Manufacturing Consent

This is a message to University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism majors who chose this field of study because they believe in it. Because you have a passion and a notion of right journalism, of speaking truth to power. That spirit in you ought to be preserved. 

However, if your dream rests at the New York Times, Washington Post or CNN, these publications may not be the ones to preserve it. In fact, these papers or centers of record may be the ones that prospective journalists should hold to task. This notion was expounded upon in Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman’s “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media,” released in 1998.

In “Manufacturing Consent,” Chomsky and Herman outline the "Propaganda Model" of communication within mass media. The Propaganda Model of Manufactured Consent in America is represented by large corporate mass media enterprises. These enterprises are influenced by the wealthy and political elite and, as a result, often represent upper class interests before the interests of the working class. Much of the work also centers around how mass media absorbs pro-government messages, especially with regard to foreign policy. 

This book is important in understanding how capitalism and corporations have fundamentally created the aims of mass media and how it has defined journalistic bias and objectivity. This is a very short summary of the text and does not do it justice in all regards. 

“Manufacturing Consent” is not taught at UNL in any journalism class, nor are its ideas. This, however well meaning, is a mistake.

There are six "filters," or ways in which the political and economic elite decide what news should be in the Propaganda Model and censor undesirable information through the implicit adoption of its norms.

The filters of “Manufacturing Consent” are not as active as one would imagine censorship to be in a news setting. What Chomsky and Herman propose is a study in how markets, and their inevitable elite, select and influence their preferred media outlets directly against the interests of the body politic. For example, the second filter talks about how advertising has changed the media landscape.

It proposes that the advertisers of major papers have become a primary patron of the mass media. Advertisers prefer to select papers with audiences who will spend money on their products. This marginalizes the poor and working class within what should be their own medium of information. Another prominent aspect of the second filter is how advertiser choice, not circulation, decides which papers succeed and which fail.

While some filters provide context for how the owners exert power on mass media, the third filter gives a methodology for how mass media is biased towards the government. Due to the economics of mass media, newspapers cannot afford to send journalists all over the world to cover important events To counteract this, mass media conglomerates tend to focus their resources on the dissemination centers of the world. In the United States, some journalists primarily focus on Washington D.C.

“Manufacturing Consent” contends that because of this, journalists tend to foster close relationships with their government sources, who may tell a lie, however flagrant, and force the journalist to then publish it based on the importance of their relationship and the journalist’s dependency on it. A more passive form of this dissemination is that government framing of issues of foreign policy can be taken as gospel simply because of a lack of sourcing from foreign governments who may carry a dissenting opinion.

The assertion of “Manufacturing Consent” that is valuable to us today is that the common journalist has so internalized some of the facets of the Propaganda Model that they subconsciously enact them while convinced that it is an extension of objectivity.

The College of Journalism and Mass Communications seeks to teach journalism not in the abstract but as a concrete practice. There's something admirable about this in theory. Journalism is not restricted to the classroom or the book and is a living thing. However, for people who believe in the value of journalism, it is not enough. 

The department's thoughts on journalism's place in society reiterate old party lines: the "fourth estate" and the "watchdogs of society.” This is part of the curriculum in one of the first classes UNL journalism majors take: Principle Mass Media. But, as explored in “Manufacturing Consent,” these ideas do not apply to the modern news establishment in full. 

This is because these watchdogs of society in the U.S. are not selected by the people, but owned by the rich, sustained by their products and bent towards a pro-corporation, pro-capitalist worldview. 

This is where the education of journalism becomes so tricky. In many ways, UNL news journalism education teaches people to accept these filters and work within them. The rhythm of the writing, the superstructures of it and how to dissect information — these are all inevitable extensions of the distorted construct of objectivity. 

This makes sense because UNL is focused on preparing students for a professional setting. Students are not directly taught that these structures are not infallible and not nearly as noble as established news media would like people to believe. It is a given that these structures are good, and the goodness of these structures are reinforced as pure extensions of journalism. The corporate interests cannot be divided from journalism in the abstract. 

This isn't done out of intentional malice — one could give a whole host of reasons why telling journalism students that their dream is ethically fraught is a bad idea. Perhaps it’s not necessary in helping people become professional journalists. There are compelling critiques against “Manufacturing Consent,” one of them that it assigns too much primacy to the role of news media in shaping the American consciousness.

But the fact that Chomsky and Herman's seminal work is not taught gives the journalism major no reality in which the system can be questioned. It’s important for the prospective journalists of the U.S. to internalize the critiques found in “Manufacturing Consent.” 

To uphold any real compunction of honesty and fairness, of a right and just thing, one must also be sharply critical of the institution to which they belong. Far from being an indictment of journalism in full, “Manufacturing Consent” is quite hopeful. It acknowledges that journalism is important for the people and our consciousness, thus why it is so necessary that the elite commandeer it.

Ultimately, the individual journalist can do very little to change these structures — there’s far too much money and power behind them. And of course, no individual journalists should be demonized as special instruments of this power. 

Being cognizant of the failures of journalistic objectivity as we understand it now will help to preserve some nobler sort of the craft: the unimpeachable interests of the truth and the inevitable failure of the distortion.

Jason Han is a sophomore journalism major. Reach him at jasonhan@dailynebraskan.com.