Radical media, politics and culture.

Noam Chomsky, Answering the <I>Guardian</I>

Chomsky Answers Guardian

Noam Chomsky, Z Mag

This is an open letter to a few of the people with whom I had discussed the
Guardian interview of 31 October, on the basis of the electronic version,
which is all that I had seen. Someone has just sent me a copy of the
printed version, and I now understand why friends in England who wrote me
were so outraged.

It is a nuisance, and a bit of a bore, to dwell on the topic, and I always
keep away from personal attacks on me, unless asked, but in this case the
matter has some more general interest, so perhaps it’s worth reviewing what
most readers could not know. The general interest is that the print version
reveals a very impressive effort, which obviously took careful planning and
work, to construct an exercise in defamation that is a model of the genre.
It’s of general interest for that reason alone.

A secondary matter is that it may serve as a word of warning to anyone who
is asked by the Guardian for an interview, and happens to fall slightly to
the critical end of the approved range of opinion of the editors. The
warning is: if you accept the invitation, be cautious, and make sure to have
a tape recorder that is very visibly placed in front of you. That may
inhibit the dedication to deceit, and if not, at least you will have a
record. I should add that in probably thousands of interviews from every
corner of the world and every part of the spectrum for decades, that thought
has never occurred to me before. It does now.It was evident from the electronic version that t was a scurrilous piece of
journalism. That’s clear even from internal evidence. The reporter
obviously had a definite agenda: to focus the defamation exercise on my
denial of the Srebrenica massacre. From the character of what appeared, it
is not easy to doubt that she was assigned this task. When I wouldn’t go
along, she simply invented the denial, repeatedly, along with others. The
centerpiece of the interview was this, describing my alleged views, in
particular, that:

....during the Bosnian war the “massacre” at Srebrenica was probably
overstated. [Chomsky uses quotations marks to undermine things he disagrees
with and, in print at least, it can come across less as academic than as
witheringly teenage; like, Srebrenica was so not a massacre.]

Transparently, neither I nor anyone speaks with quotation marks, so the
reference to my claim that “Srebrenica was so not a massacre,” shown by my
using the term “massacre” in quotes, must be in print – hence “witheringly
teenage,” as well as disgraceful. That raises the obvious question: where
is it in print, or anywhere? I know from letters that were sent to me that
a great many journalists and others asked the author of the interview and
the relevant editors to provide the source, and were met by stony silence —
for a simple reason: it does not exist, and they know it.

Furthermore, as
Media Lens pointed out, with five minutes research on the internet, any
journalist could find many places where I described the massacre as a
massacre, never with quotes. That alone ends the story. I will skip the
rest, which also collapses quickly.

More interesting, however, is the editorial contribution. One illustration
actually is in the e-edition. I did write a very brief letter in response,
which for some reason went to the ombudsman, who informed me that the word
“fabrication” had to be removed. My truncated letter stating that I take no
responsibility for anything attributed to me in the article did appear,
paired with a moving letter from a victim, expressing justified outrage that
I or anyone could take the positions invented in the Guardian article.
Pairing aside, the heading given by the editors was: “Fall out over
Srebrenica.” The editors are well aware that there was no debate or
disagreement about Srebrenica, once the fabrications in their article are

The printed version reveals how careful and well-planned the exercise was,
and why it might serve as a model for the genre. The front-page
announcement of the interview reads: “Noam Chomsky The Greatest
Intellectual?” The question is answered by the following highlighted Q&A,
above the interview:

Q: Do you regret supporting those who say the Srebrenica massacre was

A: My only regret is that I didn't do it strongly enough.

It is set apart in large print so that it can’t be missed, and will be
quoted separately (as it already has been). It also captures the essence of
the agenda. The only defect is that it didn’t happen. The truthful part is
that I said, and explained at length, that I regret not having strongly
enough opposed the Swedish publisher’s decision to withdraw a book by Diana
(not “Diane,” as the Guardian would have it) Johnstone after it was
bitterly attacked in the Swedish press. As Brockes presumably knew, though
I carefully explained anyway, there is one source for my involvement in this
affair: an open letter that I wrote to the publisher, after editors there
who objected to the decision, and journalist friends, sent me the Swedish
press charges that were the basis for the rejection. In the open letter,
readily available on the internet (and the only source), I went through the
charges one by one, checked them against the book, and found that they all
ranged from serious misrepresentation to outright fabrication. I then took
— and take — the position that it is completely wrong to withdraw a book
because the press charges (falsely) that it does not conform to approved
doctrine. And I do regret that “I didn’t do it strongly enough,” the words
Brockes managed to quote correctly. In the interview, whatever Johnstone
may have said about Srebrenica never came up, and is entirely irrelevant in
any event, at least to anyone with a minimal appreciation of freedom of

