘freedom to organise’?). The situation is somewhat reversed in relation to the coverage by the New York Times of the 1984 election in Nicaragua.
The US media reported that the El Salvadoran and Guatemalan elections were substantive and signs of real democratic progress whereas the Nicaraguan one was a sham designed to falsely legitimise the Sandinista regime. The objective truth was more on the reverse; while there were problems in Nicaragua they were far less than in El Salvador and Guatemala. Chomsky cites external sources such as a report on the Nicaraguan elections by LASA and by an Irish parliamentary group to support his case that the Nicaraguan elections were, by the standards of the region, largely free. He refers to reports by, for example, Amnesty International, a British Parliamentary group and the UN on Guatemala and a representative of a British Parliamentary group on El Salvador to support his story about the horrors and actions of the military in El Salvador and Guatemala, which made free elections in those countries impossible.That said; killings of leftist opposition figures in El Salvador by militias linked to the military were really no secret. The task of the US media was to gloss this so they could present the elections there as legitimate; a task which they fulfilled admirably even ‘audaciously’.
Chapter 4 – The KGB-Bulgarian Plot to Kill the Pope: Free-Market Disinformation as “News”
This chapter is about the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in 1981. Chomsky says that while the coverage of Latin American elections had largely been driven by the State Department, in this case the media themselves were mostly responsible for producing a “dominant frame” which “interpreted the shooting of the pope in a manner especially helpful to then-current elite demands.”
Once the dominant frame is established facts which support it are adduced. Facts which might call it into question are ignored. Essentially, Chomsky argues that the media ran with the story that the Pope’s would be assassin was acting on behalf of Bulgaria and behind Bulgaria, the KGB, who wanted to see the Pope assassinated either to strike a blow against the Solidarity movement in Poland, or, initially, to implicate the Turkish right-wing and this sow dissension between NATO and Turkey, because this suited their anti-Russia narrative. At the time it was expedient to link Russia to global terrorism, for example to justify placing missiles in Europe. Chomsky points to inconsistencies and a general lack of evidence in the Bulgarian-connection narrative. He suggests that the more plausible explanation is that the assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, was acting for the Gray Wolves, a right-wing Turkish group with whom he was known to associate and who were expressing anti-Papal feeling in their circles in Turkey.
Chomsky points out how accepting of the unlikely the media was. For example, it took Agca 17 months from his arrest to when he came up with the claim of a Bulgarian connection. Chomsky points out that it took quite a lot of the media not to ask any obvious questions about this; in particular, was this not because he had been worked on in prison? In some cases Chomsky suggests that there is evidence that Agca was building his story based on the widely circulating media narrative.
Chomsky discusses media coverage of this case as an example of the media adopting a narrative and then ignoring any facts which contradicted it.
Chapter 5 – The Indochina Wars (I): Vietnam
Chomsky has a problem here, which he addresses head on. The problem is that it is widely perceived that the media was too independent, even adversarial of government and in fact that the media contributed to the US losing the war. Chomsky explains this as being a sort of internal debate within the elite; the adversarial media was critical of those currently holding office while remaining within overall elite policy. The noble intentions of the US in launching their military intervention were not questioned.
Chomsky’s propaganda model has to be flexible enough to see media pessimism of the chances of success of government policy as being consistent with the model. He asserts that criticism of US policy in the media in general kept within the official narrative – the intervention had been based on noble motives. The problems were practical, tactical and in part due to the failings of the US’s South Vietnamese allies. In general the media reported from the point of view of the US government. He contrasts this with what he sees as another act of Superpower aggression – the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In this case the media did not see the war through the eyes of the Soviet State but entirely through the eyes of the resistance – the mujahedin operating out of Pakistan. Had the same model been applied in Vietnam, the media would have reported that war from the point of view of the Vietnamese villagers and National Liberation Front. The media never framed the US intervention in Vietnam as an act of aggression. It was, even when taking an “adversarial” tone, limited to criticism of good intentions gone awry.
Chomsky discusses how it is surprising that the media could completely fail to see the aggression of the US in Vietnam. Their puppet government, never called a puppet, did not command the support of the majority of the population in South Vietnam. The US could never claim it was defending anyone (other than its own interests) in Vietnam. He comments that this goes beyond the limitations of the media to reproduce a certain frame and reflects how some matters are unthinkable in cultural intellectual terms. Again, an analogy with the present situation in Ukraine. It is absolutely obvious that the Russian concern about having NATO on their border in Ukraine is reasonable, or at least as reasonable as the US objection (would certainly be) to having a foreign military power forming an alliance with Mexico. Yet – the whole media discourse, all the retired generals, all the think-tank experts and all the news anchors just ignore this.
