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Ed Herman, who wrote the famous book with Noam Chomsky, looks back at his life and what formed his thinking about the world

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay, coming to you today from Penn Valley, Pennsylvania. We’re at the home of Edward S. Herman.

Edward Herman is one of the more important public intellectuals of the 20th century. Of course, he’s still kicking in the 21st century. Edward S. Herman is an American economist and media analyst with a specialty in corporate and regulatory issues, as well as political economy and the media. He’s a professor emeritus of finance at the Wharton School of business at the University of Pennsylvania. One of his best-known books is Manufacturing Consent, written with Noam Chomsky, and recently, The Politics of Genocide, co-authored with David Peterson in 2010. And we are now joined by Edward S. Herman. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So in this first of a series of interviews, I want to ask you about Edward S. Herman. How do you—as someone who was an expert in banking and banking structure and regulation and ends up at the Wharton School of business, how do you get there and also be a public intellectual with such progressive ideas, working with Chomsky, and your own work on what’s known as—coined as humanitarian imperialism? I mean, these are, you know, very progressive positions. What formed Edward S. Herman?

HERMAN: Well, I was a Depression baby, and I grew up in the age of Hitler and the age of the Great Depression. My parents were good Democrat liberals, and I had some relatives who were strong radicals who influenced me somewhat. So I became something of a radical.

I went out and got a PhD at the University of California in Berkeley, but partly I went there because there were some really great radicals—a guy named Robert A. Brady, who wrote a wonderful book called The Spirit and Structure of German Fascism, and he also wrote a great book called Business as a System of Power. And there was an economist named Leo Rogin who wrote a wonderful history of economic thought. And it was critical environment. This was right after the Second World War, and there were quite a few students who had come back from the war. We had quite a radical collection out there.

And the odd thing about my coming to Penn, to Wharton School, is that I wrote my PhD thesis studying the Bank of America system. I wrote about the Transamerica Corporation, which is—controlled the Bank of America. Money in banking was one of my specialties. I ended up going to Penn State, and at Penn State I was solicited by the chairman of the department in the finance department at Wharton, because they were commissioned to do a study of branch banking in Pennsylvania back in the—long time ago.

JAY: How do you get from branch banking to Manufacturing Consent?

HERMAN: I became sort of the specialist in tricky issues, paying—. For example, when I came to the Wharton School, we were commissioned by the SEC to do a study of mutual funds. It was a famous study, one of the first studies of mutual funds. And I was the specialist in that study, among all of us, of the control that the mutual funds might exercise over their portfolio companies, and also who controlled the mutual funds. So my specialty was corporate control.

Then we—later we got a grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank board to do a study of savings and loan associations at that time, long before they fail. But what was my assignment? It was conflict of interest in the savings and loan. That was the one paper that the industry hated, and they had a press conference denouncing me. I was really very proud of that.

So that sort of fed into working on updating Berle and Means’s book, The Modern Corporation and Private Property. And it was about who controlled the big corporations. So as a Wharton professor, I got a big grant from the Twentieth Century Fund to study, to update Berle and Means, which I did in a book called Corporate Control, Corporate Power, I mean, which was published in 1981.

So—actually, even before that, I’d been in the antiwar movement, and I got into touch with Noam Chomsky back in the early ’70s, and we started to write together. And we—our first article was called “The Search for an Honest Quisling”. It was about Saigon and the fact that there were—our clients in Saigon and South Vietnam were crooks.

JAY: So you meet Noam, and then how does Manufacturing Consent—.

HERMAN: Well, I—we were actually collaborating and writing this article. And we wrote a little book in 1971 on Bloodbaths in Fact and Propaganda, which actually we turned into—was suppressed by Warner, and it was—we built it into a really big book. We had a two-volume work on The Political Economy of Human Rights. And when we wrote the Manufacturing Consent, which was—the first edition came out in 1988—we had both had—were studying the media, and we both had deadlines that we couldn’t meet, so we decided to fuse our efforts. And so it was a joining of forces of two people who were thinking along the same line.

So it was a kind of natural evolution of critical interest in the corporate system and its power. That leads you into the media. And so we then—we took up the media directly in this analysis. We—chapter one of Manufacturing Consent is called “The Propaganda Model”. And it’s really—it traces back to my economist studies of industrial structure, because it’s really a structural analysis of the media, tracing the manufacture of consent and the way the media behave to who owns them, where they get their money through advertising, how they get information, their symbiosis with powerful actors who can give them cheap information, and flak, which means negative feedback, which also comes mainly from power sources and ideology, which we put in anti-communism, but we’ve expanded that in a later edition to include free market ideology. That also comes out of the power structure of the system, what the—the ideology. So it’s—the propaganda model’s—really traces back to deep economic analysis of industrial organization and how it feeds into the media.

JAY: But in terms of your personal arc, you had a bit of a disagreement with Noam Chomsky on Iran.

