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Citizens or Sheep : MANUFACTURING CONSENT by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky (Pantheon Books: $24.95, cloth; $14.95, paper; 399 pp.; 0-394-54926; 0-679-72034-0) : CANDIDATES, CONSULTANTS AND CAMPAIGNS : The Style and Substance of American Electioneering by Frank I. Luntz (Basil Blackwell: $24.95; 256 pp. (0-631-16262-3)

November 13, 1988|Derek N. Shearer | Shearer, currently professor of public policy at Occidental College, has worked as a campaign consultant and as an investigative journalist. and

How Americans learn about public events and political leaders--who provides us with information and how it is packaged--is the common theme of these two works.

In "Candidates, Consultants and Campaigns," author Frank I. Luntz, a consultant with the Wirthlin Group--the firm that has been the main pollster for the Reagan White House--describes the operation of campaign consultants, political action committees (PACs) and communications technology, especially television, in the American political system. Luntz adequately covers the basics of the subject--but while the book might be a useful primer for the novice candidate for public office, Luntz adds nothing new to our understanding of the issues raised by this system of selecting leaders.

Earlier books by such journalists and scholars as Sidney Blumenthal, Austin Ranney, Tom Edsall, Larry Sabato and Edwin Diamond--to name only a few--described the advent of a political system dominated by an elite cadre of campaign consultants, financed by special interest money, and organized around 30- and 60-second sound bites and TV ads.

What's more, these authors not only described the system; they analyzed it in critical ways and proposed various reforms for the electioneering process. Luntz is almost totally acritical of modern campaigning.

He offers the reader such trite observations as, "In a democracy, where the power of the vote is the power of the people, the voter is king"--and concludes finally that "an informed voter is a more effective voter . . . Modern campaign technology is providing the means to attain it."

Luntz does not grapple with such troubling questions as declining voter turnout in the United States, or the lack of serious issue debates in most campaigns for higher office. Could the two be linked? Luntz does not inquire. One wonders why this book needed to be published, at least in book form. It might have been more useful as a video.

In contrast to Luntz' celebration of the electioneering system, authors Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky--two university professors--are highly critical of the American mass media and the ways in which they "manufacture" public attitudes about political events, especially events in other countries that involve the United States.

Herman and Chomsky offer, in their words, a "propaganda model" of the mass media in the United States. They attempt to prove that through the workings of the media, support is mobilized for the special interests, mainly business, that dominate government. In support of this thesis, Herman and Chomsky offer in-depth studies of U.S. media coverage of El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua; of the alleged KGB-Bulgarian plot to kill the Pope; and of American involvement in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

"Manufacturing Consent" is an ambitious and important work. It follows in the wake of previous books critical of U.S. foreign policy by both authors.

The best and, I think, most valuable parts of the book are the case studies. For these alone, the work should be required reading for future foreign correspondents and foreign editors at leading schools of journalism and public affairs. Herman and Chomsky persuasively demonstrate that in countries where the American government is involved--either openly or covertly--the press is frequently less than critical, and sometimes a partner in outright deception of the American public.

However, Herman and Chomsky don't adequately explore the extent to which the mass media fail to manufacture consent, and why this might be so. With regards to Nicaragua, public opinion in the United States has not rallied to the conservative viewpoint in spite of an incredible barrage of outright lies and propaganda orchestrated by President Reagan and top government officials. Such mainstream groups as the Catholic Church and the Democratic leadership in Congress have not gone along with manufacturing consent for the Contra cause.

Similarly, in the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos--the corrupt, longtime "friend" of the U.S. government--was forced to flee the country in spite of Reagan's personal predilection to support him. One of the factors in pushing Marcos out of the country was, I would argue, television coverage of the mass protests against his authoritarian rule; another was opposition to him by Democratic members of Congress.

By focusing chiefly on print media inadequacies, Herman and Chomsky miss the impact and effect of TV imagery. A TV image is often worth more than 1,000 words and can affect the public in ways neither the government nor special interests intend. In addition, the authors fail to consider how Congress has changed as a new generation of elected officials, "educated" by Vietnam and Watergate, has gained influence. Even the media itself have been changed by the turbulent events of recent decades. Almost every major city has an independent weekly newspaper like the L.A. Weekly that is critical of U.S. foreign policy.

There are indeed serious problems with how we select our political leaders and how we get information about what they do in our name, but the political landscape is neither as rosy as Luntz suggests nor as bleak as Herman and Chomsky would have us believe.

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