Necessary Illusions

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Necessary Illusions (1989), subtitled "Thought Control in Democratic Societies," is an analysis by Noam Chomsky of the function of "modern era" news media in the United States; in particular, in Chomsky's words, "the ways in which thought and understanding are shaped in the interest of domestic privilege." The book is derived from a series of five lectures given by Chomsky on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Radio in November 1988.


South End Press, ISBN 0-89608-366-7

  • Concentration of ownership in the media is high and increasing. Furthermore, those who occupy managerial positions in the media, or gain status within them as commentators, belong to the same privileged elites, and might be expected to share the perceptions, aspirations and attitudes of their associates, reflecting their own class interests as well. Journalists entering the system are unlikely to make their way unless they conform to these ideological pressures, generally by internalizing these values; it is not easy to say one thing and believe another, and those who fail to conform will tend to be weeded out by familiar mechanisms.
    • Chapter I: Democracy and the Media (p. 8)
  • In a three-minute stretch between commercials, or in seven hundred words, it is impossible to present unfamiliar thoughts or surprising conclusions with the argument and evidence required to afford them credibility. Regurgitation of welcome pieties faces no such problem.
    • Chapter I: Democracy and the Media (p. 10)
  • Debate cannot be stilled, and indeed, in a properly functioning system of propaganda, it should not be, because it has a system-reinforcing character if constrained within proper bounds. What is essential is to set the bounds firmly. Controversy may rage as long as it adheres to the presuppositions that define the consensus of elites, and it should furthermore be encouraged within these bounds, thus helping to establish these doctrines as the very condition of thinkable thought while reinforcing the belief that freedom reigns.
    • Chapter III: The Bounds of the Expressible (p. 48)
  • Perhaps it is worth stressing a point that should be obvious. If the media function as predicted by the propaganda model, then they must present a picture of the world that is tolerably close to reality, even if only a selective version. Investors have to make judgments based on the facts of the real world, and the same is true of state managers. Privileged and politically active elites, who rely on the media, must have some awareness of basic realities if they are to serve their own interests effectively and play their social roles. Often, these realities demonstrate the ineptness, incompetence, corruption, and other failings of the state managers and their policies. These realities are detectable, even emphasized, in the media, and would be even if their sole function were to provide services to the powerful. To appeal to these facts to show that the media do not attempt to "mobilize bias" is to betray a serious misunderstanding of social realities.
    • Appendix I, 1: The Propaganda Model: Some Methodological Considerations (p. 151)
  • Generally, the media tolerate or even welcome denunciation of their hostility to authority, for obvious self-serving reasons. But their are times when such attacks can become a real threat. To defend themselves, the media must turn — briefly — to critics of their conformity. If they are accused of being unpatriotic, or too harsh towards creations of the public relations industry of the Reagan variety, they may request — even feature — critiques of their subordination to the state and awe of powerful figures. Media spokespersons can then observe that they are being criticized from both sides, so it must be that they are right in the middle, doing their work properly. The argument might have some force if the "criticism from both sides" were actually evaluated. Such is not the case, however; to serve the purpose at hand, it is not enough that criticism of media subordination exists.
    • Appendix I, 2: On Critical Balance (p. 161)
  • It is supposed, beyond question, that what the United States does and stands for is right and good; if others fail to recognize this moral rectitude, plainly they are at fault. The naivete is not without a certain childish appeal — which quickly fades, however, when we recognize how it is converted into an instrument for inflicting suffering and pain.
    • Appendix IV, 4: The Media and International Opinion (p. 221)
  • The Times and other media were being spoon-fed material by the public relations specialists of the United Fruit Company, though, as its PR director Thomas McCann later wrote: "It is difficult to make a convincing case for manipulation of the press when the victims proved so eager for the experience."
    • Appendix V, 5: The Best Defense (p. 323)
  • It is not impossible that U.S. and Israeli intelligence actually believe that the Intifada was initiated by the PLO and is directed by it. There is ample evidence of the incapacity of intelligence, the national political police, or the political leadership to comprehend the reality of popular movements and popular struggles. The idea is simply too threatening, and cannot be faced or comprehended. It is also necessary to bear in mind the ideological fanaticism that often colors intelligence reports and the higher-level interpretation of them, also amply documented.
    • Notes: Appendix V, note 108 (p. 406)

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