The problem for journalism is that most journalists are employed by corporate media. The single biggest threat to democracy is the corporation itself with its profit motive subsuming all other motives to the fatal detriment of the body politic. That means large numbers of lobbyists, PR flacks and lawyers working only to make more money for their company. People who don't see society, only consumers.The linked essay, a 2003 retrospective on Chomsky’s famous Manufacturing Consent by his co-author Edward Herman, is excellent for illustrating precisely what is wrong with the Chomskyan analysis of media.
Being really clever
Starting with rejection of the model being taken to be a sign of failure to understand, not that the model might be an unsuccessful analysis:
Because the propaganda model challenges basic premises and suggests that the media serve antidemocratic ends, it is commonly excluded from mainstream debates on media bias.In fact, the problem is that it critiques the media for not taking positions which are very much at one end of the spectrum of opinion in the US: there are plenty of conservative critics of mainstream media who challenge various basic premises (but clearly, not the correct ones) and imply it serves anti-democratic ends.
But that, of course, implies that the current spectrum of opinion in the US has some benchmarking legitimacy. This is very much not the view underlying the propaganda model. The belittling concept of the general population involved is stated nicely up front:
The exclusion of the propaganda model perspective is noteworthy, for one reason, because that perspective is consistent with long standing and widely held elite views that 'the masses are notoriously short-sighted' (Bailey 1948: 13) and are 'often poor judges of their own interests' (Lasswell 1933: 527),There is a large literature about popular disinterest in, and ignorance of, details of policy or even structures of government. This is not the same, however, as saying people do not know their own interests: they may have good reason to be largely disinterested.
But, if most people are ignorant, stupid and misled, the opinions of the public provides no benchmark for journalism or for appropriate public policy. Not only is one freed from considering the possibility people may have good reasons for the opinions they have, but one immediately gets cast as a member of the cognitive elite—those folk who really understand. This is a potent combination. One can see much of the appeal of the Chomskyan analysis of media right there.
It is true that in this, as in other parts of the model, various caveats and complications get added in. But these operate to shield the thesis from contrary evidence, since any such just becomes “covered” by the caveats. The appeal of the thesis is clearly driven by those central ideas—fairly simple (or even simple-minded) ideas—that the caveats act to shield from criticism.
Then we move on to:
Clearly the manufacture of consent by a 'specialized class' that can override the short-sighted perspectives of the masses must entail media control by that class.This control being, of course, corporate: thus, it is very much an ownership-driven model. This is also stated up front:
What is the propaganda model and how does it work? Its crucial structural factors derive from the fact that the dominant media are firmly imbedded in the market system. They are profit-seeking businesses, owned by very wealthy people (or other companies); and they are funded largely by advertisers who are also profit-seeking entities, and who want their ads to appear in a supportive selling environment.This is a pretty simple-minded model of what ownership means in corporations. Not only are the general public ignorant and misled dupes of the corporate media control patterns, but journalists are agents of owners of corporations. So, now the Chomskyan analysis offers a sense of superiority over the general public and over journalists employed in corporate media: and, as we shall see, about journalist’s understanding of their own jobs. Agree with the Chomskyan analysis, and you are immediately inducted into a (indeed the) moral and cognitive elite! What a buzz, and so without effort too.
Including much in the way of analytical effort. Any consideration of the literature on problems of corporate governance, and of the role of managers—or, for that matter, audience appeal—gets dismissed as a mere bagatelle. Any matter of personal reputation among journalists, professional understanding, the rhythms of the job, it is all subsumed within the calculus of ownership and its consequences.
Well, that makes analysis simple, does it not? Simple-minded, even.
The public option
What is more, we even have an obvious solution to these problems: do not have corporate media. Public broadcasting all the way! (So, if you accept the Chomskyan analysis and work in public broadcasting, you are a member of the moral and cognitive elite, and the solution!)
Of course, there is the small difficulty that the most relentlessly manufactured “consent”, the most relentlessly propagandistic media, has been in societies with no corporate (or other private) media at all. Clearly, being private or corporate is not the issue and abolishing or de-legitimising it is not the solution.
