Manufacturing dissent

posted at 1:25 pm on September 2, 2010 by Karl

I usually treat the establishment’s media bias like the weather in Forks, WA — sought by vampires, simply endured by normal people. Nevertheless, I was recently tickled by Ace’s twist on Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent:

Suppose there are five possible plausible public reactions to an event or initiative. A, B, C, D, and E, ranging from rightist to leftist, and A and E representing the extremes.

Media debate tends to package C and D — C, a centrist reaction, and D, a left-center but still mainstream-ish reaction — as the only two possible reactions, and debates the issue without reference to A, B, and E, as if they don’t exist, or, if they do mention them, they are dismissed peremptorily as extremist and wack-a-doo and “not serious.”

Thus, at the end of the day, the public does get to “choose”… but only from the two options the media has pre-screened as permissible, C and D. Thus, consent of the governed has been “manufactured” — sure, the public chooses between C and D, but their choice was forced — as a magician forces a card on you — by a media that carefully insulated them from genuine consideration of A, B, and E.

However, the toxicity of the current political environment is better explained by the slow collapse of this model.

Ace’s model describes how the establishment media attempts to manufacture consent on behalf of the political class with which they identify. However, it was probably more effective 25 or 30 years ago than it is today. The increasing adoption of FM radio for music programming and advancements in satellite technology helped give rise to political talk radio on the AM band, which is dominated by conservatives like Rush Limbaugh. The increasing adoption of cable and satellite tech made cable news possible; Fox News Channel has the highest ratings for that that market segment.

The reach of right-leaning media may yet fail to match that of the establishment media. For example, Limbaugh reaches roughly 15-25 million listeners weekly, but the network news — as anemic as it is — still reaches that range nightly. FNC reaches an average of 50 million viewers monthly, but that is fewer viewers than CNN on a cumulative basis. Nevertheless, the trend favors cable and online news (with radio holding steady), while network news and traditional print media slump.

The center-left and its media does not like the competition, financially or ideologically. Under the prior Democratic administration, the White House counsel office spent your tax dollars producing a lengthy memo titled, “Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce.” The memo complained about “a media food chain” involving ideologically conservative journals and think tanks, the Internet, British tabloids and occasionally the US media. The Beltway press did not bite on the memo — but only because they already believed it. Thus, when Hillary Clinton later attacked the “Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy” as a defense to the Monica Lewinsky scandal (a story spiked by Newsweek and revealed by the Drudge Report), the establishment media was already onboard.

However, the center-left and its media had a branding problem. Labeling the competition as a conspiracy made them sound like, well, conspiracy theorists. Accordingly, under the current Democratic administration, the theory is now advanced more subtly as groupthink, rather than the secret plan of a shadowy cabal. Under the rubric of “epistemic closure,” right-leaning media is characterized as a closed, but organic ecosystem that produces “faux news” — overhyping stories the establishment tries to ignore, and even reporting fake stories.

Although people pushing the “epistemic closure” line will admit that it also exists on the left, they do not want to discuss it. Worse, the “epistemic closure” obsessives generally operate from the false premise that the establishment media, operating in the closed mode Ace describes, does not produce “faux news” as a matter of routine.

However, the establishment media hyped the “October Surprise,” Operation Tailwind and Rathergate, and fears that Diebold was rigging elections (that coincidentally evaporated after Dems won Congress in 2006), just to name a few. The establishment media failed to catch fabulists like Jayson Blair, Janet Cook, Stephen Glass and Scott Beauchamp early on, but would have everyone believe that their political prejudices did not impair their editorial judgment.

The establishment media decries false stories about Pres. Obama, but spread false stories about Sarah Palin — and continues to do so years later. The establishment wrings its hands over meaningless polls about Birthers… after ignoring equally meaningless polls about Truthers.

The establishment media recently joined in the left-wing’s bogus, but costly attacks on Toyota, just as they did with earlier bogus attacks on Chrysler and Audi. For decades, the establishment media has cranked out a steady stream of overhyped and bogus health and environmental scares — Alar, asbestos in schools, saccharin, silicone breast implants, acid rain, the population bomb, global cooling, etc. Indeed, a neo-Malthusian crank like Paul Ehrlich, publicly and famously discredited, is still treated as an expert by establishment outlets like The New York Times and Wired magazine.

Or consider the way the establishment media treats Congressional Budget Office estimates of jobs “created or saved” by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act as hard data. In reality, the CBO’s director has confirmed that these reports do not serve as independent checks on the real-world effects of the spending. Indeed, the CBO has reported that “it is impossible to determine how many of the reported jobs would have existed in the absence of the stimulus package.”

Why was the establishment media so slow to recognize the turnaround in the Iraq war? Why did they largely rush to judgment when the Duke lacrosse team members were accused of rape? Why did they get the Jena 6 case wrong? Why was the establishment media narrative about Hurricane Katrina built on myths, including grisly fables about violence and death in the Superdome? And why is the establishment media celebrating it?

