Consent, American Style

by Steve Mizrach

Consent, American Style

Many cultural critics, such as Michael Parenti, Noam Chomsky, and Ben Bagdikian, have pointed out that in order for American power to carry out the atrocities it has perpetrated abroad, it needs to "manufacture" the consent of the American people. That is because America must at one and the same time carry out the appearance that it is the freest society in the world (true, to a degree, as Chomsky acknowledges) while tyrannizing much of the rest of the world. The democracy of the U.S. is managed, while the democracy of the rest of the world is deterred, as a host of militaristic and authoritarian national governments point to themselves as "allies" of our great nation. Opinion in our society must be carefully shaped and molded within certain careful boundaries: those who transgress those boundaries are libel to wind up "extremists," "ideologues," "fanatics," or "agitators." Now that dissidents in the U.S. can no longer be labelled 'fellow travellers' of the Moscow-run Commie conspiracy, the task has become more urgent. And how is it that consent, that most valuable of social products, is manufactured?

The "Mass" Media (Talk Radio, Papers, TV stations)

Numerous organizations like FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), LOOT (Lies of Our Times), and Media Watch routinely scan and critique the various mass media. Numerous conservative organizations like Reed Irvine's Accuracy in Media suggest that the media have a "liberal" bias. That may be true, to a certain extent - in the same way that "liberal" interventionists planned the VietNam war and "respectable" liberal organizations take consistently pro-establishment positions. But if the mass media are closely scrutinized, it is conservative editors, publishers, and producers who have the final say on the news, not liberal investigative journalists. The fact is that over 80% mass media are owned by a grand total of 23 multinational corporations - TNCs which also control media outlets in Europe and elsewhere in the world. The media's evident biases - pro-business outlooks are "pragmatist," pro-labor viewpoints are "ideological" - betray this fact. These corporations are interested in selling their programming to advertisers, not giving us accurate information.

Time and time again the public affairs programming of the mass media is restricted to a very narrow spectrum of opinion - "the right and the far right" as one critic puts it - and a very small cast of characters. Shows like Nightline keep trotting out the same spokesmen - white male professionals representing the Washington establishment. Soviet dissidents in the 80s had a better chance of getting on those programs than critics of American policy. Ever since the Spanish American War and the Hearst papers, the mass media have always helped whip up the drumbeats for war and jingoism in this country. They consistently "spike" stories that they don't want the public to see - like the S&L scandal and so many others which have made the Project Censored top ten list. And they run establishment disinformation - like the so-called "Bulgarian Plot to Kill the Pope" in 1982 - as if it was given from on high. Many of the media have descended to the bottom line, imitating the tabloids with tales of lurid scandal, celebrity worship, and sensationalized non-events, because that sells papers and draws advertisers. If we are treated to the colorful but irrelevant charts and graphs of USA Today and mini-sound bites of "infotainment" on network news, it is because that is what the advertisers have decreed.

Public or Private? (PBS, NPR)

Conservative media watchers have always had an especially vehement dislike for public television and radio, which they see as horrifically and irredeemably liberal. But once again, close monitoring of these media shows the exact opposite to be the case. PBS, which is supposed to get its funding from viewers, routinely gets massive donations from corporate foundations and charitable trusts. Not surprisingly, PBS has "killed" documentaries like the anti-GE film "Deadly Deception" produced by INFACT, for being too "controversial." And National Public Radio's line has never been so much pro-liberal as pro-establishment, routinely parroting the official tales of Washington like they were gospel. Both PBS and NPR do run stories and programming critical of American policy, from time to time, but these are often drowned in a sea of talk shows with right-wing pundits, of which more anon. Since both media systems receive a good bit of government funding (taxpayer money), the government can and does exert an influence on their content.

The Punditocracy ("Meet the Press," etc.)

On Sunday mornings (and on other occasions), many of us are treated to a bunch of talk shows featuring senior journalists. These shows feature many columnists for mass media organs such as George Will, John McLaughlin, Robert Novak, and Pat Buchanan. Not surprisingly, the members of this punditocracy often moved effortlessly in and out of the 'spin teams' (media management) of the Reagan and Bush administrations. The punditocracy is excellent at creating media frenzies around distorted issues, such as the so-called "political correctness" wave supposed to be swamping independent thought and free speech on our college campuses. These pundits often fail to point out increasing corporate and military dominance of these universities may be a far greater threat to academic freedom. And they all relentlessly repeat the same mantras - free market, national interests, insiders & outsiders - with the same mindless repetition. Radical columnists like I.F. Stone were often shunted to the side and marginalized, even labelled commie moles, for questioning Washington's Cold War policies.

PR Firms (Hill & Knowlton, Burston-Marseiller, etc.)

The PR firms often make lawyers look ethical. Many create public relations campaigns around the most amazing of things - giving repressive regimes like Haiti and Turkey a better "image," trying to "sell" the American public on nuclear power as the "environmental" choice, "packaging" regressive policies as "pragmatic," and "giving a good public face" to some of the most vile corporate polluters, union busters, and unsafe product manufacturers. PR managers, known as "spin doctors" when working in government, are able to carefully craft speeches and advertisements which evoke powerful images in the American psyche, frequently using "power words" such as freedom, fairness, liberty, justice, and peacekeeping for policies which dominate, discriminate, imprison, exploit, and terrorize much of the rest of the world. Nationalist groups composed of peasants, students, and laborers become "terrorists," while U.S. acts of terror are described as "counterinsurgency" or "creating stability." The PR firms recognize the postmodern fact of the ascendancy of style over substance, and many ways reap the benefit of that situation.

