Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The Media-A Tool of Propaganda?

    Today I watched a very thought-provoking documentary called Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, which is based on Chomsky's book . In the documentary the argument is put forth that the media serve and further the goals of the dominant groups in society, namely the wealthy and powerful. But this is not presented as some giant, secret conspiracy, but as naturally following due to the fact that the media is a business whose goal is to make a profit. This profit-incentive, as well as other factors, drive the media to form public ideas and present issues in such a manner as to serve the interests of the powerful. These biases are explained by what Chomsky and Edward Herman call the Propaganda Model. The theory explains that there are five "filters" which the news must pass through in order to "become news", and these filters select only information that is not at odds with the well-being of those in power.

These five filters are, courtesy of wikipedia,

  • Ownership-Herman and Chomsky argue that since all mainstream media outlets are large corporations which are themselves part of bigger conglomerates, e.g. Westinghouse or General Electric, which extend beyond traditional media fields, these companies have powerful interests that may be affected when certain information is publicized. According to this reasoning, bias against that news which conflicts with the interests of those who own the media is to be expected.

    The authors claim that the importance of ownership filter is the fact that corporations are subject to shareholder control in the context of a profit-oriented market economy. The theory then argues that maximizing profit means sacrificing news objectivity, and news sources that ultimately survive must be fundamentally biased, with regard to news in which they have a conflict of interest.

  • Funding-The authors also argue that the mainstream media depends heavily on advertising revenues to survive. A newspaper like the New York Times, for example, derives 75% of its revenues from advertisements.

    The authors suggest that this filter is best seen by adopting a traditional business framework. They argue that a newspaper, like any other company, has a product which it offers to its audience (or customer base). In this case, however, 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 audience includes the businesses that pay to advertise their goods. According to this "filter", the news itself is nothing more than "filler" to get privileged readers to see the advertisements which makes up the real 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, as will information that presents a picture of the world that collides with advertisers' interests.

    The theory argues that the people buying the newspaper are themselves the product which is sold to the businesses that buy advertising space; the newspaper itself has only a marginal role as the product.

  • Sourcing-The third filter argues that the mass media need a constant flow of information to supply their daily news demands. In an industrialized economy where consumers demand information about multiple global events, they argue that this task can only be filled by the business and government sectors which have the necessary material resources. This includes mainly The Pentagon and other governmental bodies. Chomsky and Herman then argue that a "symbiotic relationship" arises between the media and parts of government which is sustained by economic necessity and reciprocity of interest. On the one hand, government and news-promoters strive to make it easier for news organizations to buy their services; according to the authors, they

    * provide them with facilities in which to gather
    * give journalists advance copies of speeches and forthcoming reports
    * schedule press conferences at hours well-geared to news deadlines
    * write press releases in usable language
    * carefully organize their press conferences and "photo opportunity" sessions

    On the other hand, the media becomes reluctant to run articles that will harm the corporate interests that provide them with the resources that the media depends upon.

    These last two filters are those which are presumed to be of lesser importance

  • Flak-The term "flak" has been used to describe what the authors see as targeted 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. Unlike the first three "filtering" factors, which are derived from analysis of market mechanisms, flak is characterized by concerted and intentional efforts to manage public information. Flak from the powerful can be either direct or indirect. The direct would include letters or phone calls from the White House to Dan Rather or William Paley, or from the FCC to the television networks asking for documents used in putting together a program, or from irate officials of ad agencies or corporate sponsors to media officials asking for reply time or threatening retaliation. The powerful can also work on the media indirectly by complaining to their own constituencies (stockholders, employees) about the media, by generating institutional advertising that does the same, and by funding monitoring or think-tank operations designed to attack the media. They may also fund political campaigns and help put into power politicians who will more directly serve the interests of private power in curbing any deviationism in the media.

  • Anti-ideologies-A final filter is anti-ideology. Anti-ideologies exploit public fear and hatred of groups that pose a potential threat, either real or imagined. Communism once posed the primary threat according to the model. Communism was seen by its detractors as threatening freedom of speech, movement, press etc. and that this was often used as an excuse to silence voices critical of power. With the destruction of the Soviet Union, proponents of the propaganda model have argued that the main emphasis of anti-communism, has been lost. New anathemas soon appeared. Chomsky and Herman argue that a possible replacement for anti-communism seems to have emerged in the form of "anti-terrorism".

