Manufacturing Dissent

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.