Manufacturing Consent (1988)

Hegemony refers to predominance or the preponderant influence of one state over another. A ruling or elite class dominates at the level of ideas, thus undermining any consciousness of change. According to Antonio Gramsci, hegemony accounts for why people are willing to find a niche in existing society rather than rebel in the manner predicted by Karl Marx. In America, these constraints are inherited in the following:

  1. from social structure, and
  2. in governmental organization

— and together they discourage alternative strategies of action. In effect, people participate in their own domination. Media provide the information.

 The Propaganda Model

Ownership

The size and profit-seeking imperative of dominant media corporations are said to create a bias. The authors point to how in the early nineteenth century, a radical British press had emerged which addressed the concerns of workers but excessive stamp duties, designed to restrict newspaper ownership to the ‘respectable’ wealthy, began to change the face of the press. Nevertheless there remained a degree of diversity. In postwar Britain, radical or worker-friendly newspapers such as the Daily Herald, News Chronicle, Sunday Citizen (all since failed or absorbed into other publications) and the Daily Mirror (at least until the late 1970s) regularly published articles questioning the capitalist system. The authors posit that these earlier radical papers were not constrained by corporate ownership and were therefore free to criticize the capitalist system.

Herman and Chomsky argue that since mainstream media outlets are currently either large corporations or part of conglomerates (e.g. Westinghouse or General Electric), the information presented to the public will be biased with respect to these interests. Such conglomerates frequently extend beyond traditional media fields and thus have extensive financial interests that may be endangered when certain information is publicized. According to this reasoning, news items that most endanger the corporate financial interests of those who own the media will face the greatest bias and censorship.

It then follows that if to maximize profit means sacrificing news objectivity, then the news sources that ultimately survive must be fundamentally biased, with regard to news in which they have a conflict of interest. In the United States, regulations require that broadcasters disclose such conflict of interest.

Funding

The second filter of the propaganda model is funding generated through advertising. Most newspapers have to attract advertising in order to cover the costs of production; without it, they would have to increase the price of their newspaper. There is fierce competition throughout the media to attract advertisers; a newspaper which gets less advertising than its competitors is at a serious disadvantage. Lack of success in raising advertising revenue was another factor in the demise of the ‘people’s newspapers’ of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The product is composed of the affluent readers who buy the newspaper — who also comprise the educated decision-making sector of the population — while the actual clientele served by the newspaper includes the businesses that pay to advertise their goods. According to this filter, the news is “filler” to get privileged readers to see the advertisements which makes up the content and will thus take whatever form is most conducive to attracting educated decision-makers. Stories that conflict with their “buying mood”, it is argued, will tend to be marginalized or excluded, along with information that presents a picture of the world that collides with advertisers’ interests. The theory argues that the people buying the newspaper are the product which is sold to the businesses that buy advertising space; the news has only a marginal role as the product.

Sourcing

The third of Herman and Chomsky’s five filters relates to the sourcing of mass media news: “The mass media are drawn into a symbiotic relationship with powerful sources of information by economic necessity and reciprocity of interest.” Even large media corporations such as the BBC cannot afford to place reporters everywhere. They concentrate their resources where news stories are likely to happen: the White House, the Pentagon, 10 Downing Street and other central news “terminals”. Although British newspapers may occasionally complain about the “spin-doctoring” of New Labour, for example, they are dependent upon the pronouncements of “the Prime Minister’s personal spokesperson” for government news. Business corporations and trade organizations are also trusted sources of stories considered newsworthy. Editors and journalists who offend these powerful news sources, perhaps by questioning the veracity or bias of the furnished material, can be threatened with the denial of access to their media life-blood – fresh news. Thus, the media become reluctant to run articles that will harm corporate interests that provide them with the resources that the media depend upon.

This relationship also gives rise to a “moral division of labor”, in which “officials have and give the facts” and “reporters merely get them”. Journalists are then supposed to adopt an uncritical attitude that makes it possible for them to accept corporate values without experiencing cognitive dissonance.

