Manufacturing Consent (Part II): The Media’s Servitude

“If, however, the powerful are able to fix the premises of discourse, to decide what the general populace is allowed  to  see,  hear  and  think  about,  and  to  ‘manage’  public  opinion by regular propaganda campaigns, the standard view of how the system works is at serious odds with reality”

Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media

The book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Edward S. Hermann and Noam Chomsky celebrates 32 years of existence in 2020.

The mass media are typically seen as independent from the power structure and free from propaganda and manipulation in liberal and democratic societies, in contrast with totalitarian regimes, where the mass media submit to the will of the state. Hermann and Chomsky show a different perspective, bringing it to the fore with various examples along the book: the mass media, owned by megacorporations, have a strong connection with governments, financial institutions and interest groups, serving the political, economic and social interests that these have in common. The “propaganda model” that this book illustrates explains how the content of the mass media is “filtered”, establishing what is and what isn’t newsworthy according to the interests of the elite, fabricating a “reality” – hence the statement that the consent of the masses is manufactured. This perspective breaks with the idea that is prevalent in democratic societies, that the mass media are an actor that counterbalances the elites’ abuse of power.

The book emphasizes the key power dimensions of the elite over the mass media, demonstrating how these are constrained.

The “filters” which are part of the “propaganda model are as follows:

  1. The size of corporations that hold the mass media, the tendency towards concentrated ownership (leading to oligopolies) and the primary interest in maximizing profit;
  2. The dependence and complicity between the mass media and government-linked sources of information;
  3. “Flak” – means to orient information in such a way that it favors the interests of the elites, “self-censorship”;
  4. The creation of a common enemy which, depending on the era, may have different faces. In the book’s first edition, “anticommunism” was the 5th filter; in following versions, authors considered other “common enemies”.

Taking into account the aforementioned filters, this article will underline three moments where the hypothesis which is presented in Manufacturing Consent – the servitude of the mass media to the elites. Thus, we explore the application of the “propaganda model” to present-day examples, verifying its capability.

Let’s discuss first the study by the Harvard Kennedy School regarding the evolution of the language used to describe acts of torture perpetrated by the United States of America, specifically waterboarding [1][2]. The way in which the four major newspapers in the US reported and discussed waterboarding in the last 100 years was addressed, as it was referred to as torture so long as the US government also did. When the US government stopped describing this technique as torture, newspapers also followed suit.[3]

The current debate over waterboarding has spawned hundreds of newspaper articles in the last two years alone. However, waterboarding has been the subject of press attention for over a century. Examining the four newspapers with the highest daily circulation in the country, we found a significant and sudden shift in how newspapers characterized waterboarding. From the early 1930s until the modern story broke in 2004, the newspapers that covered waterboarding almost uniformly called the practice torture or implied it was torture: The New York Times characterized it thus in 81.5% (44 of 54) of articles on the subject and The Los Angeles Times did so in 96.3% of articles (26 of 27). By contrast, from 2002-2008, the studied newspapers almost never referred to waterboarding as torture. The New York Times called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just 2 of 143 articles (1.4%). The Los Angeles Times did so in 4.8% of articles (3 of 63). The Wall Street journal characterized the practice as torture in just 1 of 63 articles (1.6%). USA Today never called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture.

In the article written by Glenn Greenwald, a Pulitzer prize winning journalist, for Salon, the author states that the study shows that these newspapers are, however, much more likely to refer to waterboarding as “torture when other nations resort to the technique, refraining from using it when it is practiced by the USA:

In addition, the newspapers are much more likely to call waterboarding torture if a country other than the United States is the perpetrator. In The New York Times, 85.8% of articles (28 of 33) that dealt with a country other than the United States using waterboarding called it torture or implied it was torture while only 7.69% (16 of 208) did so when the United States was responsible. The Los Angeles Times characterized the practice as torture in 91.3% of articles (21 of 23) when another country was the violator, but in only 11.4% of articles (9 of 79) when the United States was the perpetrator.[4]

The dissonance between reporting waterboarding as torture when perpetrated by other nations, but reporting without calling it such when the perpetrator are the US shows us clearly that there is a complicity between these 4 major newspapers and the US government, which illustrates the “filtering” that is described in Manufacturing Consent. Hermann and Chomsky argue that it’s this type of interference that changes the way the population thinks relative to a certain topic.

