Thirty Years After Manufacturing Consent, How Mass Media Keeps Thought Inbounds
I grew up in the media. In seventies Massachusetts, my father took a job at a fledgling ABC affiliate called WCVB-TV. These being the glory days of local television news, my childhood ended up being a lot like the movie Anchorman.
I was regularly exposed to the plaid suits, terrible facial hair, and oversized microphone logos the Will Ferrell movie made famous. There are photos of my father in a yellow bow tie and muttonchops.
More seriously, Channel 5 and journalism became as intimately a part of my identity growing up as, say, baseball must have been for Barry Bonds. I was fascinated by my father’s work.
He had a ritual he called the “phone attack.” When he came home at night, he would pour himself a drink, light up a Camel unfiltered, and start going through a giant Rolodex, pulling names out at random. Then he would dial his clunky rotary phone and call people to chat.
As a boy watching, I learned this lesson: sources are relationships that must be managed both when you’re doing a story, and also when you’re not. People need to feel like you’re interested in their lives for their own sake, not just when you need something from them. Also: ask people about whatever they want to talk about, not about one thing in particular.
This is an investigative principle articulated well in another goofy movie comedy, The Zero Effect. As Holmesian detective Daryl Zero says:
When you go looking for something specific, your chances of finding it are very bad. Because of all the things in the world, you’re only looking for one of them.
When you go looking for anything at all, your chances of finding it are very good.
There’s a lesson in this for modern journalists who’ve been raised to eschew talking in favor of searching for links (a type of “research” in which you’re really just confirming a point you’ve already decided to make). My father taught me that reporting is not just about talking, but being willing to be surprised by what people say.
I thought I understood this and many other things about the journalism business at a young age. I even knew everything that “off the record” entails – really knew, as if it were religious tenet – before I hit junior high. I thought I was an expert.
Then I read Manufacturing Consent.
The book came out in 1988 and I read it a year later, when I was nineteen. It blew my mind.
Along with the documentary Hearts and Minds (about the atrocities of the Vietnam War) and books like Soul on Ice, In the Belly of the Beast, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Manufacturing Consent taught me that some level of deception was baked into almost everything I’d ever been taught about modern American life.
I knew nothing about either of the authors, academics named Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky. It seemed odd that a book purporting to say so much about journalism could be written by non-journalists. Who were these people? And how could they claim to know anything about this business?
This was the middle of the George H.W. Bush presidency, still the rah-rah Top Gun eighties. Political earnestness was extremely uncool. America was awesome and hating on America was just sad. Noam Chomsky was painted to me as the very definition of uncool, a leaden, hectoring bore.
But this wasn’t what I found on the page. Manufacturing Consent is a dazzling book. True, like a lot of co-written books, and especially academic books, it’s written in slow, grinding prose. But for its time, it was intellectually flamboyant, wild even.
The ideas in it radiated defiance. Once the authors in the first chapter laid out their famed propaganda model, they cut through the deceptions of the American state like a buzz saw.
The book’s central idea was that censorship in the United States was not overt, but covert. The stage-managing of public opinion was “normally not accomplished by crude intervention” but by the keeping of “dissent and inconvenient information” outside permitted mental parameters: “within bounds and at the margins.”
The key to this deception is that Americans, every day, see vigorous debate going on in the press. This deceives them into thinking propaganda is absent. Manufacturing Consent explains that the debate you’re watching is choreographed. The range of argument has been artificially narrowed long before you get to hear it.
This careful sham is accomplished through the constant, arduous policing of a whole range of internal pressure points within the media business. It’s a subtle, highly idiosyncratic process that you can stare at for a lifetime and not see.
American news companies at the time didn’t (and still don’t) forbid the writing of unpatriotic stories. There are no editors who come blundering in, red pen in hand, wiping out politically dangerous reports, in the clumsy manner of Soviet Commissars.
Instead, in a process that is almost 100% unconscious, news companies simply avoid promoting rabble-rousing voices. Advancement is meanwhile strongly encouraged among the credulous, the intellectually unadventurous, and the obedient.
As I would later discover in my own career, there are a lot of C-minus brains in the journalism business. A kind of groupthink is developed that permeates the upper levels of media organizations, and they send unconscious signals down the ranks.
Young reporters learn early on what is and is not permitted behavior. They learn to recognize, almost more by smell than reason, what is and is not a “good story.”
