(Still) Manufacturing Consent
Matt Taibbi on Noam Chomsky's classic book Manufacturing Consent and how commercial imperatives still squelch an adversarial press.
- Interview by
- Jacob Hamburger
When it came out in 1988, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s Manufacturing Consent rattled the accepted view in post-Vietnam, post-Watergate America that journalists’ relationship to power was essentially adversarial. Instead, they argued, the institutional structure of American media — its dependence on corporate advertising and sources in the upper ranks of government and business — created a role for the press as creators of propaganda. Without any direct press censorship, with full freedom of speech, the media narrowed the political debate to exclude anything that offended the interests of the market or the state.
Thirty years after the publication of Manufacturing Consent, the journalist Matt Taibbi has made it his mission to provide an update of Chomsky and Herman’s critique for the twenty-first century. A columnist for Rolling Stone who has written at length about the 2008 financial crisis and Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, Taibbi’s new book, The Fairway, is appearing in serial form on the newsletter site Substack.
You describe Manufacturing Consent as a book that “blew your mind” when you were a young journalist. What was so powerful about Chomsky and Herman’s critique of the media?
I never had any idea that there was any kind of propaganda built into the media business. My father was a journalist, and I was so in tune with the process of how reporting worked, having been around reporters from a young age.
I had never seen anyone tell a reporter to stay away from a particular topic. I had an idea that they were extremely free to explore any topic they found newsworthy. And when I was growing up in the seventies and eighties, this was a period where the media were relatively free compared to other periods in our history.
But when I read Manufacturing Consent, it occurred to me for the first time that the debate is artificially narrowed off camera. That the people you see in the op-ed represent two narrow poles of conventional wisdom. That we’ll report one story to death when it reflects badly on our ideological enemies abroad, but we’ll avoid the exact same story if it involves one of our client states.
All this opened up a new world for me. And when I started my career, I was reporting from Russia. All these factors are amplified when you’re reporting from abroad.
Everybody is criticizing the media today. We have a president who, as you write, won his campaign largely by attacking the press. Why do we need to revisit Manufacturing Consent in 2018?
My point is that it’s not the same critique today. There’s a lot that’s been unexplored that a lot of the people in the business haven’t thought about.
What Chomsky and Herman were talking about thirty years ago was the use of commercial media to organize the whole population behind the foreign policy objectives of the United States. What’s going on right now is far more sophisticated, far more intrusive, far more implicated in the daily life of every person. The media has become significantly more commercialized since then, and has developed the technique of targeting information to specific demographics, constantly feeding people content an algorithm has determined they will agree with.
The result of that is we’re selling a lot of intramural conflict, the idea that some other group you don’t like is up to no good. In other words, other Americans suck.
People are really addicted to that kind of conflict, and that’s had a really nefarious effect not just on politics, but on reporting techniques. We’ve gravitated towards a reporting that reinforces the worldview of our audiences.
That’s not political journalism — that’s commercial journalism. And the algorithms of Google and Facebook make it an addictive form of information as well. A lot of reporters simply aren’t aware that this is what they’re creating.
This is exactly what Manufacturing Consent talked about. Journalists have an idea of themselves as heroes for democracy, getting under the skin of the powerful, but this is often a mask for the commercial reality of what they’re doing.
The most recent iteration of this is the Washington Post’s slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” which is particularly loathsome for me. I spent two years covering the Trump campaign, and speaking as a journalist, we could not have fucked up that story more. Not only did we get every single prediction wrong, we actually helped elect the guy. Trump was of course great for television, and while we were putting him on the screen we pretended we were just being objective. People were not adequately warned about the political reality.
When the media realized Trump was a serious danger, people made a decision to change course and say that being objective was not enough. We told ourselves we had a responsibility to protect people from Trump by telling them he was not an appropriate political candidate. We started going around calling ourselves the tribunes of Truth, the defenders of democracy, and we got high on our own fumes.
By this time it was too late, and we sounded like the boy who cried wolf. I remember being behind the rope line at Trump rallies, and he would literally point to us and say, “Look at those bloodsuckers — they didn’t think I could come this far.” He made us the representatives of the condescending elite, and anyone who’s watched pro wrestling knows that the baby-faced good guys in the room are the people you want to see hit with a chair. Trump instinctively understood that, but we in the press didn’t, because we all watch The West Wing instead of WWE.
We bore primary culpability for helping Trump get elected, and then what did we do after 2016? We rebranded ourselves, once again, as the defenders of democracy. This is one of the reasons I wanted to do this book. We had an opportunity for a real change in our posture. There should have been a “come to Jesus” moment. But instead we compounded the problem we had with the public.
Part of what it sounds like you’re saying is that if in Chomsky and Herman’s time the issue was big corporate and government interests setting the terms of media debate, today’s media landscape is expressing some major conflicts between different groups of elites.
There’s definitely a schism of opinion up above, though I try to avoid the term “elites.” The concept of “manufacturing consent” is that the conflicts we see in the media — between Democrats and Republicans, for example — are not really conflicts. The conflict is all for show. What we see is the strip of acceptable thought to those up top.
With Trump, there’s clearly a conflict with Beltway liberals. And though he’s broken bread with the Republican establishment, we should remember that he was overwhelmingly rejected initially. Remember that moment when the National Review recruited every Republican pundit they could find to tell conservatives Trump was an unacceptable candidate? Republican voters of course tuned this out completely, and it made them want to vote for him even more.
There’s a cautionary tale here for the liberal and even left media. It feels good to tell the audience what you think it wants to hear now, but there are crucial moments where the audience will know you’re full of it.
