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Misunderstanding Consent

Mar 01, 2009

The 1993 documentary Manufacturing Consent examines Noam Chomsky's life and politics. In order to help the viewer develop a well-rounded understanding of Chomsky's ideas, the documentary presents interviews with prominent supporters and critics of Chomsky and Herman's Propaganda Model.

One critic of the Propaganda Model, former New York Times editorial writer Karl Meyer, states that "[i]f one takes literally the various theories that professor Chomksy puts out, one would feel that there is a tacit conspiracy between the establishment press and the government in Washington to focus on certain things and ignore certain things so that if we broke the rules that we would instantly get a reaction, a sharp reaction from the overlords in Washington would say 'Hey, what are you doing speaking up on East Timor? We're trying to keep that quiet.' We didn't hear a thing." This is a misreading of Chomsky's theory (at best). The phrase "tacit conspiracy" describes an unspoken agreement or plan that is consciously devised in secret by multiple people, whereas the manufacture of consent describes a process by which the American media (or any similar media system) engenders popular adherence to a set of unexamined perspectives, where the perspectives represent and embody the tendencies and goals of the economic elites who direct media activity, and where adherence to these perspectives is achieved by "limit[ing] the entire spectrum of thought by leaving the fundamental assumptions unexpressed." The difference between these two descriptions is substantive. In the former description, media bureaucrats are willfully distorting information through conscious deliberation. In the latter description, media bureaucrats are habitually distorting information through unconscious predispositions.

The point here is that the media does not always deliberately mislead the public. Instead, media bureaucrats automatically work towards goals which are consistent with their world-view, and use techniques that support their goals -- which is a perfectly natural thing to do. These are things that every human does. However, it is of special significance when media bureaucrats do it because they are a relatively small group of people who control the information that the public at large consumes. By this system, the presuppositions of elites shape and limit the conscious and unconscious positions of the public, via media outlets. This is not to say that conscious deception does not take place, of course it does, it happens in all walks of life. However, the manufacture of consent is not so simple as "a conscious conspiracy, but [is largely] an accumulation of tactical responses" that media elites have found effective in achieving their goals.

Meyer's later commentary provides a suitable example of the processes being discussed (self-justification, self-aggrandizement, et al.), when he states that the mechanism by which media affects opinions "is a much more subtle process than you get in the kind of sledgehammer rhetoric of the people that make an A to B equation between what the government does, what people think, and what newspapers say." Meyer has claimed that Chomsky has misunderstood the subtleties of media processes, when Meyer himself has misunderstood (or perhaps misrepresented?) the complexities and subtleties of the manufacture of consent, and responded with his own "sledgehammer rhetoric" in accusing Chomsky of constructing "an A to B equation between what the government does, what people think, and what newspapers say."

So Meyer disparages the rigour of Chomsky's analysis, but then plays fast and loose (or worse, is simply dishonest) with his own analysis. This is no small observation. Meyer's approach supports his own particular dogma and discourages feedback. Tying this back to the manufacturing of consent, in Chomsky's own words: "What the media are doing is ensuring that we do not act on our responsibilities and that the interests of power are served, not the needs of the suffering people, and not even the needs of the American people who would be horrified if they realized the blood that's dripping from their hands because of the way they're allowing themselves to be deluded and manipulated by the system."