Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Edward S. Herman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Convenient mythologies require neither evidence nor logic.

Once, I worked at a market research firm that specialized in print media. I learned quite a few things. For one, there are magazines and journals for everything—from fly-fishing to industrial food-processing equipment, from alpaca farming to professional clown associations. One particular magazine, for yacht owners, taught me something about wealth inequality. But all of the magazines taught me about the importance of ad revenue. While I had naively thought that publications make their money from subscriptions, readers are more akin to television viewers than true customers: they constitute an audience for advertisers to sell to.

It does not take a conspiracy theorist to conclude that this must have some influence on the actual content of the articles. After all, if a publication hopes to make money by selling, say, Home Depot adds, they will be disinclined to rail against the evils of home improvement. Yet this is only one factor that the Herman and Chomsky identify as influencing media coverage. Not only are publications directly funded by large corporations, but these days they are themselves owned by large corporations.

Then there are simply matters of logistics. If a publication must maintain its reputation of credibility while churning out ‘important’ news in the requisite amounts, then it must have a reliable source of news. Sending out investigative reporters to every corner of the world is not cost-effective. Instead, media outlets have symbiotic relationships with government agencies, often merely typing up press releases with a few explanatory comments. This benefits both parties, since the news outlets have reputable and newsworthy information, while the government agency is able to directly shape the narrative.

But the strongest influence of all—at least when it comes to foreign affairs—may be the invisible pull of patriotism. A coworker of mine had a cartoon on his locker that summed this up very nicely. My brave explorer is your bloodthirsty invader, my freedom fighters are your insurgents, my noble traditions are, for you, barbaric rites, and so on. Humans have a nearly irresistible tendency to apply an ethical double-standard when group loyalty is involved. We are always the good guys in the story.

When you put psychological bias, economic incentive, and structural inducements together, you get what the authors creatively term propaganda. Now, it is not propaganda of the traditional sort, with the government actively writing, screening, and approving news stories. Rather, it is a system where the limits of debate are established within an acceptable range, and where certain events are deemed important and others unimportant. It is, in other words, a system of assumptions about what is newsworthy, what is outrageous, and what is acceptable. The authors call this description of media activity the “propaganda model,” and set out to prove it.

Manufacturing Consent has achieved its status as a classic, not because of its sophisticated theorizing, but because of its well-documented case studies in media bias. The first case study may be the most convincing of all: a comparison of the media treatment of the murder of Jerzy Popieluszko, a Polish priest, and the killings of several religious personnel in Latin America. Popieluszko, who was murdered at the hands of communist police, was the subject of ongoing and enthusiastic media coverage, while the deaths of activist nuns, priests, and archbishops in El Salvador and Guatemala received only intermittent and relatively dry reporting. This is especially ironic, as the authors point out, as Popieluszko’s killers were brought to justice, while the vast majority of the murders in Latin America led to no conviction or even investigation.

The reason for this disparity is not far to seek. It is politically beneficial—not to mention emotionally gratifying—to focus on the atrocities of our enemies (the Soviets, in this case), while it is political damaging to consider that our own country is condoning or sponsoring similar terror. The double-standard reappears when it comes to elections. As the authors convincingly demonstrate, the US media went out of its way to praise quite flawed elections in US-backed El Salvador and Guatemala, while questioning the validity of much fairer elections held in adversarial Nicaragua.

The book culminates with two long chapters on the Indochina conflicts (the Vietnam War and its spillover). These chapters are especially powerful, since they contradict the popular narrative of how media coverage influenced the war. The standard story goes that the media, by showing Americans how brutal the war really was, effectively ‘lost’ the war by undermining public support.

