What is meant by ‘the manufacture of consent’ and how does it operate in the contemporary news context?

The manufacture of consent is the way in which individuals are submissive to the way in which they are hegemonically controlled in society. Norm Chomsky and Edward S Herman argue the public are blindly distracted by the media, as it serves to perpetuate hegemonic, capitalist norms and legitimate the discrepancies that pre-exist in the state within which they live(Chomsky & Herman, 1988).

Chomsky and Herman, both media scholars and social critics, devised the theory of ‘Manufacture of Consent’ in 1988 when their book was published. The crux of their argument was that, in a democracy, it is broadly understood that everyone has their equal right to an opinion. In a capitalist democracy though, it is imperative to control the thoughts of the public in order to support the major financial and political gulfs in society (Chomsky & Herman, 1988).

They state that the most indoctrinating method of doing this, is through the media. The pair say that the media is a key mechanism in manufacturing consent to maintain pre-established hegemonies. The media harness the power of news to convey hierarchical and dominant ideologies. Italian sociologist Antonio Gramsci first coined the phrase ‘hegemony’ in relation to the control of the Bourgeoise. Chomsky and Herman harnessed his thinking and connected it to the powers of mass media.

News is a commodity. In the consumerist, capitalist world in which we live in – News media is as lucrative as anything else. As such, stories are not simply thrown together. According to Johan Galtung and Mari Ruge (Harcup & O’Neill, 2001), both scholars in researching news values, news is structured and not merely discovered. Chomsky and Herman’s theory would support this. They state that news stories are carefully constructed by media outlets to frame the news in a desirable way. They list several ways in which Newspapers control information; selection of topics, distribution of concerns, emphasis, framing of issues, filtering of information and the interests of their funders and/or advertisers.

The media is controlled by the elite. In every country, in every media outlet – there is a hierarchical structure that is topped by the bourgeoise. In Zimbabwe for example, the media landscape was, for a long time, a tightly controlled and hegemonic one. Led by the corrupt Robert Mugabe, media was often skewed in a way in which would only portray the president in a positive light. The corrupt political agenda of Zimbabwe resulted in several civil societies, opposition parties and other pro-democracy movements becoming unhappy with the suppression of their voices and their restricted access to the public sphere (Ndlela, 2010).

It’s said that journalists are often harassed, beaten up, arrested and charged for various ‘crimes’ by the state. These crimes, 90% of the time, were cases of uprising against suppression and speaking out against the forced eulogizing of Mugabe by the Zimbabwean press. Foreign media outlets have often been denied permission to operate in the country, or in some cases arrested and deported (Nyoni, 2010).

Mainstream media is governed in a way in which reflects the best interests of those who produce it. Chomsky and Herman state that news media clouds important information with human interest stories or sport features in an attempt to dull peoples’ brains and distract them from the things that matter. The media’s power not only stretches to what we consume, but also how we exist. Chomsky and Herman continue by saying that it is the function of mass media to amuse, entertain and inform – to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs and codes of behaviour that will integrate them into the institutional structure of society. The pair finish by saying that, in a world of concentrated wealth, and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfil this requires systematic propaganda (Chomsky & Herman, 1988).

These conflicts of class interests were explored by Chomsky and Herman as they carried out textual analysis using their ‘comparative method’ on newspaper articles. Their hypothesis was that news agencies were giving more column space to write about ‘friends’ rather than ’enemies’ of the US.

As a pilot test, Chomsky and Herman compared the quantity of reporting that existed surrounding atrocities in Cambodia and East Timor respectively. He found that there were almost twenty times more column inches dedicated to Cambodian victims than those of East Timor. A clear example of ‘friends’ and ‘enemies’ of the US when it came to victims and the choices made by American press (Chomsky & Herman, 1988).

The second test they devised involved the ‘worthiness’ or ‘unworthiness’ of victims. Chomsky and Herman researched both quantitative and textual aspects of the coverage of two atrocities; the murder of a Polish priest, Jerzy Popieluszko, and the deaths of 100 religious people in Latin America.

Chomsky and Herman identified the Polish priest as a ‘worthy’ victim. This is because he was killed by an enemy of the US and it was framed as an attack on American rights and life. Alternatively, the religious victims in Latin America were deemed unworthy because they were killed by allied US forces amidst controversy over death squads.r

The textual analysis revealed the bias that Chomsky and Herman had suspected. Articles discussing the murder of the Polish priest included the following; fullness of details of the murder and its violence, details given about the state of the body to illustrate the brutality, police officers were dehumanised by unflattering photographs and finally, Popieluszko was humanised through description of his physical characteristics. These techniques are used to generate an exaggerated emotional response from the reader in relation to the death of a worthy victim. It’s an attempt to garner social solidarity and with it, reinforce the hegemonic power of the state and the US (Chomsky & Herman, 1988).

