WASHINGTON — Edward Herman, an economist who collaborated with political activist Noam Chomsky on blistering critiques of US foreign policy and the mass media, most influentially with their book ‘‘Manufacturing Consent,’’ died of cancer Nov. 11 at a hospital near his home in Penn Valley, Pa. He was 92.
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 US 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 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 in El Salvador, a US ally, and in 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 Shearer wrote in the Los Angeles Times, ‘‘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. ‘‘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 McChesney, and ‘‘The Myth of the Liberal Media’’ (1999), a compendium of his case studies and essays.
“Some of these have been very controversial, but whatever you thought of them, many, such as the discussions of Vietnam, helped stimulate a rethinking of the real consequences of policies that many citizens knew very little about,” Thomas Ferguson, a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Boston, told The New York Times in an e-mail.
And Chomsky himself wrote, also in an e-mail to the Times, of his sometime collaborator’s “scrupulous, diligent and comprehensive research; a keen instinct for detecting and exposing hypocrisy and deceit and the effects of conformity to doctrine; and a recognition of the role of institutional structures in shaping interpretation and analysis.”
Edward Samuel Herman was born in Philadelphia 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, before finding a mentor in Robert Brady, a University of California 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.
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.
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.’’