Manufacturing Consent Book Review

Tue, 2017/04/11
Shoaib Khan

Polls show that many Americans do not trust their media. These sentiments are not entirely unjustified, as experts have long examined and studied propaganda in the media. In their 1988 book, Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman examine American reporting across decades of time and thousands of miles, involving various wars and conflicts. A common theme is that the facts are often filtered based on what is most beneficial for the privileged class.

At the beginning, they first note the 5 filters that Americans news goes through before going to the public.

Profit Orientation: The dominant mass-media outlets are profit-driven corporations and depend on a vast audience.

The Advertising License: Since advertising fees provide much revenue for media companies, the advertising companies have much influence over what appears in the press.

Sourcing Mass Media News: “The large bureaucracies of the powerful subsidize the mass media, and gain special access…. [they] may also use their prestige and importance as a lever to deny critics access to the media“ (p.22)

Flak: Powerful, private influence groups will produce flak (negative responses to a media statement) as way of deterring certain types of reporting.

Anti-Communism: An ideology to unite the populace against an enemy would help unify the people to support government actions.

This filtering process does not produce sinister journalists. Rather, it restricts the types of questions that journalists are able to ask or are able to come up with on their own. They then provide a number of case studies to show how this “propaganda model” is observed. The first is a comparative analysis of the media reporting of elections in three Latin American countries (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua) during the 1980s. All three countries were going through crucial periods such as civil war or border incursions. While Guatemala and El Salvador witnessed mass killings by the army, Nicaragua had no reported threats posed against journalists or protesters. This led the authors to conclude “freedom of the press necessary for a free election was clearly absent in El Salvador and Guatemala and that it was partially met in Nicaragua” (P.99). Unfortunately, the American mass media failed to properly provide adequate reporting. El Salvador elections, for example, were praised as “a triumph,” despite the fact that the repressive government systematically excluded opposing candidates and threatened to brand any non-voters as traitors.  Similarly in Guatemala, outlets such as the Times portrayed mass murder against civilians as “success against insurgents.” Chomsky and Herman note that these two nations had close relations with US government interests, which explains why they were never challenged by the official sources that the media relied upon.  Since Nicaragua was threatening to head in a direction unfavorable to American foreign policy, the media heavily demonized its election. In the words of journalism professor John S. Nichols, “Despite assertions made by President Reagan… that the control of the Nicaraguan media was virtually totalitarian, the diversity of ownership and opinion was unusual for a third world country, particularly one at war” (Quoted on P. 98).

While the events of Latin America were ghastly enough, they were not the only case where the propaganda model was manifested. The Indo-China wars (Vietnam, Laos, & Cambodia) were also politically filtered in the news. The Vietnam War, for example, was inaccurately portrayed as a civil war between the communist North and the anti-Communist South led by Per Diem. The reality was that Diem was highly contested on both sides who each favored his communist opponents instead. As professor Brian Orend states, ”Most experts sensed a real disconnect between Diem and the South Vietnamese people….the people of South Vietnam simply didn’t endorse American-supported governments”  (The Morality of War P. 88). Given the political interests in supporting anti-communism, however, the mass media merely repeated government claims throughout the war. Critical reporting was done only after the Tet offensive led more privileged individuals to question the wisdom behind continued warfare. At this point, more critical attitudes were formulated which in turn strengthened the anti-war movement.  Prior to this, however, there was virtually no criticism of any aspect of the war operations: the killing of civilians, the problems inherent in the war declarations, the discrepancies in official prisoner of war (POW) claims, etc.

Chomsky and Herman do not only stick with wartime examples and they also provide a number of non-war contexts when the media failed to uncover government deception. They note, for example, how much more newspaper coverage was given to the communist murder of Polish priest Jerzy Popieluszko, compared to hundreds of Latin American victims murdered by American political allies. Their analysis of the New York Times, NewsWeek, and Times reveal that the former received far more coverage (Figure 1) .  Another example they give is that of the Watergate scandal. While most Americans are familiar with the press exposing the illegal activities of President Nixon, the authors reveal this was only because he went after other politicians who were used to having publicity. The reality was that more serious activities, known as COINTELPRO, were being carried out by the FBI against various civil rights groups.  These involved wire-tapping minority groups and sometimes even assignation of key leaders, such as Fred Hampton (Figure 2).   Another victim was Martin Luther King, whom the FBI considered a grave threat and tried to eliminate (Figure 3). Since these were individuals who lacked power and privilege, they were systematically denied the investigative reporting given to the democratic party when they pursued Nixon.

While the work provides an amazing analysis of various events and their coverage in the US, the authors do have some questionable views.  Many experts would disagree with their view that commercial interests of elites were responsible for starting and continuing the Vietnam war. These scholars instead argue that American exceptionalism may have played a bigger role (Edit.  Schulzinger, A Companion to American Foreign Relations,  P. 312-314). Other scholars believe that the propaganda model is too rigid and in need of modification. One group of analysts thus summarizes the book’s reception by most scholars as follows: “perspectives differ how sharply critical they are of the mainstream American news media. The bluntest criticism is called the propaganda model, advanced originally by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky... The propaganda model is not far off the mark, but many scholars consider it too rigid."

(Porpora,. Nikolaev, May, Jenkins.  Post-Ethical Society. P.19-21)