Updated: Manufacturing Consent, Berkeley-Style

Becky O'Malley
Friday March 25, 2016 - 06:39:00 PM

The title is cribbed from Noam Chomsky, who in turn cribbed it from Walter Lippman. Noam’s 1992 book essentially accused the mass media of creating a propaganda engine for controlling public opinion, with advertisers acting as gate-keepers. The most interesting part of his thesis, the one which still seems to resonate today, is the one expressed in this quote found on Wikipedia:

“…[T]he large bureaucracies of the powerful subsidize the mass media, and gain special access [to the news], by their contribution to reducing the media’s costs of acquiring [...] and producing, news. The large entities that provide this subsidy become 'routine' news sources and have privileged access to the gates. Non-routine sources must struggle for access, and may be ignored by the arbitrary decision of the gatekeepers.”
Yes. The powerful in any context have the ability to dole out information in such a way that the voting public gets only part of the picture, and can thus be persuaded to rubber-stamp what the big machers want to do.

Case in point: the rapidly developing strategy of Berkeley’s majority machine, dominated by long-time Mayor and former Assemblymember Tom Bates and his wife State Senator Loni Hancock, both in their seventies and on their way out of their powerful jobs, to have one last hurrah by up-zoning a whole lot of Berkeley for the benefit of chosen members of the development industry.

In high school geometry we learned that it takes at least two points to determine a line—and three points which constitute the Bates Line on development have recently been put forward with the help of the local commercial media. This constitutes the opening salvo in manufacturing the apparent consent of the voting public, a campaign which would be expected to be consummated in the November election.

Point Number One is the “community” survey recently conducted on the city’s behalf by an outside contractor. It supposedly used a random sample which reached 500 voters, but in my household both of the registered voters were polled in two separate calls to our legacy landline, making me suspicious of its reach.

The survey itself was truly awful. The person reading the questions, which were tremendously long multi-clause sentences fraught with pre-suppositions, couldn’t even pronounce all the words correctly. In case you doubt me, commenters on the Berkeleyside report about this exercise in irrelevance agreed. 

But the main message, the first line-marking point, is that respondents (34% call themselves progs, 34%libs) thought that city’s main problems are lack of affordable housing (22%) and homelessness (17%). Aoout three-quarters of them wanted to do something about these problems. Berkeleyans are good-hearted folks. 

The website of the polling firm, Lake Research Partners, provides some clues as to their methodology and goals in conducting surveys like this one: 

“Since its formation, Lake Research Partners has become one of the most respected Democratic polling firms in the country. The firm's work has moved the progressive agenda forward on a variety of issues.
Yeah, sure, we’re all Democratic around here, most of the time Progressives even, nothing against Liberals either, but really…that was a publicly funded push poll: a poll designed to move an agenda. 

So, ya got trouble right here in River City? It just so happens that The Medicine Man has solutions. It’s Point Number 2. 


If you want to move that progressive agenda on affordable housing in Berkeley forward, Mayor Bates can tell you just how to go about it: Up-zone almost everything, assure maximum profits for developer profiteers, and some of that largesse will surely trickle down to the poor souls who are looking for affordable housing and even perhaps to the homeless. 

And we'll all get rich. Tell me again about those rabbits, George, it's Eastertime. 

It’s the old dope peddler, doing well by doing good. 


Bates is putting his plan forward at the April 5 city council meeting. The details are too convoluted to present in this space, but there’s a full analysis by former Downtown Area Planning Committee member and former Berkeley Planning Commission Chair Rob Wrenn in this issue. 

Which brings us to Point Three. 

There’s a sweet soft-pedalled op-ed by the Mayor posted on the local commercial news site, full of funky figures without attribution except to the notoriously inaccurate Zillow. 

Needless to say, this political statement was not offered to the Planet. Nor does it appear on the city-sponsored Mayor’s web page, either linked as the Bates Update newsletter or as a press release. That’s Chomsky’s “privileged access to the gates”. We’re all equal, but some are more equal than others, if they serve the powerful person’s purpose. 

I’m not sure whether the piece was written on city time with help from city staff—can anyone figure that out, I wonder? It doesn’t sound like Bates’ spoken prose style—much too coherent. 

Here’s how it starts: 

“We all agree on the urgent need to address our critical shortage of housing, especially affordable housing. But how?”
We all agree, he says, and there’s a city-sponsored survey to prove it. But indeed how? 

It’s worth reading this statement in conjunction with Bates’ proposal for the April 5 council meeting just to see what he leaves out from the “how”. I’m asking our various sharp-penciled pro bono contributors to compare and contrast the two for educational purposes—stay tuned. 

Those of us who try to keep track of what’s happening remember how apparent consent for the 2010 Measure R was engineered. We are aware that almost nothing that R appeared to promise about developing downtown Berkeley has materialized. 

Does anyone remember the “Green Pathway”? It’s produced not one single project, not even one. Yet it was a big selling point in the promotion of Measure R. And how much affordable housing did we get out of it? 

That’s how Manufacturing Consent works. 

The captive City Council is poised to carry out the mayor’s bidding by passing his April 5 agenda. Most likely the very most outrageous aspects of it will be toned down a notch, but what the council majority passes will still be outrageously bad, count on it. 

It’s possible that the neighborhoods which will have the most adverse effects from the upzoning and other changes could organize to stop it, but their councilmembers are in the minority, so that’s not too likely. 

[Ironic aside for oldtimers: They could call their organization the April Coalition]. 

And in November, depend on it, more Manufactured Consent will be on the ballot for voters to rubberstamp: candidates, measures, bonds, you name it, you'll be asked to approve it. 

As always, we depend on our readers to provide our analysis of what’s happening and why. Send your thoughts on this matter to opinion@berkeleydailyplanet.com

—And especial thanks to sharp-eyed reader J.P. Massar, who reminded me that "It takes two points to determine a line, three points to determine a plane. Regardless of where or when it was learned." It's been a long time since high school for me. Error corrected, though it kinda spoils the rhetoric.