It took a small and seemingly innocuous incident with a roving photographer to bring Noam Chomsky and Edward S Herman’s: Manufacturing Consent – The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988) to mind. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how we all could benefit from re-reading the text, particularly those of us who are still involved in the practice of journalism.
The Personal Case
I was sitting at a table next to a window facing the street at Bread and Roses, a cafe bistro in Melville at the corner of 7th Street and 4th Avenue, typing away when I looked up to find a woman with a camera facing me. I was just putting up my head to think away from the screen as one does, when at that very moment our eyes met and she smiled sweetly at me and asked if she could take a picture. As usual, thinking this would make her go away I asked why? She replied that I was beautiful. I rolled my eyes thinking that if I earned actual money each time someone told me that I would be a very wealthy woman today, beauty as it turns out, does not solve many problems.
But before I could say something, she had already taken several pictures of me. So I asked feeling less nonchalant this time, what the pictures were for? She responded looking rather annoyed herself that it was just for her own personal use. I wanted to ask her for her email so I can have a copy too when she started walking swiftly away followed closely by a male colleague with more cameras strapped around him which then made me think that that picture could not have been just for her own personal use. I was still focused on what I was doing and so I did not have the energy nor the time to run after her and ask her to delete my pictures since they were taken according to my understanding, under false pretenses.
But the picture had already been taken and she was gone.
I realized then why wildlife safaris are so popular among those who say they love and adore animals. You can take as many pictures as you like and the Giraffe will never ask why? What is it for? or What’s in it for me?
Later as I sat with an old friend, a photographer, I told her of what had just happened. I was wondering why they were taking pictures of people without any real explanation. She said “ They’ve been doing this all day, but you know” she continued ” it’s a true lie. It’s it’s true that you may have looked beautiful sitting there working on your computer, but maybe it just made a nice picture overall not you personally, just the picture composition you know the lighting , colour etc. so it’s true but it’s also a lie.”
In short I was duped by my own vanity
So the “truth” of my supposed beauty as I typed away by the window of a trendy coffee shop in Melville masked multiple lies. The picture was not only for her personal use. I did not consent to my picture being taken, there was just not enough time for me to make a well thought out decision and if the photographer wanted that beautiful picture as she saw it right then– she needed to act quickly, say something to distract or placate me so it seem as though I have given my consent.
So what does this example have to do with manufacturing consent and the political economy of the mass media? Everything. It was economically expedient for her to lie to me about what she will use my picture so I won’t make any claims on whatever commercial gains she might make on my image in the future, it was politically expedient for her to lie about my beauty so she can get what she wanted.
This is may be simplistic but it is often exactly how the ideological propaganda works. It is a delicate mix of truth and lies which are meant first to confuse, then to divert your attention from asking the appropriate question or probing any further. It’s that moment when someone pays you the nicest compliment as preparation for an attack meant to coerce you into doing what they want or to believe what they say. It’s a form of psychological manipulation which is hard to pin down, identify, much less prove.
There are many forms of deception – the local version
Let me pull up from the minutia and give you a wider angle with an example more relevant to most of us. Let’s go back to the Marikana Massacre on the 16th of August 2012. To say I was shocked by the public response to the incident is an understatement of the century. If I was mad, I regained the full use of my mental faculties on that day. Many people applauded police action justified by statements such as this one which littered Twitter and Facebook saying: “yeah, I mean what you would do when confronted by a mob of spear wielding men?” “I’d shoot”. Some even congratulated the police for doing a good job in defending themselves and more generally the country. This despite the fact that the previous night video footage of the murders were shown on both the privately owned E-news Channel and publicly owned SABC news broadcasts. Police were shown clearly shooting at the miners who were fleeing the Koppie. Trauma specialists and or psychologists might tell you that sometimes when people are faced with traumatic or tragic events they go through a period of denial, it didn’t happen. But despite the many interviews we conducted with journalists, union leaders and the bereaved, the official story was that the police had done their job well on that day.
Which is true, but it is also a lie.
