Censorship John Kempthorne Media Criticism

Factchecking the Factchecker on Chomsky, Russia and Media Access

Millions of people in the Soviet Union, including virtually all intellectuals, had access to and tuned into Western media in the 1970s.
Noam Chomsky on Democracy Now! (12/7/21).

By John Kempthorne / FAIR

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, US-based media platforms have made an extraordinary effort to cut Western audiences off from news from a Russian perspective. When social critic Noam Chomsky pointed out how unprecedented this was, Newsweek‘s “factchecker” (7/26/22) declared his criticism “clearly untrue”—a determination that did more to confirm the ideological strictures of US media than to debunk them.

Soon after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Russia Today, funded by the Russian government, was removed from DirecTV and Dish Network (New York Times3/12/22), YouTube (France2412/3/22), TikTokMeta (CNN3/1/22Google News (Reuters3/1/22) and Spotify (Reuters3/2/22) in the United States and/or Europe. RT and Sputnik (another Russian state–funded network) were removed from the Apple app store (TechCrunch3/1/22).

CNN (3/1/22): “The actions taken by television providers and technology companies against RT have…reduc[ed] the Kremlin’s ability to peddle its narrative at a pivotal time.”

Microsoft banned RT from the Windows app store, and deranked RT and Sputnik in Bing search results (TechCrunch3/1/22). Google (Reuters3/1/22), Meta (Reuters 2/26/22) and Microsoft (Microsoft.com2/28/22) barred RT from receiving any ad revenue through their platforms. RT was also banned by Roku, a streaming hardware company (CNN3/1/22).

Motivations for banning RT and Sputnik were due to “extraordinary circumstances,” in Google’s words (Reuters2/26/22), and to protect “against state-sponsored disinformation campaigns” (Microsoft.com2/28/22). RT’s offices in the US had to close down their production completely (Washington Post3/3/22).

PayPal has recently frozen the accounts of independent news outlets such as Consortium News (Democracy Now!7/12/22) and MintPress (Democracy Now!5/4/22; FAIR.org5/18/22). The circumstances around PayPal’s actions are less clear than with the actions against RT. The editor-in-chief of Consortium News, Joe Lauria, said he didn’t know why PayPal froze its account, but he suspects a clause in the user agreement against “purveying misinformation” may have been invoked (Democracy Now!7/12/22).

One of the many chilling effects of the media blackout was that YouTube deleted its entire archive of commentary by the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Chris Hedges (who formerly worked for the New York Times and NPR) because it was hosted by RT (Democracy Now!, 4/1/22).

In May, the US announced new sanctions against Russian television networks Channel One RussiaTelevision Station Russia-1 and NTV Broadcasting Company (CNN5/8/22), cutting them off from US advertisers.

‘A kind of totalitarian culture’

Noam Chomsky, professor emeritus of linguistics at MIT and a renowned media critic, responded to this consolidated effort to “counter the threat” posed by the “information war” (Newsweek7/26/22) in an interview with actor Russell Brand (YouTube7/22/22):

Take the United States today; it is living under a kind of totalitarian culture which has never existed in my lifetime, and is much worse in many ways than the Soviet Union before Gorbachev. Go back to the 1970s, people in Soviet Russia could access BBCVoice of America, German television, if they wanted to find out the news.

Chomsky’s comments were “factchecked” recently by Tom Norton of Newsweek (7/26/22). He wrote:

While the BBC and Radio Free America did broadcast in Russia post-WWII and during the Cold War, their frequencies were jammed by the Soviet government for decades. Any access that the Russian public did have was gained in spite of, not thanks to, their government’s efforts.

The article briefly covers the history of signal jamming in the Soviet Union and other comments made by Chomsky, concluding:

To suggest that Americans have less access to information than citizens in Soviet Russia is therefore, not only clearly untrue, but an argument that neglects the sacrifices and perils that journalists have endured to deliver accurate news about the country, and continue to endure to this day.

The official ruling of Newsweek declared Chomsky’s comments false:

By all accounts, Americans are able to access news from Russia despite many Western journalists having fled the country, and Russia having blocked its public’s access to most Western social media and news platforms.