Another relevant and present-day example illustrates how the collection of information by large corporations such as Facebook or Google may interfere with elections – as took place with the German elections.

As reported in Bloomberg Businessweek[5], an American company that worked for individuals such as Trump, Le Pen and Netanyahu was involved with the Facebook office in Berlin to gather information on the German electorate, targeting ads from their client to the voters that presented themselves as more likely to vote for them – the Alternative für Deutschland, a far right party in Germany, which thus expected to gain seats in parliament, being the first far-right party to do so since the end of World War II. This operation that was undertaken in the digital world manipulated voters on the eve of an important election, making use of the information that Facebook collected from its users.

“The day before the election, drinking espresso at a café near the Berlin Zoo, Canter explained how he used the AfD’s 300,000 Facebook likes to target millions of other Germans who might be receptive to the party’s message. ‘We took that 300,000, and Facebook created a model of them and used their lookalike audiences to find the closest 1 percent of German people to match that audience,” he said. That process generated a new group of 310,000 people who were most similar to AfD fans.’ ” [6]

The second filter of the “propaganda model” heightens the relevance of advertisements as revenue sources, since companies such as Facebook or Google sell information they gather from their users to advertising companies, so that these may target their ads to fit each user[7]. An example of this technique are “cookies”, an abundantly used tool on the internet.

In the previous example, we see the media circus surrounding the USA’s exit from the Paris Agreement, knowing that climate change were a topic that many media platforms in the US chose not to address in their interviews to Donald Trump, before he was elected president.

According to, apart from 2 interviews by the Washington Post and the New York Times, in most of the interviews by the remaining newspapers (including other interviews by the aforementioned newspapers) during Trump’s campaign period, he was never questioned about his perspective regarding climate change. In the electoral debate, these questions were also not addressed to either Trump or Hillary Clinton. [8] Up to June 1, 2017, when the US announced their exit from the Paris Agreement[9], they seem to have chosen to ignore the question of climate change.

Knowing that the US are an enormous power and one of the largest crude oil producers (the largest in 2019[10]), why would the mass media neglect this topic?

In short, the “propaganda model” as described in this work serves as a warning, evidencing that there is manipulation of the information that is broadcast to the overall population. This book unmasks the mass media as the voice of the people and of justice, a perspective that is particularly defended in democratic societies, instead showing that these are not an instrument that monitors and oversees the actions of the state and of large corporations, unable to denounce its abuses of power. Merely the fact that the media ownership is concentrated within few companies (50 in total in 1983, down to 6 in 2012) [11] poses a risk, threatening a truly democratic society. However, authors analysis beyond this concentration of power, exposing equally serious threats. The “propaganda model” presented in the book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, shows itself to be a fundamental tool of analysis, even after three decades, explaining the role of the mass media as an actor (or tool) within the power structure in force, and not as an objective and neutral actor, untethered to the elites.

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

Pedro-Carañana, J., Broudy, D. and Klaehn, J. (eds.). The Propaganda Model Today: Filtering Perception and Awareness. Pp. 279–286. London: University of Westminster Press. DOI: License: CC‐BY‐NC‐ND 4.0

Mendel, T., Castillejo, Á G., Gómez, G. (2017). Concentration of Media Ownership and Freedom of Expression: Global Standards and Implications for the Americas. Retrieved December 26, 2020, from UNESCO

Pedro-Carañana, J., Broudy, D. and Klaehn, J. 2018. Introduction. In: Pedro-Carañana, J., Broudy, D. and Klaehn, J. (eds.). The Propaganda Model Today: Filtering Perception and Awareness. Pp. 1–18. London: University of West-minster Press. DOI: License: CC‐BY‐NC‐ND 4.0

[1] a torture method that submits the individual to a simulated drowning











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