But, even in Western liberal democracies, there are a few issues with public broadcasting as a putative “solution”: such as the perennial complaints about narrow (and predictable) perspectives within public broadcasting. Theoretically, public media is owned by governments as agents of the sovereign people (you know, those ignorant and misled fools who do not really understand the important things at all). In practice, as with all institutions, public media is owned (in the economic sense) by those who control its attributes. Which, in the case of public broadcasting, is the staff. This is a general issue with government production of goods and services (including regulatory services), but it is particularly intense in the case of public broadcasting because of the barriers to direct government interference. Which means public broadcasting turns into self-selecting cliques producing material that manifests narrow and predictable perspectives. (Academe substantially suffers the same problem.)
So, work in public broadcasting and accept the Chomskyan perspective, and you get to feel morally and cognitively superior, part of the solution not the problem and justify selecting staff and allocating resources on the grounds of “sound” outlooks. How comforting.
Ownership and bad choice
Having “established” it is all ultimately about ownership, Herman moves on:
Political scientist Thomas Ferguson contends that the major media, 'controlled by large profit-maximizing investors do not encourage the dissemination of news and analyses that are likely to lead to popular indignation and, perhaps, government action hostile to the interests of all large investors, themselves included' (Ferguson 1996: 400).The notion that various anti-business and anti-corporate notions have not got runs in mainstream media is bizarre. Environmentalism, for example, does rather well. (And yes, I understand that the environmentalism-corporate interaction is complicated, but that itself points out how talking about “the” elite rapidly gets problematic.)
Not that promoting popular indignation in general is not engaged in: consider FoxNews™ and radio shock jocks. Or the deep unpopularity of the GM, Chrysler and bank bailouts.
The propaganda model itself is stated quite clearly:
Its crucial structural factors derive from the fact that the dominant media are firmly imbedded in the market system. They are profit-seeking businesses, owned by very wealthy people (or other companies); and they are funded largely by advertisers who are also profit-seeking entities, and who want their ads to appear in a supportive selling environment. The media also lean heavily on government and major business firms as information sources, and both efficiency and political considerations, and, frequently, overlapping interests, cause a certain degree of solidarity to prevail among the government, major media, and other corporate businesses. Government and large nonmedia business firms are also best positioned (and sufficiently wealthy) to be able to pressure the media with threats of withdrawal of advertising or TV licenses, libel suits, and other direct and indirect modes of attack.Private ownership is evil and markets are malign. Of course, entirely left out are unions, advocacy groups, bureaucratic interests, and so on. Also left out are the effects of competition between media and between journalists. That is, after all, where FoxNews™ and the radio “shock jocks” got their go: competing against stale conformity.
But, of course, they appeal to the “wrong” opinions and what the ignorant and misled public think has already been massively discounted.
But, if we do not so discount people, we can note that, using polling data to grade Americans as fiscally conservative, moderate or liberal and socially conservative, moderate or liberal, about 30% of the American population is fiscally and socially conservative, by far the biggest block of opinion among the nine cross-tabulations. Only 11% are fiscally and socially liberal, yet such opinions clearly dominate mainstream journalism. In other words, media opinion is already generally significantly to the “left” of public opinion.
How can journalists be somehow “manufacturing consent” when dissatisfaction with mainstream media—in significant degree precisely because their opinions do not reflect their audiences due to being significantly more liberal (in the US sense) than them—is one of the driving forces of the modern American media market?
I agree with the analysis that British newspapers have held their readerships much better than American newspapers because they are not dominated by boring, cosy, local-monopoly newspapers whose journalism reflects narrow viewpoints out of step with their audience. In other words, that the media is more responsive to its audience the more vigorously competitive the media market is. But I am not in the business of deeming large swathes of opinion illegitimate (as it must surely be if it represents misled ignorance). Nor being ultimately uninterested in how markets, ownership and competition actually work.
