Propaganda Model

Manufacturing Consent

The propaganda model is a conceptual model in political economy advanced by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky that states how propaganda, including systemic biases, function in mass media. The model seeks to explain how populations are manipulated and how consent for economic, social and political policies is ‘manufactured’ in the public mind due to this propaganda. The theory posits that the way in which news is structured (through advertising, media ownership, government sourcing and others) creates an inherent conflict of interest which acts as propaganda for undemocratic forces.

First presented in their 1988 book ‘Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media,’ the ‘propaganda model’ views the private media as businesses interested in the sale of a product—readers and audiences—to other businesses (advertisers) rather than that of quality news to the public. Describing the media’s ‘societal purpose,’ Chomsky writes, ‘… the study of institutions and how they function must be scrupulously ignored, apart from fringe elements or a relatively obscure scholarly literature.’

The theory postulates five general classes of ‘filters’ that determine the type of news that is presented in news media. These five classes are: Ownership of the medium, Medium’s funding sources, Sourcing, Flak, and Anti-communist ideology. The first three are generally regarded by the authors as being the most important. In versions after September 11th, Chomsky and Herman updated the fifth prong to instead refer to the War on Terror and antiterrorism, although they say it operates in much the same manner. Although the model was based mainly on the characterization of United States media, Chomsky and Herman believe the theory is equally applicable to any country that shares the basic economic structure and organizing principles which the model postulates as the cause of media biases.

The size, and profit-seeking imperative of dominant media corporations is said to create a bias. The authors point to how in the early nineteenth century, a radical British press had emerged which addressed the concerns of workers but excessive stamp duties, designed to restrict newspaper ownership to the ‘respectable’ wealthy, began to change the face of the press. Nevertheless there remained a degree of diversity. In postwar Britain, radical or worker-friendly newspapers such as the ‘Daily Herald,’ ‘News Chronicle,’ ‘Sunday Citizen’ (all since failed or absorbed into other publications) and the ‘Daily Mirror’ (at least until the late 1970s) regularly published articles questioning the capitalist system. The authors posit that these earlier radical papers were not constrained by corporate ownership and were therefore free to criticize the capitalist system.

Herman and Chomsky argue that since mainstream media outlets are currently either large corporations or part of conglomerates (e.g. Westinghouse or General Electric), the information presented to the public will be biased with respect to these interests. Such conglomerates frequently extend beyond traditional media fields and thus have extensive financial interests that may be endangered when certain information is publicized. According to this reasoning, news items that most endanger the corporate financial interests of those who own the media will face the greatest bias and censorship. It then follows that if to maximize profit means sacrificing news objectivity, then the news sources that ultimately survive must be fundamentally biased, with regard to news in which they have a conflict of interest. In the United States, regulations require that broadcasters disclose such conflict of interest.

The second filter of the propaganda model is funding generated through advertising. Most newspapers have to attract advertising in order to cover the costs of production; without it, they would have to increase the price of their newspaper. There is fierce competition throughout the media to attract advertisers; a newspaper which gets less advertising than its competitors is at a serious disadvantage. Lack of success in raising advertising revenue was another factor in the demise of the ‘people’s newspapers’ of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The product is composed of the affluent readers who buy the newspaper — who also comprise the educated decision-making sector of the population — while the actual clientele served by the newspaper includes the businesses that pay to advertise their goods. According to this filter, the news is ‘filler’ to get privileged readers to see the advertisements which makes up the content and will thus take whatever form is most conducive to attracting educated decision-makers. Stories that conflict with their ‘buying mood,’ it is argued, will tend to be marginalized or excluded, along with information that presents a picture of the world that collides with advertisers’ interests. The theory argues that the people buying the newspaper are the product which is sold to the businesses that buy advertising space; the news has only a marginal role as the product.

The third of Herman and Chomsky’s five filters relates to the sourcing of mass media news: ‘The mass media are drawn into a symbiotic relationship with powerful sources of information by economic necessity and reciprocity of interest.’ Even large media corporations such as the BBC cannot afford to place reporters everywhere. They concentrate their resources where news stories are likely to happen: the White House, the Pentagon, 10 Downing Street, and other central news ‘terminals.’ Although British newspapers may occasionally complain about the ‘spin-doctoring ‘ of New Labour, for example, they are dependent upon the pronouncements of ‘the Prime Minister’s personal spokesperson’ for government news.

Business corporations and trade organizations are also trusted sources of stories considered newsworthy. Editors and journalists who offend these powerful news sources, perhaps by questioning the veracity or bias of the furnished material, can be threatened with the denial of access to their media life-blood – fresh news. Thus, the media become reluctant to run articles that will harm corporate interests that provide them with the resources that the media depend upon. This relationship also gives rise to a ‘moral division of labor,’ in which ‘officials have and give the facts’ and ‘reporters merely get them.’ Journalists are then supposed to adopt an uncritical attitude that makes it possible for them to accept corporate values without experiencing cognitive dissonance.

