Thursday, July 21, 2011

Commonplaces 3

I've noticed that Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, has been showing up frequently in my newsfeeds as of late. As I have found it almost unavoidably helpful in explaining current trends, I am glad to reread it.

Take the latter link, from Matt Taibbi, on the abandonment of the public option a few years ago:
There are some days when it almost seems like the national press is making a conscious effort to prove Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent gospel. If the national commercial media really did exist solely to perpetuate the attitudes of the political elite, and to create phony debates around unthreatening policy poles, endlessly pitting a conservative/reactionary status quo against an “acceptable” position of dissent — if that thesis were the absolute truth, then you’d see just what we’re seeing now in the coverage of the health care debate.
I like to think in Bayesian terms where I can. One of the remarkable things about Bayesian learning is that it can take place; we somehow formulate a few important hypotheses and focus on them, a process which has a formal, information-theoretic description. Naturally, even unconsciously, we acquire information which leads us to be confident in hypotheses before rigorous confirmation. It sometimes goes well, as with Einstein, and it sometimes goes badly, as with conspiratorial thinking.

This is mostly how propaganda and advertising function. Largely without our being aware, our choices are probabilistically yet strongly constrained by the features of our environment. By structuring media institutions in certain ways, governments and the powerful classes can shape public opinion, little to no outright censorship required. This idea is not original to Chomsky and Herman. Rather, it is a staple of the left-rationalist tradition exemplified by Russell, Orwell, and other giants. Take Orwell's preface to Animal Farm:
Any fairminded person with journalistic experience will admit that during this war official censorship has not been particularly irksome. We have not been subjected to the kind of totalitarian 'co-ordination' that it might have been reasonable to expect. The press has some justified grievances, but on the whole the Government has behaved well and has been surprisingly tolerant of minority opinions. The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news - things which on their own merits would get the big headlines - being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that 'it wouldn't do' to mention that particular fact. So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. The British press is extremely centralized, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is 'not done' to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was 'not done' to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.
I would go so far as to say that Chomsky's chief accomplishment in political writing has been in performing a rigorous, modern application of the ideas of Orwell and Russell. Since reading many of Orwell's essays and Russell's works, especially Free Thought and Official Propaganda, Justice in War-Time, and Political Ideals, I would even say that he is sloppy not to properly attribute these ideas more regularly.

Take the second link in this post:
The real argument about free speech lies elsewhere. It’s not just whether you get a platform, but how big yours is compared with other people’s. Free speech means little, though not nothing, if the opportunities for influencing opinion open to some – such as billionaire non-citizens domiciled in business class – makes those of others nanometrically small. The issue is not only that moguls like Murdoch and Berlusconi make clear to editors what it’s politic to print, that the titles are used as commercial platforms to hawk other products, and that these media safeguard their power by a code of omertà that buries news of their own felonies. It’s also that, as Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman pointed out long ago, the attempt to reach the ‘demographic’ sought by the advertisers who form the media’s staple revenue base means that content – including ‘news’ – is skewed towards the bland, upscale, aspirational. They engineer the public they purport to reflect.
The notes about what `free speech' must really be to be free appeared about 65 years before `long ago' in Russell's Free Thought and Official Propaganda. The manufacture of audiences by mere presentation of material has been understood for at least as long. Chomsky and Herman deserve credit for explicating a model which describes and captures these notions, but I wish Russell and Orwell received more love. For all their (mis)citation, I still suspect that they are rarely read.

For the above reasons, I think of the Chomsky/Herman propaganda model as an instance of the Russell/Orwell insights. And they do their job very well. Yes, it was published in 1988 and media have changed a lot since then, but it still remains quite powerful.1

What is the propaganda model? The idea is that media function as a filter which serves the interests of a narrow elite. This is not a conspiracy theory, as has been alleged*, and as I will discuss later. Rather, Manufacturing Consent establishes that ideological filtering exists, and it outlines how this filter functions.

Before entering into details, try to imagine some of the ways in which filtering may take place. The common sense examples which come to mind are the exact subject of Manufacturing Consent: conflicts of interest introduced by ownership - see Fox's coverage of the News of The World hacking scandal - and by advertisers. Access journalism is another example. If I recall correctly, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford was explicitly promised softball interviews in e-mails from journalists in exchange for exclusive access after his weird adventure in 2009. But this need not be so crude as the underlying understanding is quite obvious: if you really are a hard interviewer, you'll have more trouble getting the golden interviews. This process is supplemented by intentional leaks. Another constraint is social: journalists are showered with too many awards, developing a `working relationship' with those who they cover as they do so. And those juicy, high-level leaks? Usually, those merely reflect the quibbles of the powerful. The interplay here is very conscious and very obvious. A similar relationship is constructed by embedding journalists with troops. If the unit you are covering, which is full of nice guys who have protected you, commits an atrocity, do you report it?