Interest and ideology
Herman is clearly correct that interest in, and knowledge of, foreign policy tends to be much stronger among various elite groups than the general public, hence much media debate on such issues is members of various elites talking to each other. This is neither surprising (people responsible for things are likely to have views about relevant areas) nor, of itself, much cause for concern. The “delegation” role of elections cover this as well, after all and it is a debate “out in the open”. Indeed, one of the striking things about the US is how much discussion of foreign policy issues is directed to the intelligent lay public. It helps, for example, make Chomsky himself a best-selling author.
The propaganda model is, unsurprisingly, much concerned with ideology, claiming that:
The media are also constrained by the dominant ideology, which heavily featured anticommunism before and during the Cold War era, and was mobilized often to induce the media to support (or refrain from criticizing) U.S. attacks on small states that were labeled communist.And American military interventions have never been controversial in the media? I am sure the Bush Administration would be amazed to hear how supportive the mainstream media was.
It is true that governments have an ability to rally opinion in crisis situations: but this has far more to do with the dynamics of crisis and soon dissipates. Particularly as information sources widen.
Having identified ownership, filtering and ideological factors, Herman explains that:
These factors are linked together, reflecting the multileveled capability of government and powerful business entities and collectives (e.g., the Business Roundtable; the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; the vast number of well-heeled industry lobbies and front groups) to exert power over the flow of information. We noted that the five factors involved--ownership, advertising, sourcing, flak, and anticommunist ideology--work as 'filters' through which information must pass, and that individually and often in additive fashion they greatly influence media choices. We stressed that the filters work mainly by the independent action of many individuals and organizations; and these frequently, but not always, have a common view of issues and similar interests. In short, the propaganda model describes a decentralized and nonconspiratorial market system of control and processing, although at times the government or one or more private actors may take initiatives and mobilize coordinated elite handling of an issue.Which explains so well dissatisfaction with mainstream media and the rise of FoxNews™ and radio shock jocks positioning against same.
Except, of course, they operate in a more conservative/libertarian perspective than the mainstream media. But, I forgot, the public are ignorant and misled fools so that does not count. (One can see how important it is to be able to select the right premises and discount inconvenient facts).
To illustrate how these filters work—in Herman’s words:
Propaganda campaigns can occur only when they are consistent with the interests of those controlling and managing the filters.Herman cites the enormous media coverage given to Solidarity in contrast to the lack of coverage given to the Turkish military government’s suppression of union activism at the same time. This, apparently, demonstrates the operation of the anti-communist filter.
Nonsense. An authoritarian government suppressing unionism in a developing economy is, sadly, a repeated and common pattern. A union not under regime control, operating independently and defying a Soviet bloc government was unprecedented. (And, it turned out, a major step in the decay and dissolution of the Soviet empire.) The media attention to it was understandable at the time and, if anything, looks even more sensible in retrospect. If journalism is “the first draft of history”, the mainstream media was doing an excellent drafting job in its focus.
The alleged filter of anti-communism merely picks up (badly) on the dominant strategic framing of the period (US-Soviet interactions and rivalry) while appealing to the anti-anti-communism of much of academe (and elsewhere).
But, of course, if one carefully picks the comparisons, and wilfully ignores inconvenient parts of context of events, one can “demonstrate” almost anything. It is, for example, true that the Western media will generally report far more on something Westerners are involved in than something they are not, but not much flows from this other than that the Western media has Western audiences.
What sort of ideological filter explains that the Western media reports almost obsessively on Israel and Palestine, while brutal Chinese crackdowns on the Uighurs get little or no coverage? It hardly fits an “anti-communist” or an “anti-Muslim” filter. That the Middle East is a volatile region that provides much of the world’s oil surely explains much of the difference. But that makes what happens there generally more newsworthy than what happens in Sinkiang because it simply is more strategically significant. As was Solidarity in its context.
This begins look like nothing more than a complaint that the mainstream media does not cover things in the way Chomsky, Herman and co think it should. But, given how narrow a sliver of public opinion they represent—and that the media needs a paying (or at least saleable) audience—that is hardly surprising.
