D.3 How does wealth influence the mass media?

D.3 How does wealth influence the mass media?

In a word, massively. This, in turn, influences the way people see the world and, as a result, the media is a key means by which the general population come to accept, and support, "the arrangements of the social, economic, and political order." The media, in other words "are vigilant guardians protecting privilege from the threat of public understanding and participation." This process ensures that state violence is not necessary to maintain the system as "more subtle means are required: the manufacture of consent, [and] deceiving the masses with 'necessary illusions." [Noam Chomsky, Necessary Illusions, pp. 13-4 and p. 19] The media, in other words, are a key means of ensuring that the dominant ideas within society are those of the dominant class.

Noam Chomsky has helped develop a detailed and sophisticated analyse of how the wealthy and powerful use the media to propagandise in their own interests behind a mask of objective news reporting. Along with Edward Herman, he has developed the "Propaganda Model" of the media works. Herman and Chomsky expound this analysis in their book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, whose main theses we will summarise in this section (unless otherwise indicated all quotes are from this work). We do not suggest that we can present anything other than a summary here and, as such, we urge readers to consult Manufacturing Consent itself for a full description and extensive supporting evidence. We would also recommend Chomsky's Necessary Illusions for a further discussion of this model of the media.

Chomsky and Herman's "propaganda model" of the media postulates a set of five "filters" that act to screen the news and other material disseminated by the media. These "filters" result in a media that reflects elite viewpoints and interests and mobilises "support for the special interests that dominate the state and private activity." [Manufacturing Consent, p. xi] These "filters" are: (1) the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth, and profit orientation of the dominant mass-media firms; (2) advertising as the primary income source of the mass media; (3) the reliance of the media on information provided by government, business, and "experts" funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power; (4) "flak" (negative responses to a media report) as a means of disciplining the media; and (5) "anticommunism" as a national religion and control mechanism. It is these filters which ensure that genuine objectivity is usually lacking in the media (needless to say, some media, such as Fox news and the right-wing newspapers like the UK's Sun, Telegraph and Daily Mail, do not even try to present an objective perspective).

"The raw material of news must pass through successive filters leaving only the cleansed residue fit to print," Chomsky and Herman maintain. The filters "fix the premises of discourse and interpretation, and the definition of what is newsworthy in the first place, and they explain the basis and operations of what amount to propaganda campaigns." [p. 2] We will briefly consider the nature of these five filters below before refuting two common objections to the model. As with Chomsky and Herman, examples are mostly from the US media. For more extensive analysis, we would recommend two organisations which study and critique the performance of the media from a perspective informed by the "propaganda model." These are the American Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) and the UK based MediaLens (neither, it should be pointed out, are anarchist organisations).

Before discussing the "propaganda model", we will present a few examples by FAIR to show how the media reflects the interests of the ruling class. War usually provides the most obvious evidence for the biases in the media. For example, Steve Rendall and Tara Broughel analysed the US news media during the first stage of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and found that official voices dominated it "while opponents of the war have been notably underrepresented," Nearly two-thirds of all sources were pro-war, rising to 71% of US guests. Anti-war voices were a mere 10% of all sources, but just 6% of non-Iraqi sources and 3% of US sources. "Thus viewers were more than six times as likely to see a pro-war source as one who was anti-war; with U.S. guests alone, the ratio increases to 25 to 1." Unsurprisingly, official voices, "including current and former government employees, whether civilian or military, dominated network newscasts" (63% of overall sources). Some analysts did criticise certain aspects of the military planning, but such "the rare criticisms were clearly motivated by a desire to see U.S. military efforts succeed." While dissent was quite visible in America, "the networks largely ignored anti-war opinion." FAIR found that just 3% of US sources represented or expressed opposition to the war in spite of the fact more than one in four Americans opposed it. In summary, "none of the networks offered anything resembling proportionate coverage of anti-war voices". ["Amplifying Officials, Squelching Dissent", Extra! May/June 2003]

