The Listening Post

Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent revisited

A Listening Post special marking 30 years since the publication of Manufacturing Consent and its relevance today.

There is an exquisite and oft-quoted moment in an interview between BBC journalist Andrew Marr and Noam Chomsky in which Marr asks: “How can you know that I’m self-censoring?”.

“I’m not saying you’re self censoring. I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is that if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.”

Wry as ever, Chomsky exposed the slightly delusional pretensions of the journalistic establishment – and not far behind, the complicities of the media industry with political power.

Harsh? Perhaps. True? All too often.

For many of us who work at The Listening Post, Chomsky’s ideas on the media in Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media have provided us with a guide, full of cautionary tales and ideas that are still controversial to this day.

The book was published in 1988 – a year before the end of the Cold War when it was announced that western liberal democracy had triumphed, heralding the end of ideology, authoritarianism, and propaganda.

In the past 30 years, we have seen the mass communications industry multiply, providing an illusion of choice, echoing the rhetorics of freedom – of press, of expression – but not necessarily yielding the pluralism liberal democracies had promised.

In that way, the book continues to resonate.

But like all revered texts, Manufacturing Consent also calls upon us as active readers, journalists, citizens to interrogate its premises. Does the book’s denunciatory tone risk overstate the power of the media establishment? Does it underestimate the critical faculties of the public? Is the media so homogenous an entity that power can be wielded top-down? Where are the lapses, the blind spots? Where do journalists find pockets of power that serve to disrupt?

We spoke to three journalists who have their careers being disruptive and asked them about the ideas that had influenced them in Chomsky and Herman’s book: Matt Taibbi, whose reporting for Rolling Stone has provided one of the most critical accounts of US political history in recent years; Indian editor-in-chief Aman Sethi who questions the premises of Chomsky’s book and Amira Hass, the Haaretz correspondent for the Occupied Territories.

The first thing we asked Hass was what she thought about Chomsky’s statement: “the general population doesn’t know what’s happening, and it doesn’t even know that it doesn’t know”.

“This is a very humanist and optimistic statement,” she responded. “The belief that when people are informed they may act, things may change. In Hebrew, the words knowledge and awareness are all made of the same root. Yedda and Mudaoot. And so awareness is connected to Mudaoot in Hebrew. And this is how I started working in Gaza, aware that the Israeli public knows nothing about the occupation and what it means. But the people do not pick up this information. They have access to it but they choose not to access it.”

Hass has been covering Palestine for the best part of 30 years – in that time, sources of information have multiplied, but public outrage?

“Today we have so much access to information in other ways that we are on a collision with the fact that people are not interested in what does not serve immediately their interest,” she said, with resignation, “and this is a very sad realisation.”

Aman Sethi put it like this:

“It’s easy to say that people believe what they believe because their consent has been manufactured. But what if people know exactly what’s going on and still believe what they believe, right? Then that’s terrifying.”