Book Review | Manufacturing Consent

Vedprakash Singh

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The expression “Manufacturing Consent” was borrowed from Walter Lippmann’s seminal book “Public Opinion” (1922). In his book Lippmann argued that “common interests, largely, run contrary to public opinion”, and elites are needed to maintain stability (he contends that 20 percent of the political class or the elite rule over the majority). The Propaganda Model postulated by Herman and Chomsky, in the book, is a counter-argument to Lippmann’s “Public Opinion”. They state that the “societal purpose” of media is to promote and defend social, economic, and political agenda of state interests and not the interests of certain individuals.

Manufacturing Consent” talks of many international events wherein the American Government has allegedly used media propaganda as their prime tool in keeping the masses away from the realities on the ground. It refers extensively to the US synchronised media reports and compares them with official sources such as the State department press releases, government documents, White House memos, as well as reports in foreign media. Through “Manufacturing Consent”, Herman and Chomsky have been able to present their concept of the propaganda model to the outside world, and show that US media reports have always been  biased as to portray the US and its allies as the ‘good guys’ and other (enemy) states (or individuals who have raised voice against the authorities) as the ’bad guys’. The larger question raised in the book, is thus: Can you believe what you see in the media?

Role of the Media

The guiding belief highlighted in this book is that the “Free press” is a myth. According to Herman and Chomsky, the image of a truth seeking media is a sham and the ruling class or the elite have always suppressed creative work. They treat people as playthings which they can control and influence by controlling media content. Herman and Chomsky have argued throughout the book about the media’s relations with the existing power structure and how through such unwarranted intervention, the true fundamental values of the media have been ignored. The authors have put forward the theory that mass media has constantly tried to brainwash the public under the garb of press freedom, and that media audience has always had a constrained freedom of choice.

Propaganda Model: The Political Economy of Mass Media

Studying the “Propaganda model”, theorised by Herman and Chomsky, covered in the first chapter, is in itself a concise review for the book. Herman and Chomsky have presented five filters, based on which news gets altered, which defines the Propaganda Model, namely:

The concentration of ownership of media: Majority of the media houses are owned by mega-corporations which have intricate relations with the state. The authors have presented with statistical data how start-up costs and revenue generated by a newspaper agency jumped to more than 200-300 percent from the 1870s to 1950s. This filter explains how the media has totally lost their autonomy to large, profit-seeking corporations, who are owned by the elite of the society. As large media houses diversified by shifting to cable TV broadcasting and to fields beyond media, many non-media companies started taking over the mass media.

Advertising and funding orientation of media: This filter speaks about the importance and impact of money (in terms of revenue generated) in any business. It leads to a very pressing question: “How do things get funded”, which further helps in understanding the fact that money is essential for the existence of any business and that it is the moral force behind the modern economy. The book highlights events where programs addressing environmental and social problems failed to gain any sponsors, whereas, on the other hand, a huge amount of capital was being pulled in for making commercials.

Herman and Chomsky further argue that now, as advertising has become the major source of revenue for the media, important news reports were being sidelined in favour of the demands of the market. Even the advertisers look for interest groups which would benefit them the most and therefore they refuse to broadcast many documentaries and publish articles criticising corporate activities.

Reliance on official sources: This filter raises questions on the sources of news and the methodology followed. In reality, most media agencies do not always send their reporters to the actual location and rather rely on unverified and easily available secondary data.

Covering fire of ‘FLAK’ machines: The term ‘flak’ refers to any kind of negative remark or response shown or given to the media agency, correspondents or to the media program. This is a powerful tool used by the power group whenever there is a conflict between the media content and their personal interests. In a way, even the handful of people who are carrying the banner of true media, are discouraged as no credit is given to such people. Flaks, which are of huge magnitude turn out to be expensive, leaving only the elite or the government capable of producing. So other small promoters and producers of flak are marginalised in using this tool, which can be used more productively to check the authenticity of the media content.

Anti-communism: This filter studies the theory of anti-communism and is also called as the ‘national religion’ and a ‘control mechanism’ by Herman and Chomsky. The authors have very vividly described how the US government has tried to overthrow state governments who have been resistant to accepting American political and financial interests. This filter can be best analysed in the case of the Pol Pot atrocities, which grabbed headlines in all major news agencies across the world, but on the other hand, the larger death toll in East Timor, which was openly carried out by the Indonesian government backed by the US, was barely even mentioned. In another instance, the Augusto Pinochet regime in Chile, which captured power with the backing of the CIA and the US Government, committed widespread human rights violations that went largely unnoticed. The US government routinely uses the ideas of communism and terrorism to instil fear in the minds of the people and thus make them pliant.

These five filters have been consistently used by the US government and their interest groups to narrow down the range and quality of news. Propaganda campaigns operated by the government or by any of the top media agencies have been successful in filtering out any news affecting their interests adversely. In sum, Herman and Chomsky define the media as a tool in the hands of the ruling class which is used to impose those illusions that are necessary to keep the masses side-tracked from political activities.

Back in 1988, when the book was first published, newspapers constituted the major chunk of mass-media and therefore the propaganda model was instituted in a restricted technological framework. However, the advent of social media, with on-demand news coverage and real-time citizen reporting, has questioned the applicability of the propaganda model in the twenty-first century.

To sum up, Herman and Chomsky’s Propaganda Model might be, to some extent, useful as a framework to look at the working of media propaganda, even though it overlooks the potential in the media to become agents of change. But over a period of time it has proven to be inconsistent because, on one hand, it has presented a large range of academic work, but on the other hand, it is not really exceptional enough to intensify our intellection. Therefore, more study and critical analysis are needed to look at the issues from different lenses that are more contemporarily relevant.

(Vedprakash Singh is a graduate student of Master of Public Policy in the National Law School of India University. He can be reached at vedsingh@nls.ac.in)

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