THE MEDIA AND THE DAMAGE DONE

November 19, 2017 – 5:07 am

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$ingapore media prides itself as a nation-builder, manufacturing consensus. The results of 36* years of this consensus building have had some unanticipated side-effects. We have nurtured a nation of politics-avoiding consumers who lack creativity, entrepreneurial skill and now we have been told we are not as good as foreigners. The damage has been done. But the intrusions of the internet have broken the tight grip of our monopoly media to offer hope. There are now more ways than a plane ticket out of here to listen, read and watch alternate points of view. So where do we go from here? Professor Edward Herman, who co-wrote Manufacturing Consent, is an authority on the mass media as propaganda. Xiao Jinhong and Michael Cheah interviewed him on the evolving role of the media in the new millennium. *This article was printed in BigO #184 (April 2001). Click here to order back-issues of BigO magazine.

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EDWARD HERMAN R.I.P. 1925 - 2017

Edward Herman, the co-author (with Noam Chomsky) of Manufacturing Consent, has died on November 11, 2017. He was 92. His work has never been more relevant, wrote Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone. In 1967, Herman was among more than 500 writers and editors who signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse to pay the 10 per cent Vietnam War tax surcharge implemented by Congress upon the initiation of President Johnson. Herman received his Bachelor of Arts from the University of Pennsylvania in 1945 and PhD in 1953 from the University of California, Berkeley. Herman and Chomsky’s best known co-authored book is Manufacturing Consent, first published in 1988, and largely written by Herman. The book introduced the concept of the “propaganda model” to the debates on the workings of the mainstream corporate media.

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With the internet, are we media saturated? Is there still room for new media?

Who are “we”? Globally, only a small fraction of the population has access to the internet and, even in the United States, less than half have access. Furthermore, the internet is not a medium of mass communication, although it is very useful for individuals and groups for more limited communication functions (data searches, communication within narrower collectives and political allies).

Ordinary citizens still depend heavily on the mass media for news, political debate, and entertainment. The main problem across the globe is that this mass media is commercial and dependent on advertisers, and therefore does poorly in serving the citizenry with information relevant to a democratic community.

The virtual law of mass media evolution, well illustrated by the history of US broadcasting over its 75-year life, is that under intensifying commercial pressures, the public sphere shrinks and softens and is displaced with entertainment.

We need more media that does not depend on advertising, which means more public and community broadcasters, newspapers, magazines and internet sites. The trend is not healthy at this moment in history, with even the internet now being captured by large commercial interests like AOL-Time Warner. The fight should be for de-commercialisation and the support of media, new and old, that are ad-free and independent.

Is the media more informative/substantive now or is hype more prevalent?

Hype is more prevalent, including entertainment that titillates and grabs attention, a focus on celebrities and sports, and anything that will attract eyeballs and hold them, even if only momentarily.

Information is heavy on styles, even if hugely biased, but it is weak on politics and economics, excluding stock market quotations and analyses which are given generous coverage. This is in accord with the commercial model of the media, which is designed to feature consumer activity and divert attention from politics.

There is a widely-held notion that this generation has been dumbed down. Do you think so?

Yes, it has been dumbed down. This is partly a result of the media focus on styles and acquisition of goods and failure to make information about economics, politics, sociology and history very available or very interesting.

Depoliticisation also results from the fact that in the new global order political change has become difficult, so why bother to study and work on something beyond the bounds of being affected by the actions of ordinary citizens?

It is easier to be in tune with the style changes and to join the consumption throng. One of the objectives of the dominant establishment and media is to transform the populace from citizens to consumers. This involves a systematic dumbing down of young and old. It should be stressed that there is a substantial minority of young and old resisters who continue to fight these deleterious trends. But they are a minority.

Their numbers may rise rapidly, however, as the new economic order proves that it is in service to a tiny global elite, which it will eventually do as inequality continues to increase, more and more suffer abuses in the global economy, the environment degrades further, and the bubbles continue to deflate and burst.

Has the level of journalistic investigation/criticism declined?

Yes. There are still outstanding cases of solid media investigation and criticism, but there are huge areas in which the dominant media refuses to investigate and criticise, and most of their work is channelled into areas supportive of their companies and national corporate interest. They rarely investigate the crimes and lies of their own state on matters like East Timor and Turkey, where their governments have been supporting the state terror of allied states.

And on subjects like the effects of depleted uranium weapons, as their military and politicians apologise for these, the media’s foot-dragging is laughable. The big media conglomerates are part of the corporate community and in treating its crime and those of the national state, which the corporate community dominates, the big media behave as badly as Pravda did in the old Soviet Union. The “propaganda model” that Noam Chomsky and I put up in Manufacturing Consent, showing why and how the mainstream media serve as virtual agents of the powerful, has proven to be very much on target.

In this media age, sex seems to be the primary vehicle driving media sales in all sectors from advertising to internet and print media circulation. Why is this?

I’m not sure it is primary, but it is right up there with sports and violence. The reasons are simply that these sell - people watch and listen as the voyeur and competitive instincts are strong. Sex and violence also travel well between cultures and they are not reliant on language and can be shown in New York City and Shanghai with messages understood. So where the commercial drive is the motive force for the media, sex and violence will get heavy featuring.