Emotive phrases such as ‘public outrage mounted’ were added to articles to further induce the ‘Us vs Them’ ideology that was being conveyed by the indoctrinating mainstream media.

In contrast are is the news coverage of the ‘unworthy’ religious victims in Latin America. Unlike the Popieluszko response, there was zero emotive techniques used in the reporting of this atrocity. Details of the deaths were not released, and the coverage was far more basic and matter of fact. Antonymous to the previous example; expressions of indignation and shock were not conveyed to the same level and there was a distinct lack of feeling from supporters of the deceased Oscar Romero. In addition; there are no notes of arrest or trials, including the fact that nobody had actually been arrested at all. There was no reference to how Romero had been active in igniting investigations into murders by death squads, including that of Father Rutilio Grande in 1977, as well as his threat to remove the Church from participating in any official events until said suspicious deaths were investigated (Chomsky & Herman, 1988).

In short, there was plenty of newsworthy drama to this story, but it wasn’t covered. The reporting was vague and concise because the US press didn’t want to uncover a conspiracy that would lead to the downfall of the hierarchical structure in which they live and are part of. The US media did not investigate for themselves; instead they followed a state driven account of the deaths that was put down to a ‘civil war between extreme right and leftist groups’.

Chomsky and Herman’s comparative model provides us with a clear framework in which we can effectively analyse propaganda. As they say, it enables us to examine ‘both what is and isn’t there’. This is true of the Oscar Romero reporting where what is missing speaks louder than what is there for all to see.

This method has been criticised though, most notably by Naomi Klein. She cites the more modern term of ‘fake news’ as being surpassed by Chomsky and Herman. She suggests that the pair do not discuss the construction of fake news and it is now an integral part of propaganda – recent US elections demonstrate this more so than ever.

Chomsky and Herman’s model is still applicable today though. The idea of ‘worthy’ and ’unworthy’ victims becomes relevant when the UK suffers perhaps the most threatening of aberrations we fear today – a terrorist attack. I refer specifically to the attack on Westminster Bridge in March 2017 after the Police gunned down an assailant.

Terror attacks, of course, create a divide between culture, morals, religion and lifestyle. These are clearly demonstrated in the justification and disregard when it comes to the death of a terrorist. In a Guardian article of the events on Westminster Bridge (The Guardian, 2017)the unworthy victims, British citizens, are discussed at great lengths – including how they died and who they were. The article, and subsequent news reports, named them individually; including information of their vocation, family and where they lived.

Like the Oscar Romero reporting investigated by Chomsky and Herman, the words surrounding the death of the assailant were limited. The terrorist became the ‘worthy’ victim. He’s a worthy victim because he aimed to break the social solidarity of Britain, he chose to attack Britain – not just those on Westminster Bridge. As a result, he became worthy of death.

Chomsky and Herman’s ideas, although over thirty years old, still remain relevant to news coverage today. With the increase in political bias and oligopoly amongst the news industry – their thinking will continue to prevail.  Modern criticisms ring true with the proliferation of fake news and the way in which it is harnessed through propaganda as a means of oppression. In a capitalist society though, some things will never change.


 

Bibliography

 

Chomsky, N., & Herman, E. S. (1988). Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media.Pantheon Books.

Harcup, T., & O’Neill, D. (2001). What is news? Galtung and Ruge revisited.Retrieved from EPrints: http://eprints.hud.ac.uk/id/eprint/27381/1/What%20is%20news%20Original.pdf

Ndlela, N. M. (2010). Alternative Media and the Public Sphere in Zimbabwe.Retrieved from Bibys: https://brage.bibsys.no/xmlui/bitstream/handle/11250/134166/Ndlela.pdf?sequence=1

Nyoni, K. (2010). The need for Alternative Broadcast Media in Zimbabwe. Retrieved from The Khanya Journal: https://khanyajournal.org.za/category/media

The Guardian. (2017). Houses of Parliament attack: four dead including police officer. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/mar/22/westminster-attack-man-shot-by-police-and-several-hurt-in-nearby-incident

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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