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Climate catastrophe, media complicity: an interview with Noam Chomsky

The following interview is the first of a two-part series. 

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 affinity -- 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, as a "threat to the perpetuation of organized human life," on a par with nuclear war. In this interview, Chomsky directly addresses the specific relationship between media and the climate crisis.

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?

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. 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 US 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; 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 connecting the dots?

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 Diamond 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, but that happens." 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?

Yeah, but it's kind of 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 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 dilly dallying 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 panel 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.

Robert Hackett is Professor Emeritus of Communication at Simon Fraser University. He has published eight (mostly collaborative) academic books on media and politics, most recently Journalism and Climate Crisis (2017). A co-founder of NewsWatch Canada (1993), Media Democracy Days (2001), and Openmedia.ca (2007), Bob has been one of the thousands of people campaigning to defend the community, the coast and the planet from the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure, notably the Trans Mountain pipeline. He received SFU’s Warren Gill award for community impact in 2018. This interview was conducted on January 22, 2019 and originally published in the National Observer

Image: Andrew Rusk/Flickr

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