We need more media that does not depend on advertising, which means more public and community broadcasters, newspapers, magazines and internet sites.

Was the media instrumental in the downfall of President Suharto in Indonesia or was the outrage against a compliant media one of the factors spurring on the protestors?

What was instrumental in Suharto’s fall was the financial crisis, the economic decline that hurt many people badly, and the withdrawal of Western support from the dictator who was reluctant to follow instructions from abroad.

A secondary effect resulted from the fact that with the crisis and withdrawal of support, the media and protestors got a little more freedom of action - space was opened and it was filled quickly. The media were cautious and still reported facts that spurred on protests, like the bad economic conditions and the West’s distancing itself from Suharto.

No doubt the protestors were angry at the media as well as ruling gangsters, but the effects of the media in this phase of Indonesia’s political evolution were complex - the media spurred things on a bit by their own small bits of bold reporting as well as angering protestors.

What news sources (mainstream and alternative) do you rely on? How do you personally approach the mass media, given that the news is presented with built-in biases? And might not alternative media be subject to the same problems, that is, they might be pushing their own propaganda?

It is important to have a variety of sources to allow checking of one against the other. By experience, one learns about the nature of bias of particular media and even particular reporters, and that allows one to read them for what they are worth and to seek out the good ones. Foreign media are very often less biased than one’s own country’s media, the latter often patriotic or constrained by local connections.

The alternative media are very important as sources, along with original suppliers of information like Amnesty International and refugee organisations that issue news from home countries like Guatemala, Haiti, Peru and Indonesia. The alternative media may be biased, but their biases are usually open and clear and represent important viewpoint and provide facts ignored by the mainstream media.

What about the phenomenon of culture-jamming, for example, with Adbusters? Is it an effective way of fighting the mainstream propaganda and getting an alternative message out?

It is useful, and fun, but can be overrated. The outreach of the jammers is limited as the mainstream media are not going to help their enemies, and the big boys have the resources to saturate the population with messages only a tiny fraction of which can be “jammed”. There is no substitute for having media access for direct messages or messages that jam. We need our own media for both. Moreover, jamming is negative, it doesn’t tell us what is good and right and what positive should be done to improve the world.

Proponents of “manufacturing consent” might argue that it leads to order and an orderly society is necessary for corporations to function and profit from. This suggests that the “search for truth” is chaotic and might lead to ruin. Is “truth” at odds with “order”?

“Order” is frequently at odds with justice, and Orwell’s model of 1984 portrays a society where order is the highest priority, and it isn’t very nice. Corporations frequently don’t like “truth” and want “order” because this might suggest that unions are needed to protect workers, and struggles for union recognition that involve disorder should be put down in the interests of “order” (meaning: higher corporate profits).

We should be extremely suspicious of the claim that truth threatens order - it is usually a rationalisation for the denial of basic human rights that we should always reject. If corporate profits can’t be sustained with repression, the answer is obviously sacrifice the profits, and the corporations themselves, if their means requires 1984.

I’m sure you know that $ingapore has a tightly-controlled mass media. The oft-cited reason is that we have to be sure, that the people in control of the media are “responsible” people who can be trusted not to run inflammatory stories. The underlying concern is that in a multi-racial/religious society like ours, one which is only 35 years old this year, things could go awry very easily. There were racial riots in the ’60s which remain very much in the psyche of older $ingaporeans. Do you think such controls are justified, even considering the constraints of our nation? How would you balance between these competing objectives and functions: watchdog, nation-building and sensitivity to local racial/religious peculiarities?

Re: $ingapore and its special problems - can’t answer this difficult question without more information than I possess, but I warn that tight controls over the mass media by officials is incredibly dangerous and almost inherently bad as they invariably abuse that power to prevent discussion of issues that need public understanding and debate and to serve their authoritarian agenda.

The other argument usually trotted out is that only elected officials should have such influence over society and  people’s lives and journalists are unelected persons who should not be given the right to affect society in such a sweeping manner. What’s your response to that? What gives an unelected media the right to be a watchdog and to dictate the public agenda?

If the unelected media are highly concentrated and dependent mainly on advertising this query is well taken, but this would be because they would be very likely to follow the agenda laid out for them by the elected officials. Hopefully, there will be many competitive media entities, with quite a few small and independent of government and advertisers. This will make them a countervailing power to elected officials.

If the latter alone controlled the media, they would use it to consolidate their power and you would have a de facto authoritarian regime even with the forms of democracy. Democracy requires dispersed power, and a well-structured media independent of the elected officials is needed for power to be dispersed.

Note: Edward Herman was Professor Emeritus of Finance at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, and was the author of numerous books on economics, politics and the media. These include Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy Of The Mass Media (co-author, Noam Chomsky; Pantheon, 1988); The Myth Of The Liberal Media: An Edward Herman Reader (Peter Lang, 1999); and Degraded Capability: The Media And The Kosovo War (co-editor, Philip Hammond; Pluto, 2000).

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