It's no surprise that Skinwalker "took a lot of shit" for noding this article. Some leftists have a visceral and emotional reaction whenever somebody criticizes Chomsky. The phenomenon is not limited to a subset of leftists, of course. Just in the same way, some libertarians react viscerally to criticism of Ayn Rand, and some Christians react viscerally to criticism of the Bible. I could go on about the reasons for this, but this writeup will be long enough as it is. I will just say that my own view is that there are no gods anywhere.

Sorry. Think for yourself.

Anyway, I thought it would be instructive to see how Herman and Chomsky described this article in Manufacturing Consent (MC), which was published about ten years later. My goal here is not to judge the merits of their overall argument about Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge. Their claims that some evidence was forged might or might not be true. Their claims about the unreliability of certain sources might or might not be true. Their claims about the United States's responsibility may or may not be true. Their analysis of the writings of others, such as William Shawcross and Father Ponchaud, may or may not be accurate. It may even be true that all evidence available at the time really was unreliable, and they did the best anyone could do in the original article. For the purposes of this writeup, I am neutral on all these points. My sole purpose here is to compare what they actually said in the article with the way they described the article in MC.

The indented quotations below are taken from Manufacturing Consent. Within the quotations, text in square brackets represents my additions and commentary. I have omitted internal footnotes; other omissions are indicated with ellipses, as is standard. With the exceptions of these omissions, which amount to a few phrases, these quotations encompass everything that Herman and Chomsky had to say about their earlier article. If you believe that these excisions have led to a mischaracterization of their work, please send me a message explaining why. Or, just create a writeup of your own.

It is my understanding that under Fair Use principles, I can cite up to 10% or 1000 words of the work, whichever is less, without violating copyright.

I apologize if my comments seem excessively pedantic or repetitive at times. In my experience, that's what is required to break through the faith some people have in certain sources.

[William] Shawcross is wise to avoid examples, because as he knows well, his primary source, Ponchaud, went out of his way to praise Chomsky for "the responsible attitude and precision of his thought" shown in what he had written on Cambodia, referring to our 1977 review of his book cited earlier and unpublished correspondence....So Shawcross would have us believe that a single 1977 article in The Nation silenced the West, an article in which, furthermore, we praised the book written by his primary source, Ponchaud, as "serious and worth reading," with its "grisly account of what refugees have reported to him about the barbarity of their treatment at the hands of the Khmer Rouge..." (p. 290)

In the original article, Chomsky and Herman did say that Ponchaud's book was "serious and worth reading." But they made other statements that are not cited in MC. They describe Ponchaud's work as "at best careless," that "its veracity is...difficult to assess," that "the serious reader will find much to make him somewhat wary," and that "...Ponchaud plays fast and loose with quotes and with numbers." I honestly do not understand how they can consider a book to be "a serious work" when they also believe that it is "at best careless" and riddled with errors.

Thus, in MC, Herman and Chomsky only cite one statement they made about Ponchaud and omit quotations that convey a very different message.

...[we] stated that we are in no position to draw any conclusion about the actual extent of the atrocities, in conformity to State Department specialists and other informed sources at the time (p. 290).

They did state that "we do not pretend to know where the truth lies amidst these sharply conflicting assessments." Throughout the article, however, they dismiss the claims of certain sources (Barron and Paul, Father Ponchaud, etc.). They also refer to "discoveries that massacre reports were false" and state that "the 'slaughter' by the Khmer Rouge is a Moss-New York Times creation." They also assert that deaths due to illness are "surely a direct consequence, in large measure, of the devastation caused by the American attack."

My point is not to examine the truth or falsity of these claims. It is merely to show that they clearly have some beliefs about where the truth lies. That is, it isn't with the reports of massacres, and it isn't with the stories about Khmer Rouge slaughter, which is a "creation" of someone else. They do believe, however, that there is some truth to the idea that some deaths due to illness were the result of the American attack. In MC, Herman and Chomsky fail to note that they believed some statements, while dismissing others as false.

To be clear, in our one article, to which Ponchaud alludes, we did express some "skepticism," not only about claims that had already been withdrawn as fabrications but also about others that remained to be assessed. Thus in reviewing Ponchaud, we expressed skepticism about his estimate of casualties caused by American bombing, which appeared to us excessive and possibly based on misinterpretation of figures he cited; and we raised questions about some of the quotes attributed to the Khmer Rouge on which he (and later others) crucially relied, but which he had presented in very different forms on different occasions--and which he later conceded to have no basis whatsoever (p. 290-291).

