Politics, media and war: 9/11 and its aftermaths
Politics, media and war: 9/11 and its aftermaths

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7.1 Manufacturing consent

In Manufacturing Consent: the Political Economy of the Mass Media, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky provide an explanation for why mass media systematically ‘manufacture consent’ for government and large private corporations in the US. By analysing the political economy of mass media, they show how ownership and commercial demands lead to the privileging of a dominant ideology and its social hierarchy. This then leads to the marginalisation of ‘radical’ or other points of view that might challenge the dominant order. For Herman and Chomsky, this bias is structural: it is not caused by the particular viewpoints of the journalists involved, but simply the only way news can be within a capitalist society in which audience share and commercial sponsors dictate what counts as ‘news’.

They also suggest that professional journalistic practices such as over-reliance on official sources and fear of lawsuits from powerful interests contribute to the manufacture of consent. For these reasons, the mass media become little more than propaganda instruments for a dominant elite. Herman and Chomsky go on to use this framework to explain why the US news media bolstered the legitimacy of US military interventions in Latin America and Indochina. In light of the failure of US journalists to uncover the lack of WMD in Iraq in 2002-03, this approach seems to offer much. We might consider, then, the relevance and utility of this framework for explaining UK and US media coverage of the 2003 Iraq War, including not only the build-up to the war, but also the ‘actual’ phase of military engagement, and the aftermath or reconstruction period.

Activity 24 Manufacturing consent: The political economy of the mass media

Please read the extract from Herman and Chomsky’s book now.

Click to view Manufacturing consent: The political economy of the mass media [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

You should consider the following questions while you read. Please note that some questions (i.e. the second part of 2, and 3–6) cannot be answered directly from the extract, but rather encourage you to come up with your own answer in the context of the extract. The discussion will fill you in on anything you can’t answer, so when you have finished reading, take a look at it.

  1. What specific aspects of media-government relations do Herman and Chomsky identify as leading to the manufacture of consent?
  2. If Herman and Chomsky are correct, there seem no incentives for journalists to investigate ‘the powerful’. Can you identify and explain any exceptions to this rule?
  3. In this system, do journalists have any power?
  4. In this system, do audiences have any power? How do we know they are offering consent?
  5. How well does Herman and Chomsky’s framework apply to media-government relations in countries other than the US?
  6. Do we still live in ‘the age of the expert’, according to the definition given by Kissinger (p23)?
  7. If ‘media need a steady, reliable flow of the raw material of news’, how might the internet alter this flow today? Is it still possible to ‘control’ flows of information?


  1. The authors focus on key large organisations such as the White House, State Department, large companies or corporations, and major news organisations. Media and government institutions each have something to offer the other, but also demand conditions in return. These political, commercial and media institutions have reached an equilibrium in which the way in which they conduct and structure their relations leads to a routine ‘manufacture’ of consent.
  2. Think about the Watergate scandal in the US in the 1970s, or other cases in which journalists have sought to expose corruption or malpractice in powerful institutions. Such cases have been made into novels and movies.
  3. Journalists are able to relay information to the public, and the public can hold politicians and companies to account, either as citizens through the ballot box or as consumers through their market choices. Hence journalists have an indirect power.
  4. As for the last question, audiences are composed of individuals who can play certain roles, as consumer, activist, ‘good citizen’ and so on. However, consent for the exercise of political power by office holders or representatives is conventionally considered to be transmitted through electoral voting. This makes a democratic government ‘legitimate’.
  5. Given that these three main sets of institutions (political, commercial and media) operate in most if not all countries, we might expect to find similar structural relations. However, countries vary in terms of media ownership, the capacity of different branches of governments to check and balance each other (executive, legislature, judiciary), and in terms of the expected role of corporations in a society.
  6. Experts still testify before parliamentary committees, acquire informal roles in networks close to or inside government, and are regularly sought after by media. In an age of 24/7 rolling news and an expanding choice of news outlets in print and online, there is more space to fill than ever, and experts (e.g. academics, think tank staff, former officials) are often happy to step into the public limelight.
  7. The internet allows citizens to both produce and consume news, and while a majority of people may rely on major news organisations for their news ‘diet’, the notion of a linear ‘flow’ from media to public is increasingly unrealistic. This transforms how news organisations operate; rather than produce one front page per day, a newspaper such as The Times or Guardian updates its headlines by the minute online. For politicians, this makes for a more unpredictable media environment. Information could emerge at any time, from any source, and debates can be triggered and develop through blogs before a politician has time to respond. The result is a more ‘chaotic’ media-political relationship.

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