Chomsky discusses US support for the bourgeois regime in South Vietnam which took over from the departing French colonialists. This regime did not have widespread popular support. It was backed because it was anti-Communist. Without stretching the comparison too far this does remind me of US support for the current government in Kiev, Ukraine. In 2014 Gallup conducted a survey in Ukraine which included a question of NATO membership. These are the figures for NATO support: East: 13.1%, South: 10.3% (Crimea was not asked this question), Center: 32.1%, North: 37.7%, West: 53.2%.  Now; recall, how this war is framed by the media as Western support for the aspiration of the people of Ukraine to join NATO, which Russia is trying to block. Chomsky’s account of how the US supported political leaders in South Vietnam solely on the criteria of whether they opposed a political (as opposed to a military) settlement of the war also seems to have some analogy to the current support of Kiev by the US.
Chomsky outlines how the US could not tolerate a political solution in South Vietnam, at least, not until they had established the ground and context for it – by violence. The US thwarted attempts, including by their own puppet government, to find a political solution to the crisis. Once again; this looks remarkably similar to US policy in Ukraine today. The current line is that Ukraine should be supported militarily in order to have a strong position at the negotiating table. This, despite the fact that it is really unlikely that Ukraine will be able to get more from negotiations now than they would have been able to in March 2022.
Critics of Chomsky’s analysis of how coverage of the Vietnam war follows his propaganda model might point to the My Lai massacre which was covered in the US media and which led to soldiers being charged. Chomsky’s answer is similar to his response to the fact that there were criticisms of the war in the media; he argues that coverage of the My Lai massacre was narrow and focussed on this one case (as tactics are in general) but the reporting did not identify that this kind of massacre was in fact not unusual and took place in the context of a military campaign which legitimised hitting civilian targets. Chomsky does seem determined to press his “propaganda model” and to find explanations for all reporting which fit his model. Fundamentally, on Vietnam, his position is that it was a war of aggression waged by the US because they were losing on the field of politics and diplomacy and thus was totally inexcusable and any reporting which does not start from this premise is part of the propaganda model. This means that countering the propaganda model – the media reports events but within the overall frame given by their government, (as he constantly reminds us Pravda did in the USSR), he demands that the media reports using a framework which he, one imagines, sees as ‘objective’. One problem with this is that reporters are not the same as academics. They do not have the same powers of analysis, ability or time to analyse world situations in great depth. They report what they are told. They could, of course, get their frame for, say the elections in Guatemala from the Latin American Studies Association – but how are journalists to know that this organisation is ‘objectively correct’? If journalists do not have the means to determine which view is objectively correct it seems inevitable that they will look for a reliable and true-to-most-of-the-people source, i.e. government. They can’t go wrong this way. Chomsky acknowledges that one of the attractions of the government as a source for the media is that it has a certain professionalism and authority. From this point of view we could say that Chomsky is being unrealistic. Academics have the time to understand in depth what is going on; as he says, “specialist literature” on Vietnam did discuss how the majority of peasants in South Vietnam saw their interests better represented by the HLF (Viet Cong) but journalists generally are not academics. it is a different sphere. I am not criticising Chomsky’s characterisation and analysis of the reasons for the media towing the government-corporate line. But perhaps there is a certain inevitability about it.
Chomsky is, throughout this chapter, struggling to counter the perception that in fact the “liberal” media “lost the war” by pessimistic reporting. Such a view, represented for example by a Freedom House report, would destroy his propaganda model. He claims that opinion polling does not bear this out; as the media was being “pessimistic” following US losses, opinion polls showed people wanting to fight back. In response to a claim that even so the pessimism in the media influences political leaders he simply says this is absurd. I am not so sure that is the case; it may well be that political leaders do get their perspectives from the media. After all; most politicians are avid consumers of the media. Chomsky is on stronger ground when he produces evidence of internal government assessments of the battle-field situation that were pessimistic and were based on assessments of the situation in the field. Chomsky argues that the media can allow some variations on tactics and elite opinion but never questions the fundamental government rationale and claims about a “noble intervention” in support of the South Vietnamese. For example; he cites a media report quoted by Freedom House as evidence of pessimism but he points out that the overall framing of this particular report is still onside with the main US narrative. He believes that his analysis of the Freedom House report confirms his view and he sees this report as “flak” – that is part of his model. (“Flak”, is hostile attacks on the media designed to bring them into line).
I have already mentioned that some sentences and paragraphs in this book are unclear. In criticising the right-wing view, mentioned above, that the press was “adversarial”, Chomsky writes:
Throughout, it is taken for granted that the forces armed, trained, and supplied by the only foreign element in the delta are “the South Vietnamese,” not the South Vietnamese guerrillas living among the population in their “Vietcong strongholds,” from whom the United States is “protecting” the population by ferocious bombardment of civilian areas.
Maybe I am confused but the above only makes sense to me if we substitute “North Vietnamese” for “South Vietnamese”.
