I am still occasionally asked by readers and others what I think of Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky’s 1988 text Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. My answer is always the same: it is an indispensable, classic, and justly famous study of the United States corporate media’s role as propaganda organ for that nation’s imperial establishment. For many of us on the Left, Manufacturing Consent was a revelatory volume, one that significantly sharpened our grasp of how and why “mainstream” US media perform that function. The book was particularly enlightening for me on the critical role played by the (not so) “leftmost” liberal wings of that media – the New York Timesespecially – in setting the narrow imperial parameters of acceptable political and policy debate for the nation’s educated classes.
Beyond the News
Still, Herman and Chomsky did not pretend to give readers anything more than a modest and opening take on dominant US media’s inclusive power-serving role. The brilliant content analysis and “propaganda model” that Herman and Chomsky advanced in Manufacturing Consent focused on how that media reported and commented on matters of US “foreign policy” (US Empire). The same basic model and analysis can and should be adapted for and applied to US domestic policy and society as well (and indeed it has been in various writings since, including those of Herman and Chomsky). The leading capitalist US media corporations are naturally no less committed to advancing “homeland” oppression structures and ideologies than they are to hawking related imperial policies and propaganda.
At the same time, Manufacturing Consent did not examine what is probably the biggest part of US corporate media’s contribution to the engineering of mass “consent.” That media’s function of transmitting ideology and propaganda in service to those atop the nation’s interrelated hierarchies of empire and inequality is hardly limited to the news. Equally if not more significant for that task are “entertainment” media. Far from restricting their hearts-and minds-influencing powers to the (Aldous) “Huxlean” tasks of mass diversion, distraction, and infantilization, US movies (like US television sit-coms and dramas and video games) are loaded with richly “Orwellian” political and ideological content. As US Court of Appeals Justice Bennett C. Clark explained in upholding the conviction of ten Hollywood screenwriters and directors who refused to “confess” current or past Communist Party membership in 1949, US motion pictures play “a critically important role” as “a potent medium of propaganda dissemination.” The same could be accurately said six-plus decades later about US television sit-coms, dramas, “reality shows,” talk shows, and even commercials, along with the movie industry, not to mention video games and much of book and magazine publishing.
Manufacturing Idiocy and Cruelty
But even this expansion of our understanding of the US mass media’s authoritarian role in (not-so) “democratic” America comes up short. Seen broadly its total many-sided and multiply delivered impact, that media’s mission is worse than merely the production of mass consent. The real goal is the construction of mass idiocy – the manufacture of idiots. Here I use the words “idiocy” and “idiot” in the original Greek and Athenian sense, one that refers not to stupidity but rather to childish selfishness and willful indifference to public affairs and concerns. As Wikipedia explains, “An idiot in Athenian democracy was someone who was characterized by self-centeredness and concerned almost exclusively with private – as opposed to public – affairs…Declining to take part in public life, such as democratic government of the polis (city state),…’idiots’ were seen as having bad judgment in public and political matters.”
In US movies, television sit-coms, television dramas, television reality-shows, commercials, the state Lotteries, and video games, the ideal-type American is to no small degree an idiot in the classic Athenian sense: a person who cares about little more than his or her own well-being, affluence, personal consumption, individual status and accomplishments. This noble American idiot has no real concern for the fate of others. He or she is blissfully indifferent to the terrible social and environmental prices paid by fellow human and other sentient beings for the maintenance of currently reigning and interrelated oppressions structures (class, race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, anthropocentrism, Empire, and more) at home and abroad.
A critical, vicious and pervasive theme in this ugly media culture is the notion that people who are poor, insecure, coerced, struggling, and otherwise pushed and kept down by those (officially invisible) oppression structures are the irresponsible, personally and culturally flawed creators of their own fate. The mass US media’s version of Athenian idiocy “can imagine,” in the words of Left cultural theorist Henry Giroux (who includes superb content analyses of US movies and non-news television shows in his prolific work on the authoritarian “culture of neoliberalism”), “public issues only as private concerns.” It works to “erase the social from the language of public life so as to reduce” questions of racial and socioeconomic disparity to “private issues of …individual character and cultural depravity. Consistent with “the central neoliberal tenet that all problems are private rather than social in nature,” it portrays the only barrier to equality and meaningful democratic participation “being a lack of principled self-help and moral responsibility” and bad personal choices. (Giroux). Government efforts to meaningfully address and ameliorate (not to mention abolish) sharp societal disparities of race, class, gender, ethnicity, nationality and the like are relentlessly portrayed as futile, counterproductive, naïve, megalomaniacal, dangerous, deluded, counter-productive, and “anti-American.”
A type of public concern and engagement does, to be sure, appear and take on a favorable light in the corporate media culture. It takes the form of an often cruel, even sadistically violent response to those unworthy and evil Others who unforgivably fail to abide by the capitalist media’s malicious “neoliberal” cultural codes. The idiocy-manufacturing communications system isn’t opposed to government per se. It’s opposed to what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “the left hand of the state” – the parts of the public sector that serve the social and democratic needs of the non-affluent majority. It celebrates and otherwise advances the “right hand of the state” – the portions of government that serve the opulent minority, dole out punishment for the poor, and attack a shifting parade of “bad guys” those who resist or are perceived as nefariously resisting the supposedly benevolent US corporate and imperial order at home and abroad. Cops, prosecutors, and military personnel (including even a sociopathic sniper who is hailed for killing more than 150 Iraqis resisting the criminal invasion and occupation of their nation by the inherently noble US Empire) and commanders who fight and kill various “bad guys” (“anti-American” “insurgents” and “terrorists” and various crooks and radicals abroad and in the “homeland”) are the most common heroes and role models in this media; public defenders, other defense attorneys, civil libertarians, civil rights advocates, peace activists and the like are commonly presented as at best naïve and irritating “do-gooders” and at worst as nefarious coddlers and even agents of evil.
