Book review: Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman

Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass MediaManufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Noam Chomsky

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Don’t believe everything you see in the news… but which bits?

There is a narrative we hold to be true: that the news media are trying to inform us of the facts; that they search high and low for the truth; that they are honest and hardworking; and that they hold truth to power. Manufacturing Consent presents the argument that they often don’t do that at all but instead operate under the Propaganda Model of media.

Almost a decade ago, I attended a panel session about news journalism that billed itself as to how award-winning journalists hunted down and exposed the truth. I walked out about half-way through from disgust. You see, these award-winning journalists had been patting themselves on the back for having done what I regard as the bare minimum of fact-checking on a story and had managed to discover something. These were the people we relied upon for our information.

While that wasn’t the first time (nor the last) that I’d run up against the failings of the media, it was the moment that has come to summarise my view of the media. I think that is why Chomsky and Herman’s thesis in the book feels familiar.* The way media act to perpetuate the status quo and the interests of power and influence is well articulated if unsurprising.

There were a few issues I had with Manufacturing Consent. The first was that the introductory chapters, including the preface written in the early 2000s, and the final chapter were excellent, but the middle case study chapters erred on the side of exhaustively labouring the point. I mean, the history of various conflicts was fascinating, but not exactly what I signed up for when I started reading.

The second issue I had was that this book feels somewhat out-of-date. The examples were from a previous generation of media. While it appears that much of the propaganda model still holds, you have to question if it isn’t far more nuanced now. Media ownership has become even more consolidated, the diversified online media landscape has made attention seeking and funded agenda pushing the norm, partisanship is leveraged for audience retention, media owners and management are more overtly pushing agendas, and lobbyists and other bad faith actors exist in all aspects of public discourse driving narratives. Power is Feeding the Chooks** now more than ever. It feels like the propaganda model and the 5 filters are still highly relevant but in need of an update to capture the new realities.

Another issue was one that was briefly touched upon in the final chapter. The propaganda model tends to assume a level of competence and diligence to journalism and the media. I often use Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. A lot of the reporting being attributed to a propaganda model may actually fall under the lazy, incompetent, and uninterested model instead. Although, that could be seen as part of the 5 filters of media selection – or to paraphrase Chomsky: if they were actually good at journalism they wouldn’t be working there.

My final issue was around solutions: what are they? There aren’t any solutions posed, both from the point of view of a media consumer trying to be well informed and from the point of view of a society wanting a reliable media. Some ideas are alluded to, such as the reports from independent groups covering an issue (e.g. Amnesty and America Watch were mentioned), which also requires an active audience who seek out information (i.e. lateral reading and fact-checking). But I feel as though this was an important set of recommendations to explicitly state.

A very interesting and insightful book that is well worth a read. Be warned that the case studies are more of a history lesson than you’d probably be expecting.

The 5 Filters of the Mass Media Machine

* Although, it may feel familiar because this text has been in the “mainstream” for decades, so much of it will have found its way to me without having read it directly.

** For the non-Aussies, Feeding the Chooks was a term for Press Conferences from one of Australia’s most corrupt politicians. Sir Joh would wait until journalists were desperate for information and then feed them timed propaganda that they wouldn’t question due to deadlines – hence, feeding the chooks. He was an authoritarian who rigged elections (sorry, gerrymandered…), essentially ran a police state, held the press in disdain, was generally racist and homophobic (although, kinda standard for an Aussie conservative from Queensland), and marginalised workers and unions.

Update: I’ve learned that Matt Taibbi wrote a book called Hate Inc. that was originally intended to be a modernising of Manufacturing Consent with Chomsky’s approval. It changed a bit, but addresses some of the issues I raised above.

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Book Review: Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show BusinessAmusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Being prophetic is really easy when you make a “kids these days” argument.

Amusing Ourselves to Death is Neil Postman’s ode to the “good old days” before television when entertainment wasn’t ruining everything. TV bad, reading good!

I decided to read this book after it once again started to be referenced as prophetic in the modern age. The first time someone mentioned this book to me I couldn’t help but feel the argument was likely to lack substance – you can amuse and inform at the same time.* What I found in this book was a supposition that isn’t without merit – slogans and sound bites can be influential whilst lacking any substance – but is argued in a cherry-picked and biased manner.

One example is how Postman claims that political campaigns used to be written long-form to influence voters, whereas now (meaning then in 1985, but many say it is highly relevant today) we get political messages in sound bites and 30-second adverts. This argument underpins his work and is at best convenient revisionism, at worst it is naive drivel. To suggest that there is no modern day long form political articles (and interviews, etc) is rubbish, just like the idea that the historical long-form articles he alludes to were well read by the masses is rubbish.

