Manufacturing Consent in the 21st Century

May 11, 2020

 

Thirty-Two years have passed since the publication of one of the most influential non-literary texts in modern history, that is Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media.

 

The theory presented in the book, describing an ostensibly objective news media in actuality catering to the private interests of corporations and politicians, offers prescient insight into the inner workings of news media following the turn of the millennium. At a time where public trust in the news media is plummeting, while the rise of populism has led to an increasingly divisive political climate, awareness of the aims and veracity of the news is more important than ever.

 

Chomsky and Herman derived a “Propaganda Model” from the performance of the mass media in the United States in order to convey the objectives of the media to mobilize support for the special interests that dominate citizen political activity. This stood in stark contrast to the idealized democratic idea that the media are independently committed to exposing lies and propagating truth, when in reality, they simply appeal to the interests of benefactors. This became increasingly aggravated during the post-1980s political climate wherein neoliberalism began to dominate the majority of the world as an economic ideology; to Chomsky, a libertarian socialist opposed to consumerist and capitalist policies, the neoliberal ideology naturally favours the private ownership and monopolization of broadcasting corporations and news outlets.

 

This has been an unequivocal disaster for an objective media, particularly those in the United States which, throughout the majority of the twentieth century, had been seen as the gold standard for espousing truth. The abolition of the FCC Fairness Doctrine in 1987 exacerbated the issue further, as sweeping deregulation reduced the importance of non-commercial and unprofitable forms of media.

 

The aforementioned Propaganda Model is divided into five filters:

 

1 - Private Ownership

The first filter pertains to ownership of media outlets. The ultimate aim of mass-media, when acting as subsidiaries of larger conglomerates, is to reap profit. Normative commitments of journalists and the moral obligation to discover and analyze facts in an objective manner come secondary to the goal of engineering profit. This is even more pertinent today, wherein rapid globalization has centralized media in nine transnational conglomerates: Disney, AOL Time Warner, Viacom, News Corporation, Bertelsmann, General Electric, Sony, AT&T, and Vivendi Universal. Together, these conglomerates control the world’s largest film studios, TV networks, book publishers, and news outlets.

Hence, nearly all media experienced by the Anglophone world are controlled by these select few groups, and coverage on issues such as climate change, inequality, and war are compromised in their objectivity due to having inherent biases stemming from their ownership.  

The adjacent infographic shows the media properties owned by six of the largest conglomerates in the United States.

2 – Demand for Advertising 

The second filter correctly assumes that the vast majority of media outlets rely upon advertising revenue; media outlets which fail to acquire sufficient advertising revenue will quickly find themselves bankrupt. This is because the cost of funding media operations is far greater than the amount the general populace is willing to pay in subscription fees or donations. Commercially unviable forms of media, such as the working-class press, heavily declined in circulation as the twentieth century progressed, as they were unable to survive the attrition in the number of newspapers due to their inability to attain financial stability from ad revenue, as messages promoting class-consciousness are often contradictory to the consumerism conveyed in advertisements funded by large corporations.

Media outlets essentially have gradually transformed into vehicles for showing advertisements, which functions best when there is a constant stream of viewership and an engaged audience. The rise of the Internet as the primary source of news for most people has not changed this; with newer and more precise analytical tools, news sites and cable news are able to identify and cater to key demographics by showing content which maintains their viewership, while employing targeted advertisements to maximize advertising revenue.

 

3 – Sourcing of News

The third filter concerns the sourcing of news. In Chomsky’s view, journalism alone cannot function as a counterweight to the power of government, as the mass media itself enjoys a mutualistic relationship with the government by economic necessity and reciprocity of interest.

The rise of 24-hour news cycles require the media to maintain a constant flow of news material, largely in order to comply with demands from advertisers. To retain access to sources, the news media must first appeal to privileged sources of information, which is often the government; compliant journalists are invited to press briefings, handed out copies of speeches, and often reap financial incentives (at least indirectly), allowing the government to maintain control over the news cycle. Conversely, noncompliant journalists are starved of access to major sources, and resort to deriving information from other major institutions, private or public, which seek to propagate agendas of their own. This is indicative of the monopolization (or perhaps oligopolization) of information, which stifles objectivity in news.

