Manufacturing Consent: Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain
In 1921, Walter Lippmann asserted in his Public Opinion that "common interests elude the public" and have to be the "domain of a specialized class." In Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky argues that the role of the media within a democratic society is to provide unbiased information, allowing the public to assert meaningful control over politics, and that free access to information is therefore essential. Yet the nations media--the one business explicitly protected by the Constitution--has become subject to more and more abuses of power, as it has been bought out by the powerful: in 1982, out of 1,787 daily newspapers, 11,000 magazines, 9,000 radio stations, 1,000 TV stations, and 2,500 book publishers, no more than 50 corporations owned most of the business in each medium. By 1992, mergers, acquisitions, buyouts, and hostile takeovers had reduced that number 23; by 1993 it had dropped to 20; and by 1999, it had dropped to five. Time-Warner is one of those five, and just this week AOL announced plans to acquire Time-Warner in a move that would create a corporation worth $350 billion. The announcement again brings to the forefront Chomsky's argument that this far-reaching corporate influence is being used to produce propaganda to reduce the public to apathy. AOL spoke of the "endless possibilities" that would result from the marriage, but it is hard to see what else could be added to the seemingly endless stream of "entertainment" and information already thrown in our faces.
Chomsky indicates some of the ways in which the media manufactures consent: first, they select which topics they'd like to cover, then provide emphasis on those topics sufficient to hoodwink most people into thinking that they are relevant. For example, consider what happened with "Zippergate," or the O.J. trial, alongside the "accidental" bombing of a foreign embassy and the United States twenty-five year complicity in human rights abuses in East Timor. In presentation of these non-topics the media frame the issues carefully (consider stories about the homeless problem--usually with the subdued implication that its bothersome to have the homeless around, ignoring the fact that it must be bothersome to be homeless). The media then bounds any debate in such a way that dissenting opinions are either not heard at all or are edited so heavily as to sound completely crackers.
Chomsky is careful to separate all of this activity from notions of "conspiracy"--since the corporations involved do all freely admit their goal of turning a huge profit, Chomsky asserts that accusations of a "conspiracy theory" are used solely to discourage institutional analysis.
A fine theory, you say. But ultimately bullshit.
Studs Terkel, in his documentary Fear and Favor in the Newsroom, presents the story of Bill Kovach, an executive editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution hired to improve the paper's reputation for weak journalism. Kovach gave his permission to journalist Bill Dedman to do a story on race bias in bank lending. Dedman wrote a Pulitzer-winning series of stories showing that Atlanta banks turned down black mortgage applicants at five times the rate as white applicants. But then the bank articles came up in a board meeting of Atlanta newspapers. Some members of the board, who did business with the banks, did not like the articles. Nonetheless Kovach gave his journalists permission to write articles about Coca-Colas grand jury investigation for criminal activity. Ann Cox-Chambers--a member of the board of the newspaper, also a member of the board of Coca-Cola, also the owner of Cox Cable and one of the ten richest Americans (along with her sister)--owned Cox newspapers. A very short time later, Bill Kovach resigned. He did not give a reason for his resignation and refused to talk to the filmmakers.
The journalists at the newspaper were stunned and disheartened. They took out an ad in the paper calling for Kovachs return, and met with the publisher to try to get him to entice Kovach back. The publisher insisted that they were not "trying to turn the Atlanta Journal-Constitution into the USA Today." They then replaced Kovach with Ron Martin--the former executive editor of USA Today. Martin ran several articles about Coca-Cola that sounded strikingly similar to P.R. In 1994, after the chairman of Coke gave a speech to business leaders on the Olympics, the story received front page coverage and was reprinted over the next five days, complete with praise in two different columns and an editorial.
Examples of this conflict of interest abound. NBC shares board members with JP Morgan & Co., General Mills, Goodyear Tires, Kimberly-Clark, and R.H. Macy. CBS shares board members with Arco, Amoco, Chase Manhattan, 1st National Bank, Chicago, and NY Life Insurance. The New York Times shares board members with IBM, Bristol Meyers, NY Life Insurance, Phelps Dodge, and Texaco. The Chicago Tribune shares board members with Allstate, Commonwealth Edison, and Corning.
GE owns NBC and co-owns MSNBC with Microsoft; it also controls many nuclear power plants, electrical power plants, insurance firms, and financial groups. As a result, there is a built-in conflict of interest and any reporter who has not yet achieved sainthood would think twice about writing a story that would piss off his bosss boss. Many would argue that it does not even matter which corporate newspaper a reporter works for, as the one unifying interest of the very rich seems to be ensuring that they remain very rich.
