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REVIEW: Necessary Illusions

Given the ever increasing media consolidation in the United States (and abroad), studies of how political and corporate interests bend, twist, or otherwise distort news coverage are taking on greater importance. Noam Chomsky’s Necessary Illusions offers a thoroughly researched and ranging treatment of political news coverage ranging from the Vietnam war to the late 80s, the time the book was published. And while the events investigated may seem like ancient history to the flightly attention-spans of our (media-trained) eyes, they are not yet resolved and the historical imbalance of news coverage accorded to them remains to be corrected, which, one can surmise, will entrain a needed shift in public opinion.

Necessary Illusions breaks down into 5 chapters paired with appendices of far greater depth, each focusing on a specific topic or issue. Examples are the concept of “democracy” as it applies to media coverage, and how words such as “freedom” can be applied to any case, given the correct interpretation. The central premise of the book is that the media in fact are not interested in reporting facts, or even working toward the public interest, but instead are businesses that seek to sell a product, you, dear readers, to buyers, advertisers; it also is by and large the case that in their quest for the attention of readers with disposable incomes, the media cannot report anything that would alienate potential advertisers, and so constrain their coverage the interests of the corporate elite — which many times is indistinguishable from the US’ foreign escapades.

Every chapter in Necessary Illusions draws examples from several conflicts and the news coverage given them, which is often analyzed using the “sincerity principle,” Chomsky’s method of taking two scenarios that are essentially identical except for the actors involved, who are either allies or enemies of the United States, and comparing the media coverage of each. The difference in actors, it seems, all but determines the course and pitch media coverage will assume. The reportage covering Nicaragua and El Salvador during the 80s is a textbook example. The former was (still is, if we go by the current headlines discussing Ortega’s presidential victory there) much maligned in the press for its suppression of the freedom of the press, and other abuses, while the latter was praised as a model, if struggling democracy; in actual fact, understood by the overwhelming majority of (the extra-US) world, the abuses shrilly decried in Nicaragua were quite tame in comparison to those taking place at the behest of the struggling democratic El Salvador. The difference between the two events? El Salvador was a US client state which did largely as it was told, while Nicaragua’s government enacted reforms that seemed to threaten the US interests. Examples of this sort are cited over and over throughout the book.

As Chomsky states clearly in this book and elsewhere, the propaganda model makes no one to one claim between the coverage given to events and public perception. But if the distortion in coverage had no effect, one would assume it would not occur at all. What’s needed now (or perhaps already exists; someone can point it to me) is a suitably justified empirical study of how propaganda of this sort works to shape individual perception of events.

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