Discover more from Matthew's Notebook
"Manufacturing Consent" and the Kurdish Question
Noam Chomsky's propaganda theory is important for understanding how Kurds are covered — and ignored — by the American press today.
A few months ago, I published an article on how international media covers Jordan, as part of my Fulbright project.1 This month, I applied the same methodology to investigate how international media covers Kurdish issues. This question is much more complicated, because Kurdistan is part of four different states and Kurds are embroiled in a web of different political and military conflicts.
That complexity makes the question of Kurds and the media much more interesting. With Jordan, it was a question of when journalists mentioned the country, and what was happening at the time. With Kurds, the question is not only when but also where. It matters a great deal whether Americans’ impression of the “Kurdish question” comes from hearing about the Iraqi Kurdish, Iranian Kurdish, Syrian Kurdish, or Turkish Kurdish experience.
There are about 20 million Kurds in Turkey, a repressive U.S. ally; about 10 million Kurds in Iran, a repressive U.S. enemy; about 6 million Kurds living under Iraq’s U.S.-backed Kurdistan Regional Government; and about 2 million Kurds in Syria, living under either the U.S.-backed Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria or the Turkish occupation.
As always, I recommend reading the full article to get a full idea. It wouldn’t be fair to the Kurdish Peace Institute if I just posted it all here. I’ll give you a hint: international media talks a lot about Kurds when they are relevant to U.S. domestic politics (specifically Donald Trump) or the ISIS war.
I am not the first person to think about the American media’s relationship to different Kurdish communities. That would be Noam Chomsky, the linguist and media critic. In his introduction to the 2002 edition of Manufacturing Consent, the classic left-wing media criticism study, Chomsky points out that the American media has been far more sympathetic to Iraqi Kurds (oppressed by a U.S. enemy after 19912) than Turkey’s Kurds (oppressed by a U.S. ally with American-made weapons).
Manufacturing Consent is one of the most frequently misunderstood books, especially by the people who name-drop it, so I’d like to take this opportunity to explain its ideas a bit.
Leftists often say “manufacturing consent” to mean that the media is inventing an idea and forcing it down people’s throats, perhaps on orders from above. In fact, Chomsky argues that the American media doesn’t need to be ordered around, because subtle incentives have created “a propaganda system that is far more credible and effective in putting over a patriotic agenda than one with official censorship.”
According to the study, there are five “filters” that affect media coverage in favor of powerful political actors:
Ownership: media outlets are big, expensive operations owned by rich people, corporations, and governments. This filter is actually the least insidious one in a lot of ways, because it’s very obvious and straightforward how power flows.
Advertising: news reporting costs more than news consumers are willing to pay. So outlets sell advertising to make up the cost. Ad revenue comes with a very specific incentive — to attract wealthier viewers and put them in a “spending mood.” This filter is more interesting and subtle than ownership alone.
Access to sources: powerful people have the information that journalists want. A lot of journalism, especially in the “national security” field, means convincing those powerful people that it’s in their interest to talk. Journalists who are considered “reliable” get exclusive scoops; those with sharp elbows find their access drying up. Sometimes it’s a bit of a human centipede, with journalists kissing up to think-tankers who kiss up to officials for information.
Flak: powerful people can also harass the media over unwanted coverage, in ways short of censorship or blackmail. A certain story or angle may be more trouble than it’s worth if journalists going down that route get hit with lawsuits, hate-mail, and attacks on their reputation.
Anticommunism or The Common Enemy: journalists like to think of their country as the Right Side of History and themselves as team players. During the Cold War, “the triumph of communism [was] the worst imaginable result,” and everything else was viewed through that lens. No matter what the United States or anticommunist regimes did, Soviet villainy was always in a higher category of evil. Today, Islamists or “authoritarians” play the same boogeyman role.
