Fake news before it was cool: Book review of Noam Chomsky’s “Manufacturing Consent”

Rating 3/5

Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent argues that, while America’s free press is generally believed to be a constraint on government, keep it honest, and provide opposing viewpoints, the exact opposite it true in practice; America’s press becomes an organ of the state sticking to the narrative structure provided by the federal government, and providing justification for atrocities abroad. As examples, Chomsky examines four main examples: complete lack of coverage of a U.S.-sponsored genocide in East Timor, fabrication of a Communist conspiracy surrounding an assassination attempt on the Pope, support of American coups and dictatorships in Central and South America, and the Vietnam war. I would be interested to hear Chomsky’s view of the media’s role now, but I doubt his opinion would change despite the current president’s labelling of the media as the “enemy of the people”, and the development of technology. The book got a little difficult to slog through at times, because he just has so much supporting material; very well-documented. I was also a little concerned about the bias of the author. He amasses a huge amount of evidence for America’s sins. I ultimately think this is a good thing, and I am very humbled when I examine the narrative of American moral rectitude that I have grown up with. I was blown away at how we supported military dictatorships, overthrew democratically elected governments, and killed civilians on a massive scale. I wouldn’t say that the author necessarily thinks communists are any better; he views the world more as a fulfillment of an Orwellian prophecy, with the world divided into 2 super-nations vying for power and justifying all their actions to the people through the manipulation of the media. In fact, he name-drops Orwell all the time. For context, he regularly compares American actions to Soviet ones just to show that we aren’t morally superior (e.g. America “supported” South Vietnam in the same sense that the Soviet Union “supported” Afghanistan). I intend on reading more into recent American foreign policy, specifically the actions of the CIA and any support of coups since the 1950s.

Goodreads blurb

Image result for manufacturing consentAn absolutely brilliant analysis of the ways in which individuals and organizations of the media are influenced to shape the social agendas of knowledge and, therefore, belief. Contrary to the popular conception of members of the press as hard-bitten realists doggedly pursuing unpopular truths, Herman and Chomsky prove conclusively that the free-market economics model of media leads inevitably to normative and narrow reporting. Whether or not you’ve seen the eye-opening movie, buy this book, and you will be a far more knowledgeable person and much less prone to having your beliefs manipulated as easily as the press.

Does the name Noam Chomsky ring any bells? I hadn’t seen it before, until it regularly kept popping up in bibiographies and endnotes of books I have been reading, and I decided I had better figure out what Noam Chomsky was all about. If you do a quick Wikipedia page search on him, you find out a few interesting tidbits:

Sometimes described as “the father of modern linguistics”, Chomsky is also a major figure in analytic philosophy and one of the founders of the field of cognitive science… Ideologically, he aligns with anarcho-syndicalism and libertarian socialism.

Already thinking of Monty Python there?

Please, please good people. I am in haste. Who lives in that castle?

No one lives there.

Then who is your Lord?

We don’t have a lord.

Image result for monty python king arthur I didn't vote for you

What?

I told you. We’re an anarcho-syndicalist commune. We take turns to act as a sort of executive officer for the week.

Yes.

But all the decisions of that officer have to be ratified at a special biweekly meeting.

Yes, I see.

By a simple majority in the case of purely internal affairs–

Be quiet!

— but by a two-third majority in the case of more–

Be quiet! I order you to be quiet!

Continuing:

One of the most cited scholars in history, Chomsky has influenced a broad array of academic fields. He is widely recognized as a major paradigm shifter who helped spark a major revolution in the human sciences, contributing to the development of a new cognitivistic framework for the study of languages and the mind. In addition to his continued scholarly research, he remains a leading critic of U.S. foreign policy, neoliberalism, and contemporary state capitalism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and mainstream news media. His ideas have proved highly significant within the anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist movements. Some of his critics have accused him of anti-Americanism.

He already sounded like he might rub a few people the wrong way, as he has some very strong political opinions– and they don’t necessarily align along the right or the left. Everyone could have a potential reason to hate him.

I decided I would start out with his most-read book according to Goodreads: Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. As of this reading, it has 12,094 ratings on Goodreads and an average rating of 4.23. So pretty darn good. Also feels slightly ironic, considering Chomsky’s thesis in the book is that companies (such as Amazon and Goodreads) seek to influence consumers through the media they offer you.

If you were piqued by the title of the blogpost– well, get ready for some fun. Noam Chomsky has absolutely no faith in the mainstream media. “Truth” or “quality journalism” is entirely a lie, as it has been monetized by corporations. What sells is most important. Consent, or getting an audience to agree with a certain agenda, is their product. As the book is going on a few decades now, some of the examples feel dated; the reader today may not recognize some of the examples, such as the genocides in Kosovo and East Timor (but part of the reason isn’t just the date, according to Chomsky. It’s because the media didn’t want you to know about it!). Just because we have an independent media doesn’t mean that it isn’t censored or controlled by the government, according to Chomsky. The media is subject to four big types of filters:

(1) the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth, and profit orientation of the dominant mass-media firms
(2) advertising as the primary income source of mass media
(3) reliance of the media on information provided by government, business, and “experts” funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power
(4) “flak” as a means of disciplining the media

In a pessimistic viewpoint yet?

