A Journalism of Consent

Posted by cmfr | Posted in In Medias Res, Luis V. Teodoro | Posted on 10-03-2017

By Luis V. Teodoro

IN HIS book Public Opinion (1921), the US journalist and public intellectual Walter Lippmann argued that for democracy to work, the consent of the governed must be “manufactured” by those who have the interest and the knowledge to look into the complexities of public issues and policy.

The collective interests of the public, society and the nation are not self-evident, said Lippmann. Defining what these are requires careful analysis of available information. It’s an intellectual exercise much of the citizenry– the “unthinking herd”– is either incapable of, uninterested in, or both.

Appropriate policies are nevertheless  needed to address public issues for a democracy to  function. For this  task, society needs experts–call them technocrats– who, having looked at the available information, can proceed to craft and propose State policies to decision-makers. However, the consent of the governed is a fundamental principle in democratic societies– hence the need to “manufacture” that consent through, among other means, the mass media.

Among the tasks of journalists is convincing the citizenry to support what the experts have proposed, and equally important, that the public believes them to be expressive of its collective opinion. Policy-making is thus the exclusive province of a select few, while the many luxuriate in the illusion that  they’re making the decisions a sovereign people have to make in a democracy.

Sixty-seven years later, Massachusetts Institute of Technology linguistics professor Noam Chomsky and  Wharton School  professor of finance  Edward S. Herman used Lippmann’s phrase “manufacturing  consent” for the title of  their book on the political economy of the mass media (Manufacturing Consent: the Political Economy of the Mass Media, 1988). Their thesis is that far from functioning as a democratic instrument in the hands of a free people, the media are among the means the political and economic elite use to control the public mind.

US corporate media, they argue, perform essentially propaganda functions to convince the public  of the correctness of the policies already crafted by the political and economic elite, and to make it appear that those policies are consistent with the citizenry’s own views. They “manufacture consent.”   It is not the result of a conspiracy but a culture: an accustomed way of thought and of doing things.

Chomsky and Herman’s “propaganda model” of the US media contends that whatever information appears in the media is already “filtered” through any or all of the following:  (1) the interests of owners and (2) those of advertisers; (3) the use of government and  corporation “experts”  as major sources of information; (4) conformity with orchestrated criticism of media, or “flak,” whenever they somehow manage to air or print information unacceptable to owners and advertisers; and (5), the ideology of anti- communism, which prevents the views of presumed leftists, socialists and communists from being aired or printed.  Anti-communism in media practice also publicizes alleged atrocities by left-wing regimes while ignoring similar accusations against “friendly” governments.

Journalists know this process as editorial gate-keeping, in which the news desk decides, on the basis of explicit or assumed editorial policies, what to print or broadcast, as well as how reports are to be framed.  Chomsky  and Herman were describing US media. But their observations equally apply to the dominant media in the Philippines, in which the gate-keeping role of the news desks reflect, and are often consistent with, the  political and economic interests of those who own the media.

The role of the owners of media in the news process has been amply discussed by, among others, Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) founder Sheila  Coronel in her essays The Lords of the Press (1999) and The New Lords of the Press (2003), in which she documented how media owners have used the media to defend and advance their interests through selective, biased and distorted information that see print or are broadcast through the media organizations they control.

The anticipated impact of media reports on advertisers, on whom the media as commercial enterprises depend for most of their revenue, has also been a major factor in deciding which stories are killed, given prominence, or downplayed. The power of advertising is especially pronounced during election season, when media organizations, particularly television, make billions in revenues  through political ads– and are subtly or patently influenced in their reporting by that dependency. But on a day-to-day basis, information that may put advertisers in a bad light may be suppressed or hidden in the inside pages while favorable information about them or their products find their way to the front pages.

The  predominance of government sources in the reporting of much of Philippine media  has been amply validated in CMFR  monitors and studies, an example of the latter being the year 2000 CMFR research into the news media coverage of the Mindanao conflict, which found the use of mostly government sources in both print and broadcast reporting. That finding is being validated daily in reports in print that almost exclusively cite military, police and other government sources on such issues as the resumption of the anti-drug and anti-insurgency campaigns, while mostly pro-industry sources and their academic experts are cited in the raging controversy over mining.

Virtually unnoticed in the Philippine media setting is the orchestrated use of condemnatory letters to the editor and text messages–“flak”– to keep critical journalists in line.  But the use of trolls in social media to demonize even those media practitioners who merely report the latest rant of the current President has called attention to how opinion calculated to diminish their credibility is being used to intimidate them into silence or into kowtowing to power.

Anti-communism has always been a major factor in Philippine news media reporting. It is evident in the use of government and Philippine military sources in reports on, say, military and NPA (New People’s Army) encounters, the currently stalled peace talks, and human rights violations in supposedly communist-influenced communities.

The consequence is a public ill-equipped to make decisions on matters crucial to their lives. On the basis of inaccurate, incomplete or biased information, the public is led into explicit or silent support for extrajudicial killings, the re-imposition of the death penalty, approval of human rights violations in the course of the Duterte regime’s campaign against the illegal drug trade and the war in the Philippine countryside, and most obviously today, support for the opposition, though obviously orchestrated by mining interests, to  Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Gina Lopez’s policies on the  mining industry.

Philippine media are manufacturing public consent to the detriment of democratic discourse and decision-making during a critical period in Philippine history, when the gains in democratic governance and human rights compliance and the rule of law, such as they are, are being eroded by the State’s celebration of violence and lawlessness in the name of ridding the country of a drug problem that has been largely exaggerated.

By misleading the public through the power inherent in information, big media are the   partners in crime of the most backward forces and interests in Philippine society–the death penalty proponents, the local tyrants and the military thugs opposed to peace based on authentic reforms, the corrupt bureaucrats, the killers of community leaders, the perpetrators of human rights violations, the death squads, the despoilers of the environment.

Particularly evident is the way two of the three most widely-circulated broadsheets,  whose print and online editions reach the relatively better educated and the decision makers in business, the professions and the government,  currently skew their reports to favor mining interests. One of them also uses the front page, in keeping with its sordid history of supporting whatever administration is in power (it was a media voice of the Marcos kleptocracy), to cheer any and all plans, policies and acts, no matter how pernicious, brutal and unjust, of the Duterte regime.

Much of Philippine journalism is a journalism of consent and collaboration, and therefore in direct opposition to the tradition of protest and dissent that goes back over a hundred years ago to Diariong Tagalog, La Solidaridad, Kalayaan and El Renacimiento. It is once again failing the Filipino people during a time when  rigorous reporting and informed criticism consistent with  ethical and professional standards are most needed.


NOTE: Retiring from the editorship of PJRR, Prof. Luis Teodoro remains a member of the CMFR Board and will continue to be a contributor in CMFR blog In Medias Res.