These examples are but the tip of the establishment media’s “faux news” iceberg. Folks on the far left probably have an entirely different list, but that is the point — the establishment media’s center-left epistemic closure produces the same problems critics identify in the conservative media. That the critics are only concerned about closure in conservative media — and dismiss the theory that conservative media closure is partially caused by the establishment’s marginalization of conservatives — suggests they are less interested in solutions than they are in further marginalizing the right.

In addition to claims of “epistemic closure,” the establishment media is increasingly resorting to attacks on those outside their closed system as racists and bigots:

It does a disservice to both sides to say that the left, pure and simple, has radicalized the right. But for too many on the left, the right already is so radical — so unreasonable, irrational, kooky, atavistic, and unthinking — that it hardly matters whether the second America tries to protect and advance its interests politely or viciously. When it plays nicely, they believe, the second America is engaged in the tactic of papering over the bigotry that animates it at a foundational level. The only thing the second America can do to earn goodwill from this influential segment of the left is to abandon and denounce its primitive worldview and its cruel policies. Not quite convert or die, but — almost worse from the far left perspective — convert or be ruthlessly marginalized and stigmatized. Confronted with such a choice, Americans — not just from the second America, as its enemies on the left should know — are inclined to stop being polite and start getting real.

As with the epistemic closure obsessives, don’t hold your breath waiting for the center-left to consider that that their shrill stereotyping only adds to the problem. And as with the epistemic closure obsessives, the offense they give to everyone else is fueled in part by the double or triple standards at work. If you think the Ground Zero mosque is a bad idea (as I do), you are deemed a religious bigot, or are empowering religious bigots. In contrast, if you think Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptists protesting at military funerals (or Bill Keller setting up shop near Ground Zero) is a bad idea (as I do, for many of the same reasons), the center-left does not unleash the same gushing firehose of vitriol. When the passage of California’s Proposition 8 caused people to engage in anti-Mormon protests and boycotts, and to practice the politics of personal destruction against Miss California, the center-left was not denouncing it as religious bigotry. And to bring it full circle, if the folks behind the Ground Zero mosque are not entirely gay-friendly, the center-left media ignores it.

The ad hoc nature of these ad hominem attacks only reinforces the perception that the center-left uses them as a cudgel in an attempt to force everyone back into their closed model of public discourse. The center-left is no longer able to marginalize conservative views solely by control over a select number of media outlets. Accordingly, it must resort to stigmatizing those views and trying to arrogate to itself the power of classifying which speech is hateful, to be dismissed without further thought or discussion. Like the theory of “epistemic closure” itself, this does not require any conspiracy, just a media ecosystem with converging economic and ideological interests.

Ultimately, these attacks are a marker of the degree to which the establishment has become both reactionary and isolated. The establishment media seethes over issues like the Ground Zero mosque and illegal immigration in no small part because broadly bipartisan segments of the public think the mosque is a bad idea and support the key provisions of Arizona’s new immigration enforcement law. The establishment media is increasingly the public voice of a political class greatly out of step with mainstream opinion, not only on issues like the Ground Zero mosque and illegal immigration, but also health care, the value of government spending, free markets, and the limits on federal power. As the establishment media is exposed as manufacturing dissent on behalf of narrow, unpopular elite, they become marginalized themselves — and act out accordingly. However, the more they try to tighten their grip on the public discourse, the more the audience slips through their fingers.

This post was promoted from GreenRoom to
To see the comments on the original post, look here.

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Soooooo…..second look at the Fairness Doctrine in a lame duck Congress?

Bishop on September 2, 2010 at 1:32 PM

Take that, you fool Tarkin.

pseudonominus on September 2, 2010 at 1:36 PM

Outstanding piece, Karl.

SurferDoc on September 2, 2010 at 1:37 PM

Well said, well said..

sandee on September 2, 2010 at 1:38 PM

As long as they continue to insist that people who do not agree with them are not only wrong, but eeeeevvvvviiiiillll, there can be no discussion. They simply can not hear it.

Lily on September 2, 2010 at 1:39 PM

The problem with Ace’s premise is the press clearly forces choice between A (extreme right) and D (left-center).

Now…the problem here is that this administration is more like D-/E+, which presents a problem to the press. While the administration can stay insulated from popular opinion and debate, the press can not (they do work in the free market). The press is simply incapable of defending an administration left of them, hence the sudden bad press for Obama.

Now that people are engaged politically, they see that not only are there B and C, which are never presented (and that the press has mocked), but that E is so repulsive they can not understand a press that continues to protect it.

bloghooligan on September 2, 2010 at 1:41 PM

This is news?

OhioCoastie on September 2, 2010 at 1:41 PM

Good comparison regarding the Westboro Baptists, the Phelps gang.

tommyboy on September 2, 2010 at 1:42 PM

short version ……

Establishment media lies.
Brain-numb morons lap it up.
Brain-numb morons elect inexperienced moron.
Establishment media provides cover for inexperienced moron.