To drive the point home of who exactly was the guilty party, the police arrested more than 200 striking miners. The miners were wrong, they didn’t listen to instructions not to strike, they didn’t want to leave the Koppie so they had to be shot. Soon after, a ban on interviews with those linked to the mining incident such as the bereaved was instituted at the public broadcaster for “legal considerations” including all original footage showing how the shooting happened was barred from the news on both channels, even on radio for natural sound. Deputy President Cryril Ramaphosa came in for an interview with Xolani Gwala on SAfm – AM Live, to explain himself and his involvement in the whole saga. The wider public believed that the police were doing their job, until the documentary on the incident Miners Shotdown proved otherwise. Now almost four years later the veil has been lifted. Those who have seen the film can only cover their wide open mouths with the palms of their hands.
Who are the worthy victims?
Let’s not forget about the most important story. The terrorists attacks in the Ivory Coast in which 22 people died following an explosion at a beach front resort in Grand-Bassam. Lifeless black bodies, of men mostly filled my Facebook timeline, arms and limbs flayed and twisted with heads buried face down on the sand. Those images caused one to look away. The one person of European descent known to many South Africans of the “political class” meaning artists, filmmakers and cultural managers, remained human even after her death. We didn’t see pictures of her lifeless, bullet riddled or mangled body buried in the sand, we only saw pictures of her radiant smile and several pictures of her while she was still alive in the Ivory Coast surrounded by artists whom she so loved. Even news reports of the incident had images of her while she was still alive and the rest of the pictures were of black bodies discarded scattered on the beach like flies. The only image that proved that there were white people killed in the incident was a picture which only zoomed on the feet of the dead while the rest of their bodies were fully covered. You may ask why is it necessary for me go into such detail. I want to illustrate the subtle yet powerful messaging contained in these images, how people are treated when they are dead, shows you whose life is important, which life matters most. One news outlet even went as far as saying, 22 people including Europeans were killed at a beach front hotel in the Ivory Coast. Who will you remember?
So who knows what is actually Going On?
Today in South Africa we’re all so preoccupied (the political class) with the Guptas and their undue influence on the President of the country. When so much worse is happening to our people. Daily, workers are being systematically dehumanized by the thousands herded like cows or sheep into taxis every morning or made to wait while angry and arrogant taxi bosses divide the loot among themselves in Johannesburg, or kill each other in Durban. This while those who are opposed to mining explorations in many of the country’s rural areas are being killed, forcibly moved from their homes, starved of land, livestock and any way to make a living. Water is cut off from river streams and what is left is for coal. Humans drink from the same polluted, stagnant waters with dogs and wild animals, because their taps have run dry. This as the Reserve bank increases the interest rates by 25 basis points making the cost of borrowing money exorbitant (more than ten percent interest on every rand borrowed). While the Rand loses currency making it so much easier for foreign investors to take, sorry, to buy whatever they like fulfilling former president Nelson Mandela’s promise to avail the country’s public enterprises to global capital. The coup is happening if it’s not already finished. This as cabinet ministers with smalla-nyana skeletons in their respective closets, watch on.
No one has the courage to say: we’ve been conquered. That one vote, that one yes in 1994, meant yes to everything that is happening now.
A lie, which is also true.
Of course there are a million ways in which my words can be contradicted, proven to be false, this is after all not a monolithic argument or position. Life is infinitely more complex and more nuanced than we could ever imagine. But it is also just as simple. Nothing is ever what it seems. At best all the examples I have made here, serve to remind us that we’ve all been co-opted at some level or another into our own self-deception. We either choose not to see the truth because it is completely inconvenient for us right now or we just don’t have the energy to say or ask for more. Because we’re just too tired, too exhausted by the sheer physical exertion required to get from A to B in order to just put food on the table. So when we get home, we just want to sit down, relax ,watch some good TV and then just as the show gets really interesting wonder why the lights, suddenly, go off. At least this way there’ll always be someone else to blame.
Pictured: Henrike Grohs one of an estimated 22 people killed at the Ivory Coast terrorist attack on the 13th of March 2016. Picture Credit: The Goethe Institute. Johannesburg. South Africa.