Another example is Postman claiming that media organisations aren’t trying to (in general) maliciously misinform their audience. We know that this isn’t the case. Even at the time this was written there were several satires addressing how “news” is deliberately framed for ratings (e.g. Network, Brave New World, the latter he references in the book). Either he has a different interpretation of malicious misinformation or he just thinks the media are incompetent.***

Now, his idea that we should be trying to educate kids to be able to navigate this new media landscape – instilling critical thinking, understanding of logic, rational thought, basic knowledge so that we are less likely to be fooled – is laudable. I completely agree. I’d also agree that there is a desperate need for this in people of all ages when we have an attention economy in place that is less interested in informing you than making sure your eyeballs stay glued for the next advert. I think this is why Postman’s book has resonated with people, the arguments aren’t without merit. But they are also deeply flawed and problematic.

I can’t really recommend this flawed book, but it isn’t without merit.

Interview with Postman:

Attention Wars:

* This modern review from an education professional sums up this point:
“Instead of striking a balance between the use and over-use of media in education, Postman has completely shut down the debate in the belief that there is no good way to use visual media like the television and film in education. If you take his thesis to its logical conclusion, the number of technological tools in the classroom would be reduced to the overhead projector, the ScanTron grading machine, the copier and the laser pointer, and the field of educational technology would be greatly reduced in the process.”**

** Read this review particularly carefully. The author cites a number of problematic sources for claims made, such as Ben Shapiro, David Barton, Glenn Beck, Jonathan Strong (of The Daily Caller). All are known to deliberately misrepresent their sources (e.g. see my review of Ben Shapiro’s book covering this issue).

***Hmmm, could be something to that argument. As I regularly say, don’t attribute to malicious intent that which could be incompetence.

NB: I don’t normally post reviews of books I haven’t enjoyed (3 stars or more out of 5). It is my intention that this particular review will be one of few exceptions.

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Rise of the Sophists

kierkegaard

Surprisingly this is not a post about a new Terminator movie. It isn’t even a post about the rise of Donald Trump and Pauline Hanson; but let’s mention them for the bonus clicks. This post is actually a short essay I wrote last year as part of a philosophy course I did on Soren Kierkegaard. As you will see there is quite a bit of relevance to the current political and media climate, although looking back as far as Socrates reveals that not much has changed: sophists have undue influence on our society.

What did Kierkegaard learn from his study of Socrates?

Kierkegaard saw parallels between his time and Socrates’ time. Once again there was a rise of Sophists in society, people who knew very little but pretended they did. While it could be argued that the Socratic Method is always relevant in society, Kierkegaard came to see certain aspects of Socrates differently to his peers. He was interested in using the negative as well as drawing people into argument by asking questions from feigned ignorance. These tactics could be used to expose those who were lacking knowledge or understanding.

Kierkegaard expanded upon his interpretation of the Socratic Method and has subsequently influenced many, both in the field of philosophy and thought, as well as wider society. Notably his ideas have influenced things like existentialism and post-modernism, which have influence into such diverse areas as the arts and science. But Kierkegaard was a precursor to modern philosophical movements, as he wasn’t trying to educate or enlighten, but rather stimulate and encourage people to look for the truth.

There is a downside to Kierkegaard’s influence on society. In our modern age we have seen the rise of those who would use Kierkegaard’s negative and questioning as a tool, rather than for helping others find the truth, but for harassment. While the idea behind aporia and maeuetics is to question what we and others know, there is a point at which this stops being about questioning knowledge for understanding and starts being about someone just trying to annoy others.

Obviously this comes down to the intent of the person: are they trying to help others understand, or understand themselves; or are they more interested in having an argument, or annoying someone. But is it subtler? Is it a progression whereby someone has engaged in discussion only to run up against something they disagree with – due to whatever personal bias – and thus use the questioning as an attack or avenue to annoy others? Regardless, those who are trying to annoy are not following the intent of Kierkegaard, nor Socrates, and will miss the essence and benefits of aporia and maeuetics.

Why is this connection between Socrates and Kierkegaard still relevant in the world today?

Much like the parallels Kierkegaard saw between his time and Socrates’ time, there exists a similar parallel today. Once again in the modern age we see the rise of the Sophists. They are our elected officials, they are our media, and through technology they have the ability to reach more people and influence the world.

With more information available more easily than ever, people have come to receive that information in bite sized pieces. Often a headline – which may have been designed more for attracting attention than providing information – will be as much as a person will read about a topic. Our leaders and elected officials are reducing their policy statements to sound bites that can be easily remembered. And while we have this overly simplistic form or information presented to us, we are seeing less critical assessment of the information.

Kierkegaard was correct to look at the rise of Sophists in his time and act to apply Socratic methods to their arguments. By taking the approach of “knowing nothing” and questioning the person presenting information, it can be revealed how little the person actually knows. This is something that our media, and we, are failing to do. By taking the negative position it is possible to force the Sophist to explain themselves.

