Manufacturing Consent revisited

A Listening Post special marking 30 years since the publication of Manufacturing Consent and its relevance today.

Al Jazeera Dec 22, 2018

There is an exquisite and oft-quoted moment in an interview between BBC journalist Andrew Marr and Noam Chomsky in which Marr asks: “How can you know that I’m self-censoring?”.

“I’m not saying you’re self censoring. I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.”

Wry as ever, Chomsky exposed the slightly delusional pretensions of the journalistic establishment – and not far behind, the complicities of the media industry with political power.

Harsh? Perhaps. True? All too often.

For many of us who work at The Listening Post, Chomsky’s ideas on the media in Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media have provided us with a guide, full of cautionary tales and ideas that are still controversial to this day.

The book was published in 1988 – a year before the end of the Cold War when it was announced that western liberal democracy had triumphed, heralding the end of ideology, authoritarianism, and propaganda.

In the past 30 years, we have seen the mass communications industry multiply, providing an illusion of choice, echoing the rhetorics of freedom – of press, of expression – but not necessarily yielding the pluralism liberal democracies had promised.

In that way, the book continues to resonate.

But like all revered texts, Manufacturing Consent also calls upon us as active readers, journalists, citizens to interrogate its premises. Does the book’s denunciatory tone risk overstate the power of the media establishment? Does it underestimate the critical faculties of the public? Is the media so homogenous an entity that power can be wielded top-down? Where are the lapses, the blind spots? Where do journalists find pockets of power that serve to disrupt?

We spoke to three journalists who have their careers being disruptive and asked them about the ideas that had influenced them in Chomsky and Herman’s book: Matt Taibbi, whose reporting for Rolling Stone has provided one of the most critical accounts of US political history in recent years; Indian editor-in-chief Aman Sethi who questions the premises of Chomsky’s book and Amira Hass, the Haaretz correspondent for the Occupied Territories.

Aman Sethi put it like this:

“It’s easy to say that people believe what they believe because their consent has been manufactured. But what if people know exactly what’s going on and still believe what they believe, right? Then that’s terrifying.”

The Listening Post: “The general population doesn’t know what’s happening, and it doesn’t even know that it doesn’t know”. That is Noam Chomsky’s pithy summary of the general public’s understanding of what decisions are being made on their behalves. How true does this ring to you today?

Amira Hass: This is a very humanist and optimistic statement. The belief that people want to have access to information and with this access to information, they may act, may change. I can say that this kind of approach has been guiding many people like me.

In Hebrew, the words knowledge, information and awareness are all made of the same root. And this is how I started working in Gaza in the early 90s and writing about Gaza, thinking that the Israeli public knew nothing about the occupation and what it means; about Gazan life.

I expected my reporting to reach others and to change awareness. I realised quite soon that this was not the case.

Noam Chomsky himself has said that when he writes about Israeli policies he relies to a large extent on information published in the Israeli press which never really covered the magnitude of Israeli policies and repression.

Until the Oslo Agreement, there was a relative exposure in Israel even in the mainstream media. But this did not change people’s consciences. And this is even worse today when we have a plethora of media in the era of internet. This information is out there – from activists, from human rights organisations, it’s all there in the open. But the people do not pick it up. They have access to it but they choose not to access it.

The Listening Post: Chomsky claimed that journalists are not normally kept under control through top-down intervention, but by “the selection of right-thinking personnel and by the editors’ and working journalists’ internalisation of priorities and definitions of news-worthiness that conform to the institution’s policy”. In your experience, how is this played out when covering the Israeli occupation?

Hass: This is what every writer feels. Every journalist realises very quickly that you have a chain of filters while you write your piece. They could be very benign issues. Like, the length, the time, the deadline. You have 300 words. No, you have 400 words.

But somebody decides how many words you will have for an item. Somebody will decide if it’s on the front page or somewhere in the cellar of the paper. Or at the end of the news read on the radio or TV.

So who decides about the hierarchy? What is important? What is not important? Who decides what is investigative journalism and what is not?

Very often, I realise that if you have information that is official, this is called investigative journalism. But if you actually get information from the people themselves – let’s say about the dangers of a water contamination in Gaza, this is not seen as serious as when it comes from an official.

The Listening Post: “Censorship is largely self-censorship” – reporters accept and internalise the constraints imposed by the market and by the powerful on them. Talk to us about when you realised this to be true and how that knowledge has affected you, inspired you, frustrated you.

Hass: In Israel, journalists don’t live under state censorship, yet. There is military censorship but that has never seriously affected my work. But there is socialisation. You see it in Israeli mainstream media which dedicates less and less space and attention to the realities of occupation.

This has gotten worse since the Oslo Accord. It allowed people to think the occupation as non-existent. ‘Oh, they have the Accords now. There is a Palestinian government. There is no occupation. Actually, there is only Palestinian terror against us.’ So people are even less willing access information that exists and most of the Israeli mass media listens to the public, listens to this wish not to know.

The Listening Post: In his book, Chomsky claimed that the “societal purpose of the media is to inculcate and defend the economic, social and political agenda of privileged groups that dominate the domestic society and the state” and they do that through the selection of topics, framing of issues, filtering of information and by keeping debate within “the bounds of the acceptable” in the media. Can you talk to us about coming up against the “bounds of the acceptable” in the context you work in?

Hass: I’m lucky to have worked at an Israeli paper whose publisher and owner is liberal in the true sense of the word and which is also strongly against the Israeli occupation. So I have the freedom that I think that my colleagues who cover this in other papers and other media, who might be also against Israeli policies don’t have the freedom that I have.

I guess that coming from, from the left wing, my family, my background, I’ve become used to being rejected. But I have persisted and I’m also lucky because there is a very important, not too big but very determined community of activists and Israeli activists against the occupation and against Israeli policies in general, Israeli colonialist policies – maybe that is a bit better term than occupation.

The Listening Post: It’s 30 years since Manufacturing Consent was published. Why is it still relevant today?

Hass: They are relevant, the book and the concept are relevant because they offer to every journalist and they offer a kind of a lighthouse. They are relevant because we see how tycoons have taken over more and more, over the years, more and more media, media corporations and media venues.

News that is deemed fit to print is not necessarily the news that is beneficial for the people and for the public. So the book invokes people’s scepticism and this is always important. Though, as I said before, the problem today that people are not interested in what does not serve immediately their interest. And this is a very sad realisation.



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