In their most popular book on the subject, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky describe mass media’s role in the U.S. as carrying out a “system-supportive propaganda function, by reliance on market forces, internalized assumptions, and self-censorship, and without overt coercion.”
Since U.S. media is highly consolidated — with some suggesting that a mere 232 media executives control the information diet of 277 million Americans — manufacturing consent about the millennial generation is a relatively straightforward process.
After all, there isn’t much to do for those on the receiving end of the “manufacturing” — and that’s the point. Most content about millennials projected in the corporate media is not written or intended for those who are actually in the birth cohort (defined as 1981–1996, according to PEW Research Center).
Unless, of course, you are under 40 and enjoy learning about your life through voyeuristic “listicles” and corporate propaganda. I guess that’s cool, too.
For the rest of us, content that attempts to sum up the experiences of those in the millennial cohort through click-bait headlines and selective data, rather than credible research and bottom-up narratives, is the definition of intellectual dishonesty. However, this issue is bigger than the manufactured perception about millennials in the media— it is about how we perceive, retain, and share information in a society shaped by predatory capitalism.
The gist of manufacturing consent about millennials is in the mechanism which allows today’s culture engineers to use their digital platforms, newspapers, magazines, and pundits to manipulate public perception about something as vast and complicated as the experiences, beliefs, and attitudes of 75 million people.
Sounds crazy to believe, but all one needs to perpetuate the next big millennial insight today is an arbitrary age range, a study that sounds remotely credible, and a platform that is willing to overlook ageism in the name of clicks. There are plenty of those ingredients in today’s post-truth culture.
Clearly, a label that can capture the attention of millions, regardless of whether they agree with it or not, is a valuable tool for any propagandist. Shallow generational analysis, which is essentially ageism with extra steps, is therefore the perfect cover to shape public opinion about capitalism, democracy, war, taxes, and so on. The manufacturing part is simply the act of conditioning us to believe in this prefiltered narrative.
Nevertheless, there are times when the veil is lifted and, in Frank Zappa’s famous words, we see “the brick wall at the back of the theater.”
At a 2017 CNN town hall, Trevor Hill, a New York University sophomore presented House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi with the results of a Harvard survey which found that 51 percent of respondents between ages 18 and 29 do not support capitalism. After introducing the survey and admitting that he sees the younger generation as moving “to the left” on economic policies, Trevor asked Pelosi if Democrats can make “a more stark contrast to right wing economics.”
Pelosi’s response was swift and reassuring. “I have to say we’re capitalists, that’s just the way it is,” she replies in the video without actually addressing the root causes of young people’s discontent with the current economic system.
While Pelosi’s unflinching support for capitalism is not that surprising (she is, after all, the fourth-richest Californian in Congress), the fact that this question was asked on prime time CNN raised some eyebrows. In fact, the question was previously rejected by CNN producers, but Trevor asked it despite the rejection. In a rare moment of TV history, Trevor exposed the confluence of political and corporate media interests that weed out critical millennial opinions from the mainstream.
Comedian Jimmy Dore later described Pelosi’s answer as someone “who got hatched from an egg three seconds ago.”
Another example that illustrates the treatment of millennials in corporate media is a video segment from Bill O’Reilly’s now defunct right wing talk show. In the segment, Bill sends a reporter to interview millennials about their support for Trump. Even though the segment as a whole is an antithesis to real journalism, there is an exchange that hits right at the center of the issue:
Reporter: “Are you guys millennials?”
Interviewee: “Are you asking us if we accept that label, or if we fit into the conceived notion of this label”?
Reporter: “Let’s not overthink this.”
The segment is a great example of how corporate media perpetuates and shapes narratives about millennials, while ignoring what they actually have to say (especially if it doesn’t fit the desired narrative).
“I feel sorry for me that has to talk to these people,” says the reporter in the end of the segment. “No,” argues Bill, “you are well overpaid, it takes you ten minutes to talk to them, you take 3 hours for lunch…that’s what capitalism is about.”
Much like the exchange with Pelosi on CNN, the Fox News segment highlights efforts to manufacture consent about millennials as incapable of critical thinking, while ignoring or shaming millennials who question the current economic system. Millennial shaming is where the political duopoly and its media subsidiaries find plenty of common ground.
According to Aaron Bastani, “the status quo of the contemporary corporate mainstream media is a ‘communicative ecology’ that permits the perpetuation of what some have called ‘capitalist realism’.” Bastani defines capitalist realism as “a state of collective consciousness where the end of the world is seen as more conceivable than the end of capitalism.”
Capitalist realism is in full effect when it comes to manufacturing consent about millennials in the U.S., and is very much in line with Edward Bernays’s thoughts on how propaganda can be utilized to shape public opinion.
The manufacturing of consent about millennials is closely connected to maintaining the facade of capitalism and shaping our opinions on taxes, foreign policy, environmental destruction, police enforcement, racial justice, and other issues — which is why the idea of being a “thought leader” in anything “millennial” is so appetizing to the ruling class and its generational experts.
For example, JP Morgan Chase & Co. is the exclusive sponsor of The Lily, a “millennial women spinoff” of the Washington Post. Will JP tell its readers the truth about corporate taxes in the US, or will it publish hit pieces on the politicians that it deems threatening to its survival?
Goldman Sachs buys articles in The Atlantic to tell us why “Generation Z” (the brand given to the next generation) matters more than millennials. Can we trust Goldman’s sponsored content about the social and economic opportunities for the next generation, knowing Goldman’s history of market manipulation?
When it comes to corporate news, will political pundits on MSNBC and Fox News talk about the millennial vote as a chance for real change, or will they subvert the millennial narrative based on whom their parent companies are willing to support?
In a research paper entitled “Framing Bias: Media in the Distribution of Power,” Robert Entman, professor at The George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, argues that “if patterns of slant persist across time, message dimensions, and media outlets, it means that the media may be systematically assisting certain entities to induce their preferred behavior in others.”
In the case of millennials, patterns of slant can manifest themselves through a constant “tough love” take on the generation, or they can lean more toward pop culture and corporate voyeurism. While Pew Center Research, Gallup, and a number of alternative news outlets publish nuanced articles on the subject, they probably can’t compete with provocative propaganda masterpieces about the sexual promiscuity and private consumer habits of millennials trumpred up in the mainstream media.
Generational theory, in all of its scientific and pseudoscientific manifestations, is the perfect instrument when it comes to promoting biases through mass media framing. This is because what is said about generations can vary widely depending on one’s intent and definition of a generation.
However, that doesn’t make generational stereotyping an outlier when it comes to media bias. If anything, the corporate media’s tilt toward a particular view on millennials joins a long list of other topics that receive a similar treatment in the U.S.
“The stories of the poor and the near poor, the hardships they endure, are rarely told by a media that is owned by a handful of corporations,” writes Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges, “the suffering of the underclass, like the crimes of the power elite, has been rendered invisible.”