Flak

The fourth filter is ‘flak’, described by Herman and Chomsky as ‘negative responses to a media statement or [TV or radio] program. It may take the form of letters, telegrams, phone calls, petitions, lawsuits, speeches and Bills before Congress and other modes of complaint, threat and punitive action’. Business organizations regularly come together to form flak machines. An example is the US-based Global Climate Coalition (GCC) – comprising fossil fuel and automobile companies such as Exxon, Texaco and Ford. The GCC was started up by Burson-Marsteller, one of the world’s largest public relations companies, to attack the credibility of climate scientists and ‘scare stories’ about global warming.

For Chomsky and Herman “flak” refers to negative responses to a media statement or program. The term “flak” has been used to describe what Chomsky and Herman see as efforts to discredit organizations or individuals who disagree with or cast doubt on the prevailing assumptions which Chomsky and Herman view as favorable to established power (e.g., “The Establishment”). Unlike the first three “filtering” mechanisms — which are derived from analysis of market mechanisms — flak is characterized by concerted efforts to manage public information.

Anti-Communism and fear

The fifth and final news filter that Herman and Chomsky identified was ‘anti-communism’. Manufacturing Consent was written during the Cold War. Chomsky updated the model as “fear”, often as ‘the enemy’ or an ‘evil dictator’ such as Colonel Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic. This is exemplified in British tabloid headlines of ‘Smash Saddam!’ and ‘Clobba Slobba!’. The same is said to extend to mainstream reporting of environmentalists as ‘eco-terrorists’. The Sunday Times ran a series of articles in 1999 accusing activists from the non-violent direct action group Reclaim The Streets of stocking up on CS gas and stun guns.

Anti-ideologies exploit public fear and hatred of groups that pose a potential threat, either real, exaggerated or imagined. Communism once posed the primary threat according to the model. Communism and socialism were portrayed by their detractors as endangering freedoms of speech, movement, the press and so forth. They argue that such a portrayal was often used as a means to silence voices critical of elite interests. Chomsky argues that since the end of the Cold War (1945–91), anticommunism was replaced by the “War on Terror”, as the major social control mechanism.

Regarding Thought Control in a Democratic Society, Chomsky makes these points:

  1. Propaganda is to democracy what violence is to a dictatorship.
  2. Ordinary people have remarkable creativity.
  3. People have a fundamental need for creative work, which is not being met in systems where people are like cogs in a machine.
  4. What would make more sense as a way to govern is a form of rationalist-libertarian socialism — not one that increasingly functions without public input. Chomsky advocates a system where a community and its members run things in a democratic fashion and whose people do not function as some sort of wage slaves.
  5. People need to be able to detect forms of authority and coercion and challenge those that are not legitimate.
  6. The major form of authority that needs challenging is the system of private control over public resources.
  7. The First Amendment means that democracy requires free access to ideas and opinions.
  8. Democracy in America is not functioning in an ideal sense but more in the sense that Lippmann noted in Public Opinion (where a specialized class of about 20 percent of the people — but who are also a target of progaganda — manages democratic functioning) and, in effect, are under control of a power elite, who more or less own the institutions. The masses of people (80 percent) are marginalized, diverted and controlled by what he calls Necessary Illusions.
  9. Manufacturing consent is related to the understanding that indoctrination is the essence of propaganda. In a “democratic” society indoctrination occurs when the techniques of control of a propaganda model are imposed — which means imposing Necessary Illusions.

Chomsky’s Propaganda Model says American media have “filters” — ownership, advertising, news makers, news shapers — which together emphasize institutional memory, limited debate and media content emphasizing the interests of those in control.

When media news coverage of issues is bias in favour the status quo, these are the results:

  1. Ownership of media is held by major corporations with interests and goals similar to power elite elements of society
  2. People with different views, “dissenting voices,” are not heard much
  3. The breadth of debate is limited
  4. The official stance and institutional memory prevail and become history
  5. People’s interest and attention are often diverted away from issues about which they could become concerned

These attributes come to limit a society in part because mainstream mass media play their part by imposing what Chomsky calls Necessary Illusions, which make certain the masses of the populace won’t become curious and involved in the political process and will continue submitting to the “civil rule” of the power elite (maintaining the status quo) — thus, the masses (80%) are marginalized and diverted while the political class (20% who vote and participate in democracy) are indoctrinated into the status quo.

