I’ve caught a couple of videos featuring Noam Chomsky and Julian Assange and want to share insights I gleaned from them.
Let’s start with Julian Assange, currently being punished for being a journalist who actually challenges powerful people by telling uncomfortable truths. When asked what the number one enemy is, Assange replies that it’s ignorance. People are ignorant because the vast majority of the media are “awful,” relying on deliberate distortion and lies to advance narratives that reinforce the already powerful. As Assange notes, nearly every war is the result of lies facilitated by the mainstream media. This is unsurprising, since the media has been coopted by the military-industrial complex. Generally, people don’t like wars (surprise!), but it’s relatively easy to lie and manipulate most people into supporting them.
You can see why Assange had to be locked up in a maximum security prison and effectively gagged.
Awful media coverage is not just about lying; it’s also about eliding the truth. Consider blanket coverage of the Russia-Ukraine War and contrast that with the dearth of coverage of an ongoing genocide in Yemen, of slave markets in Libya, of starvation in Afghanistan, of U.S. occupation of oil fields in Syria. How can you speak out against the latter when there’s a relentless and all-consuming focus on Ukraine as the good guy and Russia and Putin as pure evil?
Chomsky’s insights into the media complement those of Assange. Media talking heads, Chomsky notes, are screened and selected for their obedience and conformity: their willingness to be subordinate, to go along to get along. They are boot-licking careerists, essentially, who learn quickly that there are certain things you just don’t say. And if you should stray and start to color outside the lines, you are slapped back into line, and if that doesn’t take, your crayons are confiscated and you’re demoted, fired, or otherwise silenced. Think again of the Iraq War in 2003 and how Phil Donahue was fired, Jesse Ventura was hired then put on ice because NBC belatedly discovered he was antiwar, Ashleigh Banfield was demoted for speaking out against the one-sided, pro-America coverage that almost entirely ignored Iraqi casualties and suffering, and so on.
Along with these insights, I have an anecdote of my own. I know a skilled journalist who actually courts controversy by challenging prevailing narratives. He told me how he visited a journalism school and spoke to a class of would-be journalists. Did these student-journalists want to be the next Assange, or even Woodward or Bernstein of Watergate fame? Of course not! They aspire to be well-paid anchors or opinion-mongers on cable news, or so my friend told me. They’re in it for the money, for access to power, for fame. They’re not in it to call the powerful to account; they want to be among the powerful, and profiting from the same.
And that’s the way it is, as Walter Cronkite might have said.