Walter Lippmann, who was the most respected figure in US journalism for about half of the 20th century, used the term “the manufacture of consent” in the 1920s to describe how people can be made to decide the way their alleged betters want them to, or think they should.

Ordinary folk are supposed to make the decisions in a democracy, but they don’t always make the best ones, given the vast confusion created by contending claims in modern societies.

Hence, “It is no longer possible,” wrote Lippmann, “… to believe in the original dogma of democracy; that the knowledge needed for the management of human affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart…We cannot rely upon intuition, conscience, or the accidents of casual opinion if we are to deal with the world beyond our reach.”

Lippmann concluded that the “well-informed” can remedy that problem by shaping public opinion through the mass media. It’s a view that has been criticized for, among other reasons, its assumption that “the well-informed” know best what’s good for the rest of society, and are themselves not driven by ways of thinking created by their social and economic status, their experience, class and personal interests, and other factors.

Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman used the phrase in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, in which the authors looked into the interests that drive the mass media, and which therefore decide what information reaches the public, what doesn’t, and in what form.

Chomsky, a linguistics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and perhaps the most well known public intellectual in the US, has argued that far from being instruments of democratic choice, the mass media constitute the ideological apparatus through which the wealthy and the powerful preserve their rule and “keep the rabble in line”. The mass media manufacture the consent that gives societies the appearance or illusion of democratic decision- making by shaping opinions in accordance with the interests of big business and government policy.

The process is evident in the way the Western media organizations that blanket the globe with entertainment and information echo the foreign policies of the US and its Western allies — not necessarily as part of any conscious conspiracy, but consistent with a view of the world that has itself been nurtured by the mass media as the main source of information in today’s world.

Consistent with these policies is a dominant view of Iran and North Korea as the villains in an otherwise rational world order. Both countries have been “in the news” for decades. Iran because of its tumultuous recent history from the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, the establishment of an Islamic Republic in its wake, the hostage- taking by militant students of US embassy personnel and citizens in November that year, and its 1980-1982 war with Iraq. More recently, however, Iran, because of its supposed nuclear ambitions and support for the Islamist groups Hizbollah and Hamas, has been more prominently in the camera sights of the international networks and news agencies.

On the other hand, North Korea has been for decades labeled a rogue state. George W. Bush named it, together with Iraq and Iran, as part of the “Axis of Evil” — so-called because of this “axis’” alleged support for terrorism and its focus on developing nuclear weapons.

The turmoil that followed the recent presidential elections in Iran, in which the victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been at issue, is the ostensible reason why it has remained in the news. North Korea’s recent nuclear tests meanwhile explain why it shares the media spotlight with Iran.

The media texts on the reporting on North Korea are the subtexts in the reporting on Iran. It is the argument that both countries have to be stopped from developing nuclear weapons because they’re irresponsible, and their leaders crazies who can’t be expected to act rationally. Reports on the turmoil in Iran thus reinforce the view of that country as unstable, even as reportage on the most recent statements of Ahmadinejad — such as, for example, those he has made during his current visit to Russia — suggest that his is an erratic leadership unworthy of control over nuclear arms.

North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il and the country he rules are way ahead of Iran in the current pantheon of world villains the global media have created. Kim has been painted as volatile, sick, and perhaps even mad, and his country described as “reclusive,” “secretive” and willfully “isolated”. North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons has thus been described as a “grave threat” to the world.

It is. But nuclear weapons are a grave threat to the world whoever possesses them.

Nuclear weapons as well as the missiles and air and seacraft to deliver them are in the hands of the so-called “nuclear weapons states” — the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and China. But India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel also possess nuclear weapons, although they are not recognized as nuclear weapons states by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The assumption, however, is that the “nuclear weapons states” are “responsible,” in contrast to those others that already have them but are not recognized by the NPT, are aspiring for, or are developing such weapons — i.e., Iran and North Korea, although Pakistan too, it has been suggested by the global media, could be in that category.

The media attention on Iran and North Korea (and soon, Pakistan?) thus serve to reinforce the conventional view held by the millions the global media reach daily that these countries are irresponsible rogue states whose development of nuclear weapons would make the world a dangerous place.

Make that an even more dangerous place. The nuclear weapons in the arsenals of the nuclear weapons states have the capacity to destroy the world several times over, and, given the world’s experience with the US’ Bush-Cheney regime, there’s no guarantee that madmen won’t gain the power to use them. (The Bush government and Israel were believed to have planned an attack on Iran that did not preclude the use of nuclear weapons.)

Nuclear weapons are a grave threat to the world, period. And yet the focus on the “irresponsibility” of “rogue states” detracts from the imperative to dismantle and destroy ALL nuclear weapons rather than merely restricting their possession and development to selected states — the global equivalent of the “well-informed” elite that, via the media, manufacture the consent that makes us all believe that we’re deciding on our own while decisions are actually being made for us.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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