Friday, March 19, 2010

The Reading List: Manufacturing Consent

Manufacturing Consent
By Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky

I’m going to do something I don’t usually do with my projects: I am going to exercise some discretion. Specifically, I am going to NOT read a book on the Reading List. I’ve read the introduction, and I’ve skimmed through it, touching down here and there, and determined that to read it is not worth my time and effort – my time and effort that could otherwise be spent, I don’t know, griping about the flag of Cameroon or something.

So obviously, what follows is not a “book review.” But I think I can make a reasonable case for why I’m not reading Manufacturing Consent. So let’s start at the very beginning; it is, we are told, a very good place to start. Let’s look at the first paragraph.
This book centers in what we call a “propaganda model,” an analytical framework that attempts to explain the performance of the U.S. media in terms of the basic institutional structures and relationships within which they operate. It is our view that, among their other functions, the media serve, and propagandize on behalf of, the powerful societal interests that control and finance them. The representatives of these interests have important agendas and principles that they want to advance, and they are well positioned to shape and constrain media policy. This is normally not accomplished by crude intervention, but by the selection of right-thinking personnel and by the editors’ and working journalists’ internalization of priorities and definitions of newsworthiness that conform to the institution’s policy.
OK, there are several things to say here. Starting with the most important:

1. Um… No shit, Sherlock. All of the above has been patently obvious to anyone with the vaguest knowledge of the American media since long before William Randolph Hearst stoked up the Spanish-American war. This is not to say that it isn’t worth talking about, but talking about it like you’ve just stumbled on to a hitherto undiscovered, sinister secret makes you look a little foolish.

2. Calling the phenomenon a “propaganda model” – hmm, nothing inflammatory there! Nor do section headings within the book such as “2.4.3. The lack of zeal in the search for villainy at the top” inspire perfect confidence that Herman and Chomsky don’t have a bit of a propaganda model of their own going on.

3. The book has to be organized in terms of a “model,” and particularly a vaguely structuralist model, to justify the participation of second author Noam Chomsky, an enormously important figure in the field of structural linguistics. As far as I can tell from my skimming the text, however, the book does not address how the actual material and experiential structures of the news media – newsprint, magazines, radio and television news programming – affect what is and isn’t considered “news.” Which is a pity, because that’s a much more interesting and less obvious topic than “hey, the guys who own the presses influence what gets printed!”

(Hint: because television, the most powerful distributor of alleged “news,” is a primarily visual medium, it inherently privileges unimportant things that are interesting to look at (eg. car chases, fires, groups of people who have gathered together with colorful signs to yell about an issue) or easy to film (eg. a person making a scripted speech at a prearranged time and place, a random person on the street invited to extemporaneously shoot their mouth off about an issue they have no particular interest or expertise in) over really important things that don’t make good visuals (eg. policy making, economic and legal issues, public health.))


4. As far as I could tell – again, I was just skimming – Herman and Chomsky seem oblivious to some of the more banal dynamics of how news is generated. For instance: when something happens, reporters call a bunch of people who they think might give them some content. What’s going to become news depends in large part on who happens to be sitting by the phone, or who calls back first.

Nor is this simple fact of life irrelevant to what Herman and Chomsky were trying to talk about, because the “powerful societal interests” are obviously in a position to have people stationed by phones, or ready to call back firstest with the mostest – or at least, the most pre-digested – easy-to-reprint thematic content.

5. The book is 22 years old. During the time since it was originally published, much of the pretense of media impartiality has fallen away. Herman and Chomsky’s complaints of insidious media bias seem almost quaint now, when “fair and balanced” FOX News winks at you with only the faintest cheerful pretense that it is not “propagandizing on behalf of the powerful societal interests that control and finance it.” Too, the case studies in the book are events of the 1970s and 1980s, stuff I studied and was concerned about in college and have no particular need to revisit from this late date.

So, with apologies to whoever nominated it for the Reading List, that’s why I didn’t read Manufacturing Consent. I’m not dismissing it entirely – I know that a lot of people found this an enlightening book at the time – but in 2010 I think you’d have to be pretty media-naïve to glean much of contemporary relevance from it.

The Reading List Marches On!

Since I read Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (pictured, left) and skimming the above, I've read Candide, which was a hoot.

Next up is Guns, Germs, and Steel, which is even as we speak waiting for me at the library.

Then it's on to Judy Blume before taking on the big three-part challenge: Iliad, Odyssey, Ulysses.



lauren said...

This is great, Michael. I especially like point number 4, a common flaw in conspiracy theories. Undeniably people conspire and collude, sometimes tacitly sometimes not, but these grand theories don't allow for randomness, errors, general bumbling. They tend to ascribe a sinister omnipotence to the alleged conspirators, which is just too convenient.

mrs.5000 said...

