Environmental reporter

‘Manufacturing Consent’ by Chomsky and Herman misunderstands the media

Manufacturing Consent is a critique of the American media. But it would be wrong to describe it as a “damning critique”. That would be to ascribe its arguments some credibility. Instead, what the authors, Noam Chomsky and Edward Harman, present is an ill-informed, exaggerated diatribe against the media for not printing the stories and slants that they believe to be important.

The book’s thesis is that the media operates in a “propaganda model”. The media uses a set of filters that, it seems the authors believe, means that it only reports on what powerful politicians and rich corporations want covered. This is plainly silly, yet scores of undergraduates hold to the thesis of the book as though it were true.

You only have to open an American newspaper or turn on the television to disprove it. Just as the British press exposed MPs’ expenses and cash for Parliamentary questions, the American press exposed the Watergate scandal and the leaked Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War. Both the British and American media published Julian Assange’s Wikileaks documents. And while some newspapers will support a government policy in their editorials, others will be against it.

As Herb Schmertz, former VP at Mobil Oil, put it in a 1986 book:

“[Many people are] under the false impression that the wealthier the organization, the more seriously its views are taken. I wish that were true! If anyone still believes that old canard, I invite them to spend month working for a major oil company during the next fuel shortage.”

So let me look at a few of the main problems with Manufacturing Consent.

A lack of empirical evidence

What is most puzzling about the book is its failure to provide decent evidence for its claims. The book is almost entirely based on anecdotes, but it would have been much stronger had it attempted to quantifiably show bias. Indeed, the authors are dismissive of “right wing monitoring”, that is to say where an organization employs people to watch every news programme and they attempt to classify the bias of the guests. Isn’t that a sensible way to actually prove bias? Let’s face it, to write a book like this without comprehensive monitoring is strange.

As a result, the book draws massive conclusions from tiny evidence. On the rare occasions where it does try to quantify its claims, it fails to use appropriate sample sizes. For example, in the chapter called “A Propaganda Model”, the authors look at the guests invited invited onto television to speak about terrorism. They take a single news show. That’s right – just one show. It’s from PBS, for around a year. In a table, the reader sees that 11.7 per cent of the guests came from “Conservative think tanks”. The authors then take out guests who work as journalists and thereby boost the figure up to 15.7 per cent.

Weirdly, there is no such category as a “Liberal think tank”. Maybe none were invited, but because the chart does not name the affiliations or names of the guests, it is impossible to tell. I have, for example, no idea if the centre-Left Brookings Institution was asked onto the show on this subject. But, we know from a book by Lawrence Soley that Brookings did appear on the show 82 times between 1982 and 1990.

Even worse, there are meaningless categories like “Other”, “Consultant” and “Academic”. In other words, it is impossible to tell from the chart what the bias or position of the guests was, because only people who came from think tanks were given a political label.

In the text, the authors reveal that the Conservative think tank that most regularly participated was the bipartisan Georgetown Center for Strategic and International Studies, then a part of Georgetown University. It is not what you might call a conventional Conservative think tank, like the Heritage Foundation or American Enterprise Institute.

Anyway, the authors claim that the table is “an illustration of how the funded experts preempt space in the media”. I just think that it’s likely that the minority of those who came from think tanks were invited because they knew about the subject and were good talking heads. (And is there any such thing as an unfunded – i.e. unpaid – expert?)


In their section on how pressure groups berate the media, they seem assume that every powerful lobby group in America is Right-wing. Conservatives use “letters, telegrams, phone calls, petitions, law-suits, speeches and bills before Congress, and other modes of complaint, threat, and punitive action”. They set up think tanks and have made “political investments” in institutions to influence the media.

Does anyone on the centre-Left do anything like this? Well, the authors fail to mention it.

Instead, they imply that environmental issues struggle to get covered in the media because advertisers and sponsors don’t like them. They refer to one documentary series – just one – that failed to get enough funding to be viable. But as Herb Schmertz writes: “The 1960s had seen the emergence of a powerful environmental lobby, partly because the environment served as the perfect ‘motherhood’ issue for a good many politicians and journalists.”

Just look the massive and effective use of media coverage by the Sierra Club and then Friends of the Earth in the 1960s, as documented by Steve Harrison in his book on Howard Gossage. These pressure groups were so successful at getting green issues in the media that they were able to change government policy

A failure to understand news

The authors are outraged that when Jerzy Popiełuszko, a Polish Catholic priest, was assassinated by agents of the communist Polish internal intelligence agency, the American media gave the story massive coverage. However, the media supposedly did not give as much coverage to central American priests who were bumped off by unknowns. The writers think this is because those killed by Communism are worthy victims, while those killed by non-Communists are unworthy victims – i.e. unworthy of coverage.

They seem not to understand how reporters work. Reporters report on things that happen with facts that can be evidenced. In the case of Jerzy Popiełuszko, 250,000 Poles attended the funeral. The co-founder of Solidarity, Lech Wałęsa, attended. The three agents who killed the priest were arrested and prosecuted and jailed. In other words, there were lots of things to write about. Moreover, as the authors admit, American reporters were allowed to freely report from the trial.

In many of the central American cases that the authors bring up, there were no arrests and it was not clear at the time who was responsible. It is therefore difficult for a reporter to file as much copy – nor for an editorial write to compelling pronounce.

Blinded by ideology

I don’t doubt that the authors genuinely believe the thesis of their book. But it it falls down precisely because they believe that their hard-Left, anti-Western view of the world is The Truth. When people in the media don’t push their perspective, the authors seem to believe that it is because they are being controlled like puppets.

Could it not just be that journalists, and the public at large, correctly disagree with the authors’ worldview? You see, I think most people, regardless of any media bias, believe in their bones, as I do, that Communism was evil. Far from being there being a “propaganda model” at work, the media chooses stories that interest their readers. Ivy Lee, the founder of public relations, explained: “Editors of newspapers print what they do print because they have been taught by long experience that certain things, which are said to have news value, are the items which the public will be interested to read”.

This model of how the media operates will not please Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman. Like many leading opinion formers, they believe that they “know better” what should be broadcast and published. They don’t.

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