But the authors show that the objections to the war presented in mass media insistently centered on whether it was ‘worth it’—whether we were gaining or losing from the endeavor—not, that is, on whether it was even ethical in the first place. There are many other examples of this bias: the use of Agent Orange to destroy crops was discussed in the press as a hazard to American troops, not as a war crime or a chemical weapon; and the lack of support for American involvement among the South Vietnamese was consistently sidestepped. The authors eventually conclude that the media’s portrayal of the war’s progress was more positive than the government’s own internal briefings.

Though the authors are convincing, I cannot help wondering whether the authors’ analysis still neatly applies to the present day. The media misdeeds analyzed in this book occurred during the Cold War, when the United States had an omnipresent enemy to defeat. Shortly after this book’s publication, the Soviet Union fell; but soon enough America had a new enemy in Islamic terrorism. This threat, too, now seems to be receding from public consciousness, and most Americans no longer have such a strong us-versus-them mentality are regards to the wider world. Lacking this evil adversary, does the mainstream media still use such an egregious double standard?

One major shortcoming of this book is its near exclusive focus on foreign affairs (something which, I fear, is of secondary importance to most voters). The exception to this is a short section comparing the media treatment of Watergate, which targeted the elite Democrats, and the simultaneous revelation that the FBI had been actively interfering with and harassing the socialist party for years. The former was a major scandal, while the latter hardly blipped the public’s awareness. But I would have enjoyed a deeper analysis of how issues in, say, presidential elections are framed by the media.

Another shortcoming is the authors’ sharp focus on proving their thesis rather than offering solutions. While the reader is convinced, by the end, of the double standard applied by the media in foreign affairs, we are left in the dark as to how to fix this predicament. Their account of media bias could have been balanced, therefore, by a look at organizations which manage to do a better job, and an analysis of how they do it. Lacking this—or even a list of sources that the authors themselves find useful—the readers is left in perplexity and despair.

The closest the authors do come to imagining a solution is their call for more democratically controlled media. By a miracle of technology, we now find ourselves in just this situation: virtually everyone can upload videos and pictures, write articles and blogs, and potentially reach a wide audience. Yet the evidence is rather unclear as to whether this has been a good thing.

To me it seems that the democratization of media has led both to the greater circulation of truth and falsehood. On the plus side, the growing awareness of police brutality could probably not have come about if people were not able to capture videos and upload them, thereby providing citizens with shocking and undeniable evidence of violence. On the negative side, however, this same easy access has allowed misinformation to be circulated just as widely, creating a kind of epistemological crisis where different political groups not only have different opinions, but believe in very different facts.

This has culminated in an alarming growth of conspiracy theories, most notably the Qanon movement, which Buzzfeed has recently taken to calling a “collective delusion.” As somebody who has witnessed a person fall through the rabbit hole of “alternate” news sources, from vaccine skepticism, to the JFK assassination, and finally to Qanon (complete with rabid Trump support, of course), I am fairly skeptical that democratization of news sources will suffice to save us.

There do not seem to be any easy answers. Good reporting requires resources—not only technology and capital, but trained personnel who are familiar with journalistic standards. The technology, capital, and training must come from somewhere, and it is difficult to imagine where it may come from that would not affect the information in significant ways. State-owned media are not beholden to advertisers, but to the state; and journals funded by subscriptions alone face the strong temptation to gratify their readers with sensationalist content.

One wonders, then, whether this critique of the main-stream media has ultimately backfired. Nowadays, one hears media skepticism most virulently from the right, not the left; and Trump has used this skepticism as a powerful weapon to escape accountability. Skepticism and democratization are blades that cut both ways, it seems. What can be done?



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5 thoughts on “Review: Manufacturing Consent

  1. I read Manufacturing Consent in the late-’80s or early-’90s, so it’s not exactly fresh in my mind, and I am sure I am conflating many years of having adopted this lens.

    First, I’ll address the critique that there are fewer solutions posited than problems revealed. I think this is the standard reaction by Modernists, who expect resolution and the comfort closure even where it doesn’t necessarily exist. This is a fundamental friction between Moderns and Postmoderns, who don’t have the same need for closure. If I notice that you have some malady—let’s say COVID-19 to be topical—, I should be under no obligation to offer you a cure.

