Manufacturing Consent One Chyron at a Time

Matt Taibbi’s Hate Inc. is a seething, if amusing, indictment of American political media in the Trump era. But, more importantly, it is a systemically-minded account of the actual sources of media debasement and the ways in which particular patterns of behavior are hardwired into the news.

Those unfamiliar with Taibbi’s past work in media criticism, invariably skewering, may get a misleading impression of the book’s content from both its title and cover. Subtitled “Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another” and featuring ominous profile shots of both Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity, Hate Inc. at a casual glance looks like it might be yet another generic screed leveled against partisanship or lamenting the descent of the once-proud enterprise of journalism into adversarial virulence.

The American political class and its media proxies have been pumping out versions of this story for decades, bemoaning the sorry state of a politics where no one gets along, leaders won’t work together to find bipartisan “solutions” (which are generally just assumed to be centrist hobbyhorses like conquering the almighty deficit or gutting Social Security), and the discourse is confrontational rather than conciliatory.

That narrative has long been nestled in the public imagination as well, particularly among liberals, and ultimately became one of the defining impulses of the Obama era. Amid the rise of the Tea Party, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert famously held a kind of ironic opposition rally whose basic MO was to issue a giant plea for Americans to start using their indoor voices (the meanest, least conciliatory people imaginable would recapture the House of Representatives a few days later). During the Trump era, the popular front coalition of establishment liberals and so-called Never Trump conservatives has appealed in similar fashion to the idea of restoring sanity and friendly cooperation as a bulwark against the nasty extremes of both right and left.

In this all-too-popular conception of what ails American politics, the issue is mainly one of aesthetics and tone rather than substance, structure, or ideology. Vacuous shouting matches a la Eichenwald v. Carlson are source rather than symptom, and media rancor is largely about the moral decline of a once noble institution. Given the ubiquity of these narratives, we certainly do not need a further contribution to the tired “American politics are excessively partisan and the media is to blame” genre so beloved by centrists, nor another paint-by-the-numbers attempt to blame Fox News for Everything That’s Wrong With America.

Thankfully, Hate Inc. is neither. Instead, Taibbi offers us a necessary and timely update to the theories advanced by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in their landmark 1988 book Manufacturing Consent and a series of illustrative case studies drawing on his own frustrations with contemporary journalism. The basic thesis advanced by Chomsky and Herman was that management of public opinion in capitalist democracies rarely takes the form of overt propaganda or censorship, but is instead achieved through vigorous policing of what constitutes acceptable opinion such that, as Taibbi puts it, “the range of argument has been artificially narrowed long before you get to hear it.”

Read the full review here.

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