OPINION: American media is manufacturing your political consent

A television in front of a black and white swirl pattern
(Clare Martin • The Student Life)

The promise of $2,000 relief checks won Democrats the Senate. It energized people to come to the polls in Georgia, the swing state that allowed Democrats to win a majority, and it gave the party a mandate to deliver. The checks were not just popular in Georgia but across the country with over 80 percent of people in support. Yet, most wouldn’t think it was such a good idea if they turned on cable news or opened up The Washington Post, news organizations many people might describe as “liberal” in bias.

In establishing themselves as reputable, credible and neutral news organizations, the mainstream media and other establishment voices — be it think tanks, business executives, or government officials — inherently limit the scope of argument. They decide what is an acceptable opinion and which ones are too radical to be reasonable. 

In late December, Larry Summers, former treasury secretary and Harvard president, penned an op-ed for Bloomberg critical of the relief checks, arguing they were unnecessary. Then, in February, he wrote another piece for The Washington Post calling for the checks to go to fewer people. This sent shockwaves across D.C., even prompting the White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki and a member of the Council of Economic Advisers, Jared Bernstein, to respond

Soon, all of Washington and the liberal intelligentsia began weighing in, with the discourse including a Washington Post editorial board and a response in The New York Times — most of them citing a flawed Opportunity Insights study that recommended restricting who received a second stimulus check, even though several sources say the study needs more data. 

Several senators and the White House started to cite it in their efforts to shrink the checks. A single study generated this entire media push even when there were many other studies out there with different conclusions.

This phenomenon is called manufacturing consent” — the reader is conditioned to agree with what is the pro-establishment position. To put it another way: “The range of argument has been artificially narrowed long before you get to hear it.”

I believe the $2,000 relief checks to be good policy, and I know people who would benefit from them. But I am also terrified at how the mainstream media shapes and controls political arguments. They are the ones who decide what stories to cover, what stories to drop, who is the “expert” on this issue and what are the reasonable opinions and ideologies in a debate. If one gets most of their news from these sources and they don’t report about something, many won’t know about it.

A big part of this comes from how we as a society define the media — the fourth estate, arbiters of the truth. We think of journalism as an inherently noble profession. The “mainstream media,” what many Claremont students might define as the LA Times, The New York Times, networks (NBC, CBS, ABC), CNN, the Associated Press and other organizations of a similar vein, are not neutral but pro-status-quo and pro-establishment.

A perfect example of this is how much of the biggest actors in political media, rather than engaging in good faith criticisms, weaponized “fact checks” and framing devices to target Bernie Sanders’ two presidential candidacies.

That is not to say that all media must be unbiased — I think that is a foolish and naive endeavor — but describing it as neutral is just not true, and we have to be careful in defining these organizations as the default

This pro-establishment bent is not an outcome specific to the journalists, nor is it necessarily their intention — in fact, there are many outstanding and industry-leading reporters at those organizations. Nor do I take issue with bias in general. 

Rather, it is the nature of the media system and how it pretends that bias does not exist. Such bias is determined by who hires for these organizations, who wants to work there, who are the expert contacts they have, in government and in business, what are advertisers comfortable running beside, what brings in more advertisers and so on. After all, media is big business.

Former MSNBC producer Ariana Pekary quit her job because of that incentive structure. She explains the decisions that producers made when selecting a story and how that editorial process got in the way of viewers hearing important information or seeing the broader picture, such as how MSNBC continued to purposefully leave out Andrew Yang in discussions of the Democratic Primary. We can even see, when played out to its natural conclusion, how these systems, this “ethos of objectivity” that today’s media projects, can lead to unfounded wars.

This is the danger of how we treat the media as neutral. 

I want my opinions and understanding of policy to be informed by the news; I do not want to be misled by it. And while some Claremont students — as future journalists, politicians, think tank analysts, activists or academics — might one day change these systems, I hold no illusion that we can easily rid ourselves of this dynamic. However, I do think there are some crucial and enormously beneficial actions we can take.

First, I believe critically engaging with the news is a must. This can take the form of checking the sources (if there are any) of the articles we read. But it can also take the form of reading articles and books on the matter such as the book “Manufacturing Consent” which dives much deeper into the foreign policy ramifications of mass media through an academic lens. 

I also believe in diversifying sources, not just by leftist/liberal/conservative ideology but by funding structure, size and niche. Town papers are evaporating at a rapid pace, but they are essential checks on the power of local governments and do amazing investigative work. Both Patreon and Substack are also great platforms that let the public support freelance, high-quality journalists. There reside the writings of people from all ideologies and areas of expertise. And the same is true for the many podcasting platforms out there.

And I believe that bit about platforms is key. I am not advertising a specific publication, though I certainly have ones on which I rely. I think it is dangerous to define for others what is reputable and what isn’t, instead respecting people’s ability to seek out the issues that matter to them and the voices they trust. 

That is not to say that every publication out there is grounded in fact — many, I believe, are conspiratorial bunk — but by critically engaging with the news, seeking out a diverse range of independent opinions and pursuing what matters to us, we can all find our way closer to the truth. 

Carter Moyer HM ’24 is from Rye, New York. While he staunchly believes in freedom of the press, his greatest crusade against the media is to challenge the Associated Press Stylebook’s prohibition of the Oxford comma.

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