Irrational Persuasion and Electronic ADDvertising
This does not mean that the generation of idiocy in the contemporary sense of sheer stupidity is not also a central part of the “mainstream” media mission. Such idiocy is widely cultivated across the “homeland” media spectrum. Nowhere is this more clearly evident than in the constant barrage of rapid-fire advertisements that floods US media. As the US cultural critic Neil Postman noted thirty years ago, the modern US television commercial is the antithesis of the rational economic consideration that early Western champions of the profits system claimed to be the enlightened essence of capitalism. “Its principal theorists, even its most prominent practitioners,” Postman noted, “believed capitalism to be based on the idea that both buyer and seller are sufficiently mature, well-informed, and reasonable to engage in transactions of mutual self-interest.” Commercials make “hash” out of this faith. They are dedicated to persuading consumers with irrational claims, relying not on the serious presentation of evidence and logical argument but on suggestive emotionalism and evocative imagery
The same techniques poison US electoral politics. Investment in openly deceptive and manipulative campaign commercials commonly determines success or failure in the nation’s ever more depressingly dumbed-down marketing and branding contests between business-beholden candidates. To make matters worse, the stupendous cost of this noxious commercialization of politics drives campaign expenses so high as to make candidates ever more absurdly dependent on big money corporate funders.
Along the way, mass cognitive competence is assaulted by the numbing, high-speed ubiquity of commercials, which assault capacities for sustained mental focus and rational deliberation nearly sixteen minutes of every hour on cable television (with 44 percent of the individual ads now running for just fifteen seconds). A factor perhaps in the United States’ long-bemoaned epidemic of “Attention Deficit Disorder” (ADD)?
Treetops and Grassroots
Here is where a knowledgeable reader of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal and critical US Left literature might interject that each of these and other major corporate media outlets produce a significant amount of, informative, high-quality and often candid reporting and commentary that Left thinkers and activists commonly cite to support their cases for radical and democratic change. The observation would be correct.
Does this mean that the paranoid-style Tea Party FOX News right wing is right when it claims that “mainstream” media has a liberal and even Left bias? Hardly. To understand why Left truth-seekers who oppose the power structures that media supports can commonly find useful information in establishment news and commentary outlets, it is important to realize that the dominant media crafts two different versions of US policy, politics, society, “life” and current events for two different audiences. Following the work of the brilliant Australian propaganda critic Alex Carey (whose work helped inspire Herman and Chomsky to write Manufacturing Consent), we can call the first audience the “grassroots.” It comprises the general mass of working and lower-class citizens. As far as the business elites who own and manage the mass media and the corporations that pay for that media with advertising purchases are concerned, this “rabble” cannot be trusted with serious, candid, and forthright information. Its essential role in society is to keep quiet, work hard, be entertained (in richly propagandistic and ideological ways, we should remember), buy things, and generally do what they’re told. They are to leave key societal decisions to those that the leading 20th century US public intellectual and media-as-propaganda enthusiast Walter Lippman (coiner of the phrase “manufacture of consent,” as Herman and Chomsky noted) called “the responsible men.” That “intelligent,” benevolent, “expert,” and “responsible” elite – responsible, indeed, for such glorious accomplishments as the Great Depression, the Vietnam War, the invasion of Iraq, the Great Recession, global warming, and the rise of the Islamic State – needed, in Lippman’s view, to be protected from what he called “the trampling and roar of the bewildered herd” (quoted in N.Chomsky. Power Systems , 81). The deluded mob, the sub-citizenry, the dangerous working class majority (the “proles” in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four )is not the audience for elite organs like the Times, the Post, and the Journal.
The second target group comprises the relevant political class of Americans from at most the upper fifth of society. This is who reads the Times, the Post, and the Journal. Call this audience (again following Carey) the “treetops”: the people who matter and who deserve and can be trusted with something more closely approximating the real story because their minds have been properly disciplined and flattered by superior salaries, significant workplace autonomy, and the advanced, “specialized” educational and professional certification. This segment includes such privileged and heavily indoctrinated persons as corporate managers, lawyers, public administrators, and (most) university professors. Since these super-citizens carry out key top-down societal tasks of supervision, discipline, training, demoralization, co-optation, and indoctrination, they cannot be too thoroughly misled about current events and policy without deleterious consequences for the smooth functioning of the dominant social and political order. They require adequate information and must not be overly influenced by the brutal and foolish propaganda generated for the multitude. At the same time, information and commentary for the relevant and respectable business and political classes and their managers and coordinators sometimes reflects a degree of reasoned debate among elites as to how best to run society in the interests of the privileged. That is why a radical thinker and activist can find much that is of use in such elite media organs as the New York, Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and in various other treetops media. Such a thinker or activist would, indeed, be foolish not to consult these sources if they have the time and energy to do so.
Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm)