Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
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Some methods for testing the propaganda model of the media were mentioned in chapter 1, including the study of paired examples of crimes and of meritorious actions, and the harshest test: the investigation of those cases selected as their strongest grounds by those who take the opposing stand, arguing that the media adopt an adversarial stance. The model stands up quite well under these and other challenges.2
The study of paired examples reveals a consistent pattern of radically dichotomous treatment, in the predicted direction. In the case of enemy crimes, we find outrage; allegations based on the flimsiest evidence, often simply invented, and uncorrectible, even when conceded to be fabrication; careful filtering of testimony to exclude contrary evidence while allowing what may be useful; reliance on official U.S. sources, unless they provide the wrong picture, in which case they are avoided (Cambodia under Pol Pot is a case in point); vivid detail; insistence that the crimes originate at the highest level of planning, even in the absence of evidence or credible argument; and so on. Where the locus of responsibility is at home, we find precisely the opposite: silence or apologetics; avoidance of personal testimony and specific detail; world-weary wisdom about the complexities of history and foreign cultures that we do not understand; narrowing of focus to the lowest level of planning or understandable error in confusing circumstances; and other forms of evasion.
The murder of one priest in Poland in 1984 by policemen who were quickly apprehended, tried, and jailed merited far more media coverage than the murder of 100 prominent Latin American religious martyrs, including the Archbishop of San Salvador and four raped American churchwomen, victims of the U.S.-backed security forces. Furthermore, the coverage was vastly different in style -- gory details repeated prominently in the former case, evasion in the latter -- as was the attribution of responsibility: to the highest level in Poland and even the Soviet Union in the former case, and in the latter, tempered allusions to the centrist government unable to constrain violence of left and right, in utter defiance of the factual record that was largely suppressed.
To take another case, the prison memoirs of released Cuban prisoner Armando Valladares quickly became a media sensation when they appeared in May 1986. Multiple reviews, interviews, and other commentary hailed this "definitive account of the vast system of torture and prison by which Castro punishes and obliterates political opposition," an "inspiring, and unforgettable account" of the "bestial prisons," "inhuman torture," and "record of state violence" under "yet another of this century's mass murderers" (Washington Post), who, we learn at last from this book, "has created a new despotism that has institutionalized torture as a mechanism of social control" in "the hell that was the Cuba [Valladares] lived in" (New York Times). There were many other vivid and angry denunciations of the "dictatorial goon" Fidel Castro (Time) and his atrocities, here revealed so conclusively that "only the most lightheaded and cold-blooded Western intellectual will come to the tyrant's defense" (Washington Post). Valladares was singled out for his courage in enduring "the horrors and sadism" of the bloody Cuban tyrant by Ronald Reagan at the White House ceremony marking Human Rights Day in December. Subsequent coverage was pitched at the same level.3
Just as Valladares's memoirs appeared in May 1986, arousing great horror, most of the members of the nongovernmental human rights commission of El Salvador (CDHES) were arrested and tortured, including its director Herbert Anaya. While in the "La Esperanza" (Hope) prison, they compiled a 160-page report of sworn testimony of 430 political prisoners, who gave precise and extensive details of their torture by the U.S.-backed security forces; in one case, electrical torture by a North American major in uniform, who is described in some detail. This unusually explicit and comprehensive report was smuggled out of the prison along with a videotape of testimony right in the midst of the furor aroused by Valladares's memoirs, and distributed to the U.S. media. They were not interested. This material was suppressed entirely, without a word, in the national media, where more than a few "lightheaded and cold-blooded Western intellectuals" sing the praises of Jos� Napole�n Duarte and Ronald Reagan. Anaya was not the subject of tributes on Human Rights Day. Rather, he was released in a prisoner exchange, then assassinated, probably by the U.S.-backed security forces; much of the relevant evidence about his assassination did not appear in the national U.S. media, and few asked whether media exposure might have offered him some protection in the U.S. terror state.4 Applying the standard test of sincerity already discussed, we know exactly how to evaluate the outraged commentary elicited by Valladares's memoirs.
No less remarkable than the extraordinary double standard is the inability to see it. In extreme cases, we read bitter condemnation of the "liberal media" for their unwillingness even to describe Castro as a dictator and for their "double standard" in focusing on human rights violations in El Salvador while ignoring the Cuban human rights violations exposed by Valladares.5
Numerous other cases that have been investigated reveal the same pattern. It is, of course, familiar elsewhere. The state-controlled media and human rights organizations of the Soviet bloc have rightly become an object of ridicule for their great indignation over enemy crimes while they manage to miss those closer to home. A minimal level of moral integrity suffices to show that the pattern should be reversed: one's own responsibilities should be the primary concern, and actions should be largely directed by an assessment of their actual impact on suffering people -- again, typically leading to a focus on one's own responsibilities -- while authentic human rights organizations undertake the charge of compiling a comprehensive factual record. Such elementary moral reasoning is well within the reach of our intellectual culture when it considers official enemies; extreme moral cowardice very efficiently bars the exercise at home.
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1 Addendum to p. 9.
2 See the references of chapter 1, note 23, for extensive discussion of cases cited here without specific reference.
3 See the review of media coverage of Cuba in 1986 in Platt, Tropical Gulag (chapter 1, note 30, above). Quotes are from WP, Stephen Rosenfeld (July 18), Stephen Cohen (July 26), Charles Krauthammer (Dec. 14); NYT, Ronald Radosh, June 8; Time, June 30; Miami Herald, "President hails Valladares, raps Cuba on prisons," Dec. 11, 1986. The study reports that the national press accepted Valladares's charges without qualification or attempt at verification and ignored entirely the Cuban government version of the story and the documentation offered to support it, with one exception (Tad Szulc, WP, Aug. 4, 1986, who briefly notes that the book had "inaccuracies" and that "Cuban officials portray [Valladares] as unreliable and unsavory"). They found "professional coverage of the issue" with "lengthy columns pro [R. Emmett Tyrell] and con [Warren Hinckle] Valladares" only in the San Francisco Examiner (July 29, 1986).
4 See pp. 228f. The sole exception to suppression of the CDHES study, apart from Alexander Cockburn in the Nation, was, again, the San Francisco Examiner. See CDHES, "Torture in El Salvador," Sept. 24, 1986; and for further details, Culture of Terrorism, 227f.
5 See p. 12-13; Mona Charen, "A double standard on human rights," Boston Globe, Jan. 2, 1989.