The article is then framed by a series of photographs. Let’s put aside
childhood photos and an honorary degree — included for no apparent reason
other than, perhaps, to reinforce the image the reporter sought to convey of
a rich elitist hypocrite who tells people how to live (citing a comment of
her own, presumably supposed to be clever, which will not be found on the
tape, I am reasonably confident). Those apart, there are three photos
depicting my actual life. It’s an interesting choice, and the captions are
even more interesting.

One is a picture of me “talking to journalist John Pilger” (who isn’t shown,
but let’s give the journal the benefit of the doubt of assuming he is
actually in the original). The second is of me “meeting Fidel Castro.” The
third, and most interesting, is a picture of me “in Laos en route to Hanoi
to give a speech to the North Vietnamese.”

That’s my life: honoring commie-rats and the renegade who is the source of
the word “pilgerize” invented by journalists furious about his incisive and
courageous reporting, and knowing that the only response they are capable of
is ridicule.

Since I’ll avoid speculation, you can judge for yourselves the role Pilger
plays in the fantasy life of the editorial offices of the Guardian. And the
choice is interesting in other ways. It’s true that I have met John a few
times, much fewer than I would like because we both have busy lives. And
possibly a picture was taken. It must have taken some effort to locate this
particular picture, assuming it to be genuine, among the innumerable
pictures of me talking to endless other people. And the intended message is
very clear.

Turn to the Castro picture. In this case the picture, though clipped, is
real. As the editors surely know, at least if those who located the picture
did 2 minutes of research, the others in the picture (apart from my wife)
were, like me, participants in the annual meeting of an international
society of Latin American scholars, with a few others from abroad. This
annual meeting happened to be in Havana. Like all others, I was in a group
that met with Castro. End of second story.

Turn now to the third picture, from 1970. The element of truth is that I
was indeed in Laos, and on my way to Hanoi. The facts about these trips are
very easy to discover. I wrote about both in some detail right away, in two
articles in the New York Review, reprinted in my book At War with Asia in
1970. It is easily available to Guardian editors, because it was recently
reprinted. If they want to be the first to question the account (unlike
reviewers in such radical rags as the journal of the Royal Institute,
International Affairs), it would be very easy for a journalist to verify it:
contact the two people who accompanied me on the entire trip, one then a
professor of economics at Cornell, the other a minister of the United Church
of Christ. Both are readily accessible. From the sole account that exists,
the editor would know that in Laos I was engaged in such subversive
activities as spending many hours in refugee camps interviewing miserable
people who had just been driven by the CIA “clandestine army” from the Plain
of Jars, having endured probably the most intense bombing in history for
over two years, almost entirely unrelated to the Vietnam war. And in North
Vietnam, I did spend most of my time doing what I had been invited to do:
many hours of lectures and discussion, on any topic I knew anything about,
in the bombed ruins of the Hanoi Polytechnic, to faculty who were able to
return to Hanoi from the countryside during a lull in the bombing, and were
very eager to learn about recent work in their own fields, to which they had
had no access for years.

The rest of the trip “to Hanoi to give a speech to the North Vietnamese” is
a Guardian invention. Those who frequent ultra-right defamation sites can
locate the probable source of this ingenious invention, but even that
ridiculous tale goes nowhere near as far as what the Guardian editors
concocted, which is a new addition to the vast literature of vilification of
those who stray beyond the approved bounds.

So that’s my life: worshipping commie-rats and such terrible figures as John
Pilger. Quite apart from the deceit in the captions, simply note how much
effort and care it must have taken to contrive these images to frame the
answer to the question on the front page.

It is an impressive piece of work, and, as I said, provides a useful model
for studies of defamation exercises, or for those who practice the craft.
And also, perhaps, provides a useful lesson for those who may be approached
for interviews by this journal.

This is incidentally only a fragment. The rest is mostly what one might
expect to find in the scandal sheets about movie stars, familiar from such
sources, and of no further interest.