This perspective is common during war time, with the media's rule of thumb being, essentially, that to support the war is to be objective, while to be anti-war is to carry a bias. The media repeats the sanitised language of the state, relying on official sources to inform the public. Truth-seeking independence was far from the media agenda and so they made it easier for governments to do what they always do, that is lie. Rather than challenge the agenda of the state, the media simply foisted them onto the general population. Genuine criticism only starts to appear when the costs of a conflict become so high that elements of the ruling class start to question tactics and strategy. Until that happens, any criticism is minor (and within a generally pro-war perspective) and the media acts essentially as the fourth branch of the government rather than a Fourth Estate. The Iraq war, it should be noted, was an excellent example of this process at work. Initially, the media simply amplified elite needs, uncritically reporting the Bush Administration's pathetic "evidence" of Iraqi WMD (which quickly became exposed as the nonsense it was). Only when the war became too much of a burden did critical views start being heard and then only in a context of being supportive of the goals of the operation.

This analysis applies as much to domestic issues. For example, Janine Jackson reported how most of the media fell in step with the Bush Administration's attempts in 2006 to trumpet a "booming" U.S. economy in the face of public disbelief. As she notes, there were "obvious reasons [for] the majority of Americans dissent . . . Most American households are not, in fact, seeing their economic fortunes improve. GDP is up, but virtually all the growth has gone into corporate profits and the incomes of the highest economic brackets. Wages and incomes for average workers, adjusted for inflation, are down in recent years; the median income for non-elderly households is down 4.8 percent since 2000 . . .The poverty rate is rising, as is the number of people in debt." Yet "rather than confront these realities, and explore the implications of the White House's efforts to deny them, most mainstream media instead assisted the Bush team's PR by themselves feigning confusion over the gap between the official view and the public mood." They did so by presenting "the majority of Americans' understanding of their own economic situation . . . as somehow disconnected from reality, ascribed to 'pessimism,' ignorance or irrationality . . . But why these ordinary workers, representing the majority of households, should not be considered the arbiters of whether or not 'the economy' is good is never explained." Barring a few exceptions, the media did not "reflect the concerns of average salaried workers at least as much as those of the investor class." Needless to say, which capitalist economists were allowed space to discuss their ideas, progressive economists did not. ["Good News! The Rich Get Richer: Lack of applause for falling wages is media mystery," Extra!, March/April 2006] Given the nature and role of the media, this reporting comes as no surprise.

We stress again, before continuing, that this is a summary of Herman's and Chomsky's thesis and we cannot hope to present the wealth of evidence and argument available in either Manufacturing Consent or Necessary Illusions. We recommend either of these books for more information on and evidence to support the "propaganda model" of the media. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes in this section of the FAQ are from Herman and Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent.

D.3.1 How does the structure of the media affect its content?

Even a century ago, the number of media with any substantial outreach was limited by the large size of the necessary investment, and this limitation has become increasingly effective over time. As in any well developed market, this means that there are very effective natural barriers to entry into the media industry. Due to this process of concentration, the ownership of the major media has become increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. As Ben Bagdikian's stresses in his 1987 book Media Monopoly, the 29 largest media systems account for over half of the output of all newspapers, and most of the sales and audiences in magazines, broadcasting, books, and movies. The "top tier" of these -- somewhere between 10 and 24 systems -- along with the government and wire services, "defines the news agenda and supplies much of the national and international news to the lower tiers of the media, and thus for the general public." [p. 5] Since then, media concentration has increased, both nationally and on a global level. Bagdikian's 2004 book, The New Media Monopoly, showed that since 1983 the number of corporations controlling most newspapers, magazines, book publishers, movie studios, and electronic media have shrunk from 50 to five global-dimension firms, operating with many of the characteristics of a cartel -- Time-Warner, Disney, News Corporation, Viacom and Germany-based Bertelsmann.

