Manufacturing Consent in the 21st Century: the MSM and US Foreign Policy

Article written by: Hugo Neves

“Why does a dog wag its tail? Because a dog is smarter than its tail. If the tail were smarter, the tail would wag the dog”. (Wag the Dog)

Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, first published in 1988, is a book about the role of mass media, or mainstream media (MSM) in the public’s perception of US foreign policy. Its authors explore the main characteristics of what they define as a “propaganda model” [1] of liberal democracies that are subject to forces of the free market and interest groups, in contrast to the classic propaganda model controlled by states with authoritarian governments. The book reflects influences from Marxist and anarchist philosophies, both for their skepticism towards the main US institutions, and for pointing out structural problems to a society permeated by an ideology and a political and economic system to which they are opposed — neoliberalism and capitalism. Regardless of its reader’s ideology, this is a seminal work for a better understanding of the unequivocal weight of media in the functioning and maintenance of democratic societies.

Chomsky and Herman argue that there is a strong link between the concentration of power in the private sector, in “transnational corporate empires” that own the largest channels of communication, and the Government, financial institutions and interest groups. Hence, they identify 5 “editorial distortion filters” in the MSM political economy: the size of the dominant organizations, their number and their natural inclination towards maximizing profit; ads as the main source of revenue; privileged access to government-related information sources; self-censorship and the echo chamber effect; anti-communism/war on terrorism, common enemies. The influence of these filters will be examined briefly in this article, which will focus on the “CNN effect” in US foreign policy, in the context of an exponential complexification of information technologies, namely the internet, from 1988 to 2020. This analysis will be based on the news coverage of the military interventions in Iraq (2003) and Libya (2011).

In the case of Iraq, after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack, the uncritical coverage of Government’s foreign policy by MSM fostered greater acceptance of participation in the war. In 2003, Robert S. Muller, director of the FBI between 2001 and 2013 and responsible for investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, declared to the Senate Intelligence Committee that there was evidence that Saddam Hussein developed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), which would later be found to be false, as was the legality of the NSA surveillance program in 2013. Susan Rice, United Nations ambassador and US National Security Advisor in Barack Obama’s later administration, also supported the intervention, which would be passed by Senate vote, with votes in favor by Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. During the intervention, the MSM covered the events on the ground, with the condition that they only do so “embedded” in the American army, following a protocol. In addition, the viewers’ perception of the collapse of a statue of Hussein exemplified the creation of a symbolic moment that was out of context in its presentation. On the other hand, Al Jazeera had become the main information channel critical of the intervention, in contrast to the American media’s “echo chamber” – the documentary Control Room explores this subject in detail.

Similarly, in the case of NATO’s intervention in Libya, justified by the need to stop military attacks on civilians who were demonstrating peacefully against the Government by Muammar al-Gaddafi and the consequent possibility of destabilizing the region, the US media coverage supported a limited intervention, which excluded then less popular deployment of american troops on the ground. After the capture and death of the Libyan leader at the hands of Islamic rebels supported by the international coalition, transmitted by the MSM, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commented: “we came, we saw, he died“. Today, media coverage of a politically fractured country in continuous Civil War is scarce, where slave markets and terrorist groups like ISIS have spread, similarly to what happened in Iraq; in addition to having suffered a drop in GDP and in the HDI ranking since then. With this, it can be concluded that, contrary to the positive expectations of the MSM, the intervention that Barack Obama named his “worst mistake” and that marked the first time that the United Nations Security Council explicitly determined the use of force against a state to prevent imminent atrocity, resulted in a period of profound destabilization and political instability in Libya.

Regarding the public relations role of NATO’s intervention in Libya, for Riley [2] (2015, p 36): “Research by Alan Kuperman and John Gentry, both noted scholars of intervention policies and norms, suggests that accusations of atrocities highlighting civilian civilian casualties have been commonly used by non-state actors to spur military intervention”. Riley (2015, p 37) identifies 5 categories of evidence that are inconsistent with the conventional narrative attributed to the intervention in Libya: “(1) the protests were not spontaneous and had heavy Islamist influence; (2) the protests were initially violent; (3) actual victim rate was significantly lower than initially reported; (4) a high ratio of male to female/child victims suggests that the most casualties were caused by fighting, not regime-commited atrocities; and (5) the regime used less-than-lethal riot control measures, even after the revolt turned violent ”. For Lieffers [3] (2014, p 47): “Indeed, conceptual work on public relations illuminates the ways international institutions and their communication practitioners act as cultural brokers to engage multiple audiences and shape public debate”.

Regarding media’s effect on public opinion, according to Dimaggio [5] (2009, p 77): ” (…) the systematic denial of alternative interpretations for American motives does constitute a serious impediment to efforts at achieving more balanced reporting and informed public debate” .

In a more recent update of the concepts outlined in Chomsky and Herman’s theory, Attkisson [4] wrote about some of the problems faced by reporters during the Obama and Trump administrations (2008 to 2020). In the case of the second president, Attkisson argues that the coverage of MSM has become distinctly more critical of the Government compared to its predecessor, with the exception of some of his military actions, while the topic of spreading “fake news” began to stand out in the media and academic sphere. The lack of impartiality in journalistic conduct was joined by an uproar of rumors propagated on social networks and independent news media that are not subject to the same editorial control. The need for greater speed in publications due to commercial competition with the new digital media has made MSM’s political economy less judicious, while the alternative of independent journalism is accused of contributing to the public’s “disinformation” and “misinformation“.

In conclusion, given the recent discussion in the US Senate about the size and influence of companies that dominate Internet speech (Google, Facebook, Twitter), which due to their global reach can be considered actors in the International System, they may be suject to limitations from the antitrust laws. For different reasons, Republicans and Democrats are suspicious of the repercussions of Big Tech’s influence on public discourse, reinforced by their monopolization of the important digital market. Bearing in mind that the number of news organizations in the US has decreased, from 50 corporations in 1988 to 6 in 2020, access to independent information and without the mentioned Chomsky and Hermann filters appears to be even more relevant. Despite the difficulty in selecting information, the internet was one of the most influential inventions for the international dissemination of democratic ideals, in addition to reinforcing an increasingly less controlled access to political information and providing easier ways of sharing knowledge among citizens.

[1] Chomsky, Noam; Hermann, Edward. (2002). Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon Book.

[2] Riley, William S. (2015). Deceived to Intervene: Non-State Actors’ Use of Deception to Elicit Western Intervention in Libya in 2011. American Intelligence Journal, Volume 32, Number 2. Cullen: National Military Intelligence Association.

[3] Lieffers, Emily. (2014). “We answered the call”: Strategic Narrative in NATO’s Public Diplomacy for Operation Unified Protector. Ottawa: Carlton University.

[4] Attkisson, Sharryl (2020). Slanted: How the News Media Taught Us to Love Censorship and Hate Journalism. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

[5] Dimaggio, Anthony R. (2009). Mass Media, Mass Propaganda. Lanham: Lexington Books.

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