Chomsky, Sports Talk Radio, Media Bias, and Me

byDavid_J_Balan10y21st Jul 20097 comments


Just about everyone knows that one of Noam Chomsky's big things is that he thinks the media are badly distorted away from the truth and toward the interests of the wealthy and powerful. Once a long time ago I read or heard either this quote from this interview or something like it:

"Take, say, sports -- that's another crucial example of the indoctrination system, in my view. For one thing because it -- you know, it offers people something to pay attention to that's of no importance. [audience laughs] That keeps them from worrying about -- [applause] keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about. And in fact it's striking to see the intelligence that's used by ordinary people in [discussions of] sports [as opposed to political and social issues]. I mean, you listen to radio stations where people call in -- they have the most exotic information [more laughter] and understanding about all kind of arcane issues. And the press undoubtedly does a lot with this."

Taking this quote along with the rest of the interview, the idea seems to be that that the default condition of most people is to have decent critical faculties unless someone takes the trouble to actively screw them up. So in contrast to their badly distorted ideas about politics, people tend to have sensible ideas about sports, since the powerful have no particular motive to distort those ideas (though they do have a motive to get people to think about sports instead of things that are important).

Leaving completely aside the merits of Chomsky's critique of the media or any of his other views, I have logged a pretty decent number of hours listening to sports talk radio and folks, I'm here to tell you that the quality of the discourse is generally mighty low. It might not be as low as on political talk radio (people aren't as hate-filled), but it's low. I sent an email to Chomsky pointing this out (which I cannot locate as it was many years ago), and to his credit he wrote me back. I don't think I am revealing any confidences by saying that, to the best of my recollection, he admitted that it had been many years since he had really paid any attention to sports or sports talk or anything like that. The point is not (or at least not mostly) to ding Chomsky for being a little loose with the facts behind his just-so story. The point is that whatever you think about the media and the powerful and all that (see here for some of my views), it is not true that reasoned discussion is the default condition of humanity and prevails unless someone comes along and screws it up. I think it's closer to the truth to say that natural irrationality is the raw material that manipulation by the powerful has to act upon.

And that is the story of one of my very few brushes with fame (I also once saw Mike Ditka on a plane, once saw Al Sharpton on a plane, once shook hands with Paul Krugman and knew a very lucky someone who had actually personally laid eyes on Gwyneth Paltrow).