Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media” (1988) – 2021 probably wasn’t the ideal time to finally get around to this classic of its time and place on the American left. That’s not to say that “Manufacturing Consent” is a bad book, or irrelevant. It’s neither, though it is a little bit dated, as in it’s a book about the media written before Tim Berners-Lee did his thing and invented the World Wide Web.
I guess it would have been interesting to have read this A. before I developed as much media savvy as I’d eventually collect (not saying I’m super-savvy, just that I have the standard awareness of media manipulation of any millennial) and B. before Noam Chomsky (do people talk much about Ed Herman? He’s first on the bill on this title, for what it’s worth) became the elder statesman/whited sepulchre of the anglosphere left he’s been for some time. I guess he’s been in that role for long enough that I’d have needed to pick this up when I was a teenager, but that would not have been impossible- teenagers do it. As it stands, it’s kinda weird reading this and realizing how central to the left this sort of criticism — that the institutions in power are hypocritical and don’t follow their own stated purposes — would become, how ineffective it would be, and how long it would take to try another game plan.
That’s not really to blame Chomsky, or this book (though some of his public pronouncements over the years have been less than helpful). Chomsky did his bit. He’s a linguist, and a highly influential one, and his social science background shows, in this book and elsewhere. He proceeds in a very orderly fashion, insists that calling mainstream media “propaganda” represents a social scientific “model” to be used like other such constructs, and his fervor, when he lets it show, is the fervor of a man of reason and order confronted with the ways that power wreaks hell on both, both in the world at large and in the discursive sphere, where truth is supposed to emerge. None of these are necessarily unreasonable stances to have in the world. But there’s an extent to which they constituted bringing a legal writ to the Warsaw ghetto uprising. It’s not even a words-versus-actions thing- his words, to the extent they’re calculated to inspire action, would cause actions that aren’t super helpful, and this became more and more evident as time went on.
But, hey, he’s a scholar, and he did his thing, and it’s all stuff worth knowing. Did you know that the media raises hell about about a Solidarity-aligned Polish priest getting killed by the cops (all of whom were tried, convicted, and imprisoned) but had relatively little to say when American-backed death squads murdered the Archbishop of San Salvador, tortured, raped, and murdered nuns (including Americans), and killed numerous priests (and no one was punished for any of this)? Well, now you do! And on and on the book goes. It feels quaint now, the way you had to manipulate a few elite institutions (ironically, there’s fewer of them now with corporate consolidation, but many more small players with relevant impacts because of the Internet) to get over, when he talks about TV networks preferring to air documentaries about birds and the Italian Renaissance over hard hitting political news. It’s a whole new world, but many of the rules apply- money talks, so does access, and slant is probably more most journalists’ job than anything like “straight” reportage. If anything, the changes in the thirty-plus years since this book came out reinforce his points about propaganda. It’s almost as though most of those changes just happened to benefit people with money and power! ****