These "top-tier companies are large, profit-seeking corporations, owned and controlled by very wealthy people . . . Many of these companies are fully integrated into the financial market" which means that "the pressures of stockholders, directors and bankers to focus on the bottom line are powerful." [p. 5] These pressures have intensified in recent years as media stocks have become market favourites and as deregulation has increased profitability and so the threat of take-overs. These ensure that these "control groups obviously have a special take on the status quo by virtue of their wealth and their strategic position in one of the great institutions of society. And they exercise the power of this strategic position, if only by establishing the general aims of the company and choosing its top management." [p. 8]

The media giants have also diversified into other fields. For example GE, and Westinghouse, both owners of major television networks, are huge, diversified multinational companies heavily involved in the controversial areas of weapons production and nuclear power. GE and Westinghouse depend on the government to subsidise their nuclear power and military research and development, and to create a favourable climate for their overseas sales and investments. Similar dependence on the government affect other media.

Because they are large corporations with international investment interests, the major media tend to have a right-wing political bias. In addition, members of the business class own most of the mass media, the bulk of which depends for their existence on advertising revenue (which in turn comes from private business). Business also provides a substantial share of "experts" for news programmes and generates massive "flak." Claims that the media are "left-leaning" are sheer disinformation manufactured by the "flak" organisations described below (in section D.3.4). Thus Herman and Chomsky:

"the dominant media forms are quite large businesses; they are controlled by very wealthy people or by managers who are subject to sharp constraints by owners and other market-profit-oriented forces; and they are closely interlocked, and have important common interests, with other major corporations, banks, and government. This is the first powerful filter that effects news choices." [p. 14]

Needless to say, reporters and editors will be selected based upon how well their work reflects the interests and needs of their employers. Thus a radical reporter and a more mainstream one both of the same skills and abilities would have very different careers within the industry. Unless the radical reporter toned down their copy, they are unlikely to see it printed unedited or unchanged. Thus the structure within the media firm will tend to penalise radical viewpoints, encouraging an acceptance of the status quo in order to further a career. This selection process ensures that owners do not need to order editors or reporters what to do -- to be successful they will have to internalise the values of their employers.

D.3.2 What is the effect of advertising on the mass media?

The main business of the media is to sell audiences to advertisers. Advertisers thus acquire a kind of de facto licensing authority, since without their support the media would cease to be economically viable. And it is affluent audiences that get advertisers interested. As Chomsky and Herman put it, the "idea that the drive for large audiences makes the mass media 'democratic' thus suffers from the initial weakness that its political analogue is a voting system weighted by income!" [p.16]

As regards TV, in addition to "discrimination against unfriendly media institutions, advertisers also choose selectively among programs on the basis of their own principles. With rare exceptions these are culturally and politically conservative. Large corporate advertisers on television will rarely sponsor programs that engage in serious criticisms of corporate activities." Accordingly, large corporate advertisers almost never sponsor programs that contain serious criticisms of corporate activities, such as negative ecological impacts, the workings of the military-industrial complex, or corporate support of and benefits from Third World dictatorships. This means that TV companies "learn over time that such programs will not sell and would have to be carried at a financial sacrifice, and that, in addition, they may offend powerful advertisers." More generally, advertisers will want "to avoid programs with serious complexities and disturbing controversies that interfere with the 'buying mood.'" [p. 17]

Political discrimination is therefore structured into advertising allocations by wealthy companies with an emphasis on people with money to buy. In addition, "many companies will always refuse to do business with ideological enemies and those whom they perceive as damaging their interests." Thus overt discrimination adds to the force of the "voting system weighted by income." This has had the effect of placing working class and radical papers at a serious disadvantage. Without access to advertising revenue, even the most popular paper will fold or price itself out of the market. Chomsky and Herman cite the British pro-labour and pro-union Daily Herald as an example of this process. At its peak, the Daily Herald had almost double the readership of The Times, the Financial Times and The Guardian combined, yet even with 8.1% of the national circulation it got 3.5% of net advertising revenue and so could not survive on the "free market." As Herman and Chomsky note, a "mass movement without any major media support, and subject to a great deal of active press hostility, suffers a serious disability, and struggles against grave odds." With the folding of the Daily Herald, the labour movement lost its voice in the mainstream media. [pp. 17-8 and pp. 15-16]

Thus advertising is an effective filter for news choice (and, indeed, survival in the market).

