Twenty years ago, a professor of finance at the Wharton School in Philadelphia and a far better known professor of linguistics at MIT set out to come with a way to explain how our media really works.Rather than offer a case study of coverage of one issue, or an analysis of this or that flaw or media "mistake," they set out to try to make sense of the way the media functions as a "system" what rules govern the behavior of media institutions in reporting on crisis abroad. They didn't call it a theory because they believed they were not being speculative but factual.
They came up with what they called a "model," not of journalism, but of propaganda.
The ambitious book, since revised, explained their "Propaganda Model." It's called, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. It became a best seller among a public angry with the news we are getting and popular with media students worldwide who saw that there was now a systematic way to analyze media performance in a structural way. It's still in print and still provoking controversy.
The author's names are Edward Herman, and Noam Chomsky, both considered intellectual heroes and heavyweights among generations of rebels and critics worldwide.
At the same time, despite the many scholars who have validated it. even with some nit picks, their "model" is ignored in most journalism schools and newsrooms because its real focus is on the powers behind the media and how they shape it to serve their own interest.
Many of the mainstream journalists who even know about it dismiss it as a "conspiracy theory," even though Chomsky is a well-known critic of conspiracy theorizing. (This is like that old joke in which someone says they are an "anti-communist" only to be told, "I don't care what kind of communist you are.")
This past week, I spoke at a conference in Canada, not the US of course, where its impact is widely appreciated, still debated and updated. Still, there was only one mainstream corporate journalist there, Antonia Zerbisias, the always insightful media columnist of the Toronto Star who explained the "model's focus on the "filters" that much news has to pass through.
"Stripped down for purposes of, as Chomsky would say, typical media "concision," they are: ownership interests, advertiser concerns, the nature of journalists' sources, flak (or negative feedback) and ideology."
In a talk to a conference plenary, Zerbisias smiled before pronouncing that the model is "true." There it is- a media veteran said it!
True-but not necessarily up to date in this new ever changing media era of diverse technologies, major outlets losing audience and credibility, increasing top-down control by conglomerized monopolies, vast information available on the internet, increasing media production by citizens and media makers, and growing disenchantment with a media that does more selling than telling.
Of course, media outlets have an ideological orientation that usually conforms with the interests of their governments. Journalists who challenge it are often marginalized, ignored or fired. I have documented that in my books and film WMD about the deplorable media coverage of the Iraq war. I am not the only one to argue that there was complicity and collaboration between a servile press corps and the Bush Administration that we both cheerleading for war.
There are two other aspects to this that needs to be examined including top-down coercion as when politically motivated moguls like Rupert Murdoch or Silvio Berlusconi or Conrad Black buy a media outlet and discharge journalists with whom they disagree.
There has just been a worrisome recent development at the one media outlet in the world known for its independence, AlJazeera where a new board has been named with a gutsy independent journalist replaced as managing director by a former Ambassador to Washington. You just know what that will result in-Foxeera, was the formulation coined by one reader.
In some countries, media dissenters are jailed or even killed. That's why it was suggested at the conference that the title Manufacturing Consent today should be modified for "Manufacturing Compliance." Increasingly governments don't care what people think at all-- or if they consent-just that they go along with the program by hook, crook or club. Most prefer that we don't vote at all. That's why elections are treated as sports events. The non-voters increasingly outnumber whose who cast ballots.
Even more distressing is the tend towards the depoliticalization of politics through the merger of showbiz and newsbiz to assure that much of the media agenda is noisy and negative, stripped of all meaning: superficial, often celebrity-dominated with little in-depth explanatory or investigative journalism. They would rather market American Idol as the American Ideology. To them, the only "hegemony" in Canada is its beer and hockey.
The people who run our media are, after all, in the end, promoting a culture of consumption, not of engaged citizenship. They want eyeballs for advertisers, not activists to promote change. The sound-bytes presented as substance are there for entertainment, not illumination. It's heat, not light, all the way
So truth be told, the real propaganda in an era where with more pundits than journalists, is less real coverage. It is pervasive and invisible at the same time-omission more than commission. They want to dumb us down, not smarten us up. They foster passivity, skepticism and resignation. Forget beliefs of any kind-just buy, buy, buy. Why even use deception when distraction works just as well?
Yes, the lack of coverage of East Timor that Noam Chomsky railed against was atrocious, as is today's war coverage. but so is the absence of reporting on the devolution of democracy and much of the suffering in our own country.
Perhaps the more appropriate title in what Detroit calls a "new model year," is "Manufacturing Indifference."