For instance, if a newspaper incurs disfavor from a particular source, it is subsequently excluded from its access to information, and thereby loses readers, viewers, and most importantly, advertisers. To avoid this, news media must editorially distort their reporting to appease both governments and corporate interests in order to remain in circulation.

 

4 – Fear of Backlash

The fourth filter refers to the fear of eliciting “flak”, which concerns negative responses to a media statement or program. This includes letters, formal complaints, social media posts, or lawsuits, which can be heavily costly for advertising revenue and public relations. The fear of attracting unwanted criticism encourages media outlets to publish certain stories while disregarding others.

The advent of “Cancel Culture”, and the ease at which one can criticize journalists and columnists on social media, has forced media outlets to formulate an editorial filter wherein stories from a certain range can only receive coverage in a certain manner. This limits the extent to which audiences can obtain objective information from the media, as backlash from the publication of certain stories can threaten viewership. This stems from contradicting the established consensus of a sufficiently large demographic, and is especially concerning when such a demographic is the target audience of the publication. 

 

5 – Anti-communism (now anti-terrorism)

         The fifth filter concerns “anti-communism”. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, anti-communism served the same purpose to the news media as the War on Terror does currently. Serving as a mechanism of social control, the final filter of the propaganda model takes the form of an unknown and ultimate evil which helps to mobilize the populace against a common enemy. When something is likened to communism or terrorism, the media will immediately seek to discredit it, as not doing so will stand in contrast to the third and fourth filters of the propaganda model. This therefore acts as a potent filter, limiting the variation of information which can be propagated by news media.

         For example, coverage of the Iraq War was tainted by the fear of newscasters of being called unpatriotic. The cleverly acronymized PATRIOT act (Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) was rendered effective a month after the 9/11 Attacks, passing by an overwhelming majority in the senate by 98-1, allowing the U.S. government to record all phone calls, monitor individual internet activity, conduct secret searches, and indefinitely detain immigrants. U.S. media outlets, for fear of being deemed unpatriotic and accused of abetting terrorism, provided unsignificant coverage of dissenters of the bill, leading to near-unanimous consensus among senators representing their constituents. 

 

Taking all these filters into account, regardless of the superficial degree of autonomy granted to journalists and media outlets acting as the purveyor of truth, all news is conducted within a framework. Chomsky and Herman exemplify this using news coverage of foreign events, and how victims are depicted.

 

At the time of the publication of Manufacturing Consent in 1988, Chomsky and Herman stressed the concept of “worthy” and “unworthy” victims, in which most examples were drawn from the cold war. For instance, a polish priest, Jerzy Popeiluzko, murdered by the communist polish government received around a hundred times as much coverage as Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was murdered by the U.S.-backed dictatorship in El Salvador in 1980. In fact, Popeiluzko received more coverage than the hundreds of religious victims killed in states supported by the U.S., even though eight of these victims were American citizens. Hence, the populace of the Western World learned to be enraged about atrocities committed in Soviet client states but were blind to the same crimes committed within the American sphere of influence.

 

A similar phenomenon can be observed today in the coverage of the role of the Kurds in the Syrian Civil War. In Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky uses the treatment of Kurds to exemplify how U.S. media deliberately ignores how their Turkish allies oppress the Kurds, while heavily condemning the treatment of Kurds under the government of Iraq throughout the 1990s. This is despite the fact that the treatment of Kurds by the Iraqi and Turkish governments throughout the decade had been equally oppressive. The word “Genocide” was of particular interest in analyzing media discourse, and its use by mainstream publications when referring to the Kurds is displayed in the table belown taken directly from the 2002 edition of Manfuacturing Consent:

 The Kurds are an ethnic group seeking to form an independent nation from their ancestral lands consisting of areas in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. During the majority of the 2010s, especially after the rise of ISIS in 2014, Kurds were portrayed in the media as heroes, fighting for their land against a malevolent terrorist group. In October 2019, the U.S. saw fit to withdraw support from the Kurds, and the Turkish military conducted a full-scale invasion of lands occupied by the Kurds. The vast majority of mainstream media outlets, in this case, fixated on this major geopolitical development only briefly, while also downplaying the plight of the Kurds; after all, viewer disillusionment with regard to U.S. foreign policy makes poor material for advertising. 

