Re: Media Monopolies Manufacturing Consent: Chomsky, Herman, and Bagdikian in the 21st Century


Originally published in 1983, Ben Bagdikian’s The Media Monopoly rattled numerous disciplinary and occupational cages. Asserting that the capitalization of the media has served to consolidate its ownership while diminishing its informational saliency, Bagdikian’s work served as a harbinger of things to come. Later critics built on Bagdikian’s work, arguing that the nightly newscasts and cable news outlets now offered a product more akin to what Bagdikian refers to as “infotainment”. Bagdikian’s updated book, entitled The New Media Monopoly attempts to insert his 1983 offering into the context of the past 25 years.

If the original work suggested that 50 corporate entities exerted too much influence and control over the politics and economics of media, Bagdikian points out that the trend has worsened such that “five global dimension firms, operating with many of the characteristics of a cartel, own most of the newspapers, magazines, book publishers, motion picture studios, and radio and television stations in the United States.” (3) For Bagdikian, it follows that ownership of these firms results in unprecedented “communications power” that exceeds even history’s greatest dictatorships.

Unsurprisingly, The New Media Monopoly conflates the action of media with those of cartels, pointing out that though many such firms critique government interference in “markets”, upsetting competition and the laws of supply and demand, yet they “indulge in mutual aid and shared investments in the same media products.”

Though careful not to draw direct causality, Bagdikian suggests this shrinking distribution of media ownership may have contributed to rightward political shifts that frame formerly liberal political positions as fire breathing radicalism. Politically, this has meant Republicans benefited from much larger coffers since corporate and trade associations provided twice the financial support as that of unions, the Democrats primary big money contributor. Going further, Bagdikian notes that news now reflects stories that interest ownership, often the kind of pieces that increase viewership and ad sales. Unfortunately, this means that issues important to the people are obscured and the neutral tone of “modern news” reifies issues rather than interrogating them. Like Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, Bagdikian points out that before one takes issue with the news itself, he/she must look at what “is chosen or not chosen – for print or broadcast. Media politics are reflected in the selection of commentators and talk show hosts.” (25) Manufacturing Consent drew similar conclusions pointing out that government and corporate sources were privileged over others, this resulted in news reports/articles that fundamentally reflected the views of those institutions.

The accumulation of media outlets owned by “the big five” (Vivendi, Time Warner, The Walt Disney Company, Murdoch’s News Corporation, Viacom, and Bertelsmann) translates into political power even if in the purest of worlds they fail to directly exert any influence. The knowledge of their ownership accumulations causes any politician to think twice about passing any sort of media reform legislation. As The New Media Monopoly notes, “Political leaders and parties know that the news media control how those politicians are depicted to the voting public … politicians treat the country’s most powerful media corporations with something approaching reverence.” (29) However, Bagdikian certainly expects ownership to impose its views, “Editorially, corporate causes almost invariably become news media causes.” (161)

In some cases, the connection between politics, money, and media proved even starker. Bagdikian provides evidence that despite Nixon’s assault on the first amendment, numerous newspapers supported his presidency, and in 1972 he received the most endorsements by the papers than any other candidate in the modern era. Moreover, “pro-Nixon” papers illustrated a tendency to ignore or downplay Watergate stories than those newspapers not offering endorsements, as Bagdikian darkly notes, “these included the papers who had obtained their antitrust favor from Nixon” (215) Ultimately, many publishers exhibited a willingness to exchange press freedoms for “corporate favors”. Often such favor included influencing legislation or court rulings that saved these dailies “not from extinction but merely from competition.” (217)

Media outlets further this problem in their treatment of business. Accusing the S.E.C. of becoming a “toothless watchdog unable or unwilling to bark at large corporations”, Bagdikian argues the media exacerbates the problem as it devotes its “space and energies ot the celebration of top corporate executive as heroes or geniuses” feigning ignorance to the critics on the left who pointed to the “sins of corporations.” (103) Recently writing for Rolling Stone, Muckraker Matt Taibbi leveled a similar critique regarding media coverage of the Clintons and their star Secretary of Treasury Robert Rubin, “While the American media fell in love with the story line of a pair of baby boomer sixties child, Fleetwood Mac Yuppies nesting in the White House, it also nursed an undisguised crush on Rubin who was hyped as without a doubt the smartest person ever to walk the face of the Earth with Newton, Einstein, Mozart, and Kant running far behind.” (Taibbi, Matt, Rolling Stone, “The Great American Bubble Machine”, June 9-23, 2009)