Chomsky and Herman described this policing mechanism using the term “flak.” Flak was defined as “negative responses to a media statement or program.”
They gave examples in which corporate-funded think tanks like The Media Institute or the anti-communist Freedom House would deluge media organizations that ran the wrong kinds of stories with “letters, telegrams, phone calls, petitions, lawsuits” and other kinds of pressure.
What was the wrong kind of story? Here we learned of another part of the propaganda model, the concept of worthy and unworthy victims. Herman and Chomsky defined the premise as follows:
A propaganda system will consistently 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.
Under this theory, a Polish priest murdered by communists in the Reagan years was a “worthy” victim, while rightist death squads in U.S.-backed El Salvador killing whole messes of priests and nuns around the same time was a less “worthy” story.
What Herman and Chomsky described was a system of informal social control, in which the propaganda aims of the state were constantly reinforced among audiences, using a quantity-over-quality approach.
Here and there you might see a dissenting voice, but the overwhelming institutional power of the media (and the infrastructure of think-tanks and politicians behind the private firms) carried audiences along safely down the middle of a surprisingly narrow political and intellectual canal.
One of their great examples was Vietnam, where the American media was complicit in a broad self-abnegating effort to blame itself for “losing the war.”
An absurd legend that survives today is that CBS anchor Walter Cronkite, after a two-week trip to Vietnam in 1968, was key in undermining the war effort.
Cronkite’s famous “Vietnam editorial” derided “the optimists who have been wrong in the past,” and villainously imparted that the military’s rosy predictions of imminent victory were false. The more noble course, he implied, was to face reality, realize “we did the best we could” to defend democracy, and go home.
The Cronkite editorial sparked a “debate” that continues to this day.
On the right, it is said that we should have kept fighting in Vietnam, in spite of those meddling commies in the media.
The progressive take is that the Cronkite was right, and we should have realized the war wasn’t “winnable” years earlier. Doing so would have saved countless American lives, this thinking goes.
These two positions still define the edges of what you might call the “fairway” of American thought.
The uglier truth, that we committed genocide on a fairly massive scale across Indochina – ultimately killing at least a million innocent civilians by air in three countries – is pre-excluded from the history of that period.
Instead of painful national reconciliation surrounding episodes like Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, the CIA-backed anticommunist massacres in places like Indonesia, or even the more recent horrors in Middle Eastern arenas like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, we mostly ignore narrative-ruining news about civilian deaths or other outrages.
A media that currently applauds itself for calling out the lies of Donald Trump (and they are lies) still uses shameful government-concocted euphemisms like “collateral damage.” Our new “Democracy Dies In Darkness” churlishness has yet to reach the Pentagon, and probably never will.
In the War on Terror period, the press accepted blame for having lost the last big war and agreed to stop showing pictures of the coffins coming home (to say nothing of actual scenes of war deaths).
We also volunteered to reduce or play down stories about torture (“enhanced interrogation”), kidnapping (“rendition”), or assassination (“lethal action,” or the “distribution matrix”).
Even now, if these stories are covered, they’re rarely presented in an alarmist tone. In fact, many “civilian casualties” stories are couched in language that focuses on how the untimely release of news of “collateral damage” may hinder the effort to win whatever war we’re in at the time.
“After reports of civilian deaths, U.S. military struggles to defend air operations in war against militants,” is a typical American newspaper headline.
Can you guess either the year or the war from that story? It could be 1968, or 2008. Or 2018.
As Manufacturing Consent predicted – with a nod to Orwell, maybe – the scripts in societies like ours rarely change.*
When it came time for me to enter the journalism business myself, I discovered that the Chomsky/Herman diagnosis was mostly right. Moreover, the academics proved prescient about future media deceptions like the Iraq War. Their model predicted that hideous episode in Technicolor.
But neither Herman nor Chomsky could have known, when they published their book in 1988, that the media business was going through profound change.
As it turned out, Manufacturing Consent was published just ahead of three massive revolutions that were about to transform the business:
The explosion of conservative talk radio and Fox-style news products. Using point of view rather than “objectivity” as commercial strategies, these stations presaged an atomization of the news landscape under which each consumer had an outlet somewhere to match his or her political beliefs.
