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On the 25th anniversary of "Manufacturing Consent"

Informing Our Consent

by JEREMY MOHLER

A quarter century ago, Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman established the Propaganda Model in a book called Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. The text is a product of the Reagan years; I was three years old in 1988, but I’ve read enough to be certain that these were pretty dark times in the U.S. for most people, times that set precedents still reverberating today. ManCon is textbooky and rote, even more than Chomsky’s other work, but it uses an eye-glazing amount of data to ground a few modest theoretical remarks. Though Chomsky is anti-theory, the book reads like Marxism Light to me, a low-calorie structural critique of the 1980s U.S. mass media, with sources, figures, data, samples, and tables to support its claims beyond any partisan or cynical doubt. The Propaganda Model implies that the structure of corporate media is the totality of its relations of production, i.e. profit. And this suggestion is even more urgent today.

Put reductively, the model lays out what the authors can infer from the blatant fact that the American mainstream press is owned by an ever-consolidating group of corporations. Pretty much, the press, for the most part, acts in the interest of the corporations that own them. It’s plain out in the open and tautological. Even someone as establishment as Hillary Clinton says so: “In fact viewership of al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it’s real news. You may not agree with it, but you feel like you’re getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news which, you know, is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners.”

Let’s try a Chomsky/Herman analysis inspired by ManCon. Corporate media’s “objectivity” can be seen in an article that ran a few hours after the February 17th protest in D.C. against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline project – which, as most should know, if Obama approves, will pump tar sands oil (thick, dirty stuff) from northwest Canada through Nebraska and other Midwestern states to the Gulf of Mexico, mostly for export – on The New York Times website, and then the next day in the Times daily paper on page B1. Note that Section B is the Business section. Looking past the framing of the environmental protest as a business and political issue, we see that the writers reduce an entire country to its leaders and business interests. Canada is “the United States’ most important trading partner,” and “a close ally against Iran and Afghanistan,” not the group of First Nations people that came all the way down to DC for the protest, natives from the parts of the Canada that are being most harmfully affected by tar sands extraction. Like the Yinka Dene Alliance of British Columbia. Or even all of B.C.: in December 2012, B.C. permanently banned oil drilling and gas fracking in the province, which kicked out Shell Inc. from the gorgeous Sacred Headwaters they were preparing to dig and frack. These unconcealed details aren’t mentioned in the Times.

The article’s quotes are also revealing, not in what they say, but in who is quoted. The writers used excerpts from some of the speeches at the protest, but talked to no one there. To get a handle on the situation, they talked to: an energy fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, an establishment think-tank; the vice president for oil sands and markets for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, an association self-described as “the voice of Canada’s upstream oil, oil sands and natural gas industry”; the Canadian ambassador to the U.S.; and the president of Shell Canada. I couldn’t make up a better list of sources to show how corporate media’s “objectivity” favors establishment power. Even USA Today had quotes from the protesters.

The Times also ran an opinion piece the day after the protest with the sort of cynical pretension that is common to corporate media. What does Joe Nocera – a business columnist for the Times and former Fortune writer – think about the pipeline protest? We shouldn’t really care, but in case we do, let’s take a look. In his criticism of pipeline opponents, Nocera calls their logic backward and quotes an “energy expert at Stanford University” to back that up. The expert’s (and Nocera’s) take is cynical: no matter what the protesters, or you, or I, or the native people of Northwest Canada do, the economic pressure to search for new supplies of fossil fuel will not go away.

It’s also destructively dualistic. Nocera sets up a false either/or choice between reducing supply or curbing demand. Why not do both at the same time? Why can’t we use public transportation more, start initiatives to reduce energy consumption by our local governments, etc., and at the same time come together to stop new fossil fuel infrastructure from being built? He finishes with: “In any case, McKibben, Hansen and others were arrested on Wednesday, as planned. They spent a few hours in jail and paid $100 fines. And that was it.” How cynical is that? The reason “that was it” is because papers like his Times didn’t cover it with the same gusto as, say, how Nickelodeon has developed an iPad app for kids that “has serious implications for its parent company, Viacom.”

That the American public isn’t outraged by the airtight definition of a conflict of interest in mainstream journalism exposes a number of things about both us and what we call ‘media’, better labeled as ‘corporate media’. How is the average U.S. citizen still convinced that watching, reading, or listening to mainstream news is in their interest? Why isn’t the public fact that Comcast and GE own MSNBC grounds for people to laugh at “the news”? Why aren’t people paying more attention to folks like Glenn Greenwald or Kevin Gosztola; watching or listening to Democracy Now!; or supporting Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) or the Freedom of the Press Foundation?

The whole thing is mind-numbingly complex and can implode into conspiracy theory fast. But there are serious, in-your-face issues with the structure of our mass media that have reproduced and consolidated since 1988 when ManCon was released. And if we are going to do all of the positive things we talk about online and at protests like on February 17th, our media must be free of this conflict to allow us to give informed consent to each other and our leaders. Otherwise, our consent, as a public, will remain manufactured.

Jeremy Mohler is a writer living in Washington, D.C. His work has been published in Aint-Bad Magazine and The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review.