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SHELF LIFE : How ‘manufacturing consent’ passed into daily usage

By Sumana Ramanan

18th May 2020

A film based on a seminal book with that title helped popularise the phrase. It was shown online in early May by a Mumbai documentary collective.


Of all the critiques outlined by Noam Chomsky, 91, the pioneering linguist who has a double career as a political analyst and writer, perhaps the one that has most firmly become part of mainstream discourse is his notion that the mass media often “manufactures consent” among the public in the interests of the elite. In authoritarian regimes, this process is overt because the state owns the media and an official censor often monitors the output. But in a democracy with apparently independent and competing private media outlets, this is less obvious, argue Chomsky and Edward S. Herman in their 1988 book, the first part of whose title, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, quickly passed into common usage.

Media outlets in a democracy may, from time to time, uncover wrongdoings in the government and by private companies, they concede. But “what is not evident…is the limited nature of such critiques…,” they write, referring to the media in their native United States. The book therefore aimed to “trace the routes by which money and power are able 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 authors write.

They outline five filters by which the media narrows the window of discussion and terms of debate, filters that students in many journalism schools now study: pressures from ownership and the profit motive; advertising, when it is the primary source of income; reporters’ reliance on sources in the government, companies, think tanks and other institutions, who can cut off access if they are unhappy with coverage; various forms of pressure in response to stories that the powerful are unhappy with, such as letters to the editor, calls to the owner, lawsuits and even threats; the bogey of a public enemy, which in the US, at the time the book was written, was communism, but could also be terrorism or some other enemy, which influences how and what is covered and used to implicitly pressurise the media to be “loyal”.

To support their argument, the authors present several detailed case studies that look at the US media’s coverage of various world events, such as the wars in Indochina and several elections in Central America, to name just two examples. Densely footnoted and meticulously sourced, it presents a devastating critique. It proved so influential that four years after it was published, it spawned a film of the same name that also acquired a cult following among a section of liberals worldwide and helped to popularise the concept of “manufacturing consent.” Made by two Canadians, Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick, it expands on the arguments made in the book and places these in the context of Chomsky’s overall critique of US foreign policy. Running to nearly three hours and grippingly edited, it combines extensive live footage from Chomsky’s talks and interviews with doses of visual humour.

The Mumbai-based collective, Vikalp: Films for Freedom, which screened documentaries once a month before the lockdown at Prithvi Theatre, a prominent cultural venue in the city, has begun sharing links to films every week, on Friday, and will keep each link accessible for 48 hours. The driving force of this collective is one of India’s leading political documentary film makers, Anand Patwardhan. It began its lockdown offerings on May 1 by sharing a link to Manufacturing Consent on its social media pages. Previously, the organisers regularly invited directors who lived in India to the screenings for discussions with audiences. After the lockdown, the organisers are inviting questions from viewers to pass on to the director. With Manufacturing Content, the organisers solicited questions for the directors and for Chomsky, both of whom, touchingly, provided detailed answers. Those interested in reading this exchange and in watching the weekly offerings can visit Vikalp’s Facebook page.

(SHELF LIFE is a weekly post from the world of books: literature, ideas, reading, writing, publishing, and anything in between.)

(Facebook: Sumana Ramanan, Instagram: sumanaspirit, Twitter: @sumana_ramanan)

 (Sumana Ramanan is on the committee of the Tata Literature Live! Mumbai International Literature Festival. She is an independent journalist who has worked in leading media organisations, such as Business World, Economic and Political Weekly, Hindustan Times, Reuters and Scroll.in.)