Noam Chomsky's Theory of the Standardized Capitalist Mass Media
By Oliver Frommel
[This article originally published June 28, 2003 in the German-English cyber journal Telepolis is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://www.telepolis.de/deutsch/inhalt/buch/14958/1.html.]
The increasing media concentration  as in the recent loosening of the US media cartel law  stimulates discussion of principles. The one-sided manipulation of public opinion feared by the opponents of this liberalization has long been reality for others. Many years ago Noam Chomsky described the manufacture of consent  through standardized mass media. A collection of texts translated in German was recently published under the title "Media Control".
Strictly speaking, Chomsky pursues communication- and political science studies. He makes no secret about his political claim but subjects himself to the conventional "objective scientific" standards. He uses both qualitative and quantitative methods explained in detail in his book.
He first seeks similar cases, for example human rights violations in other countries and then compares the extent and content of the accounts in the American media. He contrasts a case in which an America-compatible country is entangled and a country with an incompatible system. A country striving for a capitalism-friendly "democratization" differs from a country with initiatives of social(ist) policy or rival groups ordered to the interests of the US government (for example, El Salvador against Nicaragua or Cambodia against east Timor).
Chomsky concludes that the reporting all in all turns out unfavorable for the second country in all cases. Reporting about the atrocities of the "enemy" is always more detailed and negative than about atrocities of friendly states or groups. Reports about "commendable actions" (Chomsky) are treated conversely. In this way the ground was prepared in the general public for an intervention of the US for more or less hidden or open military actions. Similarities to the Iraq war may not be accidental or incidental
Subtle form of standardization
The pure facts are not denied by Chomsky's adversaries but their interpretation. Chomsky grapples with some objections in "Media Control". Critics point to the overabundance of daily information and general overstrain in the news business as the causes of these distortions. Against them Chomsky believes in a strategy of the media-moguls even if it isn't an unconditionally conscious strategy. Government-friendly reporting is better in the long run for the economy and for the media conglomerates..
In reading this book, the question presses whether concrete actors actually stand behind the whole subject. As Chomsky describes, an intention or plan seems hidden behind the confused reporting. If one thinks of a concrete group of persons, one is quickly categorized in the realm of conspiracy theories where Chomsky is banished by his critics. Isn't banishment only a strategy for eliminating critical voices?
Chomsky sees a more subtle form of standardization at work through the establishment of certain ideas in the collective consciousness. This goes back to the beginnings of modern democracies, especially in the US when a consensus nearly existed within the ruling elite that the rule of the people was neither possible nor desirable. The rulers were concerned that the people believe those in power. The separation between ruler and ruled was maintained.
Chomsky describes the influence of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr on the political elite of the US that continues today. Niebuhr taught a peculiar mixture of Christianity and real politics (Christian realism) where rulers with a more objective view (cool observers) guide the common people in the right direction with emotionally potent oversimplifications.
Progressive political- and communication- scholars like Walter Lippmann  discovered the mass media. With the mass media' help, manufacturing consent is possible. Manufacturing consent is necessary for the smooth functioning of the pseudo-democracy. Chomsky declares that this ideology as a self-starter has a considerable harmful influence on the alleged democratic system of the US (and other countries).
Chomsky's theory moves on two planes. Firstly, he reports empirically about more or less identifiable events. Secondly, his theory contains a prediction. Both basic theses are led back by Chomsky to a single common motive, namely the maintenance of a kind of pseudo-democracy. His adversaries are forced to use the same strategies of reality distortion on the second plane. That his theory is often discredited or ignored is only another sign of its correctness for Chomsky.
The book consists of several chapters of the older Necessary Illusions  that refer back to a series of Chomsky lectures from 1988. Media Control, 2002  discusses recent developments.
Chomsky enters into the media reporting in the aftermath of September 11. Chomsky's theses are set in the context of his theory about the manipulation of public opinion in a "capitalist democracy". Transferability to European conditions is possible even if Chomsky essentially limits himself to the US. The endless amount of data cited by Chomsky is somewhat tiring. Still the book offers a good survey on the foundations of his critical theories.