 

Mistrust in the media, coupled with the growth of the Internet, has resulted in many seeking refuge in speculative and unreliable media outlets, a prime example of which is “Infowars”. Whereas the mainstream media uses sources selectively, many unverified news outlets neglect source-based reporting almost entirely, relying on conspiratorial conjecture to cater to their audience. Such news outlets must remain profitable as well; while too offensive and too mercurial to appeal to mainstream advertisers, Infowars compensates for this lost potential revenue by selling paraphernalia, apparel, and pseudoscientific health supplements, highlighting the profit-orientation of news media within a profit-driven society. In essence, as the majority of people are no longer willing to pay for news itself, the media must seek revenue through commercial and partisan entities, which compromises their autonomy and legitimacy as a news source, or, in the case of Infowars, resort to pushing pseudoscience and conspiracy theories because they facilitate the sale of products ranging from “5G Kills” T-Shirts to “Toxin Filtration Systems” for tap water.

 Hence, the media cannot maintain total objectivity and autonomy when their survival is interconnected with complex webs of overlapping interests with large corporations and political parties. This ties into Chomsky’s controversial political philosophy, which asserts that the notion of capitalist democracy is inherently flawed and unsustainable, and that true democracy can only be achieved with the social ownership of private enterprises while simultaneously minimizing government intervention.

 

Since the 1980s, income inequality has increased rapidly within the United States, wherein the wealthiest 5% earn 248 times more than the second wealthiest 5%. This is another factor which affects the propaganda model, as wealth has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of the elite, which has shifted the mainstream media further to the right with regard to economic issues. The most well-funded media outlets must serve corporate interests; the military establishment must be protected from a public that would rather see such resources be diverted to social welfare programs, and the current regressive tax system must be protected from the majority who wish to implement higher taxes on the wealthy. 

 

This is perhaps most recently identified in the treatment of Bernie Sanders by mainstream liberal media outlets; in 2016, coverage of the democratic primary was split 61-39 between a Clinton-Sanders two-horse race. The Washington Post has repeatedly neglected to cover Sanders objectively, instead, in 2016, running sixteen articles in sixteen hours criticizing Sanders, with headlines such as “Bernie Sanders doesn’t know how to talk about black people” and “What Bernie Sanders doesn’t get about arguing with Hilary Clinton”. It is important to acknowledge the ownership of the Washington Post by Jeff Bezos’ holding company, Nash Holdings. Sanders’ repeated criticism of Amazon’s treatment of workers and the company’s repeated tax avoidance, is more than likely to have resulted in the Washington Post’s unfair coverage of his campaign in both 2016 and 2020. 

The ”Consent”, referred to in the title derives from the Consent of the Governed; the central philosophy underpinning any powerful modern government, referring to the idea that a government’s right to use state power is justified when consented to by the people over which that political power is exercised. Through the powerful instrument of mass media, governments manufacture consent to fight wars and encroach upon civil liberties. Corporations, often linked inextricably to governments, manufacture consent in downplaying issues such as climate change and social inequality, while pressuring the media to run stories which will increase the viewership of advertisements. 


Manufacturing Consent inspired a generation of political scientists who sought to understand the mechanisms of control that a democratic government wields over its people. In an age of heightened political instability and virtually unlimited access to information, it is more important than ever to be able to recognise editorial bias and question the veracity of news material.

 

 

 

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