Dr. Noam Chomsky discusses the birth of U.S. commercial propaganda and the art of manufacturing consent.

Producer: Johannah James and Michael Gordon
07/13/2022 • 09:09 AM EST

World-renowned linguist, cognitive scientist, and historian, Noam Chomsky discusses the early days of U.S. commercial propaganda and the more sophisticated efforts that would follow under the Creel Commission, as well as some of the social engineering visionaries that rose out of that effort. He also reflects on his groundbreaking work, Manufacturing Consent, and the degree to which the need to construct a common enemy has remained fundamentally intact since its 1988 publication. He concludes with some rules of thumb to help detect distortion in everyday media coverage. 

0:00: Johannah James:  

With us today we have Noam Chomsky, world renowned scholar of sociology and media relations, and co-author with Edward Herrmann of the groundbreaking work, Manufacturing Consent, which explores how propaganda and systemic bias function in corporate mass media. Today, we're going to talk to Professor Chomsky about some of his reflections on that work, as well as how propaganda has evolved over the last century. Professor Chomsky, thank you so much for joining us today. 

0:24: Dr. Noam Chomsky: 

Pleased to be with you. 

0:27: Johannah James:

You've talked about the more sophisticated U.S. commercial propaganda that would follow efforts started under Wilson and the Committee for Public Information. Can you talk a little bit about this key era and the significant impact that has had over the last century?

0:42: Dr. Noam Chomsky:

Well, commercial propaganda actually began even before Wilson. So one of the major achievements of commercial propaganda, which has a major effect on life in the United States today is the creation of the gun culture that comes from the late 19th century. After the Civil War, and with a period of relative peace in Europe, the major gun manufacturers in the United States had lost their market for advanced weapons. It was of course an agricultural society, so a farmer would have an old musket to scare away coyotes or something like that. But they had no use for the fancy weapons that the arms manufacturers were producing.

So, they initiated a major propaganda campaign, commercial advertising which created a totally fabricated image of the Wild West, with sheriffs fast on the draw and cowboys running to the rescue and all that sort of thing. Kind of thing I grew up with, maybe you grew up with. We all wanted to be Tom Mix or Wyatt Earp or whoever the latest hero was. All completely fabricated nothing like that ever existed. And cowboys were guys who couldn't get jobs, and they pushed cows around. But the bottom line of all of this was, your son has to have a Winchester rifle or he won't be a real man. And that established a large part of the establishment of the by now quite fanatical gun culture that is leading to events like the Uvalde massacre weeks ago, the 4th of July killings and so on. So, there's a major achievement that wasn't the only factor but the major factor in developing a fanatic gun culture, which has enormous events. This was well before Wilson.

Wilson's achievements were based on a prior propaganda campaign run by Britain. The British Ministry of Information, which of course means Ministry of Disinformation, was in the early 20th century. It was committed to trying to convince Americans to enter the war, the first World War in support of Britain, so they concocted all sorts of stories about Hun atrocities, killing babies and vilifying and so on and so forth. And this was aimed primarily at American intellectuals, to try to convince them that the Huns were so barbaric that you just had to enter the war in the support of England. That's the goal of the Ministry of Information. Its official goal was, in their words, to control the thought of the world, but particularly of American intellectuals. It worked pretty effectively.

If you read the intellectual journals, the John Dewey Circle and The New Republic and so on, are very much influenced by this. Well, in 1916, Woodrow Wilson was elected president on the slogan of "peace without victory." It was a pacifist population that didn't want to have anything to do with European wars. His task was to shift the population to a new slogan, "victory without peace." Part of the way of doing this was establishing a Committee on Public Information, disinformation, so-called Creel Commission, which was dedicated to trying to turn the population into raving anti-German fanatics. Worked very well, and was so extreme that the Boston Symphony Orchestra couldn't play Beethoven. Complete madness, rather like what we're seeing today in many ways.