    So that's essentially the theory behind it, and in my opinion it is pretty straight-forward. Chomsky points to some examples in this documentary and there are also some great examples on another documentary called The Corporation . I think you'd be surprised as to what extent the media collaborates with its advertisers when their advertisers have something they don't want published. An example from The Corporation is rather poorly described here.

    Anyhow, I highly recommend both of the documentaries. You might be able to rent them at your local video store (as I did with The Corporation) or view them at a university library (Manufacturing Consent). I think too often we, as atheists, think that we've seen through all the bullshit and aren't being misled anymore. I'm starting to think that perhaps that view is incorrect.


vjack said...

Thanks for the tips. I'm going to check out both documentaries and get Chomsky's book.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Delta.

It's pretty interesting to consider that Chomsky's views came out of the Vietnam War era. Lot's of things have changed about the news environment, but his thesis holds up amazingly well. And imagine, Fox News (see "Flak" and "Anti-ideologies") didn't even exist yet when he wrote the book.

Anonymous said...

Bias is everywhere. Even what you and I write has a slant to it. The problem lies in figuring out who is at least giving you the facts with the least amount of distortion. I don't read the newspaper for those very reasons. I can't force myself to watch the local news either. The fodder that passes for news is sickening. In the meantime, people who don't know the difference eat it up. and sadly, I know many of these people. They don't listen.

Anonymous said...

I watched both documentaries recently. Both of them are very interesting and depressing at the same time. I was born and raised in USSR so I saw first hand what propaganda is and how it works in a totalitarian state. Here the model is more sophisticated and is not run by a group of people per se but is "organically" evolved as the result of the current political and economic system. It gives an appearance and hides behind the rhetoric of "free press". Of course, it is difficult to expect for press in general to be independent when we know that they do indeed depend on various forces (financial or otherwise).

Christians sometimes say that the greatest trick Satan ever pulled was to convince people that he does not exist. Well the greatest trick our system pulled is to convince majority that media is free and that it is very "left". I've heard it many times from my conservative acquaintances that CNN and other major news organizations are just a bunch of commies... If CNN is pro-communist than Bill O'Reilly must be a socialist...

With that said, people (viewers) play their role too. You can't just sell absolutely anything to public no matter how ignorant they are. There are certain things they will not watch/do/follow for various reasons. So public opinion also puts pressure on news organizations. They have to get viewers to view something in order to be able to sell them to corporate advertisers. So the picture is much more complicated than just "greedy corporate world is selling us crap". There are some objective and biological reasons why people prefer sex, violence, "reality" shows and other such programming while they lack interest in anything that requires thinking and analysis of actual reality.

Akv said...

I remember watching the news as a kid, and it seems to be alot more commercial nowadays(and i'm not that old). They say that blogs are a new source for news but all the blogs only publish what they hear from the news corporations themselves. It seems like television based news media are way more "hollywood" than before. There doesn't seem to be any real tv news anymore either, it all seems to be opinion. Even Headline News. The way the anchors and tv personalities convey the news. Making little jokes or using "power words". You've got to wonder if it's their own opinions they portray or that of the editors that they are just copying. At least there are still wire services like reuters and ap.

Delta said...

Lot's of things have changed about the news environment, but his thesis holds up amazingly well

Yeah, I've really noticed that. I've been reading his book and some of the things that he talked about in it are very similar to what has happened lately with the war in Iraq.

Well the greatest trick our system pulled is to convince majority that media is free and that it is very "left"

That's one of the parts of the DVD that I found interesting. I had never thought of the idea that by simply defining the media as being liberal, it not only makes the media respond by being more conservative but it also sets the bounds for discussion by identifying the "left" side of the debate to be the position of the media, when in reality the media is still right of center due to its responsibilities to corporate advertisers. In this respect the debate is essentially between the "far right" and the "slightly right" with no discussion of leftist ideas.

halcyon67 said...

This is interesting, I made a post on this a while ago, and I still had right-wingers dismissing it despite all of the evidence and reports that support The Chomsk's model.

The Media, a propaganda tool? NO WAY! WAY! :)

Anonymous said...


Yes, which is consistent with George Lakoff's idea of framing the issue. Basically, simply by framing the issues certain way and carefully choosing the language you use to talk about them you can potentially win the battle for public opinion.

"Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate--The Essential Guide for Progressives" by George Lakoff

Take care.

vjack said...

I just saw The Corporation, and it was good like you said it would be. I wish that sort of information would be part of high school economics courses in order to show students that it is a mistake to accept the corporate world blindly without awareness of its faults.

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