By Roger Berkowitz
I am a few years older than Matt Taibbi, but it turns out we both share an encounter with Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s Manufacturing Consent as a formative experience in our encounter with worlds of politics and journalism.
In the introduction to his new book Hate (serialized here), Taibbi writes that Herman and Chomsky described the media as “a system of informal social control, in which the propaganda aims of the state were constantly reinforced among audiences, using a quantity-over-quality approach.” Most journalists tell the truth. Most seek to report the news. But certain stories (for example about civilian deaths in Vietnam or Iraq) generate flak that reporters learn to avoid and certain euphemisms (for example, “collateral damage,” “illegal immigrants,” or “welfare queens”) veil the real stories. The story of journalism up through the 1980s was how consent and conformity were manufactured largely through self-censorship.
Today, however, there is a larger threat to the capacity for journalism to inform a democratic public. The driving force of journalism now is not conformity, but hate.
The question Taibbi poses for himself is how did this transformation of journalism into a purveyor of siloed hate mongering “serve the needs of the elite interests that were once so concerned with unity?” His answer hearkens back to Chomsky and Herman’s Manufacturing Consent. First, hate sells. And second, promoting hate leads to a misinformed public that is easily manipulated into settled oppositions. In short, “We manufactured fake dissent, to prevent real dissent.”
But once we started to be organized into demographic silos, the networks found another way to seduce these audiences: they sold intramural conflict.
The Roger Ailes types captured the attention of the crazy right-wing uncle and got him watching one channel full of news tailored for him, filling the airwaves with stories, for instance, about immigration or minorities committing crimes. Different networks eventually rose to market themselves to the kid in the Che t-shirt. If you got them in different rooms watching different channels, you could get both viewers literally addicted to hating one another.
There was a political element to this, but also not. It was commerce, initially. And reporters stuck in this world soon began to realize that the nature of their jobs had changed.
Whereas once the task was to report out the facts as honestly as we could – within the “fairway” of acceptable thought, of course – the new task was mostly about making sure your viewer came back the next day. We sold anger, and we did it mainly by feeding audiences what they wanted to hear. Mostly, this involved cranking out stories about people our viewers loved to hate.
The news, basically, is bait to lure you in to a pen where you can be sold sneakers or bath soaps or prostatitis cures or whatever else studies say people of your age, gender, race, class, and political bent tend to buy.
Imagine your Internet surfing habit as being like walking down a street. A man shouts: “Did you hear what those damned liberals did today? Come down this alley.”
You hate liberals, so you go down the alley. On your way to the story, there’s a storefront selling mart carts and gold investments (there’s a crash coming – this billionaire even says so!).
Maybe you buy the gold, maybe you don’t. But at the end of the alley, there’s a red-faced screamer telling a story that may even be true, about a college in Massachusetts where administrators took down a statue of John Adams because it made a Hispanic immigrant “uncomfortable.” Boy does that make you pissed!
They picked that story just for you to hear. It is like the parable of Kafka’s gatekeeper, guarding a door to the truth that was built just for you…. As it turns out, there is a utility in keeping us divided. As people, the more separate we are, the more politically impotent we become.