D.3.3 Why do the media rely on government and business "experts" for information?

As Herman and Chomsky stress, basic economics explains why the mass media "are drawn into a symbiotic relationship with powerful sources of information" as well as "reciprocity of interest." The media need "a steady, reliable flow of raw material of news. They have daily news demands and imperative news schedules that they must meet." They cannot afford to have reporters and cameras at all locations and so economics "dictates that they concentrate their resources where significant news often occurs." [p. 18] This means that bottom-line considerations dictate that the media concentrate their resources where news, rumours and leaks are plentiful, and where regular press conferences are held. The White House, Pentagon, and the State Department, in Washington, D.C., are centres of such activity on a national scale, while city hall and police departments are their local equivalents. In addition, trade groups, businesses and corporations also provide regular stories that are deemed as newsworthy and from credible sources.

In other words, government and corporate sources have the great merit of being recognisable and credible by their status and prestige; moreover, they have the most money available to produce a flow of news that the media can use. For example, the Pentagon has a public-information service employing many thousands of people, spending hundreds of millions of dollars every year, and far outspending not only the public-information resources of any dissenting individual or group but the aggregate of such groups. Only the corporate sector has the resources to produce public information and propaganda on the scale of the Pentagon and other government bodies. The Chamber of Commerce, a business collective, had a 1983 budget for research, communications, and political activities of $65 million. Besides the US Chamber of Commerce, there are thousands of state and local chambers of commerce and trade associations also engaged in public relations and lobbying activities. As we noted in section D.2, the corporate funding of PR is massive. Thus "business corporations and trade groups are also regular purveyors of stories deemed newsworthy. These bureaucracies turn out a large volume of material that meets the demands of news organisations for reliable, scheduled flows." [p. 19]

To maintain their pre-eminent position as sources, government and business-news agencies expend much effort to make things easy for news organisations. They provide the media organisations with facilities in which to gather, give journalists advance copies of speeches and upcoming reports; schedule press conferences at hours convenient for those needing to meet news deadlines; write press releases in language that can be used with little editing; and carefully organise press conferences and photo-opportunity sessions. This means that, in effect, "the large bureaucracies of the powerful subsidise the mass media, and gain special access by their contribution to reducing the media's costs of acquiring the raw materials of, and producing, news." [p. 22]

This economic dependency also allows corporations and the state to influence the media. The most obvious way is by using their "personal relationships, threats, and rewards to further influence and coerce the media. The media may feel obligated to carry extremely dubious stories and mute criticism in order not to offend sources and disturb a close relationship. It is very difficult to call authorities on whom one depends for daily news liars, even if they tell whoppers." Critical sources may be avoided not only due to the higher costs in finding them and establishing their credibility, but because the established "primary sources may be offended and may even threaten the media with using them." [p. 22] As well as refusing to co-operate on shows or reports which include critics, corporations and governments may threaten the media with loss of access if they ask too many critical questions or delve into inappropriate areas.

In addition, "more important, powerful sources regularly take advantage of media routines and dependency to 'manage' the media, to manipulate them into following a special agenda and framework . . . Part of this management process consists of inundating the media with stories, which serve sometimes to foist a particular line and frame on the media . . . and at other times to chase unwanted stories off the front page or out of the media altogether." [p. 23]

The dominance of official sources would, of course, be weakened by the existence of highly respectable unofficial sources that gave dissident views with great authority. To alleviate this problem, the power elite uses the strategy of "co-opting the experts" -- that is, putting them on the payroll as consultants, funding their research, and organising think tanks that will hire them directly and help disseminate the messages deemed essential to elite interests. "Experts" on TV panel discussions and news programs are often drawn from such organisations, whose funding comes primarily from the corporate sector and wealthy families -- a fact that is, of course, never mentioned on the programs where they appear. This allows business, for example, to sell its interests as objective and academic while, in fact, they provide a thin veneer to mask partisan work which draws the proper conclusions desired by their pay masters.