Chomsky discusses the 1973 Paris Agreements signed by the US and North Vietnam which ended the war and were supposed to lead to problems being resolved politically. According to Chomsky the agreements were falsely represented to the American people (and the world) by the State Department and the White House who, for example, claimed that the agreements recognized only the GVN (government of South Vietnam) as having legitimacy in South Vietnam whereas in fact the agreements have equal status to the GVN and PRG (the successor to the NLF, National Liberation Front). Chomsky shows how the press ran with this false representation:
Just as in October, the purpose of this obfuscation was, in Nixon’s words, “to make sure that our version of the agreement was the one that had great public impact.” And again it succeeded. The media— without exception, to our knowledge— accepted the Kissinger– White House version as expressing the contents of the agreements, enabling them to interpret the PRG-DRV insistence on the actual terms of the Paris Agreements as an effort to disrupt them.
Chomsky is on difficult ground applying his propaganda model to media coverage of the Vietnam War, because there was some critical reporting. He acknowledges the problem but asserts that he has demonstrated his propaganda model by his critique of the Freedom House report. But chinks remain:
[After the war]. The problem in the United States was the reconstruction of ideology, the taming of the domestic population that had lost its faith in the nobility of intent and the inspiring benevolence of the elites who determine U.S. policy. It
But how did the population lose its faith in the “nobility of intent”? According to Chomsky, the media allowed tactical elite differences to be aired but never questioned the basic government framing of the war; a noble enterprise let down perhaps by the South Vietnamese or by perfidious Communists or perhaps just by fate. So; if the population did not lose their faith in “nobility of intent” because of the media they lost it despite the media. In either case this is a problem for Chomsky. In the first case, that completely undermines his propaganda model. In the second case that doesn’t undermine his propaganda model, but leads to the conclusion that perhaps it doesn’t matter so much; the population is still capable of forming independent, rational conclusions despite being propagandised to. The implication is that most people know that the media is feeding them propaganda.
Later in this chapter Chomsky writes;
But the public has nevertheless remained corrupted.
The meaning is that they have lost their faith in “nobility of intent”. But, again; who by? If by the media – then he is admitting that at least in part the media did play a part in undermining the official line.
Possibly because he is at least to some extent on the backfoot on the question of media coverage of the Vietnam War Chomsky now broadens his attack and complains about the “prevailing cultural climate”. Beyond the media with its propaganda model lies a culture which allows all these excesses. But, if the culture embodies these values it seems that what he is asking is the media to join him, in a campaign to raise American’s awareness of how awful their political and intellectual culture is. One can certainly see how an advertising funded media is unlikely to go down that path.
Chomsky has further problems with his thesis. He discusses a 1983 PBS TV documentary about the war. He has to concede that:
It is not that the facts are entirely hidden. Thus episode 5 (“ America Takes Charge”) opens with a description by a GI of how “the ARVN and the VC are the same people, the same race, the same culture, and yet one side seems to be chicken and the other side seems to fight in the face of overwhelming disadvantages” in what is clearly “their country.” A U.S. major discusses the problem in Binh Dinh Province, which “had never been really in friendly hands” since 1946 but rather “under VC control” throughout, compelling the United States to resort to “awesome fire power” that turns heavy jungle into a “moonscape.” It is not that the facts are entirely hidden. Thus episode 5 (“ America Takes Charge”) opens with a description by a GI of how “the ARVN and the VC are the same people, the same race, the same culture, and yet one side seems to be chicken and the other side seems to fight in the face of overwhelming disadvantages” in what is clearly “their country.” A U.S. major discusses the problem in Binh Dinh Province, which “had never been really in friendly hands” since 1946 but rather “under VC control” throughout, compelling the United States to resort to “awesome fire power” that turns heavy jungle into a “moonscape.”
Chomsky views the US intervention in Vietnam as being an immoral, (definitely not noble) attempt to support the elitist and unpopular government of South Vietnam against their own people who were a mainly agrarian population who were definitely represented by the NLF. In fact the US was so set against allowing a “Communist victory” that they even blocked efforts by the South Vietnamese elites to sue for peace. In this story the North only became involved reluctantly when they had no choice but to respond to American aggression. This story is opposed to the “official” but propaganda view (of the government and media) that America intervened to support the legitimate government of South Vietnam against Communist subversion from the North. Chomsky acknowledges that his view can be developed by detailed study of internal government documents, “specialist literature” and by gleaning facts which do slip into the media. That is that to develop his view you have to have the time and the resources of an academic. One would expect a government to propagandise. Chomsky complains that the media should not act as the amplifier of this propaganda but as the critic of it. In fact; one can see how, using his propaganda model, the media in fact choses the easy path. What is the alternative? Chomsky frequently (and with a certain amount of stereotyping) compares the subservient-to-power Western media with Pravda (the media organ of the Russian Communist Party). But if a commercial free media is bound to produce propaganda, for the reasons he explains, and a state media is too; what is the answer? The truth appears to be that ‘truth’ or at least a more objective view is available to people who dig into the matter, who filter the news for bias as they read it, and who read books, (maybe even use FOI requests to study government documents).
