The elegant simplicity of his campus office — a small round table with several straight-backed chairs, a laptop on an uncluttered desk — contrasts with his reputation as one of the world’s leading public intellectuals. Now aged 90, Noam Chomsky continues to write, and is co-teaching a course on politics and global crises at the University of Arizona.
Apart from his paradigm-creating work in linguistics, Chomsky has been an outspoken and cogent critic of American foreign policy and its connection with human rights violations and military aggression around the world. With his colleague, the late Ed Herman, Chomsky developed a “propaganda model” of the corporate mass media to help explain the economic and political elite’s ability to maintain ideological legitimacy. A range of “filters” — corporate ownership, advertising dependence, establishment-oriented sourcing practices, flak from right-wing critics, and ideological anti-Communism — cause news media to function as a propaganda system reinforcing elite power.
In recent years, Chomsky has turned his prodigious mind to the existential threat of global warming, a “threat to the perpetuation of organized human life,” on par with nuclear war. Now, in an exclusive interview with National Observer on Jan. 22, Chomsky directly addresses the specific relationship between media and the climate crisis.
National Observer: In recent years, you have said a great deal about the severity of the climate crisis — and you’ve offered various examples of how the corporate media are oblivious to its scope. How would you evaluate the general role of corporate media in relation to that crisis? Do the kind of filters identified in your and Ed Herman’s propaganda model of the media help to explain corporate media’s shortcomings on global warming, or do other factors make global warming an especially difficult issue for journalism?
Noam Chomsky: Take a standard story. There are reports on what’s happening. So, if you look at the New York Times today, for example, there’s a pretty good article on the new discoveries on the melting of the polar ice caps which happens to be, as usual, more drastic than the (earlier) estimates; that’s been typical for a long time. And it discusses the probable impact on sea level rise, albeit conservatively, given how dramatic it has obviously been. So, there are regular articles that appear — it’s not that global warming is ignored. On the other hand, if you look at a standard article on oil exploration, the New York Times can have a big front page article on how the U.S. is moving towards what they call energy independence, surpassing Saudi Arabia and Russia in fossil fuel production, opening up new areas, Wyoming, the Midwest, for fracking. They do a long article, maybe 1,000 words — I have one particular example in mind — it will mention environmental consequences, it may harm the local water resources for ranchers, but literally not a word on the effect on global warming. And that happens in article after article in every outlet — the Financial Times, the New York Times, all the major newspapers. So, it’s as if on the one hand, there’s a kind of a tunnel vision — the science reporters are occasionally saying look, ‘this is a catastrophe,’ but then the regular coverage simply disregards it, and says, 'well, isn’t this wonderful, we won’t have to import oil, we’ll be more powerful,' and so on.
So, they’re not making the connection?
It’s a kind of schizophrenia, and it runs right through society. Take the big banks, JP Morgan Chase, for example. They’re the biggest bank and CEO Jamie Dimon is an intelligent man. I’m sure he knows the basic facts about the dire threat of global warming, yet at the same time they’re pouring investments into fossil fuel extraction, because that’s the business model. They have to make a profit tomorrow.
So, the overall role of the corporate media has been to fail to connect the dots?
Of course, I’m talking about the liberal media. If you go to say, Fox News, it’s quite different: global warming is just not happening. And in fact, that shows up in public opinion. About half of Republicans simply deny that global warming is taking place. And, of the other half, a slight majority thinks humans may be involved. Take the hearings, just a couple of days ago, for the new head of the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, who is a guy with a background in the coal industry. A senator asked him, 'What do you think about global warming?' He says, 'Yes it’s probably taking place, humans are probably involved.' And he was asked, 'How urgent do you think it is?' And his answer was, 'It’s probably eighth or ninth in the level of urgency, so it’s something out there.' And the effect is that nothing is being done.
In terms of the media themselves, do the kinds of filters you’ve identified in the propaganda model help explain their shortcomings, or are some other factors at work as well?
Noam Chomsky: 'In a couple of generations, organized human society may not survive. That has to be drilled into people’s heads constantly.'
Yeah, but it’s almost transparent. They are wedded to the corporate business model which is: you have to make a profit tomorrow. And society has to grow. They don’t care what kind of growth, it just has to grow. And that’s just kind of internalized. So, yes, the advertisers have an effect, and the fact they are a corporation has an effect. But deeper than that, is a point that George Orwell made, one which I think is underestimated (and which we didn’t actually discuss in our Manufacturing Consent book). I don’t know if you ever read the introduction to Animal Farm — probably not, because it was suppressed — but it came out after it was discovered in his papers about 30 years later, and it’s kind of an interesting introduction. The book is addressed to the people of England and he says this book is, of course, a satire about the totalitarian enemy, but he says we shouldn’t feel too self-righteous about it because — I’m quoting now — in free England, ideas can be be suppressed without the use of force.
