Manufacturing dissent

Truth, politics, and the polarized media.

Surya Gowda

January 6, 2023

I worked for Newsmax Media during the aftermath of the 2020 United States presidential election. This period saw the conservative media outlet explode in popularity and gain infamy: Company executives believed they could boost ratings by entertaining then-President Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of election fraud, and they were right. During the last two months of 2020, Newsmax TV anchors and guests presented millions of viewers with false claims that voting machine companies, Venezuelan communists, and the Clintons, among other nefarious parties, had conspired to install Joe Biden as president. Meanwhile, I, a humble website copy editor, was directed to wipe out the word “unproven” before all references to Trump’s fraud accusations in order to preserve our readers’ fantasies of a stolen election.

I took a leave of absence from college in late 2019 to deal with a chronic illness and hoped to work during my time off school. The last thing I anticipated was that I would be involved in creating the propaganda that led to the January 6, 2021 Capitol riot. When Newsmax gave me a job offer in March of 2020, I thought I was being given the opportunity to write and edit for a small-scale version of Fox News, albeit with clunkier graphics. As a 19-year-old with hopes for a future in political writing, I was thrilled to accept. One “insurrection” and a few looming defamation lawsuits against my employer later, however, my frustration with the national political scandal I got entangled in was so great that I promised myself I would never work in the media or politics again.

As you may be able to tell from the fact that I am now cofounding a magazine of politics and culture, I have not kept that promise. Reflecting on my experiences in greater depth helped me realize that journalism and politics can be worthy endeavors if you are careful about the organizations you choose to associate with. More importantly, odd as it may sound given my disappointment with Newsmax, it also taught me that to really understand how to make our media less dysfunctional, we may have to abandon the notion that they (that is, the media) should be telling us the truth.

If our goal is discerning how a healthier media landscape might operate, we should first examine the way the media currently function and how they reached such a flawed state. To this end, working at Newsmax taught me that we must see the political news media for what they are: companies trying to make a profit. Thankfully, one of the most influential treatments of truth and the media in recent decades, the book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, did just that.

Economist Edward S. Herman and linguist Noam Chomsky’s 1988 book argued that, due primarily to economic incentives, the U.S. mass media functioned according to a propaganda model, stirring up support for the actions of the state and corporations. They claimed that five variables allowed wealth and power to determine the news cycle. These variables were media firms’ size, ownership, and profit orientation; their dependence on advertising for income; their reliance on sources provided or funded by government and business; their sensitivity to “flak,” or negative responses to their statements; and the national religion of anticommunism (the latter being a testament to the book’s focus on American foreign policy of the seventies and eighties). The authors meticulously documented how media would converge on a seemingly neutral narrative that, in reality, “manufactured consent” to the ill-advised ideas of the elites.

At first, my experience of the media seemed to confirm what Herman and Chomsky had written decades ago. Even in an operation as overtly partisan as Newsmax, working on breaking news felt surprisingly apolitical. What qualified as “news” was dictated by a few wire services like the Associated Press, Bloomberg, and Reuters, and while writing up 300 words about whatever House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on MSNBC that morning, there was neither much room nor time to editorialize. So do the media still produce one supposedly objective narrative that really “manufactures” public support for policies that benefit the ruling class?

The answer is a definitive no, and Newsmax’s election fraud debacle should be evidence enough. The media still delude the public, but in an entirely different manner than in the days of Manufacturing Consent. Instead of having incentives to create unifying myths for the country, the media today profit by creating myths that divide it. They do this by capturing particular demographics and feeding them only those news stories—however neutral the content of many of them may seem—that support, or at least do not challenge, their worldviews.

In 2019, writer Matt Taibbi published Hate Inc.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another, a book that styles itself as an update to Manufacturing Consent and explains how we arrived at the present polarized media landscape. Taibbi claims that, following Manufacturing Consent’s publication, three great revolutions fundamentally transformed the media business and disrupted the narrative conformity Herman and Chomsky critiqued. These were the growth of “Fox-style” news sources that used point of view instead of neutrality as commercial strategies; the development of the 24-hour news cycle; and the rise of the internet and the news media’s resulting reliance on subscription for revenue in place of advertising. Together, these factors shifted the media’s incentives away from manufacturing a hegemonic national political discourse and toward fomenting anger, outrage, and a wide range of alternate realities.