Chapter 6 – The Indochina Wars (II): Laos and Cambodia
While criticising the US media for complicity in the US campaign against Laos in the late 1960s; they did not report on US bombing of northern LAOS or a CIA organised guerrilla war, Chomsky cites eyewitness reports by a French journalist with Le Monde as evidence for the large-scale bombing campaign. His propaganda model can allow for occasional “off-message” pieces to appear. But, the existence of such pieces, especially robust and definitely “off-message” reporting like this do show that the Western media is not, like Pravda, in which organ we can assume that such off-message reporting would have been even rarer. Chomsky admits that the “objective” stories can appear in the Western media; for this reviewer that does indicate that, flawed as it is by its dependence on finance capital and government, the Western media still contains, at least, a possibility of independent reporting. Chomsky also cites a “leftist” publication the National Guardian as covering this otherwise unreported (or misreported) US bombing. He even cites a New York Times report, very late in the day, but accurately reporting that ‘“the rebel economy and social fabric” were “the main United States targets now,”’. Again; while he may be right that individual media outlets in the US exceeded Pravda in their enthusiasm to promote the government line, nonetheless, as long as he keeps citing examples of independent reporting in the Western media – including Le Monde, AFP, a “leftist” US publication and the New York Times he is acknowledging that in the overall Western media space there remains the possibility to publish non-official information, something which is not possible in a totalitarian state.
Chomsky discusses how the media ignored the victims of US bombing in Cambodia between 1969 and 1975 but talked up the victims of Pol Pot between 1975 and 1978 and then again those of the Vietnamese occupation after 1978. This confirms his view, first articulated in connection with comparisons between Guatemala and El Salvador with Nicaragua that the US media has two classes of victims; “worthy victims” (those killed by unfriendly regimes and “unworthy victims”, those killed by friendly client states. On the evidence he presents the case is plausible. But, once again, he effectively admits that there are pockets of freedom in the media which enable the “truth” to be perceived by those who want to inquire into it:
A year earlier, an American study team investigated specific charges by the U.S. government on the scene and found them without substance although they did come across the site of a recent U.S. helicopter-gunship attack on a Cambodian village (one of many, according to the local population), first denied by the U.S. government, then conceded, since American eyewitnesses (including CBS-TV) were present— the usual pattern.
In this account CBS-TV is fulfilling precisely the role that the media should (one imagines in Chomsky’s view) fulfil; it is exposing government lies and holding government to account for their actions.
Chomsky also quotes, at length, from a piece by journalist Jon Swain in the UK’s Sunday Times in support of his account of cruel and genocidal bombing of Cambodia by the US between 1969 and 1975. In as much as Chomsky is relying on media reports to support his objective account of what happened in order to show that the media is hiding the truth, he is tacitly admitting, at least, that there are exceptions to the propaganda model. None of these undermines his propaganda model; but it does show that it is quite porous.
When journalists do report on the “objective” account that Chomsky wants them to, Chomsky is rarely satisfied. He reports on their reports in dripping irony and sarcasm. For example when one journalist acknowledges substantial casualties of US bombing and, in line with Chomsky’s analysis, makes a link between this and the rise of the murderous Khmer Rouge it is still not enough for Chomsky. The journalist’s sin was that he writes: “And the superpowers— including this country, with the Nixon incursion of 1970 and the massive bombing that followed— provided that war and that nurturing material.”, which does not sufficiently blame America.
It is worth pointing out that Chomsky’s propaganda model is chiefly aimed at US media. In this chapter he, more than once, refers to “reputable foreign sources”. One problem with this is that the pattern of media ownership in Europe is essentially similar to that in the US. If the European media is less propagandistic than the American then there must be reasons beyond his propaganda model for the depth of propaganda in US media. I would tentatively suggest that the reason for this is patriotism. In the US, a country where school-children salute the national flag every day, perhaps there is also a factor which simply makes people rally round their government and state, even if they (at some level) know that the government may be not quite as white as it seems.
Chomsky is an academic. Academics are generally interested in their reputations. It is not surprising that Chomsky dedicates a lot of pages to refuting a case by writer William Shawcross that Chomsky’s report on how the Western media had generated a propaganda story against the Khmer Rouge government was not correct. He is so exercised that he even repeats his arguments. He quotes his own work three times to show that he had indeed conceded that the Khmer Rouge atrocities were “substantial and often gruesome”. There is some typical academic argument. Shawcross had quoted Chomsky but Chomsky counter-argues that the quote is a synthetic quote made up of various phrases from his work. For those of us who are not academics this discussion is somewhat tedious. Is Chomsky advocating for his propaganda model theory or defending point by point his academic reputation?