Orwell gives some examples, and about two sentences of explanation. One is that the press is owned by wealthy men who have every interest in not wanting certain ideas to be expressed, but the other is just essentially a good education. You go on to the best schools, graduate from Oxford and Cambridge, and you just have instilled into you the understanding that there are certain things it wouldn’t do to say — and you don’t even think about it any more. It just becomes what Gramsci called "hegemonic common sense," you just don’t talk about it. And that’s a big factor, how these things simply become internalized. People who bring them up sound like crazies.
What would be the alternative for journalism? How should it operate differently in addressing climate change?
Every single journal should have a shrieking headline every day saying we are heading to total catastrophe. In a couple of generations, organized human society may not survive. That has to be drilled into people’s heads constantly. After all, there’s been nothing like this in all of human history. The current generation has to make a decision as to whether organized human society will survive another couple of generations, and it has to be done quickly, there’s not a lot of time. So, there’s no time for dillydallying and beating around the bush. And pulling out of the Paris negotiations should be regarded as one of the worst crimes in history.
But isn’t there a risk of disempowering people by just giving them bad news?
There is. Bad news should be combined with discussion of the things that can be and are being done. For example, a very good economist, Dean Baker, had a column a couple of weeks ago in which he discussed what China is doing. They are still a big huge polluter, but they are carrying out massive programs of switching to renewable energies way beyond anything else in the world. States are doing it. Or not. Take Arizona here, you drive around here, the sun is shining all the time, most of the year; take a look and see how many solar panels you see. Our house in the suburbs is the only one that has them nearby. People are complaining that they have a thousand dollar electric bill per month over the summer for air conditioning but won’t put up a solar panel; and in fact the Tucson electric company makes it hard to do. For example, our solar (array) has some of the panels missing because you’re not allowed to produce too much electricity.
That’s unfortunate. Where would you see the kind of journalism that combines urgency with a sense of what can be done? Where do you see that in our media system?
Well, you find it in small journals. The point is, global warming should be emphasized. You’re quite right when you say you just can’t keep pouring in the bad news; people turn around. But if you combine the bad news with the positive steps that could be taken, and the urgency of taking them, then I think it can have an effect.
Is it mainly in alternative independent media where you do see this coverage of climate crisis as a crisis?
You get it in the alternative media, but it doesn’t reach enough of the general public.
And not just this crisis, but others as well. A comparable crisis is the threat of nuclear war. On January 24th, it would be a good idea to look at the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, that’s the day when they’re supposed to come out with the next setting of the doomsday clock.* It’s already two minutes to midnight; I don’t know what they’re going to do next time, maybe put it past midnight! It’s basically two things, nuclear war and global warming, both of which are increasingly dire. But there’s more. Take the threat of a pandemic. Industrial meat production is first of all inhumane, but secondly, it’s a major contributor to global warming; and it’s also destroying the effectiveness of antibiotics. They have wild overuse of antibiotics, and it’s creating mutant bacteria that are resistant to any antibiotics, showing up in hospitals that could lead to a huge pandemic, like the flu pandemic a century ago which killed tens of millions of people. People talk about a migrant crisis, what’s it going to be like when Bangladesh is flooded, hundreds of millions of people have to flee? South Asia is running out of water, already there are hundreds of millions of people that barely have water; with the glaciers melting and so on, they may lose their water supply.
What happens to the world then? It’s just going to be colossal problems. They’re not far off.
Are there particular media outlets that you yourself find useful, in the alternative or independent sector or elsewhere, where you get your own information?
I read the major media, but it’s really the science journals that keep you up to date. Of course, that’s technical stuff which you wouldn’t normally read, but they have very good reports of it in the Washington Post, the New York Times and of course a lot of the alternative media.
Do you think that in the U.S. or other notionally democratic societies, is it possible to reform the media system in some ways that would better facilitate this kind of survival journalism?
One way would be for them to become democratic societies. They’re very far from it. Take elections — there’s very convincing work in mainstream political science which shows that elections in the United States are basically bought. You can predict the outcome of an election for Congress or Executive with remarkable precision just by looking at the single variable of campaign spending. That’s why when somebody’s elected to the House of Representatives, the first day in office, she or he has to start gaining donor support for the next election. Meanwhile, legislation is being written by the staff with the lobbyists from the corporations, who are actually often just writing the legislation. It’s a kind of democracy, but a very limited one.
Do you see a possibility for media reform apart from broader social and political transformations? Because there is a movement, as you know, specifically for media reform, with Robert McChesney and many others.