Another idea of interest is concision, as explained in this excerpt of a horrifyingly campy documentary about Chomsky and Manufacturing Consent:
Suppose I get up on Nightline, say given, you know whatever it is, two minutes, and I say Gaddafi is a terrorist, Khomeini is a murderer, you know etc. etc. Uh, the Russians, you know, invaded Afghanistan, uh, all this sort of stuff. I don't need any evidence; everybody just nods. On the other hand, suppose you say something that just isn't regurgitating conventional pieties. Suppose you say something that's the least bit unexpected or controversial. [...] Well you know people will quite reasonably expect to know what you mean. Why did you say that? I've never heard that before. Uh, if you said that, you better have a reason. You know, better have some evidence. And in fact, you better have a lot of evidence, because that's a pretty startling comment. Uh, you can't give evidence if you're stuck with concision. You know that's the genius of this structural constraint. [Rough transcription and emphasis mine.]
This is made even more severe by another example which comes to mind and comes in for much popular abuse: the moronic `two sides' format of presentation adopted for any issue deemed to be controversial. Those issues approach for such `objective presentation' are also selected in accordance with propagandistic interests. Issues which should not be partisan, like `anthropogenic global warming exists', become automatically so. And if someone has a decent case to make, their time is further limited by the bleating moron on the other side of the screen. This format allows discreditable, dishonest notions free air time whenever it serves the correct interests. "We're not giving free propaganda time to corporations; we're merely presenting `the issue'." Note also where obligatory air-time is in fact obligatory; socialist-bashing requires no `other side' for the purposes of `balance'. Basic scientific facts like evolution, on the other hand...

We can keep listing major flaws in media. The tendency toward sensationalism is a perfect example, and I think it is a problem prior to media itself. Russell points out some of the reasons for this tendency in The Need for Political Scepticism (1923) in the context of political parties:
Wherever party politics exist, the appeal of a politician is primarily to a section, while his opponents appeal to an opposite section. His success depends upon turning his section into a majority. A measure which appeals to all sections equally will presumably be common ground between the parties, and will therefore be useless to the party politician. Consequently he concentrates attention upon those measures which are disliked by the section which forms the nucleus of his opponents' supporters.
So the focus of the American left on Michelle Bachmann and the focus of Michelle Bachmann on banning same-sex marriage make perfect sense. Media will tend to focus on issues which are divisive and do little to upset the balance of power. (So things everybody hates are not seriously addressed, expect perhaps with vague slogans.) Roe v. Wade, evolution, religious fanaticism, and gay marriage are ever-serviceable. I say this not to trivialize these issues, but to point out that their primary utility, up to the media, is ratings-generating controversy, while their primary utility, up to politicians, is in functioning according to electoral interest in the manner described by Russell. I think that many bloggers who traffic in such topics understand what they can do for ratings.

Sensationalism is fleeting by nature. Topics are interchangeable, so big topics tend to be unchangeable. The 24-hour news cycle helps: cable media are always looking to turn the pettiest issue into all-day coverage. So Anthony Weiner quickly replaces Libya and drone attacks in the news, and once the dust settles a wholly new topic has emerged. Even if substantial, critical coverage of power in the mainstream press rears its ugly head - and occasionally it does - it is quickly obscured by something less threatening. Wars, unlike Paris Hilton, do not make good fodder for the sort of sustained media campaign required to overcome an establishment consensus. Sensationalism also has the effect of selecting for public speakers who tend to say silly, dishonest, and divisive things. Are you a socially and fiscally economic conservative embarrassed by Bachmann? Why do you think that the camera loves her? Are you a left-leaning fellow who doesn't like to be associated with Michael Moore or Al Sharpton? With sensationalism, a looser tongue catches more coverage. A person born for the modern camera is devoid of humility; he speaks as much as possible, perhaps occasionally interrupting the stream of slogans with an absurd statement or bit of sharp rhetoric to generate attention.

Along with the aforementioned biases produced by pecuniary interest, cost-of-production is another major factor. I read somewhere, though I fail to recall the source, an article on the increasing reliance on opinion columns to attract readers. This is because the `mere smoke of opinion' - I found this gem of Thoreau's via Bill Moyers - is cheap to produce. There's no shortage of volunteers for the task. In-depth reportage is difficult to come by. Where factual reportage is undertaken, it is in the interest of the media to reduce the cost as much as is possible. In the internet age, this might be the regurgitation of internet stories, but advertisements designed to look like news (video news releases) also serve, as do the cheapest sources - handily provided by officials. The publicly subsidized story is cheaper to tell, after all. Journalists are actually instructed to prefer such official sources.

