Herman and Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media is one of the most influential scholarly works of the 1980s. Certainly in the English language, it created enormous waves in every aspect of social science, and popular culture.
In brief, Herman and Chomsky create a “propaganda model” to explain coverage of certain issues in the largest American news media.
The case has two parts. Herman and Chomsky analyze “natural experiments” in the news world to see if American media give differential treatment to what appear to be politically and morally similar events. When they see that the treatment is, indeed, differential, they then apply their media model to explain the difference.
Two of the “natural experiments” or case studies stand out. In the decade or so preceding the publication of Manufacturing Consent, three Central American countries suffered from civil war, military rule, and American intervention. All three held elections that were scrutinized by external observers. Two of the states—El Salvador and Guatemala—enjoyed the support of the American government; the third—Nicaragua—did not. All three situations got extensive treatment, but Herman and Chomsky provide abundant evidence that they were not treated equally. The press was continually sympathetic to El Salvador and Guatemala, and continually antagonistic toward Nicaragua. There were other significant differences, and these were examined in the propaganda model.
The second main case study involved the press’s treatment of the Indochina war (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia) from the 1950s to the 1970s. Throughout the war, according to Herman and Chomsky, the press continually misrepresented the nature of local support, the nature of US involvement, the consequences of US attacks on civilians, and the suppression of popular vote in order to protect US-friendly candidates, regardless of their local standing. (The natural comparison to the Indonesian invasion of East Timor is mentioned, but not deeply explored in this book. Much was made of this in years to follow.)
I will not delve deeply into the book here, as I wish to take the main conclusions and play them forward into 2017, but I will at least outline the propaganda model.
Herman and Chomsky’s key idea is that a free press, operating in a market economy within a militarily powerful nations is subject to pressures that act as filters to the news. The model identifies five filters:
- Flak, and
As mentioned previously, the model was presented in 1988, when anti-communism was a more powerful filter than it is today. That said, Herman and Chomsky, in a 2008 interview, note that it has been replaced with other convenient patriotic neuroses.
…The Propaganda Model’s ‘five filters’ requires some clarification. (a) Ownership and (b) advertising belong to straightforward institutional analysis – these are the kinds of institutional arrangements that predominate among US media firms and elsewhere. (c) Sourcing and (d) flak are two well-established processes to which any elite-serving media will adapt, whether we are talking about the elite US or British media or the elite media under Stalin and Hitler. On the other hand, (e) anti-communism, as a major theme of media production during the twentieth century, was reflective of the prevailing system of belief in the Western states, and has evolved with the collapse of the Soviet bloc since the first edition of Manufacturing Consent. In a crucial sense, and extending from the most minor comic books and cartoons all the way up to the highest academic discussions of the so-called Cold War (i.e. the system of propaganda known as the ‘Cold War’), anti-communism was a staple that provided content, narratives, heroes and villains. Since 1989, this staple has morphed into an array of substitutes. But the structural role that anti-communism and its successors have played, namely, the provision of an Enemy or the Face of Evil, remains as relevant as ever.
When asked how the model might be revised for the current situation, Herman and Chomsky replied:
It would look very much like the 1988 version, with the ‘free market’ as a principal ideological underpinning along with ‘anti-terrorism’ and the ‘war on terror’ that have provided the needed Enemy or Face of Evil, with anticommunism pushed into a back-up and reminder/ideological role.
So let’s move forward to 2017, and the current obsession with biased media, fake news and post-truth.
Let’s start with the obvious question: does the media have a left- or right- bias? And here we see precisely where the Herman and Chomsky model is almost speaking a different language from the popular discourse. Left and right are defined in popular discourse strictly in terms of local politics. In the USA, the Democrats are the left and the Republicans are the right. That might seem obvious to Americans, but to the rest of the world this is crazy: The Democrats are right and the Republicans are righter, by almost any standard. The discourse of “business first” and profitability for home-grown corporations are front and centre of political discourse—both in American and in much of the world. Since the heady Reagan-Thatcher days of the 80s, hardly anyone bothers to question this point of view. Certainly the mainstream media does not question this. The media is conservative in the same way that the mainstream political parties (at least in the USA) are conservative: they take for granted that the role of government is to ensure that existing power and economic structures be conserved.
The question of left/right bias in American media in 2017 is a thinly disguised question of favourable reviews of particular parties or candidates, not of left or right. Anecdotally, during the recent US Presidential election, the mainstream media certainly appeared to take more shots at Trump than Clinton, but at the same time, it gave Trump considerably more airtime. It’s hard to say which was more valuable to the parties and candidates.
But on a deeper level, this puts the whole fake news/post-truth debate in a different space than we have been seeing. Yes, there are propaganda sites out there, and yes, some media outlets show brand loyalty to political parties. This is also interesting, but not particularly deep or troubling. What is deep and troubling is the media’s bias towards certain views of the world. And this, if we can trust Herman and Chomsky’s analysis, is not new.
So let’s stop for a moment and catch our collective breath. Everybody thinks we should teach “media literacy” to our students so that they can navigate the wild world of fact/propaganda/lies/post-truth/alternative facts/doublethink, etc. etc. I’m ok with that, but let’s not rush into this. We have an enormous problem, made even more enormous by
- Our tacit acceptance of “the world as it is”, and
- The abyss we call the internet. As curated libraries shrink and are superseded by the uncurated online world, it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish mainstream media (with Herman and Chomsky’s reservations) from sincere and competent alternative media, from sincere and less competent alternative media, from partisan lies.
Let me close without resolution. Media literacy—whatever it turns out to be—will have to be a broad and deep endeavor for it to make any real difference for our students.