A little-known fact is that newspapers get 75% of their revenue from ads (as compared to 100% for broadcasters). After the San Jose Mercury News ran an article on auto dealers exorbitant profit margins, local dealers withdrew 52 pages of ads. The News ran a full-page ad listing the top ten reasons to buy cars from authorized dealers. Most dealerships then resumed advertising with the paper. That the Mercury News bowed to business pressure is infuriating to some, but to many others it is not surprising given the newspapers status as a business.
Lawrence Grossman, the former president of NBC News, states that GE does influence NBCs reporting, although the management of GE is much too intelligent to come forward giving specifics about which stories can not be covered. Nonetheless, "an atmosphere is generated in which rebels, unconventional thinking, those who do not operate comfortably within a corporate environment tend to be discouraged." Many editors, mindful of their own jobs, try to divert their reporters from sensitive topics. Sydney Schanberg, Pulitzer Prize winner and ex-reporter for the New York Times, says that one common distracter that editors use is to say that they dont think anyone is interested in hearing about the story. Yet occasionally a reporter will insist on covering a certain subject anyway. Frances Cerra wrote many investigative articles for the New York Times about underhanded insurance practices throughout the industry. Cerra states that she was eventually called in to see the Assistant Editor, who started the conversation with "I see you have an interest in insurance." Lest she miss any subtleties in the statement, Cerra was informed she should write more "News You Can Use" pieces (i.e., on where to get a bargain on caviar) and was reassigned to Long Island.
Long Island happened to be where LILCO, the Long Island Lighting Co., was building its Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant. Cerra wrote dozens of articles about the plant, covering both its supporters and opponents. In 1982, Cerras editors asked her to write an update on the plant itself--Cerra did, discovering in the process that LILCO had misspent so much of its capital that the company was nearing bankruptcy. Cerra's editor said that she was "biased about the issue" and that they couldnt run the story, as "it would affect LILCOs stock." On insisting that it was an important story and should be printed anyway, Cerra was again reassigned. Later a jury found LILCO guilty of violating racketeering laws, and the Shoreham plant was sold to the state of New York for one dollar ($1.00) to settle the suit. The state then granted LILCO $3.5 billion in rate increases, which were passed on to the consumers. A year later, Cerra resigned from the New York Times.
Peter Gramlin, a journalist for the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour, covered a proposed radioactive waste dump in Needles, CA. The segment he recorded detailing whether the storage would be above ground or underground, in lined or unlined pits, and whether there would be any technology to contain the waste--was deleted without his consent. Also deleted was a section detailing leaks at other facilities, including ones run by USEcology, which would run the proposed site. As a result, the residents concerns had no context whatsoever and they appeared to be nothing more than a group of hysterical flat-earthers.
After running articles about municipal corruption in New York, Schanberg was removed from his position and given a twice-weekly column instead. He wrote a number of hard-hitting columns, including one on how a new local Cajun restaurant was front-page news, but the scandals surrounding the Westway Project (a proposed multi-billion dollar subway in Manhattan) had gotten no coverage. The Westway project had been endorsed by the governor, the mayor, several senators, and the New York Times, and would have been extremely lucrative for local real estate developers. But the project was cancelled; and so was Schanbergs column.
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting conducted a 40-month survey of Nightline. Of 865 programs--1,530 guests--92% percent white; 89% were male; and 80% were professionals, government officials or corporate representatives. A six-month study of PBS's NewsHour found its guest list to be 90% white and 87% male. Media Beat reports that the guest list was "full of think-tank experts from conservative, corporate-funded outfits--in particular, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the American Enterprise Institute, which had 14 appearances between them. In contrast, analysts from various progressive think tanks never appeared."
Yet anecdotes and studies are one thing; controlled experiments are quite another.
In 1975 East Timor was one of the last surviving ancient civilizations, having 700,000 people speaking 30 different languages and dialects, living in an egalitarian and self-reliant society outside the global economy. In August 1975, there was a civil war; and though East Timor was a Portuguese colony and Indonesia had no claim to it, Indonesia chose to intervene (read: invade). Ford and Kissinger visited Jakarta on December 5, 1975, and asked Indonesia to delay the invasion until after they left. They left on December 7--and a few hours later Indonesia invaded. The United States provided 90% of the arms used; U.S. shipments were increased after the invasion; and in 1978, when Indonesian forces starting running out of arms, the Carter administration increased arms sales again.