Newsweek (7/26/22): “There are no justified parallels to be drawn between the Soviet Russia media landscape and that of the US today.”

‘A ubiquitous phenomenon’

One of the articles used to support the certification of falsehood was a New York Times article (5/26/87) from 1987 that reported “Russia had begun broadcasting Voice of America after blocking its signal for seven years.” A BBC article (3/23/11) from 2011 was also used to explain that between 1949 and 1987 the Soviets spent significant funds developing jammers to block Western transmissions.

BBC (3/23/11): “Listening to the [BBC‘s] Russian Service as well as other Western broadcasters had, by the 1970s, become a ubiquitous phenomenon among the Soviet urban intelligentsia.”

Interestingly, the same New York Times article reported that “a Harvard University study in the mid-1970s estimated that 28 million people in the Soviet Union tuned in [to US-funded VoA] at least once a week.’” And similarly, from the same BBC article cited by Newsweek:

However, jamming was never totally effective, and listening to the [BBC‘s] Russian Service as well as other Western broadcasters had, by the 1970s, become a ubiquitous phenomenon among the Soviet urban intelligentsia.

Using just two articles from Western sources selected by the factchecker, it seems that millions of people, including virtually all intellectuals in the Soviet Union, had access to and tuned into Western media in the 1970s, which is fairly consistent with Chomsky’s comments: “Go back to the 1970s, people in Soviet Russia could access BBCVoice of America, German television, if they wanted to find out the news.”

Newsweek reached out to Chomsky for comment, who responded:

I was explicit. I referred to the banning of RT and other channels, comparing it with pre-Perestroika Russia when Russians were getting their news from BBC and VoA, according to US studies.

A mass Soviet audience

A collection of studies were published in 2010 in the book, Cold War Broadcasting: Impact on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, edited by A. Ross Johnson, a former research fellow at the Hoover Institute (a conservative think tank) and director of Radio Free Europe (US-funded media), and R. Eugene Parta, also a former director of RFE and a contributor to the Hoover Institution. The studies corroborate the claim that people in the Soviet Union were frequently listening to Western media.

In the 1970s, simulations estimated by MIT put VoA weekly listenership reaching highs of 19% of the adult Soviet population, with the BBC topping out at 11%. “Study results showed that by the end of the 1970s, more than half of the USSR urban population listened to foreign broadcasting more or less regularly,” according to Cold War Broadcasting.

Cold War Broadcasting (CEU Press2010): “Some 52 million people in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe tuned in weekly to the Voice of America in the early 1980s.”

Out of curiosity, what do the US studies have to say about the 1980s?

Some 52 million people in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe tuned in weekly to the Voice of America in the early 1980s. That was approximately half of VoA’s global audience at the time.

The Soviet war in Afghanistan apparently did not stop people from listening to Western broadcasts. In 1984, 40% of the urban population received information on the war in Afghanistan from Western radio, and in 1987 it was 45%.

In the contemporary United States, however, this is not permitted. We cannot have people listening to the enemy in times of war.

Cold War Broadcasting noted that

the size of Western radio stations’ audience grew gradually from the beginning of broadcasting in the early post-war period to reach more than 50% of the Soviet urban population in the early 1980s.

In other words, Western radio stations had a mass audience in the former USSR. The number of regular listeners was as high as 20–25%.

Soviet listeners appeared to use their access to news from multiple perspectives to get a more comprehensive picture of events:

Despite a relatively high level of trust in Western radio stations, most listeners did not totally accept all the information they heard. The Soviet audience took a more deliberate approach to understanding information that was based on a comparison of information obtained from Soviet mass media with that from foreign radio programs.

So Western outlets and US studies seem to agree with Chomsky: Despite jamming, people had access and often listened to Western sources in the Soviet Union and were critically engaged with the news at the time, especially during the ’70s.

John Kempthorne
John Kempthorne

John is a writer and a psychology PhD student. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnKempthorne.

