MANUFACTURING CONSENT FOR THE CONSENTING…

November 17th, 2017

I first read Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media when I was a magazine editor working for Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in the late ’80s. I was only five years out of journalism school and the book reminded me of why I had become a journalist. I didn’t immediately quit HBJ, but Herman and Chomsky fueled my search for better work. A review of the 2002 update (I ordered a copy this morning) of the 1988 original reads:

In this pathbreaking work, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky show that, contrary to the usual image of the news media as cantankerous, obstinate, and ubiquitous in their search for truth and defense of justice, in their actual practice they defend the economic, social, and political agendas of the privileged groups that dominate domestic society, the state, and the global order.

Based on a series of case studies—including the media’s dichotomous treatment of “worthy” versus “unworthy” victims, “legitimizing” and “meaningless” Third World elections, and devastating critiques of media coverage of the U.S. wars against Indochina—Herman and Chomsky draw on decades of criticism and research to propose a Propaganda Model to explain the media’s behavior and performance. Their new introduction updates the Propaganda Model and the earlier case studies, and it discusses several other applications. These include the manner in which the media covered the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement and subsequent Mexican financial meltdown of 1994-1995, the media’s handling of the protests against the World Trade Organization, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund in 1999 and 2000, and the media’s treatment of the chemical industry and its regulation. What emerges from this work is a powerful assessment of how propagandistic the U.S. mass media are, how they systematically fail to live up to their self-image as providers of the kind of information that people need to make sense of the world, and how we can understand their function in a radically new way.

Herman died last week at age 92 (his final piece—Fake News on Russia and Other Official Enemies—appeared this summer in Monthly Review) and Matt Taibbi published his remembrance through the lens of Marketing Consent. Taibbi wrote:

Manufacturing Consent was a kind of bible of media criticism for a generation of dissident thinkers. The book described with great clarity how the system of private commercial media in America cooperates with state power to generate propaganda.

Herman’s work was difficult for many to understand because the nature of the American media, then and now, seemed at best to be at an arm’s length from, say, the CIA or the State Department. Here is how the book put it:

“It is much more difficult to see a propaganda system at work where the media are private and formal censorship is absent.”

The central thesis of Manufacturing Consent was that there were worthy and unworthy victims (U.S. citizens devastated by hurricanes in Texas and Florida are worthy, those citizens in Puerto Rico, not so much) in deciding what stories to publish/broadcast.

In Manufacturing Consent, written during the Cold War, the idea was expressed thusly: One Polish priest murdered behind the Iron Curtain earned about a hundred times as much coverage as priests shot in Latin America by American-backed dictatorships.

The Polish priest was the worthy victim, the Latin American priests unworthy.

So Americans learned to be furious about atrocities committed in Soviet client states, but blind to almost exactly similar crimes committed within our own spheres of influence.

The really sad part about the Herman/Chomsky thesis was that it didn’t rely upon coercion or violence. Newspapers and TV channels portrayed the world in this America-centric way not because they were forced to. Mostly, they were just intellectually lazy and disinterested in the stated mission of their business, i.e., telling the truth.

Early in his piece, Taibbi touches on a theme that strikes close to home:

We don’t censor the truth in America, mostly. What we do instead is ignore it. If a lone reporter wants to keep banging a drum about something taboo, like contracting corruption in the military, or atrocities abroad, he or she will a) tend not advance in the business, and b) not be picked up by other media.

Therefore the only stories that tended to reach mass audiences were ones in which the basic gist was agreed upon by the editors and news directors of all or most of the major media companies.

In virtually all cases this little mini-oligarchy of media overlords kept the news closely in sync with the official pronouncements of the U.S. government.

Remind you of anyone you know (or really need to know) in Cleveland?

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