Oh, but I forgot, Chomsky et al are the moral and cognitive elite: they know how things really are and really should be looked at.
Herman tries to build in some protections against being criticized for simple-mindedness:
We never claimed that the propaganda model explained everything or that it shows media omnipotence and complete effectiveness in manufacturing consent. It is a model of media behavior and performance, not of media effects. We explicitly pointed to the existence of alternative media, grassroots information sources, and public scepticism about media truthfulness as important limits on media effectiveness in propaganda service, and we urged the support and more vigorous use of the existing alternatives.But not the alternatives that actually sprang up, like FoxNews™ and shock jocks.
I am reminded of the quip Philip Jenkins quotes in his The Next Christendom about religion in contemporary Latin America:
the Catholic Church has chosen the poor, but the poor chose the Pentecostals.Indeed, it turns out the masses are even more out of the loop than one might have thought:
The power of the U.S. propaganda system lies in its ability to mobilize an elite consensus, to give the appearance of democratic consent, and to create enough confusion, misunderstanding and apathy in the general population to allow elite programs to go forward. We also emphasized the fact that there are often differences within the elite that open up space for some debate and even occasional (but very rare) attacks on the intent as well as the tactical means of achieving elite ends.If one is right out on one end of the spectrum of public opinion, then debate, no matter how vigorous in reality, becomes “not the right debate”, not “real” debate and has to be explained away. But, really, does this even remotely describe American politics and media during the Vietnam or Iraq wars?
And, if it does not for such central events in American foreign and military policy, why is it useful at all as an analytical model? (As distinct from a structure of polemic.) When Herman writes:
We never claimed that the propaganda model explained everything or that it shows media omnipotence and complete effectiveness in manufacturing consent. It is a model of media behavior and performance, not of media effects. We explicitly pointed to the existence of alternative media, grassroots information sources, and public scepticism about media truthfulness as important limits on media effectiveness in propaganda service, and we urged the support and more vigorous use of the existing alternatives. Both Chomsky and I have often pointed to the general public's persistent refusal to fall into line with the media and elite over the morality of the Vietnam War, the desirability of the assault on Nicaragua in the 1980s, and the merits of the North American Free Trade Agreement in the 1990s, among other matters.is he not giving the game away?
Moreover, one of the striking things about how American politics work is that public opinion seems to have more power than in other Western democracies as, for example, the persistence of capital punishment illustrates. Herman again engages in a large exercise in exclusion:
But the propaganda model does not suggest that local and even larger victories are impossible, especially where the elites are divided or have limited interest in an issue. For example, coverage of issues like gun control, school prayer, and abortion rights may well receive more varied treatment than, say, global trade, taxation, and economic policy.I am not sure one could actually claim that there is such alleged greater variance. But, once again, the issue becomes what is left for the model to actually explain? Apart from policy outcomes and patterns of debate not being to the satisfaction of Chomsky, Herman and their audience?
This seems to what the model is left with:
The model does suggest that the mainstream media, as elite institutions, commonly frame news and allow debate only within the parameters of elite perspectives; and that when the elite is really concerned and unified, and/or when ordinary citizens are not aware of their own stake in an issue or are immobilized by effective propaganda, the media will serve elite interests uncompromisingly.If the public generally does not care very much about an issue, then the people who do will have much more room to manoeuvre. This is surprising, how? Can we nominate any significant issue that does not provoke at least some debate in the mainstream media? It is simply not good enough to claim that it is not the “right” debate.
As for the model’s rhetoric about “the” American elite, there are polities with highly coordinated elites: any command economy, for example. There are the social mercantilist elites of Latin America. But it is not the extent of private ownership and market actions that provide such coordination: on the contrary, the more ownership is narrowed and markets constrained, the easier the creation and maintenance of a coordinated elite is. Hence, command economies, which largely abolish private ownership and market activity, have the most coordinated elites. Hence also the highly interventionist social mercantilism of Latin America produces highly concentrated elites.
