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Chomsky warns of media distortion

By Niraj S. Desai

The media and other institutions form prisms through which ideas and information reach the public, according to Institute Professor Noam A. Chomsky. Those who care about freedom and democracy, about controlling their own lives, must discern how social realities are distorted by such prisms, he said.

Chomsky's comments came at his talk last night on the role of the media in the United States. The talk, which was sponsored by the MIT Committee on Central America, was attended by about 400 people.

Chomsky presented two theoretical models on which to base analyses of the media's role. The traditional, "Jeffersonian" model sees the media as a counterweight to governmental power. The "propaganda" model, on the other hand, sees journalists as agents and adjuncts of the government.

One problem common to both models, according to Chomsky, is that they assume that there is a single, centralized source of power -- the government. In fact, power is spread about among corporations and other power elites, Chomsky said. It is the relation of the media -- as either counterbalance or agent -- to these elites that must be studied, he added.

The traditional model is the one in which journalists themselves profess to believe. This model is so firmly entrenched that much of the debate on the media's role -- both in the press and in academia -- focuses on whether the media coverage is too negative, not whether it is properly functioning as a check on elite interests, Chomsky said.

This focus is peculiar given the real questions that exist over whether the news media are independent enough from the "state/corporate nexus," Chomsky said. He noted that former Sen. J. William Fulbright, when he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was deeply disturbed to find out how much of the US role in Vietnam had been hidden from the public and from Congress.

As an alternative to the traditional model, Chomsky offered what he called the propaganda model. Chomsky quoted the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr as writing that the elites must create "necessary illusions" to control the mass of people, who were unable to make rational decisions. Under the propaganda model, the media attempts to create illusions which will allow the corporate elite to continue in power.

While it might appear that the media sometimes does publicize views that differ with official policy, this appearance of even-handedness is largely a veneer, Chomsky said. For example, even though the large majority of the elite disagree with US funding for the Nicaraguan contras because it is inefficient, according to Chomsky, the media has reported even less disagreement than actually exists.

And on issues on which all of the power elite agrees, Chomsky said, the media stifles discussion, adopting the ground rules and terminology of the establishment. Among these issues are US aid to the regime of El Salvador and Nicaragua, which Chomsky labeled terrorist states, and the idea that no nation may defend itself against US attack.

The propaganda model is at first glance attractive, according to Chomsky, because: many of the elite believe the media ought to follow this model; most people believe the media is too submissive to established power; and the corporate, institutional nature of media organizations like The New York Times make their closes ties to the corporate elite plausible.

The model becomes even more attractive on close examination, Chomsky said. This thesis of media operations is one of the best confirmed in social science, he said.

"What picture of the world would you expect to come out of such a system?" Chomsky warned his audience.