    Second, Manufacturing Consent extends far beyond the news media to entertainment in the form of film, sports, video game, and most of the Internet. The distraction of bread and circus is as insidious as active mis- and dis-information. In fact, film and television content is complicit in indoctrinating, wittingly or otherwise. The point is that there needn’t be a conspiracy for opportunists to spot, well, opportunities to exploit.

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    1. Thanks for the comment!

      As for the critique, it isn’t a matter of being “obligated” to offer a cure. It is just a matter of usefulness. A doctor who diagnoses and then cures is obviously more useful than a doctor who merely diagnoses. Would you go to a “postmodern” doctor who felt no compulsion to cure? So I do think it is a real shortcoming if a viable solution is not proposed. Further, the attempt to draft a potential “cure” can often lead to a deeper insight into the disease itself. This has happened with covid, as our research into treatments has led to insights about how the virus attacks the body.

      Though the authors do mention entertainment—such as films and sports—their analysis in this book is focused almost exclusively on news reporting. So that’s what I focus on. But of course other media sources do play a role in shaping public opinion.

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      1. Hi Roy. I appreciate the response. Perhaps veering onto a bit of a tangent. The problem I, as a post-modern, have with your ‘usefulness’ response is this:

        To continue with the medical metaphor, let’s assume we are in a universe where the only ‘doctors’ are witch doctors, shaman, psychic healers, homeopaths, snake oil hawkers, and the like. The post-modern perspective is that none of these options offers a remedy beyond happenstance and a placebo.

        Our claim—perhaps our claim—is that none of these offers a solution. It feels like you are saying that it is not enough to call the orthodoxy out for having invalid solutions if I don’t have some viable alternative.

        In this COVID world, for example, we have all sorts of people claiming a cure in various modalities. As a critic, I—as well as you—can make a claim that none of the proposals are valid for whatever underlying reasons without having a solution ourselves. So, a critique that my perspective is invalid is akin to shooting the messenger.—for telling you the emperor has no clothes.

        In fact, in the US, Donald Trump railed at a journalist who called him out for peddling false hope. Essentially, his response was ‘how dare you attempt to destroy the false hope I am spewing’.

        The extension here is that is we accept these false hopes and assume we have a solution because of some placebo effects, we may not put as much effort into finding a real cure. And this further presumes that a real cure even exists or is accessible to us as humans. The message of many post-moderns is that some problems have no solutions, but humans need to have a solution, if not simply a mechanism to assuage cognitive dissonance.

        Taking a teleological position with COVID— assuming there is a cure—is hopeful. But it’s a helpful reminder that COVID is a novel coronavirus strain. Coronavirus is common, and we’ve been looking for cures for the better part of a century—much as we’ve been searching for a solution to HIV-AIDS for about half a century now. Sure, there are palliative and suppressive solutions, but there is still no cure or vaccine.

        I’m rambling by now, but my point remains: it is a valid position to understand that something is wrong without proposing what is right—especially if your position is that there is no right.

        Cheers!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. It is true, of course, that you can criticize something without having a solution. That is valid, and it happens all the time. To use your example, you can show a drug is ineffective without yourself having an effective one. My point is simply that, all other things being equal, having a solution is better than not having one. I hope that post-moderns aren’t opposed to solutions in general!

          Further, in the case of Chomsky and Herman, they are definitely not taking the position that “there is no right,” and that it is impossible to devise a better media system. I doubt either of them would have bothered writing this book if they had such a fatalistic view. This is not a work of post-modern analysis (Chomsky himself has been quite critical of post-modern philosophers), but a political book, written with a sense of moral urgency; and the authors do, indeed, propose a solution (more democratic control of the media). My criticism was that this solution is not well-developed and, I believe, insufficient in itself to solve the problem.

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