Polling Organizations

Polling organizations are supposed to be nonpolitical and nonpartistan - in theory, anyway. Yet, as many have recognized, polling is more than just a process for monitoring public opinion. How the questions are worded shapes opinion as well. People do not often realize that "scientific" polling often uses a very small sample and a narrow set of respondents, in terms of such things as age, social class, residence, and background. Polls often measure "horseraces" - things like candidate preference and presidential approval - rather than issues; with approval for candidates assumed to be equivalent to approval for their agenda, despite the knowledge that perception of those candidates is often heavily shaped by "spin doctors" and the "punditocracy." When issues are discussed, people are often asked leading questions which give very narrow ranges of response. Perot's organization once polled people with "Are you tired of Washington control by special interests?" Who will answer no to that? The key is in his definition of special interests - are they labor unions and consumer groups, or powerful corporate lobby-makers like himself?

"Flack-PACs" (bogus environmental/consumer groups)

You tune in a CSPAN program and you see a group called "Citizens for the Environment" offering their support for the free trade agreement. You would assume that this is an environmental organization. But, like many other "bogus" groups and PACs like the Global Climate Coalition, this group is a division of the Center for Free Enterprise (a right-wing think tank, of more anon) and exists to fight environmental policy, not make it. In the past five years, a number of seemingly pro-consumer, pro-environment, or pro-labor organizations have sprung up which are anything but; many of them are leading the charge to limit product liability in consumer torts, deregulate environmental policy, and bust unions under so-called "Right to Work" (in intolerable conditions) laws. These groups often pretend to have a large "grassroots" membership (such as the Sahara Club, a bunch of dune buggy riders which claims 300,000 members nationwide) but in fact get most of their money from fat cat corporate donors.

Academic "Experts"

Not surprisingly, many of the conservative cultural critics (culture managers, actually) mentioned above routinely decry the ivory towers of academe as festering grounds for tenured radicals, out to poison the minds of our young. But, as Chomsky has pointed out, the "experts" of academe and the intellectual class are typically trotted out at conferences and colloquia to give seemingly "rational" defenses ofestablishment policy. These experts are frequently trotted out to decry public concern (over smoking, radiation, EMFs, asbestos, or chemicals) as "unscientific," and to provide the intellectual foundation ("supply-side economics" and "sociobiology") for reactionary government policies. Their "expertise" confers authority to ideas that might otherwise seem silly ("trickle-down economics.") Academic historians routinely gloss over the faults of past figures, concealing Kennedy's role in the escalation of VietNam under the glitter of Camelot. Increasingly, as academic research turns more and more toward government and corporate control, funding for areas of scientific study such as women's studies and ethnic studies get "frozen" out. Many academics during the 1950s participated eagerly in the McCarthyite crusade and may even have recruited for the CIA.

The Think Tanks

In the 1980s, right-wing think tanks like the Hoover Institute, Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies proliferated like flies. Many of them got their funding from right-wing corporate foundations bankrolled by big-money families such as Coors, DuPont, and Rockefeller. While there are a scarce number of left-wing think tanks, like the Institute for Policy Studies, they get nowhere near the media attention or money that the right-wing tanks do. The think tanks often have a quite open "revolving" door for ex-members of government, and when conservatives are in power, many of the "tankers" assume positions of influence. These think tanks routinely churn out position papers for Congressional consumption and are big-time players in molding what passes for consensus in Washington. Their ideas are often pirated verbatim by governmental figures, when they are not taking policy prescriptions directly from the corporate elite.

Advertising: Candidates & Commodities

Political campaigns today rely almost exclusively on television advertising, with the 30-second "spot" becoming quite commonplace. Candidates often utilize their "spot" to make mudslinging and character assassinations against their opponents, without defining their qualifications or their position on issues. Their opinions are inevitably reduced to quick and digestible "sound bites" which sound clever but are devoid of substantive specifics. Candidates are now "marketed" like commodities: whatever people are "buying" that year (elitists, populists, insiders, outsiders, kinder and gentler, 'law and order') is what they are "sold." Issue "spots" reduce complex problems to 'slogans' and quick fixes. Political advertising invariably calls upon all the tired and old repository of symbols (flags, bells, torches, etc.) which are manipulated to confer legitimacy to policy decisions which might otherwise be strongly opposed. ("Free trade - it's the American way!," etc.)

Your Opinion Need Not Be Managed

People don't have to settle for the manufactured consensus assembled in corporate boardrooms, packaged inWashington, and distributed by its mass media lackeys. There are alternative media outlets - so-called "packet" and "pirate" radio, independently published magazines ('zines), and public-access cable TV stations that offer ideas and opinions not often seen from the consensus industry. Everywhere, people are trying to bypass the corporate communications system and to fight its propaganda by distributing the truth through decentralized networks. You don't have to have your mind shaped by the cultural managers and the corporate establishment; there are other sources to which you can turn. You might find that the manufactured consensus is a mile wide and an inch deep - that when people find there ideas have been "ready-made" for them by Consensus, Inc., they might take the radical step of questioning authority and "authorized" opinion.

by Steve Mizrach from The CyberAnthropology page

Media Control and Propaganda