Edward S. Herman, an economist who collaborated with scholar and political activist Noam Chomsky on blistering critiques of U.S. foreign policy and the mass media, most influentially with their book “Manufacturing Consent,” died Nov. 11 at a hospital near his home in Penn Valley, Pa. He was 92.
Dr. Herman had bladder cancer, said his wife, Christine Abbott. The disease was not diagnosed until after his death.
An emeritus professor of finance at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, Dr. Herman was known as a soft-spoken, cat-loving pianist, fond of donning a T-shirt that read “Thank God for Mozart” during times of political tumult.
Yet his tenderness in person was belied by a ferocious rhetorical style in his prose, where he criticized “humanitarian wars” in Iraq and Vietnam, and lambasted mainstream media outlets.
Dr. Herman was “one of the top progressive media critics,” said Jeff Cohen, founder of the left-leaning media watch group FAIR. In large part, his eminence was a result of his collaboration with Chomsky. Both men were academics — Dr. Herman was an expert on banking and corporate power structures; Chomsky was a pathbreaking linguist — who became political dissidents during the Vietnam War.
According to an account in Jim Neilson’s book “Warring Fictions: Cultural Politics and the Vietnam War Narrative,” their first collaboration, “Counter-Revolutionary Violence” (1973), was dropped by its publisher after an executive with the company found its rebuke of U.S. foreign policy to be “a pack of lies, a scurrilous attack on respected Americans.”
An expanded two-volume version of the book soon followed, titled “The Political Economy of Human Rights” (1979), but neither work drew the acclaim and attention garnered by “Manufacturing Consent” (1988), which the Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi described as “a kind of Bible of media criticism for a generation of dissident thinkers.”
Dr. Herman received primary credit for the book, which outlined a “propaganda model” of American mass media, arguing that news coverage was shaped largely by “market forces, internalized assumptions and self-censorship.”
Drawing on reams of news stories, Dr. Herman and Chomsky compiled case studies that showed how media coverage of America’s allies generally differed from the coverage received by its adversaries, most famously in the case of human-rights violations by El Salvador, an American ally, and Nicaragua, whose left-wing Sandinista government was opposed by the Ronald Reagan administration.
Coverage of Jerzy Popieluszko, a Polish priest who was murdered by Communist state police, dwarfed that of myriad priests who were “murdered in our client states in Latin America,” they found, and reporting on conflicts in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos seemed scattered and deficient.
For the case studies alone, reviewer Derek N. Shearer wrote in the Los Angeles Times that “the work should be required reading for future foreign correspondents and foreign editors at leading schools of journalism and public affairs.”
To many critics, however, the book’s arguments were oversimplified — the authors did not visit newsrooms or interview reporters in the course of their research — and failed to explain why the “propaganda” machine was not always successful in “manufacturing consent.”
“The whole approach of the book is deeply simplistic,” said Todd Gitlin , a Columbia University journalism professor and communications scholar. “If you think that the New York Times is Pravda, which is essentially what they’re saying, then what vocabulary do you have left for Fox News? Their model is so clumsy that it disables you from distinguishing between a straight-out propaganda network and a more complex, hegemonic mainstream news organ.”
“Manufacturing Consent” was adapted into a documentary of the same name in 1992, and Dr. Herman continued to write about the media in news articles and in books such as “The Global Media” (1997), co-authored with communications scholar Robert W. McChesney, and “The Myth of the Liberal Media” (1999), a compendium of his case studies and essays.
Edward Samuel Herman was born in Philadelphia on April 7, 1925, to a family of liberal Democrats. His father was a pharmacist, and his mother was a homemaker.
He studied economics at the University of Pennsylvania, receiving bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the school, before finding a mentor in Robert A. Brady, a University of California at Berkeley professor who analyzed the economic systems of fascist societies. He received a doctorate in economics at Berkeley in 1953 and joined the University of Pennsylvania five years later, retiring in 1989 as professor emeritus.
Dr. Herman was championed by many on the left for his media criticism, but his writings on genocides in Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda were criticized for seeming to sympathize with repressive regimes, and for belittling the testimonies of survivors. Dr. Herman said he was trying to ensure accuracy of details such as the number of people killed at Srebrenica and the origins of the Rwandan genocide, which Dr. Herman argued was in large part the result of actions by leaders of the minority Tutsi ethnic group.
Dr. Herman’s wife of 67 years, the former Mary Woody, died in 2013. Dr. Herman married Abbott, a longtime friend, two years later. In addition to his wife, of Penn Valley, survivors include a brother.
In an interview for the 2013 book “Weapons of the Strong: Conversations on U.S. State Terrorism,” Dr. Herman stood by his propaganda model of journalism, declaring, “The mainstream media are part of a closely integrated corporate and political system, and they consistently serve as a propaganda arm of the state on foreign policy issues.”
“In fact,” he said, “the extent to which the media collaborated with the Bush administration in the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003, in the face of massive street protests on the part of ordinary citizens, was a media regression from the Vietnam War experience.”