This has been going on for as long as I can remember. Only difference now is, after years of academia brainwashing and years of ineffective teachers graduating kids who can’t spell, read or think for themselves, the overwhelming majority of voters are bumbling idiots who would elect a serial killer if the establishment media pushed it 24/7.

fogw on September 2, 2010 at 1:43 PM

Very good. Hopefully, some of your excellent material will make into the public debate. We are a small market here.

These issues should be front and center because when normal Americans lost their voice to the militant left media that was the beginning of all other freedoms lost.

The strangle hold on information has been loosened some but not nearly enough to put the socialist into the dust bin of history yet.

Information and education need to be the watch cry of all Conservatives.

petunia on September 2, 2010 at 1:48 PM

geez, if you can’t believe the Ministry of Truth who can you believe??

Justrand on September 2, 2010 at 1:49 PM

That was really well thought out. Thanks.

Vashta.Nerada on September 2, 2010 at 1:52 PM

We are co-opting the word establishment. That is funny! And true, they are now what they hated in the 1960s. They are the man keeping the people down.

petunia on September 2, 2010 at 1:52 PM

To be fair, some of the things you list, like the Duke LaCrosse team, the Katrina stories, the other dramatic stuff are not politically motivated, in my opinion. They are “Geraldo” motivated. The Lame Stream Media thinks their ratings will be higher if the story is as dramatic as possible.

To an extent they are right. People would probably go to sleep to a story about how well something was handled or a non-sensationalized story on the Duke players. They do it a lot of times for ratings, not political points. Look at how it’s always “Breaking News”, “exclusives”, etc.

The Lewinski story is a case in point. There was no “vast right-wing conspiracy”, only the media creating as much drama out of it as they could. “Stink and stink news has learned from our exclusive sources that a blue dress has been found . . . ” (yes, I replaced such and such).

Look at how much they focus on presentation, with walls of screens, and people in the background we’re supposed to believe are working their tails off on research during the 30 minutes they are on.

Is there bias in political reporting? Yes, absolutely, every independent study has proven that. Is all their reporting driven by that bias? No. Balloon boy was a perfect example of that. They are suckers for any ANGLE on a story that they think will keep viewers glued to the TV.

PastorJon on September 2, 2010 at 1:57 PM

Pastor Jon,

I wonder whether you followed the Duke case closely, as there was a distinct political backdrop tot the coverage.

As for Katrina, I think the contrast with the media’s coverage of the Obama admin’s resposne to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is telling. And after the flawed coverage was exposed, the media is still patting itself on the back, which tells you they cared more about the political impact than accuracy.

I noted the Lewinsky story because — contra your theory — under the old model, it wouldn’t have gone public. Newsweek spiked the story; Drudge reported that the story was spiked — and still had exclusives for about a week before the establishment media lifted its blackout.

Karl on September 2, 2010 at 2:20 PM

Can’t wait ti watch the election returns on NO-vember 2nd… I may even have to switch over to MSNBC to watch the meltdown and suicide party…

Khun Joe on September 2, 2010 at 2:32 PM

This is the same technique used to shape congressional Legislation. Option “E” or “do nothing” is never given as an option when more often then not, it is the best option.

J_Crater on September 2, 2010 at 2:39 PM

They are suckers for any ANGLE on a story that they think will keep viewers glued to the TV.

What rating are you looking at? All I see is the MSM losing customers.

bloghooligan on September 2, 2010 at 2:40 PM

Karl, don’t forget the John Edwards fiasco. They were dragged, kicking and screaming into covering that when it got too much exposure elsewhere.

Jeff on September 2, 2010 at 2:43 PM

The MSM in many ways is like the Iranian regime: they are being texted out of existence and the only recourse they have left is brutality.

MaxMBJ on September 2, 2010 at 2:45 PM

Great piece Karl

red131 on September 2, 2010 at 2:57 PM


As sad/biased as the establishment media was on the Edwards story, I don’t know that it falls into the category of reporting “faux news.” Per that definition, I picked from the pool of overhyped or bogus stories. If I had to edit the post, I might rewrite the sentence on Iraq to make clear that the establishment was reporting that Anbar province was lost, when in fact it was laready turning around.

Karl on September 2, 2010 at 3:11 PM

Nicely presented. LOVED the Governor Tarkin reference at the end.

azkag on September 2, 2010 at 3:30 PM

Probably the best piece I have ever read on this site.

Phenomenal job, Karl. This needs to be read and re-read, and distributed to all.

In order to understand specific occurrences of media bias and faulty memes, one must have a guiding theoretical framework and understanding of observable phenomenon. That’s exactly what this piece is.

Thanks for writing this.

Paul F. Villarreal
Conservative New Media

PhoenixUniversal on September 2, 2010 at 6:39 PM

Absolutely great article. I wish more had been made about the “sin of omission” though. In my opinion, there is nothing worse than ignoring news that doesn’t fit the narrative. To me, that is the essence of biased reporting. To exclude the relevant facts of a story is to deny the public their right to decide.

gordo on September 2, 2010 at 9:41 PM