The most interesting aspect of Kierkegaard’s connection with Socrates is how comedians are applying it today. Irony was something Kierkegaard regarded as an invaluable tool. Today we see comedians such as John Oliver using irony – and other comedic devices – to dissect topics and arguments in the public space. It could be said that the modern Socrates or Kierkegaard comes in the form of the satirist news programs. Their viewers are noted to be better informed about news topics, and this comes from the use of Socratic tools.

A little more on Kierkegaard from The School of Life:

Music that lasts

I was recently having a discussion about Zeitgeist. No, not the concept of a spirit of the age or spirit of the time, I mean the 2007 album from the (not) Smashing Pumpkins. I’ve been a massive fan of the Smashing Pumpkins’ music since about 1994 (wow, 20 years!) but have to say that Zeitgeist was the last of their albums I bought and I don’t listen to it, Ava Adore (1998), nor Machina (2000). Essentially, I’m no longer a fan of the Smashing Pumpkins, I’m a fan of their early work only.

What amazes me is you can listen to Gish (1991), Siamese Dream (1993), Mellon Collie (1995), even their b-sides album Pieces Iscariot (1994), and they still hold up really well. With the exception of the song Untitled (from their retrospective Rotten Apples, 2001) and maybe Tarantula (from Zeitgeist), the Smashing Pumpkins haven’t released a song or album that compares to any of the material on those early albums. With the more recent material the songs sound unfinished. When old b-sides sound better than your new a-sides, you really have to question what you’re doing.

But this isn’t just about the Smashing Pumpkins, name a Rolling Stones song released in the last 30 years (i.e. everything post Dirty Work from 1983). Can’t, can you!? They’ve released 5 studio albums and countless – well you can count them, but who cares to – live and collection albums in that time. Fans everywhere dread this announcement at a Rolling Stones concert, “And here’s a song from our new album.”

There are a few factors at play here: the idea of talent and inspiration meeting, the idea that even great artists can’t continue at that elite level indefinitely, and the idea that some art is transitory whilst some is timeless. I’ll leave the first two points for another day, the latter point gives me an opportunity to insult pop music.

Some art, music, TV, movies, books, etc, rise through the charts, become hugely popular, and dominate the media. Then a few years later everyone is embarrassed to talk about those artists and art, digging a deep pit of denial to throw those pieces of crap where they will never be found again. I’ve discussed this before in my article on Good versus Popular, suggesting that popular music/art/things aren’t necessarily good and that time and perspective sort the wheat out from the chaff. Some of the music we enjoy is just because it is played everywhere we go. Some music just filled a hole in the age bracket or life journey, such as Limp Bizkit for all the angry teens, or Placebo with their dark depressing (teen) angst music. A decade on and you’d battle to find anyone who would admit to having bought a Limp Bizkit album, and when I recently relistened to those albums I wondered how I ever listened to that junk.

So what music (or art) lasts? Is it immediately obvious? What lasts isn’t easy to define, because I would never have picked Yellow Submarine to last in the same way that Get Back has. A kid’s song versus a satire of attitudes to immigration in the UK. Would we even listen to Yellow Submarine now if it hadn’t been a Beatles song or bland and inoffensive enough be played to us as kids in primary school? I digress. I think the answer to what will last is often, but not always, immediately obvious. And what lasts is rarely categorised by the prefix* pop.

Take for example everyone’s current objects of pop music derision: Justin Bieber (or Miley Cyrus, whichever you prefer to hate more). Bieber’s music is popular, he’s famous as a result, and I don’t think anyone would argue that his music will be forgotten in 5 years time and laughed at in 10, much like The Spice Girls. Remember them? Me neither. We** already know his music won’t last. And how about an example of something that will stand the test of time…. Wow, this is the part where I admit I’m a metal fan and haven’t listened to ‘commercial’ music in over a decade. I’d say Daft Punk’s most recent work will last, but they have been around for over a decade now, so hard to call them a new artist.

But I will give you another prediction, Pearl Jam will be my generation’s Rolling Stones. They will be still touring long after anyone has realised they still record new albums. And people will go to see them live because of those first few albums that everyone loved and still loves.

Essentially I think that lasting comes down to quality. I’m not talking about the recording studio, production values, or hair gel and dance routines. I’m talking about the quality that arises from talent and inspiration meeting. Bob Dylan’s songs had terrible production and his voice sounds like someone gargling gravel, whilst strangling a cat as their foot is fed into a wood chipper. Yet he had talent and inspiration, subsequently capturing the zeitgeist and lasting (see what I did there). But that music/art has to find a fanbase, whether immediately, or growing it over time as Led Zeppelin did. Now the only question remains: which is better, to last or to grab the headlines for 15 minutes?***

* Yeah, I know, not actually a prefix, more of a noun or adjective dependant upon the context.
** Having not ever heard any of Justin Bieber’s music and only accidentally heard part of a Miley Cyrus song at the gym, I can’t actually judge how good or bad their music is and how long it will last. I’m basing my judgement upon what has happened with previous pop stars.
*** The answer is easy: to last. If everyone forgets your 15 minutes did you even have those 15 minutes?