In this section Chomsky discusses three phases in Cambodia. US bombing, officially against Viet Cong supply routes, but in fact on a much wider basis, between 1969 and 1975, when Cambodia was under the rule of Sihanouk and Lon Nol, then under the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1978 and then a period under Vietnamese occupation. His argument is that the period from 1969 to 1975 saw a genocidal campaign by the US which was largely passed over by the media. The period from 1975 – 1978 saw a period of Khmer Rouge rule whose atrocities were exaggerated and did not become really bad until 1977/8, but despite which the atrocities received very widespread media coverage. He also defends himself against the charge that he had been too sceptical about Khmer Rouge atrocities. Finally, from 1978 he charges that the media again began to be concerned about Cambodian victims. Essentially, then Chomsky is charging that the media downplays the atrocities of the US and its allies and emphasises the stories of victims of the enemies of the US. Chomsky himself, is at least charged with having downplayed the victim stories of the anti-US (at the time) Khmer Rouge regime, and he is certainly at pains to focus on the victims of the US. I am not in a position to assess whether Chomsky did or did not show a compromising degree of scepticism in relation to the victims of the Khmer Rouge, but his recourse to quoting, three times, that in a key article he acknowledged “substantial and often gruesome” atrocities does not entirely convince me that the charge is without merit.
Chomsky pursues the theme that he has raised in connection with his discussion of the media coverage of the Vietnam war and the charge that in fact it was too left-wing and adversarial towards government. He argues that this, and other examples of apparent media independence, such as Watergate can be explained by the media supporting one faction in the elite. The media are only activated by challenges to elite interests, according to Chomsky.
Chomsky is dismissive of the apparent willingness of the media to criticise government. His case, which he has sought to sustain by citing examples from the media, is that critical stories that do appear in the media rarely actually challenge the core presuppositions of the government. The role of the media is not to “hold power to account”. On the contrary, it is aimed at blocking critical discussion:
This is quite typical of the actual “societal purpose” of the media on matters that are of significance for established power; not “enabling the public to assert meaningful control over the political process,” but rather averting any such danger. In these cases, as in numerous others, the public was managed and mobilized from above, by means of the media’s highly selective messages and evasions.
Chomsky makes the astute point that those who wish to produce non-consensus dissident journalism are obliged to provide the highest standard of proof, “in fact, standards are often imposed that can barely be met in the natural sciences”, but those who report within the framework of the official narrative do not have to produce any proof at all. This in itself discourages probing journalism, simply because it requires much more work. It is easy to see that this is true. An example I often see of this is Health Editors on major UK newspapers who see it as their job to reproduce sales material from pharmaceutical companies rather than inquire into whether the drugs really are quite so beneficial are they as said to be. imagine the difference; to produce an article based entirely on the sales sheet from the pharmaceutical company in turn based on some (quite likely sponsored) “scientific studies” might take 30 minutes. To produce an article questioning the benefits of the drug might take weeks of research, perhaps going out to meet people. The final article will need to be run past the legal department. In terms of career growth it is unlikely that the second article will help; in future pharmaceutical companies will send their press releases to other journalists, so this journalist will find a bread-and-butter source of income drying up. A journalist who is not well-connected in the pharmaceutical industry is a problem for media editors and hiring departments. This journalist will probably find that they are out of a job quite soon. Which article will the journalist write?
Chomsky does accept that public opposition to the State Department’s campaign against the Sandinistas probably caused a change of tack. But on the whole his view seems to be that dissent only appears in the media when it is representing one side of an elite disagreement.
Chomsky ends by saying that he sees hope in the possibility of resurrecting public and non-profit media in the US. One obvious problem with this might be illustrated by the example of the Guardian, a UK newspaper with an online presence in the UK, US and Australia. The Guardian is independently owned by a non-profit Trust with, according to the site itself, half of their funding coming from readers. If any model should lead to independent journalism that is it, but, confoundingly, the Guardian is a staunch supporter of the UK government – State Department view of the world. Their propaganda on Russia is no less than any other major UK media outlet. (It seems there is some kind of trade-off here; as long as they are allowed to fully promote their progressive cultural values they will tacitly support the state in whatever it wants to do). The BBC is also publicly owned and, again, the BBC relentlessly publishes propaganda, (At least on the matter of Russia, which is one area where this reviewer has some expertise and can assess the matter).
In other words, I am not convinced that “independently owned” media are necessarily going to be free of the propaganda model. In this book Chomsky occasionally complains about “the culture”. It sort of escapes him. It is not just the media who cannot see the atrocities committed by the US, but behind the media there is a horrible kind of culture. But, if this is so, surely his “nonprofit and public” media is going to be part of this culture? Or, is it just the “intellectual culture” he is against? In this case he is pinning his hopes on a supposed workers movement, free of intellectuals. This sounds like Pol Pot’s vision.
Afterword to the 2008 Edition
The afterword is written by Edward S. Herman, Chomsky’s original co-author.
Manufacturing Consent first appeared in 1988. Chomsky sees a concentration of media power and growth in the power of advertisers, thus reinforcing his propaganda model. He states that the twenty years since his book first came out has seen a widening gap between rich and poor in the US and in order to maintain this gap the propaganda model has to work overtime. He also notes how the UK has been drawn more into the US global order and its media has become more constrained to the propaganda model.
I was interested to see how Chomsky would respond to the rise of the Internet. The Internet allows anyone to publish to a worldwide audience with virtually no censorship and for very little capital outlay. Chomsky writes:
However, the “new blue media” [Internet blogs] is still relatively small in size, fragmented, and does not have the audiences, advertising support, and broad infrastructure of the rightwing media.
