Manufacturing Consent

In Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky’s 1988 book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, the authors sketch out a “propaganda model” that has overwhelmed the mass media of the United States, whereby “the media serve, and propagandize on behalf of, the powerful societal interests that control and finance them” (Introduction to the 1992 Pantheon Books edition, p. xi).

Their hypothesis is examined through 5 filters:

  1. The size, ownership and profit orientation of mass media conglomerates (which have been further consolidated and formed even larger monopolies since this book was published);
  2. The advertising license to do business, whereby mass media is heavily subsidized by advertising/corporate revenue, which in turn shapes the media’s messaging;
  3. Sourcing of news from a handful of sources where news might break, because reporters and cameras cannot be at too many places at once;
  4. Flak, which refers to negative responses to the media, and therefore must be controlled; and
  5. Anti-Communism as a control mechanism.

These filters are further explored through a number of case studies from events in the 1970s and 1980s, including elections in several Central American countries; the KGB-Bulgarian Connection in the plot to assassinate Pope John Paul II in 1981; and the Indochina Wars in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

Because this book is nearly 25 years old, and its examples even older, these events either happened before I was born or in my very early childhood. For me, this book read more like a history book. Until recently, I knew very little of the Sandinistas in Central America and Pol Pot in Cambodia, although I have recently been inspired to add The Killing Fields to my Netflix queue and the newly released In the Shadow of the Banyan to my reading list.

Herman and Chomsky talk about worthy vs. unworthy victims, whereby “a propaganda system will consistenly portray people abused in enemy states as worthy victims, whereas those treated with equal or greater severity by its own government or clients will be unworthy” (p. 37). For example, the U.S. mass media heavily covered the murder of a Polish priest in 1984, who was perceived as a “worthy victim,” but barely mentioned the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980 because what he stood for wasn’t consistent with U.S. policy.

I wonder, if the case studies were updated to reflect news from the past decade, which stories would be cited? I am frequently appalled by how much our media loves to discuss the latest sex scandals and tragic deaths of beautiful women, but ignores genocide in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In recent years, I’ve almost completely avoided broadcast media, because I detest the way many newscasters rehash the same stories and viewpoints over and over again. I prefer to obtain my news from a variety of print sources, subscribing to The Economist, reading The Christian Science Monitor and The Huffington Post online, and scanning the latest headlines on MSNBC.com and Twitter.

I also wonder how the rise of citizen journalism, the blogosphere and social media as news sources have either contributed to or challenged the propaganda model. According to a 2008 interview with Chomsky, access to information is not enough, if one lacks a framework for understanding it.

Because both Herman and Chomsky are academics, this is a textbook-like read. For those interested in the concepts presented in the book, but not up for the challenge of reading it, the 1992 film Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media addresses many of these same case studies. Interestingly, the film was produced in Canada, which further shows just how unpopular Chomsky’s ideas are in the United States.

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