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You’ve Been Framed!

You’ve Been Framed!

5.12.2012 16:00

One of the most famous pieces of work of Noam Chomsky, the American philosopher, political activist and linguistics professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988). The book argues that the mass media of the United States are effective and powerful ideological institutions that form a self-regulatory propaganda model, more subtle but also more powerful than those used in various dictatorships around the world. There are essentially five filters applied with which the media frame all content, often unconsciously by the media to assure them going concern and assure the editors and journalists their jobs.

These five self-imposed filters start with ownership: Chomsky argues that the dominant mass-media outlets are large firms which are run for profit. Therefore they must cater to the financial interest of their owners. Further, media outlets these days are not commercially viable without the support of advertisers. News media must therefore also cater to the political prejudices and economic desires of their advertisers. Sourcing mass media news is the third self-imposed filter: Chomsky argues that most news, in our syndicated times, come from relatively few important sources, including the government and large corporates. In order to keep “being informed”, a media outlet is expected to report in a certain way. Failing that may mean that the news source becomes less and less available with predictable consequences. Another filter is concern about flak, i.e. negative responses to a media statement or program (e.g. letters, complaints, lawsuits, or legislative actions) which can be expensive, either due to loss of advertising revenue, or due to the costs of legal defense etc. The prospect of eliciting flak can be a deterrent to the reporting of certain kinds of facts or opinions. Originally, the book included Anti-Communism as a fifth filter. Chomsky now argues that since the end of the Cold War in 1991, anticommunism was replaced by the "War on Terror", as the major social control mechanism.

According to Chomsky, this goes as much for political views as for economic reporting, and indeed any kind of journalism we encounter in mainstream media. You don’t have to agree with this description. In fact, Chomsky as an author is fairly polarizing. His audiences adore him, and his detractors abhor him. I read somewhere a very interesting observation that the only other social scientist known to generate similarly charged reactions is Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize winning Chicago economist who was labeled by The Economist as "the most influential economist of the second half of the 20th century… possibly of all of it”.

But whether you are a Chomsky supporter or not I do happen to think that a lot of what Chomsky says gives you important critical thinking tools when assessing information. Today, and for the last several years, the information has not been very good. Appalling, actually. Just reading today’s Financial Times, I learnt that “US Vulnerability to Fiscal Cliff Damps Mood”, that “Schauble puts brake on bank union plan”, and, indeed, that “Europe Is Divided Over Banking Union”, that “Sluggish Gold slips below $1,700”. The Economist proudly tells me in today’s Twitter feed that “If people’s expectations of inflation overshoot, the consequence could be a nasty recession”. So let’s look at these snippets of journalistic brilliance one at the time.

Apart from the fact that even the most respected periodicals of our world now feel the need to report with a flair of sensationalism (Fiscal cliff? Sluggish gold? Nasty recession?), the general mood of the day is being framed, terribly so. Do you actually believe, or does anybody, really, that the US will not manage to agree some sort of last minute compromise and that the whole of the largest world economy will hurl itself into some kind of a recession abyss? I don’t think so, so why will we pretend till the last moment that there is any real drama? Reporting on the eurozone and EU as a whole turned, without me really noticing, sometime around 2007-2008, from fairly jubilant to “can’t do anything right”. Just think about it. The European sovereign debt crisis, the European bank crisis, Germany refusing to pay the bill (read “as they should”), France staggering through a series of corruption scandals and now a largely ridiculed presidency (read “serves them right”), all of Southern Europe being bankrupt for decades, the entire EU enlargement to the East essentially a mistake, everyone squabbling about everything and the decision-making completely paralyzed, and I could go on and on.

Why do we just accept the flow of negativity without a pause and thought? What about this sluggish gold? Since 2003, the price of gold went from US$360 to the current US$ 1,690. In fact, the price of gold briefly jumped over US$1,800 a year ago but otherwise is on a historical maximum since 1833, the oldest historical measurement I found, having spent most of the 20th century under US$100.

Almost forgot about the good old The Economist. So I have been worrying the last couple of years that all the quantitative easing in Europe and the US will ramp up inflation so that, as the more cynical among us say, the inflation naturally takes care of all the sovereign debt that no government can afford to repay. So I have been trying to decide which assets offer the best inflation protection, and having a real hard time with that, now that both the equity and real estate markets have been taking a semi-permanent rollercoaster ride. And now, on top of that, I have to fret that instead of inflation, there will be another recession, a “nasty” one, as opposed to the nice ones we have just been through. Why don’t I just give up, or at least give up reading all these news?

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