Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Appendix I Segment 10/15
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The question that is raised is whether the free press is to blame for the frustration of American benevolence. Is it true that "sentimental and naive media representatives have been slanting their reports in favor of underdog revolutions" and "are taken in by the humanitarian rhetoric of terrorists"? Bolling believes that "there may be some validity to these complaints," though being on the liberal side of the spectrum, he is skeptical.
I have argued throughout that the basic assumptions set forth as the premises for the debate have little merit. Thus contrary opinions are indeed "avidly sought," but only when they conform to doctrinal presuppositions. There has been no avid search for the opinion that the United States was attacking South Vietnam and that it has sought to undermine freedom, independence, democracy, and social reform in Central America in the past decade; or that Nicaraguan elections were at least as valid as those in El Salvador; or that the U.S. succeeded (with the aid of the free press) in demolishing the Central American peace accords, much as it had undermined the 1973 Paris peace treaty concerning Vietnam (again with critical media assistance); or that the U.S. has stood in the way of the peace process in the Middle East for close to twenty years; or other positions that are not at all difficult to support with ample evidence but that depart from the narrowly limited bounds set by the requirements of established privilege and power. Media coverage of the Indochina wars was far from "unrelenting"; pictorial reportage by TV was consciously subdued, and the effect of TV on public opinion, if any, was probably to increase hawkish sentiment, so public opinion studies reveal; the media were highly supportive of the war until well after the corporate elite had turned against the enterprise as too costly, and even then departures from the framework of the propaganda model were so marginal as to count as statistical error.39 Contrary to much "necessary illusion" fostered in later years, the media were almost entirely closed to principled critics of the war and representatives of the mass popular movements that spontaneously developed, considerably more closed, in fact, than they have been in the 1980s.40 I know this from personal experience, and others who have been part of the dissident culture will, I presume, confirm this judgment.
The other doctrines set forth as the basis for the discussion, however conventional they may be, are also hardly tenable. But my point here is not that these doctrines are false; rather, that they are beyond question or controversy, not subject to doubt. There is no need to sustain them because they are simply given truths that establish the framework within which discussion can proceed.
The report adheres closely to this framework. The twenty-two-page discussion of media coverage of Central America is introduced by Daniel James, an extreme hawk, who condemns the media for having "departed considerably from the traditional principles of journalism -- which is to say, of objectivity and fairness"; "the prestige media's coverage of Central America has been very biased [against the U.S. government and its allies], leading one to conclude that it comes under the heading of tendentious or advocacy journalism." Thus, "there is a distinct overplaying on this issue of human rights" in the coverage of El Salvador, James holds; recall that these discussions took place after an extraordinary outburst of atrocities backed and organized by the U.S. government and generally ignored by the media. And there is a corresponding failure, James continues, to face "the overriding" issue: "whether freedom or dictatorship will rule El Salvador," freedom being the goal of the United States, dictatorship that of its adversaries (by definition, evidence being irrelevant). But the situation is not entirely bleak. "Happily, the media have shown a capacity for self-criticism. In the case of El Salvador, and to some extent Nicaragua, a fair number of pieces have appeared, notably in the Washington Post, that criticized their own performance in the former country" -- meaning, their excessive concern for human rights and failure to adopt the U.S. government perspective. This is a "very healthy trend" that offers hope that the media will desist from their antagonism to Washington and support for its enemies.
Eighteen pages of colloquy follow, ranging from defense of media coverage of Central America as not "biased and tendentious" (Latin America scholar William LeoGrande) to support for James's contentions. Contra lobbyist Robert Leiken states that "It is U.S. policy to defend and help preserve democracy in Central America." No one hints at a different analysis. There is not a word suggesting that the media might be biased in favor of the U.S. government perspective. There is no discussion of the scandalous refusal of the media to cover massive atrocities in the U.S. client states during these years, their pretense that the killings were chargeable to the left and the extreme right but not to the security forces of the U.S.-backed regimes, and their apologetics for the political figures assigned the task of denying government atrocities and presenting a moderate image to Congress so that the killings could continue -- all well documented, but excluded from these proceedings.
My point here, once again, is not that the assumptions about U.S. policy and the media that bound discussion are false (though they are), but rather that the possibility that they are false cannot be raised; it lies beyond the conceivable.
Following the colloquy, there are twenty-three pages of documents, introduced by a condemnation of "The Foregone Conclusions of the Fourth Estate" by Shirley Christian. Concentrating on the war against Somoza, she claims that the Washington Post and the New York Times perceived it "through a romantic haze. This romantic view of the Sandinistas is by now acknowledged publicly or privately by virtually every American journalist who was in Nicaragua during the two big Sandinista offensives. Probably not since Spain has there been a more open love affair between the foreign press and one of the belligerents in a civil war." There follow responses by Karen DeYoung, who wrote most of the stories on Nicaragua in the Washington Post, and Alan Riding of the New York Times, whose reports had come under particular attack. DeYoung says she has "never met nor spoken to Ms. Christian" and refutes her specific claims point by point, and Riding also takes issue with her charges. Neither accepts what Christian claims virtually everyone reporting from Managua acknowledges.
Apart from some brief remarks on "the resiliency of Caribbean democracies in the face of economic hardship" and other matters not pertinent here, the only other selection is by Allen Weinstein. He condemns the failure of reporters to show concern over "the status of the press in Nicaragua," "the total repression of the free press" there, and "the many threats to the physical safety of journalists in that country." "Sandinista chic," he writes, "remains infectious in Western countries." "The Nicaraguan tragedy deserves at least as much attention from the press -- and the U.S. Congress -- as the question of American involvement in El Salvador," including the "state of emergency" (in Nicaragua, that is; the earlier and far more onerous state of emergency in El Salvador is not mentioned, just as it was ignored by the media), and the threat to "independent journalists," such as those of "the independent daily newspaper, La Prensa,...a beacon of free expression throughout Central America."
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39 On these matters, see Manufacturing Consent, chapters 5, 6.
40 Some have been misled by the fact that one journal, the New York Review of Books, was open to dissident opinion during the peak years of popular protest. Those doors closed in the early 1970s, however, and there were few other examples.