The hero figure of the independent journalist just received another big push in Hollywood in The Post. You have the dramatic scene with, for example, this dramatic one from the trailer:

She can’t do this. The legacy of the company is at stake.

What will happen if we don’t publish? We will lose! The country will lose!

What are you going to do, Mrs. Graham?

Image result for the post movie

The quote already reveals so many factors that go into stories other than objective truth. Chomsky’s four filters start to sound about right.

Two individuals who took the power of the media very seriously when they saw its effective use by the Allies in World War I were Hitler and Goebbels. Goebbels stated in a speech in 1928 to an audience of party members:

To attract people, to win over people to that which I have realised as being true, that is called propaganda. In the beginning there is the understanding, this understanding uses propaganda as a tool to find those men, that shall turn understanding into politics. Success is the important thing. Propaganda is not a matter for average minds, but rather a matter for practitioners. It is not supposed to be lovely or theoretically correct. I do not care if I give wonderful, aesthetically elegant speeches, or speak so that women cry. The point of a political speech is to persuade people of what we think right. I speak differently in the provinces than I do in Berlin, and when I speak in Bayreuth, I say different things from what I say in the Pharus Hall. That is a matter of practice, not of theory. We do not want to be a movement of a few straw brains, but rather a movement that can conquer the broad masses. Propaganda should be popular, not intellectually pleasing. It is not the task of propaganda to discover intellectual truths. Those are found in other circumstances, I find them when thinking at my desk, but not in the meeting hall.

And to show how little regard Hitler had for the intellectual level of his audience, as well as his disregard for respecting multiple views, here’s a few passages from Mein Kampf:

All propaganda must be popular and its intellectual level must be adjusted to the most limited intelligence among those it is addressed to. Consequently, the greater the mass it is intended to reach, the lower its purely intellectual level will have to be. But if, as in propaganda for sticking out a war, the aim is to influence a whole people, we must avoid excessive intellectual demands on our public, and too much caution cannot be extended in this direction.

The more modest its intellectual ballast, the more exclusively it takes into consideration the emotions of the masses, the more effective it will be. And this is the best proof of the soundness or unsoundness of a propaganda campaign, and not success pleasing a few scholars or young aesthetes.

The art of propaganda lies in understanding the emotional ideas of the great masses and finding, through a psychologically correct form, the way to the attention and thence to the heart of the broad masses. The fact that our bright boys do not understand this merely shows how mentally lazy and conceited they are.

Once understood how necessary it is for propaganda in be adjusted to the broad mass, the following rule results: It is a mistake to make propaganda many-sided, like scientific instruction, for instance.

The receptivity of the great masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan. As soon as you sacrifice this slogan and try to be many-sided, the effect will piddle away, for the crowd can neither digest nor retain the material offered. In this way the result is weakened and in the end entirely cancelled out.

And if you’re really in for a scare, compare George Orwell’s 1984 propaganda tactics– say the Two Minutes Hate program– and compare it to most publications from the left or right today. Most news is dedicated to denigrating the other side and blaming them for all of society’s ills.

I suppose I should at least talk about the actual book now, eh? Pardon me for connecting so many dots there.

The question that keeps coming up in Chomsky’s book, if not explicitly, at least implied, is do the ends justify the means? America as an image of freedom and democracy feels right. Right? But if you look deeper, we have justified a lot of ills, and we use the media to cover up our mess and label others (such as the Soviets) as “the bad guys.” This reinforces patriotism and legitimacy of the government and provides social stability. It’s left for the audience to judge, but there are some uncomfortable facts that Chomsky highlights, such as America’s opposition to the first democratically elected president of the Dominican Republic, Juan Bosch, because he was took left leaning, and we didn’t want the spectre of another Fidel Castro on our hands. Chomsky points out the cozy relationship between government and big business; an offensive foreign policy is good for business, because it opens new potential markets. You begin to see why Chomsky might be accused of anti-Americanism. He doesn’t buy into the “cuz I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free” sentiment of every country song.

The book is frightening because the essential conclusion is: what is truth? Is there such thing as an unbiased source? It seems that you can’t remove the motive from the source, and that virtually all news is a form of propaganda. It reminded me of a question and answer session with Ben Shapiro that I watched a few months ago where a student asked him about his obvious biases, and whether he viewed objective news as a worthy goal. His answer? There is no such thing as objective news. The best you can do is to read both right and left sources, and come to your own conclusions. Hopefully objectivity will be somewhere in the middle.

I would hope that truth isn’t that elusive, but this book kind of shatters that. Take your news with a grain of salt. Try to read original sources and not just media interpretations. Try to hunt down what the media isn’t telling you. And this book makes me want to be very wary of foreign involvement, exporting democracy, and moral grandstanding. Quite a bit to think about.

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