Taibbi stresses that this change resulted from a shift in media companies’ business models, rather than a conscious desire of their executives or employees to create a fractured and seemingly less fact-based public discourse. This proved true in my experience at Newsmax. I got the strong sense from coworkers, including copyeditors, news writers, and managing editors, that they did not endorse Newsmax’s position on Trump’s unproven fraud claims and that many weren’t conservatives at all. These were just jobs to them like any other. Their lack of belief in the cause likely held true even at the highest levels of the company; in November 2020, The New York Times described Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy as a “revenue-minded cynic” rather than an ideologue. Newsmax, like any other media company, was always a business first and an outlet for activism second. The Capitol riot was not the product of a conspiracist media cabal, but of businessmen chasing profits.

While thinking about our political news media in economic terms has great explanatory power, it leaves us in an uncomfortable position. If both the conformist media of the past and the polarized media of the present spread misleading narratives, and neither have an express intent to deceive the public, how is one sort of media landscape worse than the other? Taibbi has admitted in an interview with University of Chicago finance professor Luigi Zingales and Vanity Fair editor Bethany McLean that neither he nor Chomsky have satisfying answers. If one assumes that the mass media’s rightful function is to provide the public with the oftentimes harsh truths about politics, then satisfaction is hard to find. But this assumption does not hold up to scrutiny.

The mass media today are failing to fulfill their purpose precisely because they do not “manufacture consent.” Times of ideological frenzy, political radicalization, and violent protests remind us of the benefits of what, in an era of greater social peace, was easy to deride as propaganda on behalf of a privileged class. The false neutrality that Herman and Chomsky critiqued was good insofar as it saved us from public conflict over values and conceptions of reality. What they argued to be the media’s bias toward elite interests was useful in that it allowed the state to carry out its programs effectively and diminished the chances that citizens would take up arms against it. The righteousness of the state’s programs can be questioned, but the success of the media as institutions depends upon their ability to carry out the exact functions that Herman and Chomsky identified.

A healthy media landscape would absolutely have the freedom of the press—and that freedom certainly existed in the Manufacturing Consent era. However, the ideal landscape would also create order by producing unified narratives that are neutral in the same—perhaps imperfect—way that the state is. As a result, the public and journalists would perceive these narratives as neutral, too. If economic pressures are mainly responsible for the current state of our media, it is unlikely that such a landscape can come to exist without serious (and controversial) intervention. But current efforts to counter disinformation are a step in the right direction, even if they cannot fully mend our fractured discourse or bring truth back into politics.

So where is the truth in politics?

Having my work email flooded with Newsmax reader comments made it obvious that our polarized media can make anyone feel as if they are a daring intellectual outsider, armed with elusive truths. As Taibbi describes it, the media divide the public among numerous “silos,” each of which unifies the individuals within them through a unique set of myths. By definition, those within any given silo, such as that of Newsmax viewers, do not realize that they are deluded. But by noticing that they are immune to the unifying myths of other silos, like the one pertaining to center-left CNN viewers, they become convinced of their status as members of an enlightened few.

This trend manifests in the ubiquity of phrases like becoming “woke” or “redpilled,” which signify the process of supposedly awakening to difficult political truths. These metaphors are adaptations of one of the oldest representations of attaining knowledge in Western culture, Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. In this story, a man inside a cave finds that the images on the cave’s walls, which he previously thought to be reality, are merely shadows. He is compelled to move out of the cave into the realm of truth above and, as a result, becomes an outsider to the society he was a part of. 

However, a crucial point of Plato’s allegory is that the ascent to the truth is difficult and can be accomplished only by rare, intellectually exceptional individuals. If there is something to glean from this ancient story, it is that the full and unsettling truth about our political communities cannot be effortlessly attained by getting swept up in one of countless media echo chambers. It is not something we can expect the mass media to provide us at all. Rather, we can only pursue the truth seriously by demanding excellence of ourselves.

I had to make many difficult decisions during my late teenage years. I left school to put my health first, chose to look for a job in the industry I hoped to go into down the road, and took up a position at a firm whose political mission I did not always agree with because I thought, “How bad could it really be?” As a result, I learned lessons about the cynical nature of our political media through a lot of first-hand stress, and perhaps too young. But as insane as it was for seemingly innocuous decisions to lead to this situation, my experiences have provided me with a sense of purpose and confidence as I reengage with political journalism—and because of that, I have no regrets.

Surya Gowda is the cofounder and coeditor in chief of The Harper Review and a fourth-year at the University of Chicago studying political theory.