They did express the skepticism they describe. They also expressed skepticism about large massacres, refugee reports, other works on Cambodia, and nearly everything else Father Ponchaud said. Here they only mention their skepticism about claims that indeed turned out to be false--not about those that turned out to be true.

Shawcross claims further that the present authors [meaning Herman and Chomsky] "were to believe for years" that "the refugees were unreliable, that the CIA was cooking up a bloodbath to say 'We told you so.'" He cites our one article (The Nation, 1977) in which there is no hint of any such thesis, as there is none elsewhere (MC, p. 293).

As best I can tell, the only relevant statement in the original article is that "forecasts of a holocaust were urged by the US leadership, official experts and the mass media over the entire course of the war...." The "forecast of a holocaust" appears to relate to Vietnam, not Cambodia (though it is not clear which country Shawcross is referring to), and it is true that they do not mention the CIA. I don't know whether they believed in the unreliability of refugees "for years," as I'm limiting my examination to one article from 1977. The article does say something about refugees, though, as I'll discuss in more detail in a bit.

In the original article, Chomsky and Herman made a statement that was at best vaguely similar to the quotation they attributed to Shawcross. Whether this counts as "a hint" of such a thesis is a subjective judgement, and I shall leave it to the reader to decide.

In that article we were clear and explicit, as also subsequently, that refugee reports left no doubt that the record of Khmer Rouge atrocities was "substantial and often gruesome," and that "in the case of Cambodia, there is no difficulty in documenting major atrocities and oppression, primarily from the reports of refugees" (MC, p. 293).

Herman and Chomsky do not cite the source of these quotations. Certainly they do not appear in the article in the Nation. As for other statements that might convey this general message, they say that "[Ponchaud] gives a grisly account of what refugees have reported to him about the barbarity of their treatment at the hands of the Khmer Rouge" and that he "deplor[es] much brutal practice in working for egalitarian goals and national independence." They do not, however, state that they accept his report--indeed, as I noted, they characterize Ponchaud's work as "at best careless."

I can find no instances in which they accepted refugee reports as evidence of "substantial and often gruesome" atrocities by the Khmer Rouge, or indeed of any Khmer Rouge atrocities at all. They say something different: "they [meaning "analyses by highly qualified specialists"] also testify to the extreme unreliability of refugee reports, and the need to treat them with great caution, a fact that we and others have discussed elsewhere (cf. Chomsky: At War with Asia...). Refugees are frightened and defenseless, at the mercy of alien forces. They naturally tend to report what they believe their interlocutors wish to hear." And later in the article: "Ponchaud relies overwhelmingly on refugee reports. Thus his account is at best second-hand, with many of the refugees claiming to report what they heard from others."

As for acknowledgement of Khmer Rouge atrocities, I can only find a few relevant quotations. They cite others' analyses claiming that "executions have numbered at most in the thousands...these were localized in areas of limited Khmer Rouge influence and unusual peasant discontent." These analyses "emphasize...the extraordinarily brutality on both sides." They also cite a letter by W.J. Sampson, who cites "a European friend" who says that he "'saw and heard of no...executions' apart from 'the shooting of some prominent politicians and the lynching of hated bomber pilots in Phnom Penh.'" Sampson, say Chomsky and Herman, "concludes 'that executions could be numbered in hundreds or thousands rather than hundreds of thousands.'" They do not say whether these executions are attributable to the Khmer Rouge. (This confused me the first time I read it. To clarify, Chomsky and Herman are citing Sampson, who in turn is citing his anonymous friend, who is in turn citing what people told him about executions.) They also state in the article that "the 'slaughter' by the Khmer Rouge is a Moss-New York Times creation."

Thus, in MC, Herman and Chomsky fail to note that they expressed substantial doubts about the reliability of refugee reports. They falsely state that in this article, they accepted refugee reports as primary evidence of Khmer Rouge atrocities. They fail to note that they downplayed or dismissed reports of atrocities in the millions. I suppose that "substantial" and "gruesome" are subjective terms too, and could apply to killings of hundreds or thousands as well as killings of millions. Once again, the actual reliability of refugee reports is not my focus in this writeup. I simply intend to show the difference between their original article and their later description of it.