29 comments

  1. Nice work. Normally I respect Noam Chomsky very much but this discussion pointedly avoids the elephant in the room. Here in Europe we are struggling to house millions of refugees fleeing the indiscriminate slaughter of an invading army. We don’t care one whit about any “Russian Perspective” that would only attempt to justify the slaughter of civilians. And let’s be honest, neither would Noam Chomsky if those armies were in his land.

    1. You in Europe? You mean in the NATO countries that, at America’s bidding, have run right up to Russia’s doorstep waving armaments and practicing the mass murder of Russians in war “games”? The same people whose governments have been screwing the Ukrainian people for decades, and doing everything they can to screw the Russians, too?

      Maybe you need a bit of Russian perspective. I’ll clue you in. The Russians do not “attempt to justify the slaughter of civilians” (especially not the many thousands of Russian-ethnicity civilians murdered by the “Ukrainians” in the Donbas since 2014).

      The Russians deny that they are intentionally killing civilians at all, and point to the slow pace of their operation as a consequence of trying to keep civilian casualties as low as possible.

      But what really reveals the egregious nature of this comment is that it is not about Ukrainian civilians or their suffering at all. Why would anyone in Western Europe give a shit, am I right? Just give them more money and weapons and let them kill themselves.

      No, it is about the suffering of formerly-comfortable, well-off Western Europeans now having to put up with a great mass of smelly, poor, and desperate refugees — refugees created by the Western Europeans themselves and their actions against Ukraine and Russia — and deprived of their expected comforts by their own refusal to do business with anyone not willing to be their slave.

      If the Russians were allowed to speak for themselves, some ugly truths might be raised. Can’t have that, can we?

      Maybe I’m mistaken, but were there not once certain guarantees, such as innocent until proven guilty and the right of the accused to face their accuser? Or the right to a defense? How does one defend oneself when gagged?

      Who are the true autocratic totalitarians here? Not the Russians, I think.

      1. allsion lives in UK an american colony—to this day when brits say Europe they exclude the UK

    2. Perhaps your energy would be better spent lobbying your government to persuade Ukraine to enter into negotiations instead of goading them on in this slaughter. And might I add that you could have this at any time, more specifically around the time your BoJo went to Ukraine to persuade Zelinsky to back away from negotiations.

    3. JUSTIFICATION

      “…that would only attempt to justify…” So you know a priori what would be said and you know what’s germane. That’s good because no one needs to hear from enemies.

      Justifying the slaughter of civilians has never happened before. That’s why I didn’t really grow up on Indian reservation land.

      It’s fine that many millions of from places like Syria and Tigray, those of inconvenient religions or colors, have now become invisible again.

      Any claim that the U.S. and its NATO followers had anything to do with provoking Russia is at best silly and at worst collaborationist propaganda. That’s why the U.S. and U.K. have acted to prevent news media from disseminating such disinformation.

      1. “Collaborationist propaganda.” Wow! I love that! Right outta Kiev, eh? Tell us, why did Zelly do that Vogue photo shoot? What was he thinking?

      2. If there is no validity to the claim that NATO and the United States provoked this war why did James Baker the former Secretary of State and William Burns acknowledge that Russia has legitimate grievances that a hostile military force is encroaching on their border? John Mearsheimer way back in 2014 already predicted this might happen. This reaction is entirely predictable when you deliberately aggravate a nuclear-armed power. Gorbachev should never have agreed to a “gentleman’s agreement” where the West promised to not expand NATO one inch to the west after the reunification of Germany. These are all verifiable facts and not Russian propaganda. Baker, Burns, and Mearsheimer are not at all favorable to Russia, but they acknowledge the very obvious fact that NATO provoked this war, not Russia. Ukraine had 8 years to implement the Minsk Agreement after 2014 which they entered voluntarily along with France and Germany. No one forced their hand.

        The Ukrainian government has brought this on itself. And no that does not mean I support the killing of Ukrainian civilians. I take no pleasure in it. And before you accuse me of victim blaming that is not what I am doing at all. I blame Zelenskey for not seeking peace for the eastern region of Ukraine as he promised during his presidential campaign. This could have easily been avoided with the promise of neutrality. That was why he was called a candidate for peace. But he obviously did not follow through with his promises and the deaths of tens if not hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are on his conscious.

