Manufacturing Consent @ 30

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Just a tick over thirty years ago in 1988, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky published what became one of the most important books ever published on the media. Herman and Chomsky called their book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. It is on par with Lippmann’s Public Opinion (1922) and Bernays’ Propaganda (1928). The media in the form of printed media, radio, TV and even Internet and, in particular, the corporate media that is not only pro-business but are a business themselves have been and continue to be extremely important for capitalism. 

This is for two reasons: firstly through marketing and advertisement that makes us buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like; and secondly, the media creates a pro-business atmosphere that legitimises the entire system of corporate capitalism. The second element is the function of public relations – something that used to be called propaganda, just as the Godfather of PR once said. This creates the political atmosphere that allows capitalism to function and to get away with its inherent pathologies that will, rather frequently, continue to appear. To sustain corporate capitalism ideologically, Herman/Chomsky’s propaganda model focuses on five elements:

  1. the media apparatus is highly concentrated, run by elite apparatchiks and focused on profit maximisation;
  2. there is a strong reliance on advertisement as the prime source of income;
  3. what is presented as news mirrors so-called official sources, i.e. corporations, government, think tanks, and so-called experts that are either paid by capital or represent the views of capital, i.e. neoliberalism;
  4. what might be called media capitalism, i.e. a close symbiosis of media and capital for the mutual benefit of both – what Herman/Chomsky calls “flak” which is a system that disciplines those challenging the established apparatus of media capitalism; and finally,
  5. the entire system needs a “them-vs.-us” ideology (e.g. communism, terrorism, etc.) to exclude the “other” and to include those supportive of media capitalism.

Concerning the model, Chomsky said, the propaganda model is either valid or invalid. If invalid, it may be dismissed; if valid, it will be dismissed. And this is what happened. Mainstream media studies largely dismissed it. Still, in 1979, the New York Times said that Noam Chomsky is arguably the most important intellectual alive. Since then, Chomsky’s standing has only increased, and his model stayed intact even after the rise of the Internet, which led to the terminal decline of newspapers. Today, more Americans – in fact, two-thirds – get their news from the Internet, i.e. Facebook, than from newspapers. Newspapers have declined by 20% in Europe and by 31% in Oceania. Today, newspapers are read by those older than 60 years. 

While the Internet has been bad news for newspapers and perhaps society as a whole, there are good things about the Internet. In a recent interview, Noam Chomsky singled out Intercept as “very good”. Whether Internet or not, in the same interview Chomsky also said, you can predict the electability, hence largely the votes, of people in Congress on major issues, just by looking at their campaign funding. The same can be said about the presidential election. Clinton outspent Trump, receiving about three million more votes. According to the very idea of Democracy in America, she should be president – not Trump. Notwithstanding, he received an estimated $1.9 billion in free media publicity. 

Still, 60% of Americans do not even participate in elections. In the interview, Chomsky concluded by saying three more things. Firstly, interviews with Trump by the major media since his election [showed] that climate change was not mentioned. That is the most serious thing that he is doing! Secondly, the Republican Party under Trump…is the most dangerous organisation in human history. And finally, some half-mad billionaire with massive media support managed to win an election.

Trump is the news, means clicks, and that means advertising money flying in. This is important considering that 69% of news revenue comes from advertisement. Between 2006 and 2016, newspapers lost about 63% of their income – a decline from $49 billion to $18 billion. One reaction was the infamous paywall. This may well mean that a wealthy and well-educated elite will be able to read quality/subscription newspapers while the rest gets “news” (!) from Facebook and the like – hence Donald Trump. One hundred per cent of Facebook, etc.’s income is from advertisement. They also use algorithms. The crucial problem may not be algorithms, as such, but the fact that a very small set of corporations control algorithms which are opinions or ideologies expressed in mathematical formulas. They are Weapons of Math Destruction.

In other words, algorithms decide what news is profitable and what isn’t. Today, more Americans get their news online than from TV – the medium of the elderly. The average age of Murdoch’s Fox is 68, and that of MSNBC and CNN is 63. Beyond that, the hours spent watching TV is falling. Meanwhile, seven of the ten largest online news sites in America by visits are CNN, the New York Times, Washington Post, Fox, USA Today, Forbes and Time. They are simply the online arm of the old and established news media. At the same time, “internet only” publications remain rare while very few people only read blogs by independent journalists.

Simultaneously, Facebook, Twitter and Google are actively attempting to throttle alternative media in an attempt to regain complete control of the public debate by changing their algorithms. It received its desired effect. Traffic to progressive sites dropped after Google, Bing, and Facebook changed their algorithms: AlterNet: 63%, Truth-Out: 25%, The Intercept: 19%, and Democracy Now: 36%. And just to make sure, the Trump administration forced RT to register as a foreign agent under a 1938 law designed to counter Nazism.

As they eliminate alternatives, the monopolisation of the media marches on. Just five enormous corporate behemoths control well over 90% of what America reads, watches, and listens to. These five monopolies are General Electric, Murdoch’s News-Corp, Disney, National Amusements and Time Warner. With the Internet, the situation is worse. Here too, enormous monopolies dominate the market: Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Amazon.

The most striking example of what this means is still the case of Rupert Murdoch’s 175 newspapers. The global right-wing extremist media mogul, Rupert Murdoch, is well known to demand absolute ideological obedience. All 175 of his editors around the world supported the Iraq invasion in 2003. One former Fox News journalist said we were being monitored by a Stalinist system … it is very much an environment of fear.