To support his contention with regard to our alleged denial of the reliability of refugees, Shawcross cites our comment on the need to exercise care in analyzing refugee reports, carefully suppressing the fact that we are quoting Ponchaud, his primary source, and that the comment he cites is a familiar truism (MC, p. 293)

Chomsky and Herman do say in the original piece that "while these reports must be considered seriously, care and caution are necessary." As I noted above, however, they also make far stronger statements about "the extreme unreliability of refugee reports, and the need to treat them with great caution." Moreover, they are not quoting Ponchaud here; the paragraph in which this quotation appears begins "Before looking more closely at Ponchaud's book...," and the conclusions are attributed to the aforementioned "analyses by highly qualified specialists" as well as Noam Chomsky's own book At War with Asia.

Let me say again that the reliability of refugee reports is not my focus here. I am only concerned with showing the differences between their 1977 article and their description of it later on. In MC, Herman and Chomsky only cite the most moderate of the claims from the 1977 article and misattribute its source.

His reference to the CIA cooking up a bloodbath is pure fantasy, although we might add that by the time he wrote, although after our book appeared, Michael Vickery did present evidence that the Barron-Paul Reader's Digest account was in part a CIA disinformation effort.

I've already addressed this above; it is true that Chomsky and Herman did not mention the CIA.

Shawcross states further his view, "contrary to Chomsky and Herman," that the US government was "remarkably inactive" in anti-Khmer Rouge propaganda. We proposed no US government role whatsoever in orchestrating the deceit we documented, by William Shawcross and others, and in fact endorsed State Department reports as the most plausible then available. (MC, p. 293)

In the original article, Chomsky and Herman note that an estimate of 1.2 million casualties appears in the mass media, and that while no source is provided, Ponchaud attributes such an estimate to "the American embassy (presumably Bangkok), a completely worthless source, as the historical record amply demonstrates." American embassies are part of the US government. Thus, if the casualty estimate is part of the purported deceit, then--by their own assertions--the US government had a role in it. Moreover, the work by Barron and Paul, which they describe as "a third-rate propaganda tract," is based on "'informal briefings from specialists at the State and Defense Departments, the National Security Council and three foreign embassies in Washington.'" Here again, if this piece of alleged "propaganda" is part of the deceit, and it is based on official US government sources, then by their own arguments the US government had a role in the deceit. Finally, the last sentence in the article states that "The chain of transmission runs from refugees (or Thai or U.S. officials)...to the press, where a mass audience is reached and 'facts' are established that enter the approved version of history."

I suppose one could argue that it is possible that all of the distortions in the mass media or Barron and Paul's work came from the foreign embassies and other sources, and none of it from the US government. This would presumably mean that governmental sources always told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and did so in a way that would satisfy Chomsky and Herman. They certainly do not make this clear in the original article, but it seems rather unlikely.

I cannot find any statements in the original article that support the claim that they endorsed the reports of the State Department. The most I can find is a statement that "the amazingly rapid growth of the revolutionary forces" is "attested by US intelligence."

Again, the reliability of the American embassy or Barron and Paul's book is not my concern here, as I am in no position to evaluate either. In MC, Herman and Chomsky overlook several statements they made in the original article: 1) their own claims about the sources of a book they describe as "propaganda"; 2) their assertions about the unreliability of the American embassy; and 3) the role of the US government in a "chain of transmission" of a view of history they consider inaccurate. They falsely state that they accepted the reports of the State Department.


I'm a bit worried that their comments in MC were referring to a completely different article--their footnote doesn't cite the date of the article they're discussing. I did check the ZMag archive to see if there were any other articles that could fit the bill. There weren't.

I find it hard to know what to say about this. In MC, Herman and Chomsky clearly make false statements about the original article. They also engage in selective quotation, citing some statements but omitting others that paint a very different picture. They do make a few statements that tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I can think of only a few explanations:

  1. Poor memory. Maybe they were relying on their memory of their article from ten years ago, and forgot some of what they actually said. This hypothesis is hard to reconcile with their ability to cite specific quotations, though.
  2. Honest error. Perhaps, when faced with criticism, they reread their article, looking for quotations that supported the claims they wanted to make. Perhaps they honestly overlooked the statements that didn't support their ideas, and perhaps they honestly thought they read something that wasn't really there. If so, it shows that their scholarship is extraordinarily careless at best.
  3. Intentional deceit. I don't think this possibility requires explanation.

As I'm not telepathic, I can't say for certain which of these claims is true, or to what extent.

Judge for yourself. But even if the most benign explanation is true, it is worth reading Chomsky and Herman's other work with an extremely critical eye.

In the meantime, enjoy your sacred cowburger.

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