The difficulty of manufacturing consent on the bank bailout

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One of my TIME overlords called me this afternoon to say that he had read James Surowiecki’s thoughtful defense of the Geithner plan in the latest New Yorker and Joe Stiglitz’s thoughtful attack on it in today’s New York Times and the juxtaposition made his head hurt.

Welcome to my world, I more or less said. Regular readers of this blog know I’m more in Surowiecki’s camp than in Stiglitz’s, but I’m far from sure about it, so I try to give at least a halfway fair hearing to every halfway credible argument on this banking stuff. Doing that is enough to make my head spin, day after day after day.

A few years ago, I finally got around to reading Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s famous book Manufacturing Consent, which is all about how the mass media craft the news agenda to protect the interests of those in power. It was kind of weird reading for me, given that during some of the late-1970s and early-1980s news events that Chomsky and Herman describe I was getting a significant amount of my information from the East Bay Express and KPFA radio (which both specialized in manufacturing dissent) and then from the Dutch media (which presumably had different powerful interests to protect than the American TV networks did). Even correcting for that, I didn’t see what was so scandalous about the mass media acting as establishment-driven news filter, as long as that establishment was subjected to some checks and balances and could, if it really went off the rails, be thrown out. Societies work better when there’s broad agreement about important matters, and if some of that agreement has to be manufactured by the mass media, so be it.

I’m sure there is still a lot of that consent-manufacturing happening on TV (although less than there used to be), but I get very little of my information from TV. The media I consume are a cacaphony of often diametrically opposed voices. And on this banking stuff, they tend to be sincere, thoughtful, disinterested voices. The disagreements don’t follow partisan lines. It’s not a dumb vs. smart thing. It’s just that it’s not obvious what the right answer is and the financial establishment which once had all the answers now has almost no credibility. So we all argue and argue and argue.

Which is far better than manufacturing consent to a bad idea, of course. But it’s really tiring, and it makes me very glad not be working in communications in the Obama administration.