One might also notice that despite there being a tremendous number of outlets, big conglomerates own most of the media by impact. In particular, there is a set of outlets, called `agenda-setting', which sets the line of the day. It is not coincidental that thousands of papers across America manage to focus on roughly the same topics everyday. What is important is what is printed by major outlets, especially The Washington Post and The New York Times. As they represent the `established left', their function is also in boundary-setting: this is as `left' as `serious people' can be. With the rightward lurching of American politics, I wonder if this description is still accurate: Keynesianism a la Krugman has very little political capital, though it has some media representation. True, there have been stingy stimulus measures, but Keynesians have consistently objected to them as inadequate. But this area is in flux at the moment, and I imagine that eventually the Keynesians will eventually recover much of their former influence.

So before getting into the details of the propaganda model, I think we should already feel motivated to change the institution of media. I must admit that it plays to my prejudices, but I think these prejudices to be sound on inspection. I further think that they are obvious truths. Many of the complaints I have suggested are quite common. It is therefore interesting that the media, which purport to serve the public interest and to concern themselves primarily with informing and educating the electorate, have not taken fundamental measures to address these complaints so as to actually serve their stated purposes. Perhaps their function is not the high-minded, democratic one they imagine it to be. Maybe something else is in the way, some structural feature which well-intentioned individual journalists cannot overcome, something unresponsive to popular pressure and interests. To understand this is to move past the mostly accurate but woefully trite and incomplete criticisms of the Jon Stewart variety.

*Page citations which follow, unless otherwise noted, are from the linked edition of Manufacturing Consent.*

A propaganda model focuses on this inequality of wealth and power and its multilevel effects on mass-media interests and choices. It traces the routes by which money and power are about to filter out the news fit to print, marginalize dissent, and allow the government and dominant private interests to get their messages across to the public. The essential ingredients of our propaganda model, or set of news ``filters,'' fall under the following headings: (1) the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth, and profit orientation of the dominant mass-media firms; (2) advertising as the primary income source of the mass-media; (3) the reliance of the media on information provided by government, business, and ``experts'' funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power; (4) ``flak'' as a means of disciplining the media; and (5) ``anticommunism'' as a national religion and control mechanism. (p.2)
(5) may require some updating. Anticommunism and antisocialism are still national religions, but the key `other' these days are terrorists, very broadly conceived. Less `othery', market platitudes almost border on religious incantation, as do myths about our founding fathers.

A propaganda model of the media may be described as a power interest-oriented filtering process which is inherent to the structure of the media. Therefore we should expect a successful model to not require or rely on conspiracy theories in explaining common media behaviors; the workings of and evidence for such a model should be public knowledge.

Let's first look at the former item, the `internal logic' demanded by Bolkestein. Chomsky and Herman answer this with institutional analysis, which as employed is the conjunction of a description of the media and the expectation that the actors appearing in that description tend to act in their perceived interests and in the manner that they are educated to act, consciously and not. As Chomsky puts it to Andrew Marr: "[the agenda-setting media e.g. the New York Times] are big corporations selling privileged audiences to other corporations. Now the question is: what picture of the world would a rational person expect to come out of this structure?"

Something should be said about what we should not expect as well. Given the propaganda model, we might expect that the elite healthcare debate would have been broader than it has turned out to be. Cheap healthcare as provided by a public option or universal system e.g. single payer are well-within the spectrum of elite interest. And since such systems are cheaper and would help to contain the rising cost of healthcare, they should lie within the spectrum of business interest. The fact that the system is unsustainable should be still more of a spur. Yet that is the actual story: insurance companies, pharmaceuticals, and the financial sector dominate the lobbies and keep the system private, but some opening is provided by the fact that companies like GM suffer under our system. And that opening is fairly recent, despite decades of popular concern. The restriction of what little opening there is, as lamented by Taibbi, also follows the model: overwhelmingly, commentators fell in line with the two parties as lines were drawn.