Certainly, the propaganda model is an analysis that gives great status for not being in business: but it is not even remotely based on a careful analysis of social reality.
That the US might have something of an issue in division between an arrogant and self-satisfied elite and a frustrated and disenfranchised populace is a claim that is hardly the monopoly of the left. Angelo Codevilla’s recent essay, for example, is a strongly and passionately argued case for such. What distinguishes his analysis from that of the Chomskyan one is that Codevilla is far less patronising about his fellow citizens. He takes their perspectives and concerns as legitimate.
He is also much more aware of how academe, government bureaucracy, unions and advocacy organisations are themselves power networks. In other words, Codevilla has a much less simple-minded view of power in a mixed economy than the Chomskyan analysis uses.
But Codevilla’s thesis is still open to reasonable criticism about being somewhat too aggregative in its notion of there being “the” elite. Though, having a much less simple-minded notion of power and influence in a mixed economy, Codevilla can produce a much more sophisticated notion of how elites operate and how ideas are formed and propagated. But, then, a lot of the appeal of the Chomskyan analysis is precisely the way it makes academic-advocacy NGO-union-bureaucratic power networks largely invisible.
Herman seeks to respond to various criticism, such as the “conspiracy theory” criticism:
We explained in Manufacturing Consent that critical analyses like ours would inevitably elicit cries of conspiracy theory, and in a futile effort to prevent this we devoted several pages of the preface to an explicit rejection of conspiracy and an attempt to show that the propaganda model is best described as a 'guided market system.' Mainstream critics still made the charge, partly because they are too lazy to read a complex work, partly because they know that falsely accusing a radical critique of conspiracy theory won't cost them anything, and partly because of their superficial assumption that, as the media comprise thousands of 'independent' journalists and companies, any finding that they follow a 'party line' that serves the state must rest on an assumed conspiracy.This is disingenuous in the extreme. Propaganda is intentional and (typically) centrally coordinated. If Hermann and Chomsky did not want to be regarded as pushing a conspiratorial model, they should not have called it the ‘propaganda model’.
The reliance on being far more cognitively “with it” than others is pervasive. As, for example, in the treatment of journalists:
But, apart from the fact that we did speak with quite a few reporters, the criticism is inane. Are reporters even aware of the deeper sources of bias they may internalize? Won't they tend to rationalize their behavior?That there are common views amongst many journalists is clearly true but, again, they are clearly generally more “leftward” than the general public. Suggesting there may be socialization and status issues involved is quite different from suggesting some internalized corporate-driven bias.
Herman dismisses the professionalism issue thus:
But professionalism and objectivity rules are fuzzy and flexible concepts, and are not likely to override the claims and demands of deeper power and control relationships.One wonders if he would treat academic opinion in quite the same way. But notice how we are back in the ownership=pervasive power analysis. Surely the evidence is that peer relationships, and sense of status, are, in fact, much more important. Particularly given that public broadcasting—where journalists are less constrained by audience pressures—tends to display rather more concentrated forms of the trend of opinion among journalists.
Some of what is going on is problematising what are hardly surprising patterns:
Hallin acknowledges that 'the administration was able more often than not to prevail in the battle to determine the dominant frame of television coverage,' 'the broad patterns in the framing the story can be accounted for almost entirely by the evolution of policy and elite debate in Washington,' and 'coherent statements of alternative visions of the world order and U.S. policy rarely appeared in the news' (Hallin 1994: 64, 74, 77). This is exactly what the propaganda model would forecast.Surely it is what any model which acknowledges that what government does, and why, is going to be a powerful framing for events in any political system is going to grapple with. What is striking in Western democracies—in many ways, particularly in the US—is how much such framings are contested, not how little.