It is of course true that the “blogsphere” does not have the audiences of, say, the BBC. But I am not sure what Chomsky means by “infrastructure”. There is no barrier to independent blogs growing an audience. One argument Chomsky could raise here but doesn’t is the power of the internet giants to unfairly limit the visibility of independent writers by practices such as “shadow banning”.
(As a small point, in this section Chomsky contrasts how in the 2004 US Presidential election the media carried untrue stories about John Kerry’s service record in Vietnam but ignored George Bush’s record of Vietnam war evasion. Just on this point, this strikes me as odd. I clearly remember seeing stories questioning George Bush’s alleged evasion of Vietnam war service on multiple occasions in the mainstream media at the time).
I have been critical of Chomsky, and there are a number of aspects of his argument which seem to me over-played. But, overall, this reviewer finds that his core idea – the media is influenced by its closeness to government and corporate finance and generally produces the narrative required by these parties to be undoubtedly true. Chomsky has more material for his view in the case of the 2003 Iraq war:
Here the model’s utility flows from the fact that in both cases the arguments and justifications for an attack have been laughably thin and evidence that would undermine the cases was plentiful and compelling.
This is unarguably true. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq the UK media was awash with government propaganda. I remember for example one headline in the Daily Mail screaming “50,000 of us could die”. The UK government and intelligence services produced a fake dossier claiming that Iraq could unleash chemical weapons in “45 minutes”. Staggeringly the media just repeated this shock claim without asking even the most basic questions; is this in Iraq? Are we talking about ICBMs? The media even ran with ludicrous stories about Iraq’s nuclear weapons threat. In short the media ran with the fake WMD claims. Yet the facts of the matter were readily available, for example in a book: “War on Iraq” by former weapons inspector Scott Ritter and William Rivers Pitt.  Almost everything, if not everything, that Scott Ritter said in this book was confirmed by subsequent events.
The book contains 3 appendices; on The Official US observers in Guatemala in July 1984, more on the matter of the “Bulgarian connection” in the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II, and yet more on Freedom House – an organisation which published a report about “pessimism” in media reporting of the Vietnam war in which they claimed that this pessimism had led to the US defeat. Chomsky’s agitation about the Freedom House report is probably because it is a very direct challenge to his propaganda model. He replies to it by showing that it exaggerates the alleged “pessimism” of the media and that it missed the essential fact that while being “pessimistic” about the US war effort in Vietnam the media was still, essentially, reproducing the central US narrative – that the US was in Vietnam to defend and protect the South Vietnamese and democracy from the Communists of the North. In as much as he has to concede some dissension he reports this as reflecting “elite struggles”.
This book is 560 pages long (in the Kindle version) and given that I am basically satisfied that the propaganda model proposed by Chomsky is strong and that he has largely, (but not entirely, see my conclusion below) substantiated it with examples and evidence I am going to skip the appendices. Appendix 1 seems to be a mocking and critical report of the official US election observers to the (fixed according to Chomsky) Guatemalan elections of 1984. Appendix 2 discusses an article in the New York Times by reporter John Tagliabue in 1986 which shows, according to Chomsky, classic symptoms of media bias. The article is about the supposed Bulgarian connection to the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II, which connection Chomsky says was a creation of Italian intelligence. The third appendix, as we say above, discusses the Freedom House report in more detail.
In this book Chomsky and Herman propose a “propaganda model” for the media. It seems they mostly have in mind the US situation. In order to establish his propaganda model Chomsky has to show not just that the media repeats government narratives but that these narratives are false; otherwise it wouldn’t be propaganda. On occasion in order to establish the “truth” about some situation he is discussing, Chomsky cites reports in non US media. He also states at one point that non US media is somewhat less constrained by the propaganda model than US media. However, in their 2008 afterword the authors state that the UK at least is becoming more subject to the constraints of the propaganda model. The main idea is that the media reproduces the preferred narratives of the government and corporate worlds. There are are five factors which explain this:
(1) the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth, and profit orientation of the dominant mass-media firms;
(2) advertising as the primary income source of the mass media;
(3) the reliance of the media on information provided by government, business, and “experts” funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power;
(4) “flak” as a means of disciplining the media; and
(5) “anticommunism” as a national religion and control mechanism.
By “flak” he means the practice of criticising those independent stories which do appear in the media in order to make it uncomfortable for media organisations to publish or broadcast them. Chomsky discusses several bodies whose function is to criticise the media from a ‘right-wing’ or corporate point of view. Government can also produce flak.
According to Chomsky’s propaganda model the media will, without explicit coercion, generally reproduce the official government narrative on any topic and will produce corporate-friendly reporting. He argues for his model and, as he points out, it is not really very implausible to suggest that the media is likely to tell the stories preferred by its owners, business partners and primary sources; government and big business. Chomsky discusses examples of the propaganda model in action.