This was a major departure from the three-network pseudo-monopoly that dominated the Manufacturing Consent period, under which the country debated a commonly-held set of facts.
The introduction of 24-hour cable news stations, which shifted the emphasis of the news business. Reporters were suddenly trained to value breaking news, immediacy, and visual potential over import. Network “crashes” – relentless day-night coverage extravaganzas of a single hot story like the Kursk disaster or a baby thrown down a well, a type of journalism one TV producer I knew nicknamed “Shoveling Coal For Satan” – became the first examples of binge-watching.
The relentless now now now grind of the 24-hour cycle created in consumers a new kind of anxiety and addictive dependency, a need to know what was happening not just once or twice a day but every minute. This format would have significant consequences in the 2016 election in particular.
The Internet was only just getting off the ground in 1988. It was thought it would significantly democratize the press landscape.
But print and broadcast media soon began to be distributed by just a handful of digital platforms. By the late 2000s and early 2010s, that distribution system had been massively concentrated.
This created the potential for a direct control mechanism over the press that never existed in the Manufacturing Consent era. Moreover the development of social media would amplify the “flak” factor a thousand-fold, accelerating conformity and groupthink in ways that would have been unimaginable in 1988.
Maybe the biggest difference involved an obvious historical change: the collapse of the Soviet Union.
One of the pillars of the “propaganda model” in the original Manufacturing Consent was that the media used anti-communism as an organizing religion.
The ongoing Cold War narrative helped the press use anti-communism as a club to batter heretical thinkers, who as luck would have it were often socialists. They even used it as a club to police people who weren’t socialists (I would see this years later, when Howard Dean was asked a dozen times a day if he was “too left” to be a viable candidate).
But the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet empire took a little wind out of the anti-communist religion. Chomsky and Herman addressed this in their 2002 update of Manufacturing Consent, in which they wrote:
The force of anti-communist ideology has possibly weakened with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the virtual disappearance of socialist movements across the globe, but this is easily offset by the greater ideological force of the belief in the “miracle of the market…”
The collapse of the Soviets, and the weakening of anti-communism as an organizing principle, led to other changes in the media. Manufacturing Consent was in significant part a book about how that unseen system of informal controls allowed the press to organize the entire population behind support of particular objectives, many of them foreign policy objectives.
But the collapse of the Wall, coupled with those new commercial strategies being deployed by networks like Fox, created a new dynamic in the press.
Media companies used to seek out the broadest possible audiences. The dull third-person voice used in traditional major daily newspapers is not there for any moral or ethical reason, but because it was once believed it most ably fulfilled the commercial aim of snatching as many readers/viewers as possible. The press is a business above all, and boring third person language was once advanced marketing.
But in the years after Manufacturing Consent was published the new behemoths like Fox turned the old business model on its head. What Australian slime-merchant Rupert Murdoch did in employing political slant as a commercial strategy had ramifications the American public to this day poorly understands.
The news business for decades emphasized “objective” presentation, which was really less an issue of politics than tone.
The idea was to make the recitation of news rhetorically watered down and unthreatening enough to rope in the whole spectrum of potential news consumers. The old-school anchorperson was a monotone mannequin designed to look and sound like a safe date for your daughter: Good evening, I’m Dan Rather, and my frontal lobes have been removed. Today in Libya…
Murdoch smashed this framework. He gave news consumers broadcasts that were balls-out, pointed, opinionated, and nasty. He struck gold with The O’Reilly Factor, hosted by a yammering, red-faced repository of white suburban rage named Bill O’Reilly (another Boston TV vet).
The next hit was Hannity & Colmes, a format that played as a parody of old news. In this show, the “liberal” Colmes was the quivering, asexual, “safe date” prototype from the old broadcast era, and Sean Hannity was a thuggish Joey Buttafuoco in makeup whose job was to make Colmes look like the spineless weenie he was.
This was theater, not news, and it was not designed to seize the whole audience in the way that other debate shows like CNN’s Crossfire were.
The premise of Crossfire was an honest fight, two prominent pundits duking it out over issues, and may the best man (they were usually men) win.
The prototypical Crossfire setup involved a bombastic winger like Pat Buchanan versus an effete liberal like New Republic editor Michael Kinsley. On some days the conservative would be allowed to win, on some days the liberal would score a victory. It looked like a real argument.