A great example of this was when journalists were discussing the $675,000 Hillary Clinton accepted from Goldman Sachs [in speaking fees]. Once that became an issue, the media consensus immediately became in what we call the left-leaning press that it was fine for her to take the money — she’s a person too, you know, she has to make money! They assumed this is what liberal audiences wanted to hear, and look how things turned out.
Do you think this shift reflects a broader contradiction in today’s media structure? In the past, a number of major interests converged with a media model that produced a unified narrative. Today, the media model encourages disunity and distraction, but the need for that sort of unified narrative never totally goes away. How do you see this dynamic playing out?
I think what we find out is that there are moments where that need to rally people behind a cause is felt both on Fox News and on MSNBC. Everyone will agree that we need to bomb Syria or invade some other country.
We saw some of this in the outpouring of sentiment over the death of John McCain. This was an opportunity to reinforce the old establishment attitudes. But in the meantime, we’re mostly selling dislike of one another as our product.
Ironically, some parts of the splintered media landscape are almost explicitly selling nostalgia for the days of Walter Cronkite when we all watched the same news.
Exactly. Walter Cronkite at one point had around a 70 percent approval rating. That’s basically unimaginable for a media figure today. The business model today just doesn’t permit it.
Are there regulatory reforms that could remedy this business model?
There have to be, if we have any sense that the news still has any relation to the public interest. The original bargain of the Communications Act of 1934 was that in exchange for using the public airwaves, media companies have to divert some of their profits from the dumb stuff they sell towards news that actually serves the community. The regulations weren’t really strict, and there was never very stringent enforcement, but there were some standards, and the idea was that the media is not just a commercial enterprise.
In the eighties and nineties these regulations evaporated, starting with the Reagan Administration. We lost the Fairness Doctrine and the ban on televised editorials. That cleared the way for the news to become 100 percent business.
Some might also interpret the format of your book as an endorsement for the “platform” model of media content. Do you see this as a serious alternative to hyper-commercialization, or is it just a smaller version of the capitalist media?
It’s certainly better. The alternative to an advertising-driven model is having people pay directly for their content. That takes a lot of noise out of the content, and it takes a lot of pressure off of the people doing the reporting to conform to the standard that is going to get a lot of hits.
But the ideal for real investigative reporting has to be some kind of subsidy. The kind of reporting that is really beneficial just doesn’t pay. Historically we’ve seen this, going back to the days of the abolitionist writers who were able to benefit from free postage. If real reporting is not subsidized by the state, or from nonprofits like ProPublica, it’s usually been subsidized by the more profitable parts of a private company. We don’t have nearly any of this now, and you’re not going to be able to pay for a lot of serious exposés with a Patreon account.
Taking this back to Manufacturing Consent, figures like Chomsky have been outspoken critics of the structure of the media for a long time, and these ideas have been important for people on the Left. And since 1988, popular frustration with the media has become widespread. But it’s the Right that’s been most successful in capitalizing on this frustration politically. Could the Left replicate this? Is there a way to weaponize this anti-media sentiment in left-wing terms?
When I talked to Chomsky about this for the book, he expressed regrets that Manufacturing Consent had encouraged people on the Left to distrust the media. His point was that the press mostly tells the truth, but that this truth is narrowly constrained.
But I’m more concerned there’s a generation of people that consider themselves to be progressive who don’t understand this concept of an artificially narrowed reality. They look at the op-ed pages in the newspaper, and they see that there’s one side that’s pro-Kavanaugh and another side that’s anti-Kavanaugh. There’s a whole other world out there they’re not seeing. I wrote this book because I thought it would be great if they could see it. The Left could certainly use a reevaluation of how we see the news.
So far, though, it’s true that only the Right has been able to really make use of this political weapon. For a lot of Democratic strategists, the takeaway from Trump’s victory was that they needed someone who could manipulate the media as well as Trump does. But nobody’s as good at reality-show, pro-wrestling politics as Trump. He’s got absolutely no shame, and so he’s the perfect television product. So unless you find some complete psychopath who happens to have billions of dollars behind them, you’re not going to win like that.
You do see some work going on in the Bernie Sanders movement. One thing he’s been doing lately has been putting out testimonials of people who work at companies like Amazon and Disney, and they’ve had a big impact. This is our job. I know from speaking to Bernie that he’s been frustrated with the press for failing to bring to light the reality of day-to-day life under modern corporate practices.
In a way, Trump opened up some possibilities, demonstrating that the feedback structures in politics in the media didn’t work the way we thought they did.
I hope so. Trump gave us an opportunity to reevaluate our reporting practices during the campaign.
We helicopter in from city to city during the campaigns. We scrounge around for quotes we already know we want in advance about what candidates’ attitudes are. We only talk to campaign people most of the time. We cover campaigns the way we cover sports — if you’re ever around reporters during a debate, they love to talk about who dealt the knockout blow. We’re incredibly over-reliant on data journalism to tell us what the public mood is and what the public issues are.
It would be so much better if we did what Sanders is doing, spending time with actual people. We also need to end our reliance on polls. I just don’t know that we’re going to.
Manufacturing Consent was a valuable book for a whole generation of reporters, because it trained us to look beyond the artificial parameters. What I’m hoping to accomplish today is simply to raise awareness about the commercial aspects about what journalists do, and how that influences what we do.
Most journalists will tell you they got into the business because they watched All the President’s Men. They want to accomplish something important. We need to recognize we’re creating a product, and it’s a bad product.