This “system” is not a Conspiracy but is a HEGEMONIC system of sorts, working with propaganda, wherein people do not get all the important information that may arouse that curiosity and prompt them to get involved and create changes.

Chomsky’s concept of NECESSARY ILLUSIONS (Another book written prior to this) is linked to power elites dominating how life happens, with part of the population — about 20% who make up the political class and are expected to participate as cultural managers in a limited fashion — are indoctrinated, and most people — the other 80% of the population — are marginalized, diverted from political awareness and participation in self-governing, and reduced to apathy so they don’t vote or take charge. Media are a tool of society’s power elites and owned and controlled by them and are used to impose those illusions that are Necessary to keep people diverted from the political process.

[David Hume asserted hundreds of years ago that the power always rests with the people but that they don’t act because they are oppressed or manipulated]

Thus, indoctrination of the political class and diversion of the masses make up the essence of the democracy practiced in the U.S. (Chomsky notes also that there is no correlation between the internal freedoms in a society and violent external behavior — and that all governments are ruthless to the extent that they are powerful.)

Major media (New York Times, Washington Post, TV networks, AP) shape our perception of the world by serving as Agenda Setters, Chomsky says.

Media allow some dissenting voices but marginalize them via constraints such as CONCISION, Chomsky’s concept saying in mainstream media content, ideas must be stated briefly so it can fill up the TV content between commercials or fit in the print media newshole). Thus, dissenting views are mostly disallowed because they take longer to explain and need more complete evidence.

Chomsky asserts that in order to break free, citizens must take 2 actions:

  1. They must seek out information from ALTERNATIVE MEDIA (media outside the mainstream and usually having a particular point of view)
  2. They must move toward change by becoming engaged in community action — because people can use their ordinary intelligence to make changes in their lives and communities. Grassroots movements begin there.

People can organize to begin grass roots momentum to bring about wider change — but Chomsky says people must realize soon that the world is not an infinite resource and an infinite garbage can. In these ways, people can fight society’s tendency to isolate them from collective action and activism.

Chomsky says it is “profoundly contemptuous of democracy” when the American political system has stage-managed elections and uses manipulation such as testing phrases to determine their likely effect on audiences.

Chomsky argues that people need to work to develop independent minds — maybe in part by forming COMMUNITY action groups with others with parallel interests and values, not in isolation, which is where the present system tends to keep people.

Chomsky says the present conventional MYTH is that individual material gain is praiseworthy. Instead, people must concern themselves with COMMUNITY INTERESTS [which now suggests the global community] — and that may mean a spiritual transformation to help people to conceive of themselves differently.

Chomsky argues that America and the world are in deep trouble and that 2 POSSIBILITIES EXIST regarding America’s future and the future for a global community held hostage:

  1.  The general population will take control of its own destiny
  2.  Or — there will be no destiny to control.

In Chomsky’s words concluding “Manufacturing Consent”:

“The question, in brief, is whether democracy and freedom are values to be preserved or threats to be avoided [as they have been until now]. In this possibly terminal phase of human existence, democracy and freedom are … essential to survival.”

“The driving force of modern industrialized civilization has been individual material gain. It has long been understood that a society based on this principle will destroy itself in time. It can only persist with whatever suffering and injustice it entails as long as it is possible to pretend that the destructive forces humans create are limited, that the world is an infinite resource, [and] is an infinite garbage can.

“At this stage of history, one of two things is possible: Either the general population will take control of its own destiny and will concern itself with community interests guided by values of solidarity and sympathy and concern for others, or alternativ ely there will be no destiny to control.

“As long as some specialized class is in position of authority, it is going to set policy in the special interest it serves. But, the conditions of survival and justice require rational, special planning in the interest of the community of the whole (and by now that means the global community).

“The question is whether privileged elites should dominate mass communication and should use this power as they tell us they must, namely to impose NECESSARY ILLUSIONS to manipulate and deceive [whom THEY believe are] the stupid majority and remove them from the public arena. “The question, in brief, is whether democracy and freedom are values to be preserved or threats to be avoided. In this possibly terminal phase of human existence, democracy and freedom are more than values to be treasured; they may be essential to survival.”

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