Church authorities estimate that 200,000 people had been killed by 1978. Indonesians killed children, babies, and the educated, and kidnapped the women and flew them out of the country. In 1978 the atrocities reached their peak while, in the United States and Canada, coverage of them dropped to zero.
At exactly the same time, the media was frenzied over the atrocities in Cambodia. From 1970 to 1975 the United States was directly responsible for extensive atrocities in Cambodia. The early 1970s bombings peaked in 1973 and extended to 1975; the CIA estimates that 600,000 were killed through U.S. and U.S.-sponsored war efforts. U.S. officials predicted that approximately another million people would die as a result of the conditions Cambodia was left in. The bombings played a key part in building peasant support for the Khmer Rouge. The media knew about these atrocities, but chose not to investigate them any further. Several thousand people were killed within a few weeks of the Khmer Rouge takeover--then the media chose to report on Cambodia: the New York Times accused the Khmer Rouge of "genocidal policies"; Newsweek, Time, and the Washington Post parroted the sentiments, and Readers Digest printed a piece entitled "Murder in a Gentle Land"--indicating that the U.S. bombings before 1975 were devastatingly peaceful. All in all, in 1975 The New York Times devoted 70 column inches to East Timor, where the U.S. was constantly involved. The New York Times devoted 1,175 column inches to Cambodia, once the U.S. was not involved.
Since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, two U.S. nuclear power plants have lost electrical power. The Nuclear Regulatory Committee ranks loss of power in seriousness as just below core meltdown--what happened in Chernobyl in 1986. The Union of Concerned Scientists asserts that over 90% of the risk of a major accident comes from the loss of electrical power. Yet CBS was the only station to report on either of these power losses, saying only, "In Oswego, New York officials at a nuclear power plant declared the second-highest state of emergency after an alarm system broke down. There was no release of radiation. In Berlin...."
Admiral Eugene Carroll, retired, of the U.S. Navy, reports that although much was made of our so-called "smart" weapons during the war in Iraq, only 7% the weapons could in fact be aimed with any accuracy, and that even those weapons of course did not have 100% accuracy. An international medical team reported that approximately 175,000 Iraqi children would die as a result of the war--much more than even the wildest estimate of the number of Iraqi soldiers killed in combat. Meanwhile, the corporate media was drunk with sound bites and reports on parades.
Most media were willing to accept the information the government gave them without any further questions. The military, with Presidential support, played an active part in restricting the access of those few venues interested in more information--even going so far as to refuse to allow pictures to be taken of the bodies of soldiers returning home. Schanberg suspected this decision had very little to do with national security--and very much to do with politics. Schanberg, E.L. Doctorow, William Styron, Michael Klane, Scott Armstrong, The Nation Magazine, Harpers Magazine, In These Times, Pacific News Service, Mother Jones Magazine, L.A. Weekly, The Village Voice, The Texas Observer, and Pacifica Radio News filed a joint suit against the U.S. Department of Defense, Richard Cheney (Sec. of Defense), Pete Williams (Asst. Sec. of Defense), Gen. Colin Powell, and George H. Bush for violations of Constitutional freedom of speech. Not only did every major news organization including The New York Times, PBS, ABC, and CNN refuse to join the suit, they all also refused to cover the story.
Project Censored, in a story from May 1992, sheds some light on this peculiarity: "In the past decade, the Reagan/Bush administrations gave print and electronic media owners in America permission to create giant, monopolistic media empires. In return, the media looked the other way while the administrations committed high crimes and misdemeanors and then lied about it."
In the corporate media, much has been made of the "rampant vandalism" and "looting" that took place during the WTO protest in Seattle. Yet out of 1,000 charges filed in relation to the WTO, only six individuals have actually been charged with the felony crime of property destruction. About three dozen of the 1,000 people made deals to avoid prosecution, and out of the remaining cases, all but 40 had been dropped. In reporting on the WTO protests effect on "World News Tonight," ABC correspondent Brian Rooney made a telling slip: "The meeting of the World Trade Organization was a turning point for the so-called independent media--small, partisan news organizations and individual reporters with political opinions they could never express in the mainstream media." Apparently its no secret to the corporate media what they are doing. They just want it to be a secret to you.
You can visit
Project Censored at http://www.projectcensored,org/
You can log onto Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting at http://www.fair.org/
The videos Fear and Favor in the Newsroom, Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, Justice for Sale, and The High Cost of Free Speech are all available at The Civic Media Center, located at 1021 W. Univ. Ave, (352) 373-0010.
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