Democracy, Media and Public Opinion

- An Interview with Noam Chomsky by Kajal Mukhopadhyay

Part 1

Professor Noam Chomsky gave this interview for a documentary project on “Corporatization of media and perils of Democracy”. This is the first part of the interview recorded on 28 April 2008 at his office in MIT State Center.


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[Question]:

Media is thought to be an important pillar of democracy. In India like elsewhere, media is getting controlled by big money. The houses are raising issues & fighting government in the name of democracy, but all time their business interests are setting their agenda even if at the outset that is happening in the name of democracy. What is your comment on this identity of big business houses & their role in democracy? 

[Noam Chomsky]:

Well, we should be cautious about the things been done in the name of the democracy. Virtually every tyranny says we are doing in the name of democracy. So, Stalin and his advisers were very outspoken about the need to protect democracy in the Eastern Europe – peoples’ democracies from the fascist onslaught from the West. They probably believed it because, now that the Russian archives are open we see that even in internal documents when they are talking to each other they talk about how important it is to protect democracy from the western influences and so on. 
In fact anybody is in favor of democracy, but what are we mean by … if we mean by democracy that people can participate and determine the policies politicians are concerned now, that obviously is under cut if decision making power is concentrated in narrow hands and if information is unavailable to public that would enable them to make reasonable choices … so they don’t have the opportunity to make choices; they don’t have information available to them, you can have a form of democracy but it doesn’t function…and in fact you don’t have to go far to see this. Start right here. US public opinion is very carefully studied partly because business world wants to know what people think; so tremendous amount of the studies, very intensive, very systematic and careful and we know a lot about.
As it turns out that ... major … host of major issues … both political parties are well right (aware) about the population … the theory … there is a theory behind it, frankly it was expressed recently by Dick Cheney … (??) there his address to the White House … you know the way our system works … the Government are not supposed to pay attention to public opinion; you have a chance, people have a chance once every four years to express their opinion and then you should shut up that’s the way our system works, which is correct … every four years you have a chance to select one or other representative of the business world whose views you reject and you then supposed to shut up, and you see in it the significant gulf between policy and opinion; on domestic issues, on international issues 
So just to take one that’s striking and very revealing … the United States has the worst healthcare system in the industrial world, in fact total scandal, has twice its per capita expenditure than every other industrial societies and … about worst the outcomes, so it’s a scandal, and people are like it … almost 50 millions people have no coverage at all, many more have limited coverage. And people have opinions about this and for decades they heard essentially the same opinion: they wanted a national health care system … 

The morale that the people usually uses Canada not because it’s the best system but because it’s right there so you see it … they can’t talk about Australia because they don’t know what the system is, if it’s better … but they wanted national healthcare system something like towards Medicare system for the elderly extended to the whole population, that’s been true for decades, and it has never come up in elections 
It has come up in words but never actually ... in fact, the latest in 2004 election the Press pointed out correctly that the democratic candidate Carry could not mention any government involvement in the healthcare system because it has little political support. In other words, it is supported by a large majority of the population but it’s not supported by the insurance companies, and the financial institutions and pharmaceutical corporations, therefore it has no political support. Well pretty interesting thing happened between 2004 and 2008, … and striking the additional comments on it, it’s dramatically obvious – in 2008 as distinct from 2004, it has become politically possible, so every democratic candidate has some kind of a healthcare program not exactly what public wanted for fifty years but approaching. 
But what has changed between 2004 and 2008, not the public opinion since it’s the same, what changed is that the manufacturing industry has begun to be hurt badly by the inefficiency of the privatized US healthcare system. So, General Motors says it costs them over thousand dollars more to produce a car in Detroit than right across the border in Windsor Canada where they have more or less rational healthcare system. Now when a large sector of concentrated capital begins to come out in favor of a healthcare … oh … national healthcare system then it becomes politically possible … and has political support, and that is taken for granted by intellectual opinion, by commentary, or you find Op-ed about this anywhere because it’s the way it works, it’s a system run by … it’s the democratic system run by the business world and therefore their interest. 

In figuring out the populations’ own words … in most recent, people are rigorously asked in the polls who do you think runs the country … and the latest one … January, one of the options given is the countries run by a few big interests looking out for themselves, not for the people – 80% of the population thinks so. So, the population not deluded … also should the government pay attention to the public opinion in between elections – 95% of the public thinks so, but just having 95% of the public wants something is not political support … well that’s … it’s a kind of a democracy; and in fact we may be the freest country in the world … many ways, many great achievements protecting freedom – freedom of speech and so on, but it is not a functional democracy. 

Policy is very removed from opinion, and that’s actually been studied, and it’s a systemic gap between policy and opinion. And policy is pretty much what the public thinks – stay term in the way a few big interests looking out for themselves with an occasional nod to what public just can’t disregard. And the concentration of media, which is of course overwhelmingly corporate, simply contributes to that – you get one picture of the world, one that’s acceptable to the business world. 

- Interviewed by Kajal Mukhopadhyay, ReelTalkFilms, 15 Nov 2008

Noam Chomsky

Avram Noam Chomsky is an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, political activist, author, and lecturer. He is an Institute Professor emeritus and professor emeritus of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Chomsky is well known in the academic and scientific community as the father of modern linguistics. Since the 1960s, he has become known more widely as a political dissident, an anarchist, and a libertarian socialist intellectual. He also established the Chomsky hierarchy, a classification of formal languages in terms of their generative power. His 1959 review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior challenged the behaviorist approaches to studies of behavior and language dominant at the time and contributed to the cognitive revolution in psychology. His naturalistic approach to the study of language has affected the philosophy of language and mind.[11] Beginning with his opposition to the Vietnam War Chomsky established himself as a prominent critic of US foreign and domestic policy. He is a self-declared adherent of libertarian socialism which he regards as "the proper and natural extension of classical liberalism into the era of advanced industrial society."[12] According to the Arts and Humanities Citation Index in 1992, Chomsky was cited as a source more often than any other living scholar during the 1980–92 period, and was the eighth most-cited source. At the same time, his status as a leading critic of American politics has made him a controversial figure.