He discusses the differing media treatment of victims of state oppression in US client-states and a victim of oppression in, then, Soviet controlled Poland. In this case he finds that the media gave far more coverage and expressed much more outrage about the victim of Polish/Soviet repression than they did about victims in the US client states of El Salvador and Guatemala.
He discusses elections in the US client states of El Salvador in 1982 and 1984 and Guatemala in 1984-85 and contrasts these with those in Nicaragua in 1984. In Chomsky’s account the elections in El Salvador and Guatemala – both US client states – took place in the context of widespread killings by the state of opposition figures and in conditions which made free and fair elections absolutely impossible. In contrast those in Nicaragua, while not perfect, were a genuine attempt at free elections by the Sandinista government, an ‘enemy’ of the US, and were “a model of probity and fairness” by Latin American standards according to an independent monitoring group. Chomsky finds that the US government proposed a narrative which exactly reversed this objective view and that the media assisted them in this by, for example, not reporting on the context in the case of El Salvador and Guatemala such as that the army was “engaged in the mass slaughter of the civilian population” and in the case of Nicaragua asking questions which they never asked in the case of El Salvador and Guatemala. For example; Chomsky gives as an example a media article which expressed interest in problems with the freedom of the press in Nicaragua but silent on this topic in the case of El Salvador.
Chomsky then discusses the Vietnam war and US involvement in Cambodia and Laos. He finds that the media consistently reproduced the US government line that the US was in South Vietnam in order to protect “Vietnamese” people. He points out that the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam which was fighting the South Vietnamese government was also made up of South Vietnamese people. Thus, objective reporting should not have presented this as a defence by the South Vietnamese government against an external enemy. He shows that the US government wilfully misinterpreted the terms of the Paris agreements intended to end the Vietnam war and the media went along with this. Chomsky acknowledges that there was some criticism of the US involvement in Vietnam but argues that this reflected squabbles amongst the elite. Even critical reporting did not call into question the basic idea, that the US was in Vietnam with noble intentions. In Cambodia he finds, (just like in his first case-study of victims of state oppression in Poland and Latin America), that the media was happy to report on atrocities committed by enemy states or actors, (the Khmer Rouge until they were overthrown by the Vietnamese and by the Vietnamese after 1979), but hardly reported on the slaughter resulting from US bombing in the period prior to 1975.
Chomsky also discusses the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in 1981. Here he argues that the intelligence community produced an unlikely narrative about involvement of Bulgarian intelligence services acting on behalf of Moscow. They did this because this was a suitable narrative to put out as it bolstered the US position, for example, on placing missiles in Europe to defend against the Soviet threat. He shows that this narrative was produced on the barest of evidence and avoided obvious problematics.
Essentially, we think that Chomsky has made his case. However; we would modify it slightly, as follows. Firstly Chomsky does accept that from time to time reliable and accurate reporting can appear even when it is contrary to the preferred narrative. Indeed on several occasions he himself cites media articles, including in US media, to support his case about the harm done by the US. The fact is, that such articles can appear. There is a certain porousness to the propaganda model; we would suggest more than Chomsky is willing to credit. My own understanding of this is that the propaganda model operates more at the editorial level, including at the level of desk journalists based in US or UK offices. However, individual journalists can, and do, produce reports, on occasion, which contradict, implicitly or explicitly, the official narrative. A recent example of this phenomenon concerns the situation in Eastern Ukraine. After Ukraine took back large amounts of territory in autumn 2022 journalists followed in the wake of the liberating army. They interviewed local people. This reviewer noted multiple reports where either people themselves said that they felt ambivalent about the forces of Kiev, or where the Ukrainian army or others talked about how people had stayed behind because they preferred Russian control to Ukrainian. These reports (this is an example: ) completely blew open the official narrative in which the existence of “pro-Russian” civilians in Eastern Ukraine is officially consigned to a media black hole. For the official narrative, such people do not exist. Yet, multiple such reports, were able to surface in the Western media. What happened? Firstly; it confirms the view, which Chomsky acknowledges that there are Western journalists who are willing to write the “truth”. Secondly, I think that in this case the editorial boards were probably caught somewhat off-guard by the unexpected speed of Ukraine’s counter-offensive and the Ukrainian military themselves had possibly not had time to impose normal controls on the media. This was a kind of exceptional situation. Nonetheless it showed individual reporters reporting unfiltered facts which contradicted what they must have known was the official line.