The fourth filter is ‘flak,’ described by Herman and Chomsky as ‘negative responses to a media statement or [TV or radio] program. It may take the form of letters, telegrams, phone calls, petitions, law-suits, speeches and Bills before Congress and other modes of complaint, threat and punitive action.’ Business organizations regularly come together to form flak machines. Perhaps one of the most well-known of these is the US-based Global Climate Coalition (GCC) – comprising fossil fuel and automobile companies such as Exxon, Texaco, and Ford. The GCC was started up by Burson-Marsteller, one of the world’s largest public relations companies, to attack the credibility of climate scientists and ‘scare stories’ about global warming. For Chomsky and Herman ‘flak’ refers to negative responses to a media statement or program. The term ‘flak’ has been used to describe what Chomsky and Herman see as efforts to discredit organizations or individuals who disagree with or cast doubt on the prevailing assumptions which Chomsky and Herman view as favorable to established power (e.g., ‘The Establishment’). Unlike the first three ‘filtering’ mechanisms — which are derived from analysis of market mechanisms — flak is characterized by concerted efforts to manage public information.

The fifth and final news filter that Herman and Chomsky identified was ‘anti-communism.’ Manufacturing Consent was written during the Cold War. Chomsky updated the model as ‘fear,’ often as ‘the enemy’ or an ‘evil dictator’ such as Colonel Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, or Slobodan Milosevic. The same is said to extend to mainstream reporting of environmentalists as ‘eco-terrorists.’ ‘The Sunday Times’ ran a series of articles in 1999 accusing activists from the non-violent direct action group ‘Reclaim The Streets’ of stocking up on tear gas and stun guns. Anti-ideologies exploit public fear and hatred of groups that pose a potential threat, either real, exaggerated, or imagined. Communism once posed the primary threat according to the model. Communism and socialism were portrayed by their detractors as endangering freedoms of speech, movement, the press and so forth. They argue that such a portrayal was often used as a means to silence voices critical of elite interests.

Following the theoretical exposition of the propaganda model, Manufacturing Consent contains a large section where the authors seek to test their hypotheses. If the propaganda model is right and the filters do influence media content, a particular form of bias would be expected — one that systematically favors corporate interests. They also looked at what they perceived as naturally-occurring ‘historical control groups’ where two events, similar in their properties but differing in the expected media attitude towards them, are contrasted using objective measures such as coverage of key events (measured in column inches) or editorials favoring a particular issue (measured in number).

Examples of bias given by the authors include the failure of the media to question the legality of the Vietnam War while greatly emphasizing the Soviet war in Afghanistan as an act of aggression. Other biases include a propensity to emphasize violent acts ‘genocide’ more in enemy or unfriendly countries such as Kosovo while ignoring greater genocide in allied countries such as the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. This bias also said to exist in foreign elections, giving favorable media coverage to fraudulent elections in allied countries such as El Salvador and Guatemala, while unfavorable coverage is given to legitimate elections in enemy countries such as Nicaragua.

The authors point to biases that are based on only reporting scandals which benefit a section of power, while ignoring scandals that hurt the powerless. The biggest example of this was how the US media greatly covered the Watergate Scandal but ignored the COINTELPRO exposures. While the Watergate break-in was a political threat to powerful people (Democrats), COINTELPRO harmed average citizens and went as far as political assassination. Other examples include coverage of the Iran-Contra Scandal by only focusing on people in power such as Oliver North but omitting coverage of the civilians killed in Nicaragua as the result of aid to the contras.

Eli Lehrer of the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute criticized the theory in The Anti-Chomsky Reader. According to Lehrer, the fact that papers like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have disagreements is evidence that the media is not a monolithic entity. Lehrer also believes that the media cannot have a corporate bias because it reports on and exposes corporate corruption. Lehrer asserts that the model amounts to a Marxist conception of right-wing false consciousness.

Herman and Chomsky have said that the media ‘is not a solid monolith’ but that it represents a debate between powerful interests while ignoring perspectives that challenge the ‘fundamental premises’ of all these interests. For instance, during the Vietnam War there was disagreement among the media over tactics but that the broader issue of the legality and legitimacy of the war was ignored. Additionally, Chomsky has said that while the media are against corruption, they are not against society legally empowering corporate interests which is a reflection of the powerful interests that the model would predict. The authors have also said that the model does not seek to address ‘the effects of the media on the public’ which might be ineffective at shaping public opinion. Edward Herman has said ‘critics failed to comprehend that the propaganda model is about how the media work, not how effective they are.’

3 Comments to “Propaganda Model”

  1. Hi I’m doing a study right now about the propaganda model and I like to ask permission to use your diagram. To give proper citation, may I also ask for your name. Thank you.

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