This process of creating a mass of experts readily available to the media "has been carried out on a deliberate and a massive scale." These ensure that "the corporate viewpoint" is effectively spread as the experts work is "funded and their outputs . . . disseminated to the media by a sophisticated propaganda effort. The corporate funding and clear ideological purpose in the overall effort had no discernible effect on the credibility of the intellectuals so mobilised; on the contrary, the funding and pushing of their ideas catapulted them into the press." [p. 23 and p. 24]

D.3.4 How is "flak" used as a means of disciplining the media?

"Flak" is a term used by Herman and Chomsky to refer "to negative responses to a media statement or program." Such responses may be expressed as phone calls, letters, telegrams, e-mail messages, petitions, lawsuits, speeches, bills before Congress, or "other modes of complaint, threat, or punishment." Flak may be generated centrally, by organisations, or it may come from the independent actions of individuals (sometimes encouraged to act by media hacks such as right-wing talk show hosts or newspapers). "If flak is produced on a large-scale, or by individuals or groups with substantial resources, it can be both uncomfortable and costly to the media." [p. 26]

This is for many reasons. Positions need to be defended within and outwith an organisation, sometimes in front of legislatures and (perhaps) in the courts. Advertisers are very concerned to avoid offending constituencies who might produce flak, and their demands for inoffensive programming exerts pressure on the media to avoid certain kinds of facts, positions, or programs that are likely to call forth flak. This can have a strong deterrence factor, with media organisations avoiding certain subjects and sources simply to avoid having to deal with the inevitable flak they will receive from the usual sources. The ability to produce flak "is related to power," as it is expensive to generate on scale which is actually effective. [p. 26] Unsurprisingly, this means that the most effective flak comes from business and government who have the funds to produce it on a large scale.

The government itself is "a major producer of flak, regularly assailing, threatening, and 'correcting' the media, trying to contain any deviations from the established line in foreign or domestic policy." However, the right-wing plays a major role in deliberately creating flak. For example, during the 1970s and 1980s, the corporate community sponsored the creation of such institutions as the American Legal Foundation, the Capital Legal Foundation, the Media Institute, the Center for Media and Public Affairs, and Accuracy in Media (AIM), which may be regarded as organisations designed for the specific purpose of producing flak. Freedom House is an older US organisation which had a broader design but whose flak-producing activities became a model for the more recent organisations. The Media Institute, for instance, was set up in 1972 and is funded by wealthy corporate patrons, sponsoring media monitoring projects, conferences, and studies of the media. The main focus of its studies and conferences has been the alleged failure of the media to portray business accurately and to give adequate weight to the business point of view, but it also sponsors works which "expose" alleged left-wing bias in the mass media. [p. 28 and pp. 27-8]

And, it should be noted, while the flak machines "steadily attack the media, the media treats them well. They receive respectful attention, and their propagandistic role and links to a large corporate program are rarely mentioned or analysed." [p. 28] Indeed, such attacks "are often not unwelcome, first because response is simple or superfluous; and second, because debate over this issue helps entrench the belief that the media are . . . independent and objective, with high standards of professional integrity and openness to all reasonable views" which is "quite acceptable to established power and privilege -- even to the media elites themselves, who are not averse to the charge that they may have gone to far in pursuing their cantankerous and obstreperous ways in defiance of orthodoxy and power." Ultimately, such flak "can only be understood as a demand that the media should not even reflect the range of debate over tactical questions among the dominant elites, but should serve only those segments that happen to manage the state at a particular moment, and should do so with proper enthusiasm and optimism about the causes -- noble by definition -- in which state power is engaged." [Chomsky, Necessary Illusions, p. 13 and p. 11]

D.3.5 Why is "anticommunism" used as control mechanism?