There’s lots that can be done. The system has to be significantly modified in many ways, even radically modified. Media reform is one of them. Bob McChesney’s important work is a model. There are things that can be done. The increased monopolization of the major media is a serious matter, as you know well, but if you look at Ben Bagdikian’s book on the media monopoly back around 1980, there were maybe 50 sources of news, now it’s down to half a dozen. The advertising-profit model for media has just undermined journalism. You go back to the early days even of the United States — the government recognized the significance of having a free and independent press, and simply subsidized things like free postal rates, which were devices to try to create an independent press. I just recently read a very interesting book, The Framers’ Coup by Michael Klarman. It’s now the gold standard on the formation of the constitution; it goes into tremendous detail on the discussions that were going on, and they’re pretty impressive. There was a pamphlet literature, there was an independent press literature, people were contributing and farmers and craftsmen and everybody getting their two cents in, a model of discussion. Back in the mid-19th century, there was a very lively labour and ethnic press which was doing very interesting things. It pretty much collapsed under the concentration of capital and the advertising model, and the same in England, though in England it lasted even longer, until the 1960s.
Do you see much hope for an alternative on the internet and social media?
There’s hope, but social media have been very much a two-edged sword. They are clearly creating a kind of echo chamber, a bubble system. We all do it, people gravitate to the things you believe in and don’t hear other views — your own just get reinforced. It’s leading to almost an impossibility of interaction. Some of this is pretty shocking. I was reading some statistics recently, and it turns out according to some recent polls, that the number of Americans who use the major media as their prime information source is single digits, it’s about six per cent. Most of them are going to social media which don’t produce the news, they filter it, they don’t have reporters out in the field.
And then of course you have innovations like talk radio and Fox, which are new. They are just really vicious propaganda systems, barely pretending to be anything else.
That’s the dark side. The good side is that (social media is) the way organizing goes on. That’s the way you reach out to people, get together, and it’s a very effective tool. Practically all organizing works this way. I mean even teaching, teachers often communicate with the students through social media. That’s all anybody is doing. If you walk around campus, everybody’s (on a device). One university, I think Duke University, started putting on the pavements things that say, Look up!, because they’re all walking around looking down.
Definitely what the effects are is hard to say. You see teenage kids sitting in a McDonalds, let’s say, sitting around a table and there are two conversations going on — one in the group, and one that each person is having with whoever’s talking to them on their phone. It just breaks down meaningful social relations.
It could perhaps be a potential resource, at least — alternative media using the internet for climate communication.
Blogs, Truthout, Truthdig, Common Dreams, Democracy Now, many others, are producing all kinds of information which you can’t get on television.
So it’s potentially extraordinarily useful, but it has this negative aspect which is being pressed hard by the Silicon Valley giants on the advertising model, so it’s being forced on you all the time. You search for something on Google and you’re inundated by things you’re supposed to want, and that’s the impact of the big advertisers.
What conditions need to be met to enable an effective response to climate crisis?
I think there just has to be an energetic mass popular movement, which is going to compel the media to address the crises that we’re facing by constant pressure, or else simply create alternatives which will dominate the information market. And we don’t have a lot of time to waste. So, things like subsidizing independent media which is not a utopian idea, it was done in the United States in its early days; or the kinds of grassroots media movements that, say, Bob McChesney and others are pressing to develop.
And it’s an urgent requirement. I start my classes these last couple of years by simply pointing out to the students that they have to make a choice that no one in human history has ever made. They have to decide whether organized human society is going to survive. Even when the Nazis were on the rampage, you didn’t have to face that question. Now you do.
Beyond the media, are there other general conditions that have to be met to get out of climate crisis?
There are several groups organizing large-scale activism, like Earth Strike, which is planning a series of actions; they already had the first one, big demonstrations in many cities, trying to build up to a mass general strike. The Extinction Rebellion from England has moved here, trying to do the same thing. But these dramatic actions, like demonstrations generally, they’re not of any effect if they’re isolated events. They have to be a stimulus for the constant organizing and education that has to go on day-to-day.
And again, just take what we talked about before — Tucson, solar panels. People have to come to understand that they’ve just got to do this, and fast; and it doesn’t harm them, it improves their lives. For example, it even saves money. But just the psychological barrier that says that I can’t look at this, that I have to keep to the common beliefs, and that this is somehow a radical thing that we have to be scared of, is a block that has to be overcome by constant educational organizational activity. The way every other popular movement developed — the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, the feminist movement — just constant, often very small groups, growing into bigger groups for activism. Occasionally they have a dramatic action like a demonstration, but mainly to stimulate ongoing activity.
And it can’t be delayed.
*Editor's Note: On Jan. 24, the scientists maintained the doomsday clock at two minutes to midnight, warning humanity not to become complacent about the “new abnormal.”
Editor's Note: The article was updated on Feb. 14 to correct the spelling of the name of JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon.