Manufacturing Consent and Resisting Hegemony
To begin this series of book memos, I will be discussing Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman’s 1988 masterwork Manufacturing Consent. This memo will discuss the core themes of the book, followed by a discussion about how the media theories presented here tie directly to recent events in global politics.
The main topic of Manufacturing Consent is twofold. Firstly, the mainstream media follows a “propaganda model” that explains many biases in favor of the US security state. This model is shaped by five main factors: consolidation of information under corporate media, the use of Anti-Communism (and more broadly, fear of anything Anti-American) as a scare tactic, the bullying and blackballing of media members who speak out of line, the ability of advertisers to curate content under the threat of ad pulling, and (most importantly) the reliance on the State Department as a source for political news coverage.
Secondly, the mainstream media then uses this near-unanimous power to “manufacture consent” for the public (hence the title). What this means specifically is that the media intentionally misleads the public into a sense of security on a variety of social issues, and any sort of significant backlash is largely drowned out by how unanimous the leading narrative is. The diversity of thought in these circles is largely divided between jingoistic fanatics and centrists who still have faith in the security state but pin their alleged skepticism on logistics or other reasons that don’t directly challenge the powers of the US military apparatus.
The textbook example of this that Chomsky and Herman deploy is the coverage of the Vietnam War. From the war’s inception, true left-wing resistance to the war was virtually never seen in the media (despite being widespread across many parts of the American public). Media support for the war from both liberals and conservatives was entirely gung-ho in the early years. Even when events like the Tet Offensive cast the shadow of doubt, this doubt was not communicated by the media in the form of anti-war radicalism, but instead by liberals who considered the war to be an honest mistake in a noble fight against Communism. Walter Cronkite’s condemnation of the war as “unwinnable” in 1968 was an example of this, in that Cronkite initially supported the war but defaulted the strategic logic instead of objecting the inhumanity of the war itself. People who opposed the war on humanitarian or anti-imperial grounds were considered akin to “the wild men in the wings” and were never truly taken seriously.
The Vietnam War is also emblematic of several tactics that the media uses in manufacturing consent. The first is to determine “worthy” victims versus “unworthy victims”. A group of South Vietnamese killed by the NLA is an atrocity that demands the full attention of American audiences. Meanwhile, Northern Vietnamese peasants who are slaughtered as a result of American troops are defined as enemy combatants whose deaths are reported as miniature victories by the press. To be clear, both instances are horrific. However, only one of these crimes has the full defense of the Western press at its side.
Besides this, the media has an equal role in determining the roles of which elections are considered legitimate. When the newly formed left-wing government of Nicaragua held its first general election in 1984, it was framed as a sham election by the US press despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary. Meanwhile, the real sham elections in the US-backed fascist states of Guatemala and El Salvador around the time were deemed legitimate. This is a clear example of the State Department manufacturing “evidence” at will and feeding it to an array of media outlets who are more than willing to disseminate it.
The internet age has undoubtably reoriented the public’s relationship to information in a way that is ultimately more democratic than when Manufacturing Consent was released. However, in an environment where the conditions for the propaganda model persist, these scripted biases inevitably introduce themselves into several instances of modern coverage.
The current occupation of Palestine is a textbook example of how “deserving” and “undeserving” victims are cast. A noted point of controversy in the US media is how Israeli civilians killed by the IDF are often reported as “human shields” by Hamas by the US media. This was a noted trope in the 2014 Gaza War in particular, but this dynamic continues into the recent violence in Sheikh Jarrah. While Israel was waging war in this territory and far-right fascist mobs were emboldened in Jerusalem, the US media mainly focused on the inability of the Israeli parliament to form a government. Meanwhile, many outlets chose to frame the conflict as a “long-running legal battle” instead of a question of colonial rule. I’m reminded of Dom Helder Camara’s idea of the spiral of violence: the idea (roughly) that structural oppression and violent resistance to it is locked in a perpetual cycle, while only the most visible backlash to oppressive violence is visible to those representing power.
Across the world, another electoral conflict brews. In a historic upset, the Peruvian elections have placed leftist candidate and former schoolteacher Pedro Castillo in power as President. His opponent Keiko Fujimori has not only lost but is now crying fraud in spite of there being no evidence to back this up. I have not been following this coverage with a magnifying glass, but it does not take even that to notice certain tropes: for example, a Wall Street Journal article from the 11th blames the victory Pedro Castillo on pandemic anxiety and highlights Fujimori’s claims of fraud. Whether Fujimori receives the media support that right-wing grifter Juan Guiado did in the Venezuelan election from a few years ago has yet to be seen, but I am waiting intently to see what happens.
None of this should be the cause for resignation or despair. As Castillo’s victory displays, sometimes these struggles can be won. However, taking the side of the oppressed means reorienting your mind completely away from neoliberal bromides and coverage that uses an illusion of impartiality to push capital’s bottom line. This doesn’t just mean being more skeptical of the media (a canard used by virtually every ideology at this point), it means never expecting American civil society to respect people’s dignity unless they are forced to.
 Herman, Edward E. S., & Chomsky, N. 1988. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon Books.
 Herman, Edward E. S.
 Herman, Edward E. S.
 Herman, Edward E. S.
 Hussain, Murtaza. “Study: U.S. Newspapers Are More Than Twice As Likely to Cite Israeli Sources in Headlines Than Palestinian Ones.” The Intercept, First Look Media, 12 Jan. 2019, theintercept.com/2019/01/12/israel-palestine-conflict-news-headlines/.
 Dube, Ryan. “Socialist in Peru Has All But Won Presidential Vote asPandemic Fuels Despair.” The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Company, 11 June 2021, http://www.wsj.com/articles/socialist-in-peru-has-all-but-won-presidential-vote-as-pandemic-fuels-despair-11623417118.