The final filter which Herman and Chomsky discuss is the ideology of anticommunism. "Communism" is of course regarded as the ultimate evil by the corporate rich, since the ideas of collective ownership of productive assets "threatens the very root of their class position and superior status." As the concept is "fuzzy," it can be widely applied and "can be used against anybody advocating policies that threaten property interests." [p. 29] Hence the attacks on third-world nationalists as "socialists" and the steady expansion of "communism" to apply to any form of socialism, social democracy, reformism, trade unionism or even "liberalism" (i.e. any movement which aims to give workers more bargaining power or allow ordinary citizens more voice in public policy decisions).

Hence the ideology of anticommunism has been very useful, because it can be used to discredit anybody advocating policies regarded as harmful to corporate interests. It also helps to divide the Left and labour movements, justifies support for pro-US fascist regimes abroad as "lesser evils" than communism, and discourages liberals from opposing such regimes for fear of being branded as heretics from the national religion. This process has been aided immensely by the obvious fact that the "communist" regimes (i.e. Stalinist dictatorships) have been so terrible.

Since the collapse of the USSR and related states in 1989, the utility of anticommunism has lost some of its power. Of course, there are still a few official communist enemy states, like North Korea, Cuba, and China, but these are not quite the threat the USSR was. North Korea and Cuba are too impoverished to threaten the world's only super-power (that so many Americans think that Cuba was ever a threat says a lot about the power of propaganda). China is problematic, as Western corporations now have access to, and can exploit, its resources, markets and cheap labour. As such, criticism of China will be mooted, unless it starts to hinder US corporations or become too much of an economic rival.

So we can still expect, to some degree, abuses or human rights violations in these countries are systematically played up by the media while similar abuses in client states are downplayed or ignored. Chomsky and Herman refer to the victims of abuses in enemy states as worthy victims, while victims who suffer at the hands of US clients or friends are unworthy victims. Stories about worthy victims are often made the subject of sustained propaganda campaigns, to score political points against enemies. For example:

"If the government of corporate community and the media feel that a story is useful as well as dramatic, they focus on it intensively and use it to enlighten the public. This was true, for example, of the shooting down by the Soviets of the Korean airliner KAL 007 in early September 1983, which permitted an extended campaign of denigration of an official enemy and greatly advanced Reagan administration arms plans."

"In sharp contrast, the shooting down by Israel of a Libyan civilian airliner in February 1973 led to no outcry in the West, no denunciations for 'cold-blooded murder,' and no boycott. This difference in treatment was explained by the New York Times precisely on the grounds of utility: 'No useful purpose is served by an acrimonious debate over the assignment of blame for the downing of a Libyan airliner in the Sinai peninsula last week.' There was a very 'useful purpose' served by focusing on the Soviet act, and a massive propaganda campaign ensued." [p. 32]

As noted, since the end of the Cold War, anti-communism has not been used as extensively as it once was to mobilise support for elite crusades. Other enemies have to be found and so the "Drug War" or "anti-terrorism" now often provide the public with "official enemies" to hate and fear. Thus the Drug War was the excuse for the Bush administration's invasion of Panama, and "fighting narco-terrorists" has more recently been the official reason for shipping military hardware and surveillance equipment to Mexico (where it's actually being used against the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas, whose uprising is threatening to destabilise the country and endanger US investments). After 9/11, terrorism became the key means of forcing support for policies. The mantra "you are either with us or with the terrorists" was used to bolster support and reduce criticism for both imperial adventures as well as a whole range of regressive domestic policies.

Whether any of these new enemies will prove to be as useful as anticommunism remains to be seen. It is likely, particularly given how "communism" has become so vague as to include liberal and social democratic ideas, that it will remain the bogey man of choice -- particularly as many within the population both at home and abroad continue to support left-wing ideas and organisations. Given the track record of neo-liberalism across the globe, being able to tar its opponents as "communists" will remain a useful tool.

D.3.6 Isn't the "propaganda model" a conspiracy theory?

No, far from it. Chomsky and Herman explicitly address this charge in Manufacturing Consent and explain why it is a false one:

"Institutional critiques such as we present in this book are commonly dismissed by establishment commentators as 'conspiracy theories,' but this is merely an evasion. We do not use any kind of 'conspiracy' hypothesis to explain mass-media performance. In fact, our treatment is much closer to a 'free market' analysis, with the results largely an outcome of the workings of market forces." [p. xii]

They go on to suggest what some of these "market forces" are. One of the most important is the weeding-out process that determines who gets the journalistic jobs in the major media: "Most biased choices in the media arise from the preselection of right-thinking people, internalised preconceptions, and the adaptation of personnel to the constraints of ownership, organisation, market, and political power." This is the key, as the model "helps us to understand how media personnel adapt, and are adapted, to systemic demands. Given the imperatives of corporate organisation and the workings of the various filters, conformity to the needs and interests of privileged sectors is essential to success." This means that those who do not display the requisite values and perspectives will be regarded as irresponsible and/or ideological and, consequently, will not succeed (barring a few exceptions). In other words, those who "adapt, perhaps quite honestly, will then be able to assert, accurately, that they perceive no pressures to conform. The media are indeed free . . . for those who have internalised the required values and perspectives." [p. xii and p. 304]

In other words, important media employees learn to internalise the values of their bosses: "Censorship is largely self-censorship, by reporters and commentators who adjust to the realities of source and media organisational requirements, and by people at higher levels within media organisations who are chosen to implement, and have usually internalised, the constraints imposed by proprietary and other market and governmental centres of power." But, it may be asked, isn't it still a conspiracy theory to suggest that media leaders all have similar values? Not at all. Such leaders "do similar things because they see the world through the same lenses, are subject to similar constraints and incentives, and thus feature stories or maintain silence together in tacit collective action and leader-follower behaviour." [p. xii]

The fact that media leaders share the same fundamental values does not mean, however, that the media are a solid monolith on all issues. The powerful often disagree on the tactics needed "to attain generally shared aims, [and this gets] reflected in media debate. But views that challenge fundamental premises or suggest that the observed modes of exercise of state power are based on systemic factors will be excluded from the mass media even when elite controversy over tactics rages fiercely." [p. xii] This means that viewpoints which question the legitimacy of elite aims or suggest that state power is being exercised in elite interests rather than the "national" interest will be excluded from the mass media. As such, we would expect the media to encourage debate within accepted bounds simply because the ruling class is not monolithic and while they agree on keeping the system going, they disagree on the best way to do so.

Therefore the "propaganda model" has as little in common with a "conspiracy theory" as saying that the management of General Motors acts to maintain and increase its profits. As Chomsky notes, "[t]o confront power is costly and difficult; high standards of evidence and argument are imposed, and critical analysis is naturally not welcomed by those who are in a position to react vigorously and to determine the array of rewards and punishments. Conformity to a 'patriotic agenda,' in contrast, imposes no such costs." This means that "conformity is the easy way, and the path to privilege and prestige . . . It is a natural expectation, on uncontroversial assumptions, that the major media and other ideological institutions will generally reflect the perspectives and interests of established power." [Necessary Illusions, pp. 8-9 and p. 10]

D.3.7 Isn't the model contradicted by the media reporting government and business failures?

