The Unlikely Union Between Mass Media and International Law: A Conversation with Noam Chomsky

The Unlikely Union Between Mass Media and International Law: A Conversation with Noam Chomsky

Few emotions rival the existential horror a PhD candidate experiences when asked to justify their topic’s relevance to the discipline. Having adopted “Mass Media and International Law” as my banner, I’ve received a fair share of queries about “where’s the law”. Though the frequency of these challenges has decreased with our discipline’s recent gestures towards multi-disciplinarity, their persistence reflects the novelty of this union of subjects. What, then, is the link between international law and mass media? 

From “occupied territories” to “administrated areas”, and from “ethnic displacement (sometimes cleansing)” to “evictions” – rhetorical jiu-jitsu is a recurrent feature in conflict discourse. Anodyne though they may seem, euphemism and sanitization are common: “settlements” are “neighborhoods”, “assassinations” become “extrajudicial selective targets”, and “children” morph into “young men of ten”. 

Despite its prevalence in conflict, discourse has seldom been the object of serious scientific inquiry through the prism of international law, with such studies usually reserved for the humanities where recognition of language and communication as levers of power is commonplace. In fact, while contemporary international legal scholars and critical theorists have vied to identify sites of power and draw historical and structural readings of injustice and hegemony, seldom does the media emerge in their discussions.

By virtue of their reach and sway in the political economy of moral conflict, I argue in my dissertation that international media outlets are chief authors of international legal discourse. Predicated in part on Lorimer’s affirmation that “the binding force of International Law depends on public sentiment and public opinion, as articulated by the press”, my project gauges the extent to which the media’s portrayal of legal categories normalizes specific interpretations and, potentially, facilitates some international legal wrongs. I illustrate the impact of the mass media apparatus on perceptions of legality through an examination of international conflicts like Iraq and Ukraine. These case studies demonstrate how the media’s transmission of international legal discourse and its selective application of legal categories reinforces the normalization of specific legal ideas and legal outcomes.

Given this context, I had the great fortune of recording a conversation with Noam Chomsky, where we tackled the relationship between international law and media through the frame of armed conflicts. From Manufacturing Consent to Media Control, few authorities rival Professor Chomsky’s expertise when it comes to media discourse, especially regarding foreign policy, making his insight invaluable in appraising the legal impact of media discourse. His interview offers an additional layer of analysis, and is part of a greater effort to examine the media as an often-overlooked vehicle of international legal discourse, to appraise its influence in the perpetuation of hegemony. 

His observations are novel to the legal field, and echo many of the conclusions I am formulating in my thesis. As Professor Chomsky articulates, the media is a powerful vehicle through which selective legal interpretations are normalized and amplified, especially insofar as this discourse is delivered by “experts”. He submits that the role of the media as a vehicle for expertise is paramount in swaying public opinion and decision makers, whose perceptions inform international law. This is evident in the context of armed conflicts, where the media acts as a quasi-exclusive communicator of international law to the public, yet is colored by its numerous filters and biases. Specifically, the media’s freedom to present information in a selective manner and shape public expectations is crucial to determining widespread understanding of an issue, setting assumptions about law, governance, authority and control.

Not unlike Manufacturing Consent, through empirical and quantitative analysis, my project measures the effects of this “expert” media discourse and observes the legal manifestations of their legal commentary on the public. I examine this through elements like the selective invocation of media categories by “experts”; their sequencing of violence and attribution of responsibility; and the definition of agents of violence as well as the identification of perpetrators and victims. The recurrence of these practices (measured by number of mentions, for instance), taken in tandem with public opinion and commentary by governmental decision makers, serves to reflect the impact of media discourse on governance. These elements emerge through analysis of various case studies where media commentary of international legal acts occupies a memorable role including, again, the invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan, or Ukraine. 

This type of research is invaluable for legal scholarship as it contributes to a more comprehensive understanding of the diverse influences impacting international law. By exploring the power of media rhetoric in shaping perceptions of legality, this study delves into relatively uncharted territory within the discipline and opens doors for future inquiry. The interview with Noam Chomsky will hopefully serve as an initial window into the complex realm of Media and Law, heralding a new perspective and deepening our understanding of the dynamic relationship between these two disciplines. I hope this conversation succeeds in sparking your interest, and I eagerly await your feedback.

[As this videocast is not part of Fresh Squeezed, you can access Omar Kamel’s interview with Prof Noam Chomsky here.]

Omar Kamel is a Lecturer and Doctoral Researcher in Public International Law at the Sciences Po Law School in Paris. He is currently appointed as a Visiting Scholar at Cornell University, and a Political Humanities Fellow at Sciences Po. His PhD research appraises the influence of mass media on the interpretation of international law in the context of armed conflicts in the Middle East.

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International Humanitarian Law, Media, Use of Force, Videos
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