Sunday, April 22, 2007

Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media

It is almost twenty years since the first publication of one of the great books about the media. The book was written by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky. Chomsky has since risen to fame as the intellectual darling of the US left while Herman remains in the academic shade, Professor Emeritus of Finance at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Both are voracious authors and they came together in 1988 to write Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. The title refers to how the media shape the frames of news to manufacture consent about the news’ contents. The subtitle shows why this happens. Herman and Chomsky described how the media of the day conformed to a five-point propaganda model in order to serve the interests of wealth and power. The model contained five filters by which news must sieve through in order to see the light of day.

The first and most important filter is ownership of the media. In 1986, the US had 1,500 daily newspapers, 11,000 magazines, 9,000 radio stations, 1,500 TV stations, 2,400 book publishers and seven movie studios, over 25,000 organisations that could be described as media entities. The authors concluded that power, however was concentrated in 24 large media corporations that mostly represented the wealth of powerful but underreported billionaire families such as Newhouse, Cox, Hearst, Buffett, Scripps, Chandlers and Annenbergs. Murdoch was then a growing player in the list. The interests of these families and the other companies they own are of paramount important to the media.

The second filter is advertising. Most media are businesses that are required to make a profit. Most media outlets rely on advertising to make money. Media are not interested in audiences in themselves but instead are interested in their buying power. So while ratings are important, especially in enormous numbers, the price of advertising space is firstly determined by the affluence of the audience. But advertisers do have the power of their business and can punish media for any treatment it might deem unfavourable by taking their business elsewhere. The TV networks learn that certain more controversial messages will simply not sell and they will no longer show them.

The third filter is the source of the news. While in theory news can come from anywhere, in practice the same sources provide the news time and time again. Media rely on witnesses to corroborate leads and stories. Their witnesses tend to be establishment figures. These are the Police, the court, the government, the military, corporate organisations, and doctors. These witnesses are usually deemed the most credible and the ones that media turn to whenever there are limiting factors of time and expense. Not only does their voice dominate the news, the message is usually finely tuned. Many of these organisations have shadow-media organisations of their own. Companies and Government have vast corporate relations that now outnumber journalists.

The fourth filter is flak. Someone out there isn’t happy. They could be writing letters of complaint, ringing up, making speeches, threatening, suing or making bills of law. If done on a large enough scale, it can force the media to change direction. Flak is related to power. Corporate flak is the most powerful. It can use the White House, or the FCC, or the network themselves to remove a negative message. Monitoring organisations such as Media Institute, Freedom House and Accuracy in Media exist specifically to create flak in the media for their top range corporate owners.

In Herman and Chomsky’s model, the fifth filter is the ideology of anticommunism. Communism threatened the wealth and power of the West. They had to be demonised as the enemy. The ideology kept Liberals on the defensive in the face of this onslaught as they had to constantly defend themselves against charges of being pro-Communist or insufficiently anti-Communist. Issues were always framed in a dichotomised world of Communist and anti-communist powers. This filter severely limited dissenting views of news.

Of course, barely a year after they wrote the book, the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union was gone in another two. Anti-communism petered out, but a replacement has been found: anti-terrorism. Substituting this filter for anti-communism would still see a similar fit in terms of news selection. Views must be sufficiently anti-terrorist in order to pass the news production gate.

Having expounded their model, Herman and Chomsky went on to test it in the field. They first off found a difference between worthy and unworthy victims. They chart the media coverage of the death of a priest Jerzy Popieluszko at the hands of Communist Polish police with the death of 72 individuals, including priests, at the hands of the Guatemalan military around the same time. The model showed how the Popieluszko case received far greater coverage, more outrage and more analysis than the Central American events in a US-supported country.

Guatemala is also used as an example to show how elections in pro-US countries were more favourable dealt by the media than those in anti-US countries. The study examined the 1984-1985 election in Guatemala and found that the coverage of it and the 1982 election in pro-US El Salvador was enormously in favour while the coverage of the 1984 Nicaraguan election was grossly unfavourable. In each of the three countries, the study compared the following attributes: election conditions, freedom of the press, freedom to organise, freedom to oppose and freedom from state-sponsored terror. Under each heading Nicaragua compared favourable to the other two. But in America, the news was always filtered against it.

The book then goes back to other moments in history such as the plot to kill the pope in 1981, the war in Vietnam, the secret wars in Laos and Cambodia to further tease out how the media filters operate. Herman and Chomsky conclude that the freedom of the press really means the freedom of the press to defend the polity. It notes how the press broke Watergate, the office of the Democratic Party, and therefore a powerful player. But it also notes how knowledge of the systematic FBI disruption and illegal break-ins of the Socialist Workers Party around the same time was completely ignored. The media rely on forces of market forces, internalised assumptions and self-censorship. Herman and Chomsky hoped that educated, networked community activists could some day overcome the skewed perspective of the media.

Perhaps the internet may yet prove this right.

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