Three wifely cheers for your decision not to slog through this one. But I'm slightly troubled that the "powerful societal interests" behind this blog have chosen to post yet another photo of the (undeniably talented) writer Jhumpa Lahiri, when surely a photo that allowed us to scrutinize Noam Chomsky's skin tone would have been more relevant? Perhaps some sort of conspiracy is at work here, since I'm otherwise at a loss to explain the editorial decision.

sister jen said...

Well, I wouldn't want to read this one, either, except for a class, but I'm sorry to hear you dismiss it. Yeah, it's dated, and yeah, a lot of us "get it," but I'm made uncomfortable by statements like "patently obvious to anyone with the vaguest knowledge of the American media since long before William Randolph Hearst stoked up the Spanish-American war." That's not really supportable, I don't think. And while it might not be a stretch to figure out the idea behind the "propaganda model," I think you underestimate how many of your less perceptive fellows have bothered to think about it. (You hang out with a special crowd!) Also, just because it seems "obvious" doesn't mean it shouldn't have been given a serious treatment and, you know, written down.

sister jen said...

P.S. I couldn't help notice the reappearance of the not-Noam Chomsky author photograph, as well...

Anonymous said...

Agreed. All of Chomsky's crap has far less relevance in the internet era. There are no longer just a few centralized powers behind national media. Anybody with a free on-line blog reporting on local events can be part of the "media". Sorry Chomsky people, you need to look elsewhere for your Orwellian antagonists these days.

Another thing that always bothered me about this Chomsky stuff. People seek what they want from media. Fox News for example tells their audience what that audience wants to hear. It's market factors, and consumer driven. If you don't like what Fox is saying, you have to blame "the people" at least as much as Murdoch. It's the highest rated cable news because it gives voice to people's ideas. The problem is that liberals, for some reason, always presume that "the people" are virtuous, while corrupted by big evil powers alien to them.

Elaine said...

Tell them, dear, if eyes were made for seeing
Beauty is its own excuse for being.

I recall reading about language development--is there no topic Noam does not excel in addressing?--in the 60's.... so I am sure his skin is even less photogenic than mine. this was a better choice.

Kristin said...

Well said, Michael5000. I especially enjoyed point #3. Now, when someone asks me why I haven't read this book, I will have a more sophisticated answer than "there's something about it that just gets under my skin."

As for the photo Ms. Lahiri, well, web pages are at least partly a visual medium, too. And, she is undeniably interesting to look at. You have subtly manufactured my consent (to what, I am not quite sure) by including it. :-)

Jenners said...

1. I accept your argument. You are excused from reading the book.

2. I love that you worked in yet another Lahiri photo. She is gorgeous.

3. It just cracks me up that you will be following up Judy Blume with Greek epic poems. Doesn't get more eclectic (or insane) than that.

Aviatrix said...

I travelled with someone who was reading GG&S and based on his random remarks while reading, it's a good one.

Michael5000 said...

Anonymous Dude: Thanks for reading and commenting. However, for the record I need to clarify that I really couldn't disagree with you more. There obviously continue to be just a few centralized powers behind national media, and the moreso as print media withers on the vine. "Chomsky's crap" isn't that he was in any sense wrong about this, and you are frankly awfully naive if you really think so. It's just that he -- and the primary author -- devoted a lot of time and energy to stating the obvious, ignoring the many more subtle and more interesting aspects of media dynamics.

The idea that amateur bloggers can meaningful replace the decimated ranks of professional reporters is, with apologies, pretty silly. The internet is chockablock with 9/11 theorists and people yacking about how the guvment screwed Main Street by bailing out the banks; these members of the "new media" drag all others down to their level of credibility. In the absence of people without a pretext of full-time, paid journalistic independence, "news" increasingly becomes and will continue to become the prepared statements of corporate entities and interest groups.

You are however quite correct about the market-driven nature of media, an important aspect of the equation of what becomes news that, as far as I could tell, Herman and Chomsky fail to address.

@Sis: The context for my dismissal here isn't, I suppose, the content of Herman and Chomsky in and of itself. It's that this book is very widely considered THE book about media dynamics. As one rather stilted study among others, it would be unobjectionable, and in other circumstances -- without its celebrity second author, to be blunt -- I can imagine it resting comfortably and usefully on the shelves of university libraries everywhere. But as a flagship work, a work considered a classic in its field -- a work that, for cryin' out loud, is on THE READING LIST -- it looks to be pretty small beer.

@Jenners: I appreciate the absolution.

Epistemz Dialektix said...

I wish you had called in a pinch hitter--a later, greater work on the media industrial complex. What comes to mind is 1992's The Nature & Origin of Mass Opinion (which is after all our ultimate concern about the media). But I think you owed it to your readers to not shirk this subject. Although I do realize your ultimate objective is to finish the list.

Eversaved said...

Wow, I just now stumbled across this post. I had no idea I had struck out so badly by requesting that you read this, "so I don't have to."

That said, I second Epistemz.