But Crossfire was really just a formalized version of the artificial poles of allowable debate Chomsky and Herman described. As some of its participants (like Jeff Cohen, who briefly played the “liberal” on the show) came to realize, Crossfire became a propagandistic setup, a stage trick in which the “left” side of the argument was gradually pushed toward the right over the years. It was propaganda, but in slow motion.
Hannity & Colmes dispensed with the pretense. This was the intellectual version of Vince McMahon’s pro wrestling spectacles, which were booming at the time. In the Fox debate shows, Sean Hannity was the heel, and Colmes was the good guy, or babyface. As any good wrestling fan knows, most American audiences want to see babyface stomped.
The job of Colmes was to get pinned over and over again, and he did it well. Meanwhile rightist anger merchants like Hannity and O’Reilly (and, on the radio, Rush Limbaugh) were rapidly hoovering up audiences that were frustrated, white, and often elderly. Fox chief Roger Ailes once boasted, “I created a network for people 55 to dead.”
This was a new model for the media. Instead of targeting the broad mean, they were now narrowly hunting demographics. The explosion of cable television meant there were hundreds of channels, each of which had its own mission.
Just as Manufacturing Consent came out, all the major cable channels were setting off on similar whale hunts, sailing into the high demographic seas in search of audiences to capture. Lifetime was “television for women,” while the Discovery Channel did well with men. BET went after black viewers. Young people were MTV’s target audience.
This all seems obvious now, but this “siloing” effect that spread across other channels soon became a very important new factor in news coverage. Fox for a long time cornered the market on conservative viewers. Almost automatically, competitors like CNN and MSNBC became home to people who viewed themselves as liberals, beginning a sifting process that would later accelerate.
A new dynamic entered the job of reporting. For generations, news directors had only to remember a few ideological imperatives. One, ably and voluminously described by Chomsky and Herman, was, “America rules and pays no attention to those napalmed bodies.” We covered the worthy victims, ignored the unworthy ones, and that was most of the job, politically.
The rest of the news? As one TV producer put it to me in the nineties, “The entire effect we’re after is, ‘Isn’t that weird?’”
Did you hear about that guy in Michigan who refused to mow his lawn even when the town ordered him to? Weird! And how about that drive-thru condom store that opened in Cranston, Rhode Island? What a trip! And, hey, what happened in the O.J. trial today? That Kato Kaelin is really a doof! And I love that lawyer who wears a suede jacket! He looks like a cowboy!
TV execs learned Americans would be happy if you just fed them a nonstop succession of weirdo National Enquirer-style factoids (this is formalized today in meme culture). The New York Times covering the OJ freak show full-time broke the seal on the open commercialization of dumb news that among other things led to a future where Donald Trump could be a viable presidential candidate.
In the old days, the news was a mix of this toothless trivia and cheery dispatches from the frontlines of Pax Americana. The whole fam could sit and watch it without getting upset (by necessity: an important principle in pre-Internet broadcasting is that nothing on the air, including the news, could be as intense or as creative as the commercials). The news once was designed to be consumed by the whole house, by loving Mom, by your crazy right-wing uncle, by your earnest college-student cousin who just came home wearing a Che t-shirt.
But once we started to be organized into demographic silos, the networks found another way to seduce these audiences: they sold intramural conflict.
The Roger Ailes types captured the attention of the crazy right-wing uncle and got him watching one channel full of news tailored for him, filling the airwaves with stories, for instance, about immigration or minorities committing crimes. Different networks eventually rose to market themselves to the kid in the Che t-shirt. If you got them in different rooms watching different channels, you could get both viewers literally addicted to hating one another.
There was a political element to this, but also not. It was commerce, initially. And reporters stuck in this world soon began to realize that the nature of their jobs had changed.
Whereas once the task was to report out the facts as honestly as we could – within the “fairway” of acceptable thought, of course – the new task was mostly about making sure your viewer came back the next day.
We sold anger, and we did it mainly by feeding audiences what they wanted to hear. Mostly, this involved cranking out stories about people our viewers loved to hate.
Selling siloed anger was a more sophisticated take on the WWE programming pioneered in Hannity & Colmes. The modern news consumer tuned into news that confirmed his or her prejudices about whatever the villain of the day happened to be: foreigners, minorities, terrorists, the Clintons, Republicans, even corporations.