Chomsky himself acknowledges that on both the matter of the Vietnam war and the Iraq war very large sections of the population, on both sides of the Atlantic, were opposed to the wars. This means that while the propaganda model may be sound, the media generally reproduces government propaganda, this propaganda is not always very effective. While this does not undermine Chomsky’s case it does suggest that it is less serious than he thinks. In order to build his argument Chomsky of course has to prove that the official narrative is wrong. For example; he argues that in Vietnam, the media did acknowledge US bombing even of civilian areas but did not frame this bombing of civilians as atrocities. He quotes a foreign journalist Katsuichi Honda as writing that the US military (or allies) were “firing away at random at farmhouses” but says that this report was “available only to readers of antiwar literature”. Obviously, this is nonsense. The US is not the USSR where possession of unapproved literature could have led to serious consequences. If Chomsky was able to find these reports, so was anyone else in America. He has to acknowledge that objective reporting is available in various ways; being gleaned from the mainstream media or by being found in “specialist literature” or various NGO reports. The public can find these sources. I would suggest that the majority of people know that the mainstream media is feeding them the official line and that a lot of the time, for various reasons, they do not resist this. But, the capacity is there.
In the Afterword to the 2008 edition Herman discusses the rise of the Internet. He talks about the Internet being a “fragmented” source which cannot yet compete with the mainstream media. I was surprised that the authors did not give greater emphasis to the Internet. Manufacturing Consent starts with an account of how media concentration forced small independent working class newspapers out of business in 19th century England. But now, the fact is, that anyone in the West with even a budget of $200.00 can open a website, or a substack channel, and report or comment on political affairs to virtually any extent. The Internet has the potential to break the propaganda model. The “blogosphere” may be ‘fragmented’, but it exists and, collectively, can provide alternative news or comment, not filtered through large media corporations. A theme which might not have been so apparent in 2008, but which is certainly in play today, (2023), is the extent to which the tech giants may be controlling alternative media, for example by techniques such as “shadow banning”. (To take one example; the most likely way that people are likely to find and read this blog, which you are reading now, is via the Google search engine. The views expressed on this blog are absolutely critical of the corporate-government world in which Alphabet Inc. lives. Alphabet Inc. has the absolute power to promote or not promote this site at will. I don’t know if they limit visibility or not but they certainly could limit visibility of this blog while promoting visibility of another blog which gives a more pro-government viewpoint).
The propaganda model is valid. It is confirmed repeatedly. One only has to look at current media coverage of the Ukraine war. Almost entirely absent from media coverage is any kind of questioning of the US insistence on putting Ukraine into NATO, a position which, at least in the eyes of some scholars, is the prime cause of this war. It is simply amazing to see journalist after journalist interview expert after expert (provided by corporate or NATO sponsored think-tanks as per Chomsky’s model) and not one journalist ever says “but if Russia wanted to form a military alliance with Mexico and put weapons there that would be a problem for us, right?” The entire media just accepts that this was an “unprovoked invasion” by Russia. On atrocities and human rights; we hear a lot about alleged Russian transgressions but little about Ukrainian transgressions. I saw once on Times radio a retired senior British commander who commented that the West should be careful about using the “human rights violations” card to bash Russia with because, based on his experience, in the Bosnian wars, after the war, it will likely be found that Ukraine too has been committing violations. This was a rare moment of candour. As we mention above, the facts, easily checkable, in (to use Chomsky’s words ‘specialist literature’ – such as Ukrainian government demographic surveys) are that a proportion of people in the contested regions of Eastern Ukraine are ethnic Russians and many people in these areas are in fact “pro-Russian”. Some evidence for this can be found in Western media. (In fact it seems to this reviewer that the US media is more open than the UK media). For example, in 2021 the Washington Post published a piece based on opinion polling which showed support for Russia in the territory of the LDNR. The piece is titled “A new survey of the Ukraine-Russia conflict finds deeply divided views in the contested Donbas region”.  Chomsky would probably regard this as an example of his propaganda model; even when reporting the “truth” the media frame it in a way so as to defend the official narrative. The majority support for Russia is reported in the headline as “contested”. Nonetheless; this is open reporting and supports the Russian arguments. We think that Chomsky somewhat underestimates the willingness of the media to publish such objective pieces, but we accept that the overall editorial line is very much governed by the propaganda model, making articles such as this rare. In the UK a prominent journalist, Peter Hitchens, takes an independent view of the Ukraine crisis and is ‘allowed’ to criticise the official narrative on mainstream TV. In Australia a Sky News TV journalist also takes an independent view of the Ukraine crisis  and has done several pieces to camera on his mainstream show in which he substantially questions the entire basis for the Western war effort, talks about the ethnic Russians in Eastern Ukraine and questions the hero status accorded by most of the Western media to Zelensky. (In the piece linked to here he specifically discusses how the media promulgates US propaganda). So; again, we find strong evidence for Chomsky’s propaganda model, but we also find strong evidence for our modification of the model, which allows that the Western media does contain the possibility of being “free”, even if the propaganda model applies most of the time. This is different from the media in a totalitarian state which is never free and has no possibility of being free.
Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky. Manufacturing Consent (p. 425). Random House. Kindle Edition.
- Deschooling Society. Ivan Illich. 1971. Calder and Boyers Ltd. https://thenewobserver.co.uk/review-of-ivan-illichs-seminal-deschooling-society-2/
- ibid. 4 Section 5 iii)
- War on Iraq. Scott Ritter and William Rivers Pitt. Context Books. 2022.