    4. When exactly David did you surrender your critical thinking to others???

      My guess, around age 12.

      1. more peurile american Timmy….shallow monolingual….”the monolingual inevitably confuses style with content”. George Simmel
        “American radicals, black and white adopted radical style with no radical content”. Christopher Lasch
        I f you could understand try reading some of those I mentioned below and others–dilthey, Diderot, Schleimacher, Gadamer etc—taught all in universities—wouldn’t bother in USA where even Balzac Pushkin, Shestov nietzche, Batallie, Stendhal kierkegard Freud Lacan Dostoevsky Marx, Lenin Rilke cannot be understood…..only capitalist apologists—Lyotard, Foucault, Deleuze and the witchdoctor Guatarri

      2. Scroll up and read Bob Dobbs’ response. That is where I stand on the subject of Chomsky.

  2. It is just another round of attacks to discredit intellectuals like Noam Chomsky which is necessary if you wish to propagate a fascist/corporate environment.

    We are literally in the midst of an “INFODEMIC” where substitute truths are being generated like multiplying plague bacteria to sustain the power of those who should not have it.

    1. Chomsky is already thoroughly discredited as a linguist and has become an obsequious defender of the fascist democrat party

      1. Giligan is clearly a troll, but he (?) is not far off here. As a linguist, I can attest that there are many who are challenging some of Chomsky’s key theories.

        As for Chomsky’s political views, he sold out to the Democrats long ago, championing “safe state” nonsense, demanding that people vote, as it that changes anything, and spewing nonsense about Trump being the greatest threat to the world.

        Who does he think created this potentially-apocalyptic situation in Ukraine? Not Trump, but Clinton, Obama, and the Bidens. If this leads to nuclear war, will Chomsky admit his mistake? I doubt it.

        Chomsky was always overrated, but now he is well past his sell-by date. But you’ll never sell that to the fan boys and girls.

  3. The mind rotting pestilence of the western mainstream media propaganda extends far into the Russian heartland. Apparently there are millions of “liberal” Russians, living in Russia, who follow and believe the unhindered Western media narrative about Ukraine. Those Russians dismiss all Russian media as propaganda and have been taught to hate Putin. Masha was one of them and this is her compelling testimony after actually travelling to Donbass:
    https://www.greanvillepost.com/2022/08/20/the-long-road-to-truth-anti-putin-protester-faces-reality-in-ukraine/

  4. FACT CHECKERS AS FIRST RESPONDERS: (s/)

    So what he didn’t exactly say what we claimed. It’s very hard to catch everything in these long diatribes– don’t YOU ever write tl;dr? As for all those dates about whatever, it’s old history. Why the fuss about minor details of events that happened way before we were even born? Can you cite every exact date of Cold War conflicts?!

    You obsessive types better check yourselves before you criticize us. Especially when you all tend to sound so un-American.

    We’re providing a valuable service for those who don’t have time to examine microscopically every little news item. We are a line of defense against attacks on our way of life by enemies trying to confuse and upset the American people.

    Consider us first responders, guardians of of 1st Amendment free speech, as our supervisors tell us. We are to be aware at all times that we are protecting truth against propaganda, foreign and domestic.

    Therefore what we do certainly isn’t censorship. It’s a first strike that prevents opponents from tearing apart our political and economic systems. People who aren’t merely critics, but collaborators.

    1. That is a remarkably totalitarian worldview you have there, citizen. Unless it’s actually an extended joke. If you’re kidding, more power to you.

  5. between 1935-1965 Geofrey Gorer examined USSR media and school curriculum—he then described the distortions of the truth, worse in liberal media and censorship in US curriculum and media as “ludicrous”. Walter Lippman described all US media to be farcically distorted—now worse; he described americans as “a bewildered herd”
    but censorship cannot explain the passivity and fear of curiosity in america; as Hofstadter concluded the american public dictates what the media provides

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