In short, the media are not pro-corporate; the media are not pro-business; the media are not pro-establishment; they are the establishment. They are the cutting-edge ideological arm of it. They are large corporations and very big businesses. Virtually, the same goes for the first task of the media – selling things to us.

In fact, the price you pay for your newspaper does not even come close to the cost of producing it. It needs advertisements, and they make up a large part of its revenue. This only increases in the case of TV, radio and the Internet. Advertisements are essential to the media, perhaps even more so than the audience. Not surprisingly, news organisations consider advertisers to be their audience – not what we perceive to be the audience. The audience is only an unwarranted by-product the media has to deal with.

The other audience – viewers – have to be kept onside and for that light entertainment is generated. One can understand TV only when one realises that the movie or the show interrupts advertising – not the other way around as commonly perceived. Advertisement makes up a whopping 19% of the economic output of the USA, and it makes up about 25% of all TV content. 

This is where the advantage of the Internet lies. Google, for example, can offer a golf equipment company wishing to target likely consumers, 50,000 people who have visited multiple golf websites in the last month, in a defined geographical area, aged 30–49 with an income of at least $50,000. TV and newspapers cannot match that. Still, print readers generate 20-times the advertising revenue compared to online readers, and here the media looks for the reader from Michigan, not from Mauretania. Hence, the quest of websites to identify your location!

It also means that the media creates a business-friendly environmental, externally and internally. Internally, the HSBC case shows this. HSBC’s accounting scandal was barely covered by mainstream news. One journalist’s exposés of HSBC’s money laundering scandal was flatly rejected by his boss. He was told in no uncertain terms, HSBC is the advertiser you literally cannot afford to offend. In other words, the elite set the agenda of the news, effectively deciding what the media will discuss. It follows the only saying, we cannot tell you what to think, but we can tell you what to think about.

And this is not even considering the fact that up to 41% of press articles and the majority of TV news items are wholly or largely based on PR material. In times of cutting staff at newspapers and an ever greater demand to turn out articles – something called churnalism – increasingly, corporate press releases which are often written by PR spin doctors in a journalistic was, will be placed in newspapers. 

On top of that, A study of the BBC found that the prime minister alone was quoted more than all NGOs, charities, activists and pressure groups combined and Conservative Party sources outnumbered the Labour Party by almost 2:1. Together with the fact that those who become prime ministers in the UK are those who Rupert Murdoch supports, at least in the last ten cases, it is no wonder why the British Labour Party has next to no chance of getting elected.

In other words, the media is able not to deflect people away from issues that are important to the British Labour party and US Democrats. This is called Deflection Propaganda. It also allows the media not only to set the agenda but also to frame issues in the way supportive of media capitalism. At the same time, unwarranted elements are eliminated or side-lined. A particularly nasty case was that of none other than Charlie Chaplin. 

In the 1950s, the FBI assembled 2,000 pages on Charlie Chaplin eternalised ever since the final speech in The Great Dictator. Despite this, the FBI was set to destroy Charlie Chaplin’s iconic status. In 1952, he was banned from returning to the USA. He lived the final 25 years of his life in Switzerland only returning once to receive an honorary Oscar in 1972. In sum, the FBI quietly ended the career of the greatest comedian of all time on the false grounds that he was a communist.

Finally, there is the case of the Financial Times reporter working at the FT for four years. He was in close contact with the global money and power elite. This contact convinced him that the world is owned and run by a racket. The racket is comprised of transnational corporations, investment and hedge funds, banks and many other different concentrations of wealth across the globe. The media are not just cheerleaders for big business; they are big business. Just three of them control 70% of all UK newspapers with Murdoch alone making up 34%. Not just the world of big business is reserved for the elite.

39% of New York Times and 47% of Wall Street Journal employees with journalism Master’s degrees graduated from the Columbia School of Journalism. It is for those who can afford the $105,000 to $146,000 per year for a degree from Columbia (2018). After that, you get into the FT, but working there is not like working for Pravda in the USSR. You will not be put in jail for what you write or say. You simply will not rise or progress. Anyone providing too much genuine criticism will not be promoted, not have their contract renewed, or not be commissioned to write again. It is a form of thought control.

Dissidents and journalist who think autonomously and differently to everybody else in FT’s office do not last long. Overall, the best people to write self-censored articles are people who do not even realise they are performing self-censorship. This is only marginally better at the British Guardian or the New York Times and Washington Post, etc. They like to maintain the illusion of a fair, balanced, open and obstinate media, and they also like to pretend to be fighting, but in fact, they underpin the elite.

Like most journalists, they are predominantly white middle-class people who tend to share the values of corporate leadership. 40% of Britain’s top journalists attended Oxford or Cambridge University. 38% of Guardian employees attended Oxbridge. Back at FT meanwhile, things like the Marikana Massacre, where 34 striking South African miners were killed, the journalistic elites just said it cast a long shadow. Not much has changed since the days of Exterminate All the Brutes.

After thirty years, Herman and Chomsky’s thesis of a propaganda model still holds water. If anything, the advent of the Information Age has only confirmed their model. The media apparatus is still highly concentrated. It is run by the elite and the media as businesses still focus on profit maximisation. It still relies on advertisement and even more so since Facebook and the like appeared. 

Then, as today, the corporate mass media still parrots the views of corporations, governments, think tanks, and the paid-for representatives of neoliberalism. Finally, there still is a symbiosis between media and capital that is only enhanced by a symbiosis between capital and those corporations carrying forward the propaganda of the information age just as outlined by Alan MacLeod in his exquisite book Propaganda in the Information Age.


Thomas Klikauer has 550 publications and is the author of Managerialism.

Nadine Campbell is the founder and CEO of Abydos Academy.

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