This method is applied with particular aggression to those who engage in any meaningful dissent against the society's most powerful factions and their institutions. Nixon White House officials sought to steal the files from Daniel Ellsberg's psychoanalyst's office precisely because they knew they could best discredit his disclosures with irrelevant attacks on his psyche. Identically, the New York Times and partisan Obama supporters have led the way in depicting both Bradley Manning and Julian Assange as mentally unstable outcasts with serious personality deficiencies. The lesson is clear: only someone plagued by mental afflictions would take such extreme steps to subvert the power of the US government.
A subtler version of this technique is to attack the so-called "style" of the critic as a means of impugning, really avoiding, the substance of the critique. Although Paul Krugman is comfortably within mainstream political thought as a loyal Democrat and a New York Times columnist, his relentless attack against the austerity mindset is threatening to many. As a result, he is barraged with endless, substance-free complaints about his "tone": he is too abrasive, he does not treat opponents with respect, he demonizes those who disagree with him, etc. The complaints are usually devoid of specifics to prevent meaningful refutation; one typical example: "[Krugman] often cloaks his claims in professional authority, overstates them, omits arguments that undermine his case, and is a bit of a bully." All of that enables the substance of the critique to be avoided in lieu of alleged personality flaws.
That is, when they even address those critics at all. Silence is their most potent weapon - a point that Chomsky himself has regularly made. Large portions of his book Manufacturing Consent, written alongside Edward S. Herman, hit on the fact that by ignoring or burying certain stories, arguments, people, and facts which are critical of power, they direct public opinion into safe zones, and away from dissent. In addition, people who consider contemporary American society to be a legitimate democracy (or at least a legitimate democracy of ideas) believe that a consensus has been reached among those who know best. Chomsky, by the very nature of his absence from 'serious' journalism, must not have any arguments worth worrying over.
Yet the lack of attention given to Chomsky by the usual power sectors shows not the absence of truth, effectiveness, or humanity in his work, but proof of those very same attributes! They would not treat him with such silence if they thought they could engage with his actual arguments and come out ahead. This fact becomes obvious when you sit down and read him - the bulk of the arguments within his books have largely gone unchallenged.
That is why, predictably, the few times he does become 'worthy' of mention, his body of work is ignored in favor of personal attacks and petty nonsense. This is the tactic the media regularly uses to discredit anyone who don't play by the rules. It isn't just limited to dissenters, but to whomever the establishment media wants to paint as a villain at any given time. I can't help but recall a rather hilarious moment in a Michael Parenti talk, where he mocks how the leading newspapers described Slobodan Milosevic as a "pudgy loner", among other things.
Howard Zinn still faces this treatment - even now after his death. Of course, that fact only speaks to how profoundly he has influenced a large audience of people. There would be no reason to slander the now-deceased Zinn otherwise, would there? As is to be expected by now, the attacks are vague if not cryptic, and focus entirely on discrediting him as a historian - if not a person. But Zinn, as anyone paying attention knows, was not writing to replace the standard history - he wanted simply to offer an alternative to the worst of its patriotic excesses and oversights. The final product was one both humane and rational, though you'll likely never hear those words used to describe a People's History of the United States in any significant venue. He was, after all, a radical.
When you read between the lines, the source of the elites' vocal disdain for the most popular of dissenters becomes obvious. They're angry that a People's History has gained the recognition it has, knowing America would be a far different place had every child grown up reading it alongside "standard" history. They're angry that Chomsky's worldview not only has emotional implications which rally activists, but is damningly rational and endlessly referenced - to the extent that even if two people may disagree on what steps should be taken, his explanation of events is not actually challenged by any alternate hypotheses (no matter how loudly the "foreign policy experts" wail and moan in response).
And while it is difficult to find hope for humanity in the face of today's world, with the systems of control as powerful as ever (having transitioned effectively from overt to more subtle methods), we should take heart every time establishment journalists bash Chomsky, Zinn, Blum, or any one of the other brilliant activist/writers of our time. It means they feel forced to respond - no matter how childishly - to the growing reverberations of these arguments.
Arguments they cannot defeat.