Still, if sycophantism does not suffice then add ignorance. For example, the 1990s witnessed an explosion of wealth, though it rested on faulty economics few journalists pointed this out, rather they produced stories that “in retrospect seem childlike in their innocence and joy at the “new economy.” (108) The influence of business extends further into the pro-capitalistic tropes of high school economics classes to the presence of business leaders on the board of the nation’s universities, meaning that even in alleged bastions of free thought, corporations maintain a pervasive influence. The fundamental point remains that, through the nation’s media and learning institutions, corporate values or ethos have become lodged into the American psyche.

According to Bagdikian, attempts by journalists to fairly report on business are often met with hyperbolic corporate reactions that demand full repudiation even when stories prove to be factually accurate. The corporate backlash of the 1970s manifested itself in Reagan’s election as outraged corporate leaders built war chests that exceeded all those that came before, throwing their support behind the former actor. Moreover, business attacks on the media exceeded rational bounds, as Bagdikian argues that corporate attacks “attempted to discredit the whole system of American news as subversive to American values and to characterize journalists as a class of careless “economic illiterates” biased against business.” (162) Still, Bagdikian concedes that the former accusation proved justified: “Most reporters are ‘economic illiterates’ in the sense that they lack skills to analyze business records and they seldom have the sophistication to comprehend world economic forces.” (162) Judging from recent economic crisis, this point remains hard to refute. The aforementioned Matt Taibbi concurred. In a 2009 podcast, the Rolling Stone contributing editor admitted that for the first couple months of the housing bubble burst and stock market crash, most reporters were just trying to wrap their heads around it.

Not only does the public’s knowledge of domestic policy suffer, its understanding of foreign affairs and the United States place within them often lacks any real grasp of American actions, the policies themselves, and the effects of these policies on other nations. In the wake of 9/11, Bagdikian traces the numerous examples of media culpability in failing to report the actual ground effects of US foreign policies citing examples from the exploits of the United Fruit Company in Central America, to C.I.A. skullduggery in Guatemala and Chile. Even worse, in revisiting such stories Bagdikian points out that “the Times and other American major news media repeatedly failed to mention that Pinochet had been directed in his crimes by U.S. agents and had been supported by Washington during his long bloody, regime.” (101) Again, Chomsky’s work compliments and often reinforces Bagdikian’s. For example, regarding the Guatemala episode, Chomsky illustrates how the media, in the context of the Cold War, privileged certain political actors suggesting that the coverage given to Eastern European dissidents led to a suspicious silence concerning the atrocities committed by the Guatemalan government.

Five years after Bagdikian’s 1983 work, Herman and Chomsky published the aforementioned Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media — a book so relevant it was name dropped in Good Will Hunting. If The Media Monopoly (the original work consisted of six chapters) provided a concise opening discussion on problems in the media, Manufacturing Consent organized its ideas into a theory suggesting the media functioned in relation to five filters that determined its content. Many of these filters appear in The New Media Monopoly but not with the same formal theoretical structure: 1) the size and ownership of media outlets 2) Advertising’s influence 3) Sourcing 4) Flak and enforces – outside pressure and lobbyist groups and 5) anti-communism. Of course, the fifth filter could probably today be replaced with anti-terrorism. Manufacturing Consent then applies this filter the several cases in Central American, Indochina, and Eastern Europe.

One area of difference between the two works can be found in Bagdikian’s discussion of The New Yorker’s post 1967 anti-war posture. The Media Monopoly paints The New Yorker’s decision as a brave move of conscience that retained its level of readership but shifted its audience from wealthier older persons to less affluent young adults. For Bagdikian, the New Yorker’s private non-corporate ownership in part shielded the magazine from content change that would have come had a corporate entity been at the helm. When editor William Shawn tells Bagdikian the advertising executives would never interfere in content, Bagdikian concurs: “Were it not for the incontrovertible behavior of The New Yorker during the Vietnam War, it would be difficult not to regard Shawn’s words as the standard mythic rhetoric.” However, by 1967 the U.S. had been in Vietnam for three years, as Manufacturing Consent points out mainstream media failed to mount any criticism of the war until 1968. While The New Yorker may have been ahead of the curve, they failed to eclipse the competition.

