Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media

Book Review - December 2003

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Book Review:
Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media
By Edward S. Herman & Noam Chomsky

It seems surprising and concurrently sensible that a professor of linguistics co-wrote this seminal evaluation of how American media functions. The jargon disseminated by official sources and the reiteration by major media outlets necessitates an analyst with a strong ability to decipher the connotative meaning of daily news.

Originally released in 1988, this thorough dissection of the intricate relationship between major media corporations, revenue sources and government is as relevant to understanding current coverage of the Iraq Occupation as it is to explaining media coverage over the last thirty years and was rightly reissued in 1994 and again last year.

In an authoritarian state where the media is directly controlled by the government, it’s easy to recognize the propaganda function media serves. The authors explain that media in an open society where much of the media is privately controlled serves an equally important propaganda function, but is far more difficult to recognize. A competitive market degradates the press’s necessity to social responsibility. An audience becomes a product that is sold to advertisers and the huge media corporations needing to operate at minimal costs must rely heavily on official versions of stories passed down from government and high-ups.

Exposés of corporate and government wrongdoing and frequent claims that the press is liberal lend to the view that the media works at odds with powerful entities. However, what is not evident in the press is that these critiques are infrequent and limited in number. The media typically only pays attention to an alternative perspective from the official line when powerful figures disagree.

Herman and Chomsky explain a western propaganda model that operates on five ingredients: profit-orientation of mass media firms, advertising as primary income, official sources, flak, and “anticommunism”. While the last ingredient can currently be converted into “antiterrorism” and serve the same function, Herman and Chomsky graphically use this propaganda model to illustrate how the news agenda was set and maintained as a top-down process through a series of disturbing examples. If this top-down process is upset, the media needs to be quite wary of offending groups that could throw flak at them and damage their business.

Manufacturing Consent dismantles media coverage during the Cold War brilliantly. The authors show how agenda-setting by the government caused one murder in Poland to overshadow erroneous elections and hundreds of thousands of state-sanctioned murders by U.S. client states in Central America. The book illustrates how the desired skew was placed on the popularly elected government of Nicaragua, the U.S.-supported Contras, military operations in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and how an obtuse explanation of the Pope’s assassination attempt was accepted.

The only possible complaint about this read is that it sometimes feels heavy-handed with the excessive description within the examples. This is quite possibly because, by now, most of us know these revised versions of what was the official story, and as Americans, it hits home more reasons why we’re hated by so many. This, however, hopefully leaves most us with an understanding of how the propaganda model still functions today and easily makes the minor ideological jump from “anticommunism” to “antiterrorism”.