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  • Friday, December 16, 2005


    Manufacturing Consent

    Like many people in America, I am afflicted with a positive prejudice in favor of new ideas and shiny “newness” in general. New things are, by our cultural definition, exciting and "better" than older things. Last year's model is passé, lacking in sparkle. There is an association in my mind between new things and "progress," of moving forward, of building upon the past.

    I try to fight it. I try to evaluate ideas and consumer items by usefulness, durability, and impact but I admit I often fail. So when I recently started reading Noam Chomsky's political work, I thought I should get his most recent books to evaluate his ideas. Some people might want to start with his first books to get a picture of the evolution of his political philosophy but this is my “new” twitch raising its head.

    Being a frugal sort of fellow, I'm a big fan of our local used book stores. Since we have a concentration of five colleges in the area, I like to shop at Raven Books. They have used books and often a very high percentage of academically published texts in excellent condition. I’ve fed some of my housemate’s Celtic Studies needs through finds there. (The languages and cultures, not the basketball team.) I’ve also acquired many of my political, media studies, and language texts there.

    So when I came across Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988), I wanted it. At the same time I was doubtful about the usefulness of an examination of the media written from the perspective of 1988. The charts of company ownership would undoubtedly be out of date and the media landscape has changed hugely with the advent of the Web. Right? Well, not quite.

    I did not reckon with the depth of the analysis in the book nor the incisive and inclusive reach of the theories put forth by Messrs. Herman and Chomsky. Despite using examples from the relatively recent history of the time, the principles articulated are eminently applicable today. There is even a way in which the additional perspective of time has given more weight to their arguments.

    I regularly come across statements that resonate so strongly, it’s difficult to believe they are not about current events. That is the power of the theoretical model they propose: You can take any current topic being covered by the media, examine it through the magnifying lens of the model, and come to remarkably parallel conclusions. The authors don’t claim infallibility but they do claim that the theory holds up as an accurate predictor of press responses to current events. That is quite a claim but as far as I can see, it holds true.

    When bloggers speak with some contempt of the “mainstream media” (MSM), this is the perspective covering the whys of the MSM’s failure to cover important issues. Here are a few excerpts.
    Institutional critiques such as we present in this book are commonly dismissed by establishment commentators as “conspiracy theories,” but this is merely an evasion. We do not use any kind of “conspiracy” hypothesis to explain mass-media performance. In fact, our treatment is much closer to a “free market” analysis, with the results largely an outcome of the workings of market forces. Most biased choices in the media arise from the preselection of right-thinking people, internalized preconceptions, and the adaptation of personnel to the constraints of ownership, organization, market, and political power. Censorship is largely self-censorship, by reporters and commentators who adjust to the realities of source and media organizational requirements, and by people at higher levels within media organizations who are chosen to implement, and have usually internalized, the constraints imposed by proprietary and other market and governmental centers of power. (p. xii, Preface)

    The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfil this role requires systematic propaganda. (p. 1)

    A propaganda model focuses on this inequality of wealth and power and its multilevel effect on mass-media interests and choices. It traces the routes by which money and power are able to filter out the news fit to print, marginalize dissent, and allow the government and dominant private interest to get their messages across to the public. (p. 2)
    Some of the specific examples given in the text are only partially familiar to me from the time but my memories are in accord with the authors’ analysis. I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt as to the accuracy of the details because of this.

    All in all, an excellent book that I’m enjoying reading. I'm including a link to the Amazon listing for the book, not because I'm keen on Amazon, but because it's an easy central location to see other people's reviews and thoughts on the book. And, yes, I know there is a video/DVD documentary covering this material which I've seen as well but I've got a thing for books. I like to savor the words. I like the luxury of mulling over the footnotes and processing the information. I don't seem to process film footage and audio as well as print since often at the end of a documentary I find it difficult to remember specific details to follow up on. Perhaps that's just me.

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