HERMAN: Well, I think what he was objecting to was that when Peterson and I were writing on the Iran election, we were taking a heavy crack at the people—the liberals and left-wingers in the West who were going after Iran very vigorously in this election. In fact, I think we showed very, very well that that election was—while it’s very imperfect, it wasn’t a stolen election. And I think there was very—pretty reasonable evidence that Ahmadinejad really won an election and would have won under any kind of conditions. And all—what we did was feature how the liberals and left in the United States got on that bandwagon just when the United States and Israel were engaged in attempting regime change and were demonizing Iran at every level. So when they had an election, they oh, we got very upset about that election, whereas Saudi Arabia, they don’t have an election and they don’t get very upset about that.

But right at that moment when they had that election in Iran, they had a coup in Honduras, a right-wing coup, and then they had a really phony election. And in this series that Peterson and I put up, we thought, where the hell was the left on Honduras? Why were they focusing so heavily on Iran, which was out of our orbit of control, but where we were trying to destabilize and overthrow a regime? You wouldn’t think the left would get on that. But here’s Honduras right in our sphere of influence and where we could possibly have—we definitely could have real influence if we wanted to, and the left was not yelling and raging and saying, oh, look, dude, this is where you ought to be—.

JAY: Some of the left was.

HERMAN: Yeah, some of the left. But a remarkable, a very significant fraction of the left had gotten on the Iran bandwagon. You absolutely have to put it in—.

JAY: But certainly people have and the workers of Iran have a right to fight for their rights in Iran.

HERMAN: Oh, of course. Yes. Yes. Yes. I would support them all the time. But that’s largely their business. And, in fact, some of them were—even argue that the scene was compromised by the external intervention and the fact that they were tied in with people who were really trying to overthrow the government and engage in serious regime—. Some activists in Iran—.

JAY: Most of them say that. Most of them say the pressure coming from United States and Israel actually weakens the democracy movement in Iran.

HERMAN: So, in any case, getting back to the Chomsky question, I don’t think he—I ever had an exchange with him on this, but indirectly I—well, we were attacking some of the left-wing groups, like the Campaign for Peace and Democracy, which had never mentioned Honduras in this period iibut would spend a lot of time on Iran and the election. And, in fact, some of them made statements about the Iran election that we considered to be untrue. So, anyway, we criticized them.

And Noam Chomsky hates ad hominem, or he doesn’t like fighting on the left. But I believe in it. I think it’s very important to criticize the left. I think a very important part of the problem of the world is the extent to which the conservative forces struggling allegedly for human rights have neutralized or even captured some of the left. And the left—.

JAY: Talk a little bit about your assessment of the American left now, the Occupy movement, and this coming elections. What’s your take on where the left is at?

HERMAN: The political scene in America is really grim, because [incompr.] this Occupy movement, I think, is—it’s wonderful to see people out there and doing this, but from the very beginning, I regret to say that I feel that it’s going to not pan out, it’s not going to pan out to anything useful, because it has no organizational base. Here you see the union movement actually coming out already for Obama for president and putting all their money onto getting Obama. So they’re not even going to be—really be able to put any serious pressure on Obama, let alone the Republicans. So by what process, this dissident movement, the Occupy people, how are they—by what process are they going to affect the political process?

The political actors have a lot of durability. They have a lot of money. They can just sit and wait, and they don’t have to do anything. And they have also another very important asset, namely, the mainstream media, which has become more centralized, more powerful, and it does not—. When the occupations first took place, the media were actually hostile. And the numbers were so great and it was—and the police abuses were so outrageous that the media had to become more objective and a little more neutral. But they haven’t given it huge attention. They’re not going to feature it in such a way as to translate it into anything that is challenging to state power.

So, anyway, hate to have to say it, and I am a real pessimist about politics in America. I think the scene has gotten really bad and the forces—.

JAY: What would you like to see?

HERMAN: Oh, I would like to see a good democratic socialist movement, and I’d like to see—. Actually, I was very thrilled to see George Galloway win an election in England. He’s—he beat the Labour Party and the Conservative Party guy in his constituency. He represents a third force, a real—. He’s really critical of the destruction of the welfare state and the warfare state in Britain.

I mean, to me the election of 2000 was really a very important election historically, not just because Bush was elected, but because Ralph Nader couldn’t even get 5 percent of the vote, although Ralph Nader is a name, he’s a celebrity, he’s obviously incredibly competent, his positions on most of the issues are consistent with that of the left of the Tea Party as well as the Occupation people. And here’s—here’s a guy who can’t even compete at all in the electoral process, although he’s far superior to the two candidates that are running. And here I’ve always liked the New York Times editorial explaining why it was okay to exclude him from the national debates because the other two candidates already expressed all the positions that are really important.

JAY: Well, that sort of defines the media right there, doesn’t it?

HERMAN: Yeah, it does. It defines the media and it defines the—.

JAY: Actually, that could be in the new banner on The New York Times: all the opinions we think are important.

HERMAN: Oh, well, that’s—we could say that’s implicit.

JAY: [We’re going to] carry on this discussion and dig into some of these different areas. So hang on. So please come back for the next in our series of interviews with Edward S. Herman on The Real News Network.


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