The system was ingeniously designed so that the news dropped down the respective silos didn’t interfere with the occasional need to “manufacture” the consent of the whole population. If we needed to, we could still herd the whole country into the pen again and get them backing the flag, as was the case in the Iraq war effort.
But domestically, we sold conflict. We began in the early nineties to systematically pry families apart, set group against group, and more and more make news consumption a bubble-like, “safe space” stimulation of the vitriolic reflex, a consumer version of the “Two Minutes Hate.”
How did this serve the needs of the elite interests that were once so concerned with unity? That wasn’t easy for me to see, in my first decades in the business. For a long time, I thought it was a flaw in the Chomsky/Herman model. It looked like we were mostly just selling pointless division.
But it now seems there was a reason, even for that.
The news media is in crisis. Polls show that a wide majority of the population no longer has confidence in the press. Chomsky himself despairs at this, noting in my discussion with him that Manufacturing Consent had the unintended consequence of convincing readers not to trust the media.
People who came away from Manufacturing Consent with the idea that the media peddles lies misread the book. Papers like the New York Times, for the most part, do not traffic in outright deceptions.
The overwhelming majority of commercial news reporting is factual (with one conspicuous exception I’ll get into later on), and the individual reporters who work in the business tend to be quite stubborn in their adherence to fact as a matter of principle.
People should trust reporters. It’s the context in which they’re operating that’s problematic. Now more than ever, most journalists work for giant nihilistic corporations whose editorial decisions are skewed by a toxic mix of political and financial considerations. Unless you understand how those pressures work, it’s very difficult for a casual news consumer to gain an accurate picture of the world.
This book is intended as an insider’s guide to those distortions.
The technology underpinning the modern news business is sophisticated and works according to a two-step process. First, it creates content that reinforces your pre-existing opinions, and after analysis of your consumer habits, sends it to you.
Then it matches you to advertisers who have a product they’re trying to sell to your demographic. This is how companies like Facebook and Google make their money: telling advertisers where their likely customers are on the web.
The news, basically, is bait to lure you in to a pen where you can be sold sneakers or bath soaps or prostatitis cures or whatever else studies say people of your age, gender, race, class, and political bent tend to buy.
Imagine your Internet surfing habit as being like walking down a street. A man shouts: “Did you hear what those damned liberals did today? Come down this alley.”
You hate liberals, so you go down the alley. On your way to the story, there’s a storefront selling mart carts and gold investments (there’s a crash coming – this billionaire even says so!).
Maybe you buy the gold, maybe you don’t. But at the end of the alley, there’s a red-faced screamer telling a story that may even be true, about a college in Massachusetts where administrators took down a statue of John Adams because it made a Hispanic immigrant “uncomfortable.” Boy does that make you pissed!
They picked that story just for you to hear. It is like the parable of Kafka’s gatekeeper, guarding a door to the truth that was built just for you.
Across the street, down the MSNBC alley, there’s an opposite story, and set of storefronts, built specifically for someone else to hear.
People need to start understanding the news not as “the news,” but as just such an individualized consumer experience – anger just for you.
This is not reporting. It’s a marketing process designed to create rhetorical addictions and shut unhelpfully non-consumerist doors in your mind. This creates more than just pockets of political rancor. It creates masses of media consumers who’ve been trained to see in only one direction, as if they had been pulled through history on a railroad track, with heads fastened in blinders, looking only one way.
As it turns out, there is a utility in keeping us divided. As people, the more separate we are, the more politically impotent we become.
This is the second stage of the mass media deception originally described in Manufacturing Consent.
First, we’re taught to stay within certain bounds, intellectually. Then, we’re all herded into separate demographic pens, located along different patches of real estate on the spectrum of permissible thought.
Once safely captured, we’re trained to consume the news the way sports fans do. We root for our team, and hate all the rest.
Hatred is the partner of ignorance, and we in the media have become experts in selling both.
I looked back at thirty years of deceptive episodes – from Iraq to the financial crisis of 2008 to the 2016 election of Donald Trump – and found that we in the press have increasingly used intramural hatreds to obscure larger, more damning truths. Fake controversies of increasing absurdity have been deployed over and over to keep our audiences from seeing larger problems.
We manufactured fake dissent, to prevent real dissent.
* In fact that piece is from the Washington Post in 2017, and it describes our “air campaign in Syria and Iraq.”