The Creel Commission played a significant role in promoting Wilson's desire to enter the war. It had a large effect. Two of the members of the Creel Commission turned out to be quite influential figures in the 20th century. One was Walter Lippmann, who became the leading public intellectual in the United States in the 20th century, a Wilson-Roosevelt-Kennedy liberal. The second was Edward Bernays, also Wilson-Roosevelt-Kennedy liberal, who went on to become one of the major founders of the public relations industry. Both of them referred to their experience in the Creel Commission as teaching them the lesson that it's possible to manufacture consent, Lipmann’s term, engineer consent, Bernays' term. 

Well as the huge public relations industry that developed, Bernays was a leading figure, it is of course devoted to engineering consent, trying to induce people to carry out certain kinds of behavior using what was then openly called propaganda. Propaganda had no negative connotations in those days. It just meant persuasion, as it still does in many languages. In fact, Bernays' main book in the 1920s advocating engineering consent was called Propaganda. And his first great achievement was to induce women to smoke. Women didn't smoke in those days. So, he had arranged for parades of models, walking down 5th Avenue with cigarettes, and the modern woman this is what you want to be like that. Nobody knows how many tens of millions of women he managed to kill but that was one of its first triumphs. There were others. 

Meanwhile, Walter Lippmann was writing about democratic theory, one of the leading theorists of democracy. And his position was very explicit. He said, people, the general public has a role in the democratic society. Their role is to be spectators, but not participants. Their role is to show up every couple of years, push a button, pick one of the responsible men (that's us) to run things and go home. And the responsible men, us, the decision makers, we have to be, as he put it, free from the trampling and the roar of the bewildered herd, the general population. They have to be put in their place so they don't interfere with us. And the job, the task of manufacturing consent is a new art in the practice of democracy, which will achieve this result.

He wasn't inventing anything new. This even traces back to the 17th century English revolution. 

When, the way we're taught in school, it was a struggle between the King and Parliament. In fact, a great part of the population didn't want to be ruled by either King or Parliament. You look at their great pamphlet literature at the time. They, as they put it, wanted to be governed by a countryman like ourselves, who know the people's  swords, not by the knights and gentlemen and do but oppress us. Well, they of course were suppressed often by violence. But the "men of best qualities," they called themselves couldn't tolerate this. Same was true in the American Revolution a century later. It was basically a coup against democracy, as scholarship recognizes.

What happened in the 20th century was, this all become professionalized and turned into major self-conscious enterprises, part of the rise of state capitalist democracy. And it's kind of interesting to see how we don't recognize what's before our eyes. So, take the advertising industry. If you took an economics course in college, you were taught that markets are based on informed individuals making rational choices. That's the basis of the market. Take a look at the television screen. Is that what you see, an effort to create informed consumers making rational decisions? In fact, what you see is the opposite. Let's try to construct misinformed consumers making irrational decisions like women smoking cigarettes, because of the models on 5th Avenue. Huge industries are spending hundreds of billions of dollars a year to undermine markets. Do you learn that in an economics course or in public discussion? That's perfectly obvious. All you have to do is look around you, but it's just the kind of thing you don't talk about. Well, that's effective propaganda.

11:32: Michael Gordon:

Professor Chomsky, to what degree were Hitler and Goebbels influenced by U.S. commercial propaganda?

11:44: Dr. Noam Chomsky:

Well, Goebbels himself wrote about how he was influenced by the success of U.S. commercial propaganda. This was the 1920s, early 30s. They turned it into a highly refined system, which was very effective. Now it's pretty remarkable to see what happened in Germany. You go back to the 1920s. Germany was the most civilized country in the world. It was at the peak of Western civilization, and the arts and sciences, it was considered a model of democracy by political scientists. That was Germany in the 1920s. Ten years later, it was the absolute depths of human history. Go ten years later than that, you're back to becoming a civilized society. It's a quite  astonishing illustration of the capacity of organized propaganda to totally change the population, from the most civilized in the world, to the most degraded in history. 

