Manufacturing Distortions

By Paul Bogdanor

Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (Vintage Books, 1994).

Resurrecting Marcuse’s theory of “repressive tolerance,” Chomsky and Herman argue that America is not truly free because a capitalist media cabal indoctrinates the public about foreign policy. In developing this claim they violate the most elementary principles of scholarly research, ignoring most national newspapers, nearly all magazines, all television channels, all wire services, radio news, talk radio, and nearly the whole of the Internet, including weblogs and webcasts. Furthermore, they systematically falsify the historical record while manipulating facts, references, numbers and logic to promote their totalitarian ideological agenda.

Consider the discussion of Vietnam. According to Chomsky and Herman, American intervention designed to prevent South Vietnam from being conquered by North Vietnam was morally equivalent to the Soviet invasions that conquered Eastern Europe and Afghanistan; thus resistance to totalitarian aggression is the same as totalitarian aggression (pp. 175-6, 184-5). Turning from questions of morality to issues of fact, they announce that the South Vietnamese government “had killed tens of thousands of people” by 1959 (p. 180). They offer no evidence, because the charge is untrue. On the other hand, they completely ignore the North Vietnamese terror, which resulted in 50,000-100,000 massacred and many more starved to death during the same period [1].

Chomsky and Herman also tell us that by 1965, “over 150,000 people” had been killed in South Vietnam according to “figures cited by Bernard Fall,” which include “victims of the state terrorism of the US-installed regimes” (p. 183). Turning to their source, we find that this figure (actually 160,000) is not an estimate of civilian losses from Bernard Fall but an estimate of combat losses from Viet Cong propaganda [2]. Meanwhile, they do not mention the very real communist atrocities: the death-squad murders of 37,000 civilians [3]; the abduction or slaughter of up to 155,000 refugees on the road to Tuy-Hoa [4]; the post-1975 massacre of up to 200,000 opponents [5]; the mass killings in concentration camps [6]; the mass expulsions which drowned as many as 400,000 boat people [7]; and so on.

On Cambodia, Chomsky and Herman quietly abandon their earlier view that the Khmer Rouge had killed only 25,000, that its crimes had been inflated by “a factor of 100” and that Pol Pot’s brutality had “saved many lives” [8]. Now they try to equate American bombing with communist genocide, arguing that “the responsibility of the United States and Pol Pot for atrocities” in Cambodia is “roughly in the same range” (pp. 264-5).

They generate this conclusion by a remarkable sleight of hand. First, they give estimates of 500,000-600,000 dead in the civil war (1970-5) (p. 263), more than twice the real figure [9]. Second, they attribute the civil war deaths - all deaths, both military and civilian, on all sides - to American bombing (p. 260), in truth only a minor factor [10]. Third, they reduce the toll of Khmer Rouge atrocities (1975-9) to 750,000-1 million (p. 263), only half of the actual number [11]. Finally, they maintain that the starvation component of this toll “must be attributed to the conditions left by the US war” (p. 263), and not to the Khmer Rouge policy of enslaving the whole population while abolishing medicine and hospitals and rejecting food aid in the midst of a government-created famine. Doubtless unfairly, I am reminded of the techniques of Holocaust deniers, who exaggerate the cost of Allied bombing and then attribute Jewish deaths in the camps to starvation and disease caused by the war against the Nazis [12].

Also of interest is the profusion of misquotations and misrepresentations in this section:

(a) Discussing the civil war, Chomsky and Herman report that “[Francois] Ponchaud gives the figure of 800,000 killed,” but “seems to have exaggerated the toll of the US bombing” and is “a highly unreliable source” (p. 383n31). In fact this inflated figure came not from Ponchaud but from Khmer Rouge propaganda he was quoting [13].

(b) As evidence of “conditions left by the US war,” they offer the desperate state of Phnom Penh in 1975 (pp. 263-4). But American bombing had ended two years earlier, and the city had been mercilessly shelled by the Khmer Rouge for more than a year before it fell [14].

(c) They add that Nixon Administration sources “predicted a million deaths in Cambodia if US aid were to cease” (p. 264). The prediction actually referred to the likely death toll from the communist takeover [15].

(d) They also say that a CIA demographic study placed Khmer Rouge executions at 50,000-100,000, along with an estimate of total mortality that is “meaningless” (pp. 383-4n31). Concealed in this formulation is the fact that the execution figure referred only to a single purge, while the CIA’s overall estimate of population decline under the Khmer Rouge was 1.2-1.8 million [16].

The list goes on.

Next we are given the untenable analogy of Cambodia and East Timor (pp. 284-5, 301-3). With identical reasoning, Nazi apologists equate Auschwitz and Dresden. The Khmer Rouge slaughtered millions in Cambodia, while Indonesia killed scores of thousands in East Timor. Pol Pot murdered a quarter of his subjects, while Suharto killed less than one percent. There is no comparison between the two crimes. But these distortions are only the tip of the iceberg.


[1] Robert F. Turner, Vietnamese Communism: Its Origins and Development (Hoover Institution Publications, 1975), pp. 142-4.

[2] New Society, UK, April 22, 1965; Marcus G. Raskin and Bernard B. Fall, The Vietnam Reader (Random House, 1965), p. 261.

[3] Guenter Lewy, America in Vietnam (Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 272.

[4] Louis Wiesner, Victims and Survivors: Displaced Persons and Other War Victims in Viet-Nam, 1954-1975 (Greenwood Press, 1988), pp. 318-9.

[5] Al Santoli, To Bear Any Burden: The Vietnam War and Its Aftermath in the Words of Americans and Southeast Asians (Indiana University Press, 1999), pp. 272, 292-3.

[6] Theodore Jacqueney, They Are Us, Were We Vietnamese, Worldview, April 1977.

[7] Associated Press, June 23, 1979.

[8] Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, After the Cataclysm (South End Press, 1979), pp. 139, 160.

[9] Marek Sliwinski, Le Génocide Khmer Rouge: Une Analyse Démographique (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1995), pp. 42, 48.

[10] Ibid., p43.

[11] Ibid., p57.

[12] See Deborah Lipstadt, Denying the Holocaust (Penguin, 1994), p. 186; Michael Sherman and Alex Grobman, Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? (University of California Press, 2000), p. 100.

[13] Francois Ponchaud, Cambodia Year Zero (Holt, Rhinhart & Winston, 1978), p. 92.

[14] John Barron and Anthony Paul, Murder of a Gentle Land Reader’s Digest Press, 1977), pp. 1-3.

[15] Washington Post, June 4, 23, 1975.

[16] Kampuchea: A Demographic Catastrophe (Central Intelligence Agency, 1980).