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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Monday, February 10, 2014

Does Chomsky Still Matter?

I had an interesting conversation with a grad student doing a research paper. He asked me what I thought about why more news organizations aren't more Chomsky-esque.

Noam Chomsky, as many acknowledge, is one of the great living thinkers about linguistics. He is particularly sought after for his thoughts about media, manipulation and the not so-unwitting collusion between the media and government in sustaining the capitalist (or neo-liberal, as it is now known) system.

Chomsky is now in his 80s and he still has an impressive ability to demolish his opponents in debate as seen in this recent exchange at Boston University in 2012.

In the 1980s, Chomsky wrote one of the most significant critiques of the media ecology with Edward S. Herman called "Manufacturing Consent." A small but persistent band of followers especially in Canada are convinced of the book's central argument: that US foreign policy is inherently fascistic and that the media operates to perpetuate governmental oppression especially in developing countries.

The grad student who contacted me wanted to know if I thought that journalists understood this relationship between media and capitalism or whether working journalists had simply bought into the values of their media bosses in the interests of self-preservation.

I told him that I thought that Chomsky was probably correct on a theoretical level. And yes, media organizations function essentially as businesses with the aim of making money. Whether that constitutes deliberate collusion with power structures is worth debating. But I think Chomsky's understanding about the pressures inside a news organization remain wildly off the mark.

Without romanticizing the press, the media environment is a lot more robust than Chomsky-ites think it is. Add to that the emerging power of digital media and you have a fractious and libertarian culture that refuses to be easily cowed or to toe any corporate line.

Yes, there can, on occasions, be a degree of self-censorship about certain issues (one doesn't bite the hand that feeds, but one can certainly gum it), but the instinct and obligation to report fairly and honestly is part of journalism's DNA.

One example I cited was the differences between the editorial direction of the Wall Street Journal and the integrity of the newsroom. That creative tension exists in most news organizations.

Chomsky advocates seem to overlook the idea that a news organization's reputation is also important, especially at a time when all media are looking for ways to adapt to survive.

Where I also disagree with Chomsky is over his apparent willingness in the late 1970s, to defend the indefensible Robert Faurisson, a French holocaust denier, on the grounds of freedom of speech.

Even so, Chomsky still matters, in the way that reading Walter Lippmann still does. But increasingly, he belongs to a category of historical writers who are important for how they viewed journalism at a specific time and place. Chomsky is also important because his thinking reminds us that it is possible for the powers that are, to exercise undue influence.

With the rise of digital media, Chomsky feels more like an important historical thinker, rather than a timely critic. But I doubt I convinced my curious graduate student.

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