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Manufacturing Consent in the pandemic
When the novel coronavirus arrived, I was unable to read. As it happens it hit me — really hit — when I was on assignment in Brazil for the New York Review of Books. I found that the shock of the pandemic made me unable to concentrate on anything. I could barely get through an episode of shit television on Netflix without clicking away to some social feed, or texting someone desperately. But slowly, finally, I found the mental stability to pick up a book, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, which I had not read before.
Back in high school I listened to a lot of Noam Chomsky MP3s (downloaded from LimeWire), but I had never cracked this classic, written with Edward Herman in in 1988. So I finally opened it, flopped on a bed somewhere in the Atlantic Rainforest, after fifteen years working as a journalist. I found that elements of the book’s “Propaganda Model” (those related to ownership and revenue structure) need to be updated (because ownership and revenue structures have changed) but the authors point to something which seems to be ten times more important than it was in the 20th century (and probably three times as important as it was when I started in media in 2007).
Journalists do not really go out into the world and collect raw data; there is too much. We rely on large organizations with vast resources to do that for us. As our numbers and resources dwindle, and as we are subjected to increasing pressure to produce traffic (or subscription revenue) as cheaply as possible, the more we look to governments, capitalist firms, NGOs, and think tanks, to supply us with news and analysis. This is especially true in the field in which I work, international journalism. For Herman and Chomsky, this is the “sourcing” filter. They write:
The media need a steady, reliable flow of the raw material of news.…They cannot afford to have reporters and cameras at all places where important stories may break.
In effect, the large bureaucracies of the powerful subsidize the mass media, and gain special access by their contribution.
Even if you believe that legacy publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post are still primary sources of knowledge production, who is producing knowledge for us? I can assure you that correspondents in Southeast Asia don’t find out about some new human rights abuses, or get precise election results, or learn that Islam is becoming a problem (again!) in some place or another, because they are wandering the Earth, sweeping across the eleven countries in the region and collecting firsthand observations. There are now like 2.5 people with this job in the entirety of the anglophone media. Used to be that a correspondent might be able to spend a few weeks in the field, talking to regular people and important people, before writing a story. These days if there is anyone tasked with covering foreign news at all they are liable to wake up to an email from their editor, pointing to an existing story that has already driven traffic or engagement on social media, requesting the same story in a few hours.
If any “reporting” is done at all in the preparation of the re-written text, it will consist of phone calls to people whose job it is to reliably supply quotes for this kind of thing. People paid to interact with people like me. Even for the odd feature commissioned from the lucky journalist who gets to do a few days of travel and sitting down with real human beings, the idea for the piece almost certainly came from their phone or their computer screen.
And who are the people we call? They might work for a government office or a local police department; they might work for Human Rights Watch or Open Society; they might work for a national security think tank, a bank, or a political risk firm; if we are lucky, we know someone who works for a university, is free and keen to speak to the media, and still has something interesting to stay. These organizations may be funded by taxpayers or by weapons manufacturers or a rich guy with an agenda. Whether you love or hate the work that any given institution does, whether its funders are evil billionaires or selfless philanthropists, you cannot escape the broader conclusion that the production of knowledge is shaped by the men who can afford to pay for it.
Generously, a lot of these outfits are still called “civil society” when really, any oligarch with enough money can set up an organization somewhere that produces research and analysis and commentary that suits their interests. As a rule, respected major outlets in the U.S. do not disclose who funds these groups in our articles, unless the funders are considered officially bad by the United States.
What does that have to do with the pandemic? One possible answer is that I am doing clickbait — a huge part of my industry now, no matter how loudly my colleagues deny it. A second answer is related to the parts of the Herman / Chomsky model that needs to be updated. In the 20th century, for-profit journalism was funded by advertising. That fell apart. Now, the few surviving outlets rely on billionaire ownership or subscription revenue driven by ideological commitment to an editorial mission. I believe that if the ownership / revenue scheme that Herman / Chomsky described were still in place in 2020 we would not have seen the intense politicization, of very slightly different responses to an inscrutable viral threat, that we did. Big outlets would have manufactured consent. As to whether that would be better or worse in the case of COVID-19, I am agnostic. But we have a bigger problem. We may be facing the imminent extinction of journalism as we know it, and consequently the end of democracy, but that is a topic for another day.