Although it’s common to say that the Internet liberated the media, technology has also intensified some of those filters. The online era creates far more pressure to chase advertising revenue than even the TV era. Social media is the greatest flak device ever invented; the powerful can incite a mob of angry fans online, or simulate one with a network of bots.
These filters create “worthy and unworthy victims.” Manufacturing Consent again cites Turkey, this time focusing on American reactions to the 1980 coup d’etat:
The U.S. government supported the Turkish martial-law government from its inception in 1980, and the U.S. business community has been warm toward regimes that profess fervent anticommunism, encourage foreign investment, repress unions, and loyally support U.S. foreign policy (a set of virtues that are frequently closely linked). Media that chose to feature Turkish violence against their own citizenry would have had to go to extra expense to find and check out information sources; they would elicit flak from government, business, and organized right-wing flak machines, and they might be looked upon with disfavor by the corporate community (including advertisers) for indulging in such a quixotic interest and crusade. They would tend to stand alone in focusing on victims that from the standpoint of dominant American interests were unworthy.
“Worthy and unworthy victims” is another concept from Manufacturing Consent that people often misunderstand. Western media rarely tries to demonize or blame a victim directly. (Black Americans brutalized by police or vigilantes and Palestinians killed by Israeli forces are the among the few exceptions.) Instead, the distinction is about whose humanity gets the recognition it deserves, and who remains a footnote.
Worthy victims are those whose names we hear, faces we see, and life stories we learn. We know what they suffered and who inflicted it on them. Unworthy victims are those whose tragedy gets mentioned in a short, cold, and clinical report, if that. No one has to actively justify their oppression; it is simply out of sight and out of mind.
Unlike in Chomsky’s day, the filters around Kurds today don’t always line up with U.S. government interests, which makes the issue really fascinating. For example, although the United States relishes a chance to expose Iran’s villainy, the specific plight of Iranian Kurds doesn’t get much coverage. Reporting on it is expensive and difficult.
Despite Turkey’s formal alliance with the United States, the Turkish invasion of Syria in October 2019 got a lot of negative media attention. Trump had green-lit the invasion, making it part of domestic American politics. Access to information became much easier, as there were plenty of politicians and officials willing to draw attention to the Kurds harmed by Trump’s decision.3 And there was an economic incentive to cover the crisis, because any headline with Trump’s name in it was guaranteed to attract viewers.
On the other hand, even though Western media is often sympathetic to Kurds, that sympathy is often just shallow romanticism, without engaging with the issues that actually-existing Kurdish people face. It’s questionable how much Kurds benefit from being a side-character in stories that make Westerners feel better about themselves.
Here’s a celebrated New York Times columnist (you can probably guess which one) writing from Iraqi Kurdistan in 2016:
Being back in Iraq after two years’ absence has helped me to put my finger on the central question bedeviling U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East today: What do you do when the necessary is impossible, but the impossible is impossible to ignore — and your key allies are also impossible?…
Obama has my sympathies. If you think there is a simple answer to this problem, you ought to come out here for a week. Just trying to figure out the differences among the Kurdish parties and militias in Syria and Iraq — the Y.P.G., P.Y.D., P.U.K., K.D.P. and P.K.K. — took me a day.
They really let just anyone become a public intellectual these days, huh.
Go on, read the article. You’ll learn a lot.
Thanks for reading Matthew's Notebook! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
The views expressed here do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations.
Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was a U.S. partner before 1991. During the Iran-Iraq War, the U.S. government provided Iraq with targeting intelligence for chemical attacks. When Saddam turned those weapons against Kurdish civilians in Halabja, the worst act of chemical warfare against civilians since the Holocaust, the U.S. government tried to gaslight the world into believing that Iran did it.
As a very fresh reporter in Washington, I was struck by how easy reporting became during the October 2019 crisis. Everyone was willing to criticize U.S. policy, as leaks or even on-the-record quotes. Then, when the crisis cooled down, sources of information dried up. Everyone was talking less, whether to me or more experienced and prestigious outlets.