Manufacturing Consent

Propaganda model

Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media’ (1988), by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, is an analysis of the news media, arguing that the mass media of the United States ‘are effective and powerful ideological institutions that carry out a system-supportive propaganda function by reliance on market forces, internalized assumptions, and self-censorship, and without overt coercion.’

The title derives from the phrase ‘the manufacture of consent’ that essayist–editor Walter Lippmann employed in the book ‘Public Opinion’ (1922). Chomsky has said that Australian social psychologist Alex Carey, to whom the book was dedicated, was in large part the impetus of his and Herman’s work. The book introduced the propaganda model of the media. A film, ‘Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media,’ was later released based on the book.

Using the propaganda model, ‘Manufacturing Consent’ posits that corporate-owned news mass communication media—print, radio, television—are businesses subject to commercial competition for advertising revenue and profit. As such, their distortion (editorial bias) of news reportage—i.e. what types of news, which items, and how they are reported—is a consequence of the profit motive that requires establishing a stable, profitable business; therefore, news businesses favoring profit over the public interest succeed, while those favoring reportorial accuracy over profits fail, and are relegated to the margins of their markets (low sales and ratings). Editorial distortion is aggravated by the news media’s dependence upon private and governmental news sources. If a given newspaper, television station, magazine, etc., incurs governmental disfavor, it is subtly excluded from access to information. Consequently, it loses readers or viewers, and ultimately, advertisers. To minimize such financial danger, news media businesses editorially distort their reporting to favor government and corporate policies in order to stay in business.

Herman and Chomsky’s “propaganda model” describes five editorially distorting filters applied to news reporting in mass media. 1) Size, Ownership, and Profit Orientation: the dominant mass-media outlets are large firms which are run for profit. Therefore they must cater to the financial interest of their owners – often corporations or particular controlling investors. The size of the firms is a necessary consequence of the capital requirements for the technology to reach a mass audience. 2) The Advertising License to Do Business: since the majority of the revenue of major media outlets derives from advertising (not from sales or subscriptions), advertisers have acquired a ‘de-facto licensing authority.’ Media outlets are not commercially viable without the support of advertisers. News media must therefore cater to the political prejudices and economic desires of their advertisers. This has weakened the working-class press, for example, and also helps explain the attrition in the number of newspapers.

3) Sourcing Mass Media News: Herman and Chomsky argue that ‘the large bureaucracies of the powerful subsidize the mass media, and gain special access [to the news], by their contribution to reducing the media’s costs of acquiring […] and producing, news. The large entities that provide this subsidy become ‘routine’ news sources and have privileged access to the gates. Non-routine sources must struggle for access, and may be ignored by the arbitrary decision of the gatekeepers.’ 4) Flak and the Enforcers: ‘Flak’ refers to negative responses to a media statement or program (e.g. letters, complaints, lawsuits, or legislative actions). Flak can be expensive to the media, either due to loss of advertising revenue, or due to the costs of legal defense or defense of the media outlet’s public image. Flak can be organized by powerful, private influence groups (e.g. think tanks). The prospect of eliciting flak can be a deterrent to the reporting of certain kinds of facts or opinions. 5) Anti-Communism: this was included as a filter in the original 1988 edition of the book, but Chomsky argues that since the end of the Cold War, anticommunism was replaced by the ‘War on Terror,’ as the major social control mechanism.

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