Now what is it that we expect given the model? The important evidence is comparative: qualitatively similar events should receive differing coverage if elite interests diverge. For example, victims of enemy regimes are `worthy', while victims of friendly regimes are `unworthy'. Focusing on one aspect of the coverage, to the exclusion of the other, would fail to contrast the propaganda model against the conventional view that the media are the faithful servants of the popular good.
In sum, a propaganda approach to media coverage suggests a systematic and highly political dichotomization in news coverage based on serviceability to important domestic power interests. This should be observable in dichotomized choices of story and in the volume and quality of coverage. (p.35)
These examples comprise the bulk of the book, the notes, and the citations. By chapter, they are (2) worthy and unworthy victims; (3) legitimizing versus meaningless elections; (4) the KGB-Bulgarian plot to kill the Pope/market disinformation; (5) Vietnam; and (6) Laos and Cambodia.

A `worthy victim' is Jerzy Popieluszko, a Solidarity leader in Poland (p.42). His murder by Polish secret police was carefully and extensively reported, reporting accompanied by cries for justice, particularly at the highest levels of governance (pp.42-3). To contrast, Archbishop Romero was an `unworthy victim'. Coverage was relatively sparse; his murder was attributed to `extreme' right-wing forces - not the U.S.-supported government which was actually responsible; his legacy was misrepresented; responsibility for his death was not to be found at high levels (pp.48-59). `Legitimate elections' are those which get the `right' result, such as El Salvador (1982), where turnout was forced and voting was supervised by military forces. `Meaningless elections' are those which get the `wrong' result, such as the relatively free election of the Sandanistas in Nicaragua (1984). The former are triumphs of young democracy, whereas the latter are unfortunate shams which would be anti-democratic to respect. High voter turnout, proof of legitimacy in the former, is a hollow number in the latter, and possible coercion becomes a bigger concern (pp.121-3). In the case of the Nicaraguan election, we have also a case of likely case of false leaking: on election night, a story broke claiming that a freighter of MIGs was bound for Nicaragua. Correction invited no retrospection (p.137). The fourth chapter seems strange to me: I am too young to remember any `KGB-Bulgarian' plot about the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II. There are allegations by ex-CIA after the publication of Manufacturing Consent, namely Melvin A. Goodman and Harold Ford, that pressure was placed on the CIA to claim that the assassination was ordered or insinuated by the KGB (p.xxvii). But even without this revelation, the allegations of a KGB plot are bizarre on their face. This case is clear-cut, but it feels out of place.2 The retrospective on media involvement in the Vietnam war is more important. I think all adult Americans have heard it:
``For the first time in history," Robert Elegant writes, "the outcome of a war was determined not in the battlefield, but on the printed page, and above all, on the television screen," leading to the defeat of the United States in Vietnam. The belief that the media, particularly television, were responsible for U.S. government failures is widely expressed. (p.170)
Interestingly, the debate takes place over whether or not the media are unpatriotic, or merely `unmindful' (p.171), just as debates over Vietnam center over tactics. That the US mission was a catastrophic and immoral invasion of a small country seeking self-determination naturally does not emerge. At worst, Vietnam is a mistake, tragic but well-intended (pp.172-3). That's the nature of the post-Vietnam debate. I hope I need not explain how the media covered the war as it unfolded.3

Chomsky and Herman do not claim that the filtering is perfect and admit that on occasion, something of substance gets through (p.306). But the way in which it gets through is important. A recent example would be the 2005 revelation of the NSA wiretapping/SWIFT monitoring programs by the New York Times, a leak which was withheld by NYT for a year for excellent NYT reasons: Bush asked them not to publish it. And this is no outlier; it is the product of a sentiment which has become more explicit with the arrival of Wikileaks - an actual oppositional organization working for transparency - where `responsible journalism' means uncritical deference to the suggestions and demands of officials. The ongoing media reaction to Wikileaks is propaganda model par excellence.

