Manufacturing Consent was written in 1988 by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman. The first section briefly describes a scientific hypothesis explaining how Western media manage to maintain levels of censorship and bias that are comparable to totalitarian states. The second, much longer, section of the book tests the hypothesis against a range of test cases. This is a very brief summary of the first section, which is only 35 pages long in the print edition and is available online.
Those who have put out the people’s eyes, reproach them of their blindness.
Page numbers are from the 1994 (British) Vintage paperback.
The authors propose a market model in which five filters prevent the publication of articles and viewpoints critical of government and American corporations. The five filters are as follows:
Capital Cost of Production
The media are large businesses, controlled by wealthy individuals or managers sensitive to market forces. They have important common interests and symbiotic relationships with major corporations, banks and government.
Reliance on Advertising Revenue
Attraction of media audiences is proportional to income (so media should aim to appeal to the middle classes). Individual programme sponsorship prevents controversial programmes being made. Close relations with advertisers and political discrimination lead to advertisers’ interests being followed by programming. “The buying mood” relies on light entertainment rather than critical political debate.
[T]he news media are interested in attracting audiences with buying power, not audiences per se… The idea that the drive for large audiences makes the mass media “democratic” thus suffers from the initial weakness that its political analogue is a voting system weighted by income!
Direct Subsidy by Adopting Journalistic Functions
The government and corporate sector spend large amounts of money completing journalistic functions (ie writing news), thus subsidising those who are willing to use material provided by government with minimal editing. Alternative sources are more expensive to research and their credibility is harder to justify (because the brand images of government and large corporations make their pronouncements inherently credible, or at least newsworthy). Expert opinion is also largely bought and subsidised by corporations.
“[T]he principle of bureaucratic affinity: only other bureaucracies can satisfy the input needs of a news bureaucracy.”
—p19, citing Mark Fishman
In 1971, an Armed Forces Journal survey revealed that the Pentagon was publishing a total of 371 magazines at an annual cost of some US$57 million, an operation 16 times larger than the nation’s biggest publisher.
The cost and risk of publishing controversial material is increased through full-spectrum criticism from government and “independent media-monitoring agencies”, whose sponsors (the same corporations funding the press) ensure that the media report their own criticism.
Communism and Terrorism
The dichotomisation of debate into pro- versus anti-communist and pro- versus anti-terrorist camps overrides rational debate wherever necessary and filters out all popular opinion.
Part II: Empirical Evidence
In the second part, the authors test their theoretical model against various test cases:
- victims of political repression in Latin America and Poland
- elections in Latin America
- the attempted assassination of the Pope in 1981
- Laos and Cambodia
The empirical evidence is found to support the model described in Part I.
The worth of the victim Popieluszco is valued at somewhere between 137 and 179 times that of a victim in the US client states; or, looking at the matter in reverse, a priest murdered in Latin America is worth less than a hundredth of a priest murdered in Poland.