The New Yorker example proves useful as another development that may have undermined Chomsky, Herman, and Bagdikian’s argument, market segmentation. As Bagdikian notes, post 1967 The New Yorker’s circulation rose but the average age of readers fell from 48 years to 34, meaning more college and high school students had gravitated to the magazine for its anti-war writing. Lizabeth Cohen’s A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (2003) addressed the issue of segmentation, or the practice of advertising products to specific demographic groupings. While some argue this made life more democratic, Cohen suggests otherwise. What resulted was a new commercial culture that reified – at times exaggerated – social difference in the pursuit of profits, often reincorporating disaffected groups into the commercial marketplace.” (309)

By the 1980s, class segmentation in marketing expanded as advertisers targeted the upper middle class and upper classes as a new market unto themselves. Clearly, Cohen views such developments negatively, arguing that when marketers abandoned the mass, they contributed to individual stratification as well. “Individuals soon learned that their own good fortunes as homeowners, shoppers, and voters depended on identifying with special interest constituencies with clout – for example, localistically minded suburbanites, Yuppies, African Americans, senior citizens or gun owners.” (343) If anything has emerged in terms of the public’s reading and viewing habits, though news sources may have proliferated, the audience segments along the lines Cohen points out. The kind of news people pursue increasingly seems to be the news they want to hear. In this context, Fox News and its liberal counterpart CNBC would seem to be two sides of the same coin.

Undoubtedly, Manufacturing Consent and The Media Monopoly remain important works, but their arguments seem to deliver diminishing returns. If their analysis of the mainstream print and television media remains accurate, the question becomes how dominant are these mediums in terms of news? In 2007, the Journal of Broadcast and Electric Media published Indiana University Telecommunications Professor Julie F. Fox’s “No Joke: A Comparison of Substance in The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Broadcast Network Television Coverage of the 2004 Presidential Election Campaign.” According to Fox, The Daily Show’s coverage proved equally substantial as compared with nightly mainstream news broadcasts. While Bagdikian’s critique of infotainment appears prescient, the fact remains many people do get their news from The Daily Show and countless other outlets residing on the outer reaches of the internet and cable.

To be fair, Bagdikian addresses the internet issue but his analysis seems dated. For example, he applauds the creation of Wikipedia but then notes that companies have started their own “fee based wiki internet sites, which business professionals and corporations can use as a fast moving bulletin board for large corporate conferences and conventions.” (148) Fine, but a more relevant critique might point to the fact that Wikipedia has entire pages that remain contested because corporate and governmental entities continue to alter them in ways favorable to themselves. What about social networks? Facebook and Twitter have proven to be effective in political mobilization — witness the “success” of political tweeting in Iran.

Perhaps what’s most surprising about The Media Monopoly and Manufacturing Consent is how unsurprising they are. Is anyone surprised when Bagdikian points to corporate consolidation of media? The American public’s been watching that happen throughout the economy for nearly two decades. When Bagdikian notes how most of the nation’s newspapers fall under one of a handful of companies, people today would be more surprised that that many businesses exist. The demise of American newspapers served as one of the central dramas of the past ten years, important enough to occupy centerstage in The Wire’s final season and in even more plebeian sources such as the popular Bill Simmons “BS Report” podcast.

Ultimately, the intervention of telecommunications, the internet, cable and other technological innovations have to some extent rendered aspects of Chomsky, Herman, and Bagdikian irrelevant. Though their arguments remain accurate for aspects of today’s media, the sheer accumulation of options combined with the increasingly stratified effects of segmentation have undermined the centrality of Chomsky et al’s subject. The question now becomes, what does this mean more broadly? More voices does not necessarily mean more accurate coverage, nor does it mean those voices will be heard. However, old media will take years to fully fade away. As Bagdikian points out, “New technology widely adopted by society seldom causes its older competitor to disappear at once.” Hence for decades after the invention of the car, horses were still common. (69) So maybe a couple of stalwarts like the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, and the much maligned U.S.A. Today will remain dominant to the extent that media monopolies will continue to manufacture consent, but changes are coming.

Ryan Reft