The model says power matters—true, of course—but then is quite narrow in what forms and sources of power it considers:
But the propaganda model does start from the premise that a critical political economy will put front and center the analysis of the locus of media control and the mechanisms by which the powerful are able to dominate the flow of messages and limit the space of contesting parties. The limits on their power are certainly important, but why should these get first place, except as a means of minimizing the power of the dominant interests, inflating the elements of contestation, and pretending that the marginalized have more strength than they really possess?How about obscuring other power networks? It is true, for example, that private sector unionism has been declining in the US, something of a general pattern in Western economies that occurs for reasons intimately connected to social and economic changes. But it is also true that public sector unionism has become increasingly powerful in driving American policy and politics.
Indeed, public employment in the US has increasingly become a device for enriching a privileged caste at the expense of the general public (and unionism, particularly in the US, is increasingly about organising for more of that).
About that audience
Herman notes the commercial pressures on newspapers and contemporary media:
The decline of public broadcasting, the increase in corporate power and global reach, and the mergers and centralization of the media, have made bottom-line considerations more influential both in the United States and abroad. The competition for advertisers has become more intense and the boundaries between editorial and advertising departments have weakened further. Newsrooms have been more thoroughly incorporated into transnational corporate empires, with budget cuts and even less management enthusiasm for investigative journalism that would challenge the structure of power (Herman and McChesney, 1997). In short, the professional autonomy of journalists has been reduced.Technological change has put mainstream media under pressure, but primarily by providing alternative sources of information. This has been weakening their ability to frame public debate, not increasing it: as Dan Rather discovered.
Herman’s claim that:
Although the new technologies have great potential for democratic communication, there is little reason to expect the Internet to serve democratic ends if it is left to the market (Herman and McChesney 1997: 117-35).is surely just bizarre. Yes, putting things behind paywalls reduces access but it is not market pressures but government ones which are the biggest dangers to free flow of information on the Internet.
The notion that being embedded in a market economy is a restrictive information “filter” is ultimately profoundly silly. On the contrary, it is patently a massive expander of information availability, as elementary comparison between polities and across time clearly demonstrates.
Herman also reads rather too much into the flow of intellectual fashions:
There is now an almost religious faith in the market, at least among the elite, so that regardless of evidence, markets are assumed to be benevolent and nonmarket mechanisms are suspect. When the Soviet economy stagnated in the 1980s, it was attributed to the absence of markets; the disintegration of capitalist Russia in the 1990s is blamed on politicians and workers failing to let markets work their magic. Journalism has internalized this ideology. Adding it to the fifth filter in a world where the global power of market institutions makes nonmarket options seem utopian gives us an ideological package of immense strength.That attempts to systematically replace markets have all, without exception, been grotesque failures apparently has nothing to do with it.
And the claim about religious faith in markets does not sit so well a few years later: a global financial crisis, a major economic downturn, and this allegedly pervasive “faith” withered remarkably quickly.
While public opinion is massively discounted as a benchmark in the basic structure of analysis, it is cited as precisely such a benchmark when policies that the perspective underlying the model is against can be cast as unpopular. Again and again, the real complaint seems to be that the patterns of debate and policy outcomes are not congenial to said perspective rather than whether they conform to the patterns of public opinion. (Which, if it did, would shift media debate in a generally more “rightward” direction.)
The characterisation of alleged media uniformity on various issues also seems somewhat overstated. The notion that there may be good reasons to favour, for example, free trade over protectionism, is clearly discounted. If freer markets are never the correct answer, then clearly any movement in such a direction can only be “explained” as pathology.
But diagnosing what one finds ideologically frustrating as some pathology or moral failing is a pattern that has wider application—such as the tendency to criticise Australian voters for being “conservative”. Surely, the voting citizens of country that is one of the longest-running of modern democracies and consistently rates in the top 3 in the world on the UN’s human development index have a fair bit to be conservative about.
But the Chomskyan analysis is very useful. Academic-NGO-public service-union networks can point to the evil “corporates” as the “real” elite and completely deny their own status as power elites, congratulating themselves on their moral and cognitive superiority while discounting the views and wishes of the general public. The Manufacturing Consent model is great at manufacturing self-satisfaction and as propaganda, not as anything remotely resembling careful analysis of the social world in general or the media in particular.