As noted above, the claim that the media are "adversarial" or (more implausibly) that they have a "left-wing bias" is due to right-wing PR organisations. This means that some "inconvenient facts" are occasionally allowed to pass through the filters in order to give the appearance of "objectivity" -- precisely so the media can deny charges of engaging in propaganda. As Chomsky and Herman put it: "the 'naturalness' of these processes, with inconvenient facts allowed sparingly and within the proper framework of assumptions, and fundamental dissent virtually excluded from the mass media (but permitted in a marginalised press), makes for a propaganda system that is far more credible and effective in putting over a patriotic agenda than one with official censorship." [p. xiv]

To support their case against the "adversarial" nature of the media, Herman and Chomsky look into the claims of such right-wing media PR machines as Freedom House. However, it is soon discovered that "the very examples offered in praise of the media for their independence, or criticism of their excessive zeal, illustrate exactly the opposite." Such flak, while being worthless as serious analysis, does help to reinforce the myth of an "adversarial media" and so is taken seriously by the media. By saying that both right and left attack them, the media presents themselves as neutral, balanced and objective -- a position which is valid only if both criticisms are valid and of equal worth. This is not the case, as Herman and Chomsky prove, both in terms of evidence and underlying aims and principles. Ultimately, the attacks by the right on the media are based on the concern "to protect state authority from an intrusive public" and so "condemn the media for lack of sufficient enthusiasm in supporting official crusades." In other words, that the "existing level of subordination to state authority is often deemed unsatisfactory." [p. xiv and p. 301] The right-wing notion that the media are "liberal" or "left-wing" says far more about the authoritarian vision and aims of the right than the reality of the media.

Therefore the "adversarial" nature of the media is a myth, but this is not to imply that the media does not present critical analysis. Herman and Chomsky in fact argue that the "mass media are not a solid monolith on all issues." and do not deny that it does present facts (which they do sometimes themselves cite). This "affords the opportunity for a classic non sequitur, in which the citations of facts from the mainstream press by a critic of the press is offered as a triumphant 'proof' that the criticism is self-refuting, and that media coverage of disputed issues is indeed adequate." But, as they argue, "[t]hat the media provide some facts about an issue . . . proves absolutely nothing about the adequacy or accuracy of that coverage. The mass media do, in fact, literally suppress a great deal . . . But even more important in this context is the question given to a fact - its placement, tone, and repetitions, the framework within which it is presented, and the related facts that accompany it and give it meaning (or provide understanding) . . . there is no merit to the pretence that because certain facts may be found by a diligent and sceptical researcher, the absence of radical bias and de facto suppression is thereby demonstrated." [p. xii and pp xiv-xv]

As they stress, the media in a democratic system is different from one in a dictatorship and so they "do not function in the manner of the propaganda system of a totalitarian state. Rather, they permit -- indeed, encourage -- spirited debate, criticism, and dissent, as long as these remain faithfully within the system of presuppositions and principles that constitute an elite consensus, a system so powerful as to be internalised largely without awareness." Within this context, "facts that tend to undermine the government line, if they are properly understood, can be found." Indeed, it is "possible that the volume of inconvenient facts can expand, as it did during the Vietnam War, in response to the growth of a critical constituency (which included elite elements from 1968). Even in this exceptional case, however, it was very rare for news and commentary to find their way into the mass media if they failed to conform to the framework of established dogma (postulating benevolent U.S aims, the United States responding to aggression and terror, etc.)" While during the war and after, "apologists for state policy commonly pointed to the inconvenient facts, the periodic 'pessimism' of media pundits, and the debates over tactics as showing that the media were 'adversarial' and even 'lost' the war," in fact these "allegations are ludicrous." [p. 302 and p. xiv] A similar process, it should be noted, occurred during the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

To summarise, as Chomsky notes "what is essential is the power to set the agenda." This means that debate "cannot be stilled, and indeed, in a properly functioning system of propaganda, it should not be, because it has a system-reinforcing character if constrained within proper bounds. What is essential is to set the bounds firmly. Controversy may rage as long as it adheres to the presuppositions that define the consensus of elites, and it should furthermore be encourages within these bounds, this helping to establish these doctrines as the very condition of thinkable thought while reinforcing the belief that freedom reigns." [Necessary Illusions, p. 48]

  


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