What about the canonical example of disputatious, truth-to-power journalism, Watergate?
History has been kind enough to contrive for us a ``controlled experiment'' to determine just what was at stake during the Watergate period, when the confrontational stance of the media reached its peak. The answer is clear and precise: powerful groups are capable of defending themselves, not surprisingly; and by media standards, it is a scandal when their position and rights are threatened. By contrast, as long as illegalities and violations of democratic substance are confined to marginal groups or distant victims of U.S. military attack, or result in a diffused cost imposed on the general population, media opposition is muted or absent altogether. (p.300)
The major scandal of Watergate as portrayed in the mainstream press was that the Nixon administration sent a collection of petty criminals to break into the Democratic party headquarters, for reasons that remain obscure. The Democratic party represents powerful domestic interests, solidly based in the business community. Nixon's action is therefore a scandal. The Socialist Workers party, a legal political party, represents no powerful interests. Therefore, there was no scandal when it was revealed, just as passions over Watergate reached their zenith, that the FBI had been disrupting its activities by illegal break-ins and other measures for a decade, a violation of democratic principle far more extensive and serious than anything charged during the Watergate hearings. What is more, these actions of the national political police were only one element of government programs extending over many administrations to deter independent political action, stir up violence in the ghettos, and undermine the popular movements that were beginning to engage sectors of the generally marginalized public in the arena of decision-making. These covert and illegal programs were revealed in court cases and elsewhere during the Watergate period, but they never entered the congressional proceedings and received only limited media attention. Even the complicity of the FBI in the police assassination of a Black Panther organizer in Chicago was not a scandal, in marked contrast to Nixon's ``enemies list,'' which identified powerful people who were denigrated in private but suffered no consequences. (pp.299-300)
The coverage of Watergate, as compared with COINTELPRO, is a perfect example of the model in action. The press may be adversarial in pursuing corruption which hurts elites and publicizing sleaze stories and still function well-within the boundaries of the model; in fact, this is often what the model predicts.

Other objections are addressed throughout the book, and the major ones - apart from those concerning new technology - were all anticipated in 1988. A precis of the arguments and their refutations is provided by Herman's retrospective, which again was published in 2003. But it might have been published today:
In the health insurance controversy of 1992-1993, the media's refusal to take the single-payer option seriously, despite apparent widespread public support and the effectiveness of the system in Canada, served well the interests of the insurance and medical service complex (Canham-Clyne 1994). The uncritical media reporting and commentary on the alleged urgency of fiscal restraint and a balanced budget in the years 1992-1996 fit well the business community's desire to reduce the social budget and weaken regulation. The applicability of the propaganda model in these and other cases, including the 'drug wars,' seems clear (Chomsky 1991: 114-21).
I think this is more than enough said. Now you too can enjoy watching reasonable opinions and proposals die under neglect and dismissal and watch this story be told how it should be, as tragic, as told by the alternative press you now read because you're tired of cable.

*Note: I cannot find the full Chomsky-Bolkestein debate, try as I have.

1. The linked edition has a lengthy introduction dating from 2002, which addresses the effects of the internet, among other things. Edward S. Herman wrote a retrospective in 2003, available here.

2. A brief overview: In claiming that the pope's would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, was a hired hand of the Bulgarians of the KGB, the reported motive was as follows: "the preeminent motive in the assassination attempt was a Soviet desire to weaken NATO, to be accomplished by implicating a Turk in the assassination of the pope" (p.146). After seventeen months in an Italian prison, Agca, the would-be assassin of Turkist Fascist beliefs - a member of the rightest `Gray Wolves', confessed to the desired account. The fact that Agca is a nationalist was treated as proof that the KGB are clever at covering their tracks (p.147). The facts that Agca had threatened to kill the pope in 1979 (p.148), that he was a committed Fascist (p.148), that the KGB plot failed to take care of Agca after the attempt (p.147), that Agca's travel through Bulgaria was standard Gray Wolf procedure due to ease of secrecy (p.149), that he had acquired the weapon through convoluted right-wing networks free from KGB-Bulgarian oversight (p.149), and that the KGB-Bulgarian conspirators managed to be - as bad conspiracy theories tend to require - a strange mixture of competent and incompetent were ignored.
The trial in Rome was awkward for the Western media, as Agca quickly declared himself to be Jesus and, more important, failed to produce any supportive evidence backing up his claims of Bulgarian involvement. The diligent and extensive court investigation found numerous Gray Wolves linked to Agca in the period just up to his assassination attempt, but no witness to his (allegedly) numerous meetings with Bulgarians in Rome, no money, no car, and, in the end, no conviction. (p.166)
There is also evidence of pressuring during Agca's prison term (pp.164-6).

3. In this article, Chomsky makes a passing comment which doesn't fly: "1984 is so popular because it's trivial and it attacks our enemies. If Orwell had dealt with a different problem-- ourselves--his book wouldn't have been so popular. In fact, it probably wouldn't have been published." And it does not fly for the same comparative reasons employed in his propaganda model: the now-gone vogue of Burnham's The Managerial Revolution is one example, and more closely still, Huxley's assault on consumerism in Brave New World is strangely popular and similarly instructed in our schools. The reception of 1984, along with Orwell's other works and Orwell as a person, also undermines this casual explanation. Few other writers come in for so much unjust maligning, particularly from the established left but even within the dissident left. Chomsky is as far as I know an exception in admiring Orwell. (The right, on the other hand, simply reworks Orwell as a neoconservative and praises him as such.)

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