It's a dramatic example. Unfortunately, I'm old enough to remember it. I grew up in the 30s and watched in horror as this was happening. Even as a child and I take a look today and the memories come right back, when you read it. When I watch one of Trump's mega events, it's hard to forget listening to the Nuremberg rallies over the radio when I was six years old. I didn't understand the words but you could get the mood. There's further irony beyond that. In the 1930s, continental Europe, descended to fascism. The United States led the way to social democracy. You take a look today, almost inverted.

14:09: Johannah James:

Professor, it has been almost 35 years since the publication of Manufacturing Consent. To what degree have the power structures and incentives of U.S. corporate media remained fundamentally intact in that time, even with the fragmentation of media that we've seen over the last decade?

14:26: Dr. Noam Chomsky:

Well, actually, we had another edition in 2002, but we didn't change much. We had a new introduction, in which we pointed out that one of the filters that we had talked about, was too narrow and had to be extended. One of the filters was anti-communism. At the time we wrote in 1988, anti-communism was a critical element shaping news selection, reporting, and so on, and demonstrated that at great lengths. That was no longer true by 2002. We should have picked something broader an enemy to hate. It happened to be communism. A couple of years later it became international terrorism, shifts over time, now it's back to at the moment anti-Russian and anti-Chinese hysteria. But you have to construct an enemy who you have to devote yourself to, who's ultimately evil. Just the extreme of the evil, no compensating features. You have to defend the world against him.

This goes back, go back to the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson, one of the most enlightened people at the time. Every July 4th, every good American reads the Declaration of Independence on the front page of the newspaper. And you read about the crimes of King George III, who unleashed against us, the "merciless Indian savages," whose known way of warfare was murder and terror. Is that what happened? It was exactly the opposite. It was the merciless English savages who were invading the country and carrying out the horrendous crimes. And Jefferson knew this perfectly well. You read his first Secretary of War, Henry Knox was describing the American colonists are using methods more grotesque than the Spanish conquistadors in the form of torture and murder. They were perfectly well aware of what they were doing. But you could read it in the Declaration of Independence and it's repeated year after year with virtually no comment. 

I should mention that by the 1960s, with the rise of the popular movements, mostly young people, which did civilize the country, then you start getting questions about this. In fact, it's kind of striking that even in scholarship, the best scholarship in the United States, until the 1960s and 70s there was no recognition of the virtually genocidal elimination of the native population. In fact the numbers killed were radically underestimated by many millions. It took a popular movement of mostly young people to break through this and open the door somewhat.

It's actually happening in England right now in an interesting way. After a couple hundred years of vicious imperial savagery, the veil is finally being lifted. You're getting a couple of books coming out in England, describing accurately, the horrendous, vicious record of British imperialism and the journals and the Times Literary Supplement and others reacting with surprise, we never knew about all of this. Yeah, it's only a couple hundred years.

18:41: Johannah James:

Professor, if you were to give one key message regarding the state of propaganda and media and what a person could do to arm themselves against the propaganda surrounding all of us in today's society, what would you say?

18:57: Dr. Noam Chomsky:

Keep an open mind. Understand the nature of our institutions. There are rules of thumb that are useful. When you find total subordination to some doctrine on a complicated matter. Be suspicious, nothing's that simple. You're probably finding some severe distortion. Look at a wide range of sources. Read the international press if you can. It's not hard these days, you can find things you won't see domestically. Look at dissident opinion. But basically, it's a matter of common sense. Just don't follow the herd. If the herd is marching in some direction, there's probably something wrong. Life's not that simple. Think about it. You may find something missing.

20:06: Johannah James:

Okay, it looks like we're out of time for today. We've been talking to our very special guest Noam Chomsky, world-renowned linguist, scholar of sociology and media relations and co-author of the groundbreaking work Manufacturing Consent. Professor Chomsky, thank you so much for joining us today.

20:21: Dr. Noam Chomsky:

Thank you very much. Pleasure to be with you.