Media, Power and the Origins of the Propaganda Model: An Interview with Edward S. Herman

Dec 1st, 2008 | By FEO Admin | Category: Comment

Jeffery Klaehn

Over the past twenty years the propaganda model of media operations has become one of the most tested and debated models within the social sciences. First introduced by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky (1988) in their groundbreaking work, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, the propaganda model is first and foremost a structural model that focuses on how market forces impact overall patterns of media behavior. The following interview explores the origins of the propaganda model, common criticisms of the model, and ways in which the model has been updated since it was initially introduced.

Jeffery Klaehn: How would you characterize the relationship between media and power, and what are the most central implications of media power for democracy and public education today, in your view?

Ed Herman: The mainstream media (MSM) are an integral part of the power structure and in consequence consistently serve the ends of the leaders within that power structure. This means that democracy and public education are not primary aims of the MSM; the former, if fully realized, might well be damaging to the ends of the powerful; the latter also, unless properly channeled and limited, could be injurious to the powerful. These incompatibilities are likely to increase if inequality grows and if a military ethos and culture become steadily more important (as they have). The MSM will respond with attacks on and marginalization of ‘populism’ with its equalitarian tendencies, and will normalize enormous military budgets and wars.

Jeffery Klaehn: It has been over two decades since the world was first introduced to the propaganda model in the pages of your groundbreaking work, co-authored with Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. In the intervening years, the model has been one of the most tested within the social sciences and, ironically, has also become one of the most debated, particularly in the disciplines of sociology and communication studies. The model suggests that overall media performance should be understood as an outcome of market forces, a view which hardly seems controversial and can in fact be seen to be germane to the conflict theory perspective within mainstream sociology. What inspired the model and what prompted you to advance it in the first place? Were there gaps in the existing literature at the time which you recognized and hoped to address? What were your overall hopes and aims for the model?

Ed Herman: We were inspired by the failure of the MSM to serve the public interest and the unwillingness of media analysts to give adequate weight to the structural basis of that media mal-performance. The model actually derives from models of industrial organization, where in past years the paradigm was that structure shapes firm behavior and ultimately economic performance. Fewness of sellers means less intense competition and greater profit margins. The propaganda model similarly relates structural facts like ownership, funding sources, news sources and the relationship of these to the media, the ability to generate threatening flak, and the power to influence ideological premises, to ultimate media news and editorial performance. We hoped that this model would focus greater attention on fundamental forces affecting the media – that it would help explain their choices and frequent double standards and participation in propaganda campaigns.

Jeffery Klaehn: What are the theoretical and real-world foundations of the model?

Ed Herman: The theoretical foundation is in good part the economic model of industrial organization that traces back to the great British economist Alfred Marshall, but assumed its more modern form at Harvard with Edward S. Mason and his student and later Berkeley academic Joe S. Bain. Our thinking was also influenced by pioneering media analysts whose ideas also flowed into our work: Warren Breed, Gaye Tuchman; Ben Bagdikian, Philip Elliott, Eric Barnouw, Peter Golding, Stuart Hall, Leon Sigal, and others. The ‘real world’ foundation was our own observations over many years, written up in many articles and books, on how the media operate in choosing, ignoring, stressing and contextualizing (or decontextualizing) the vast flow of news.

Jeffery Klaehn: The propaganda model hypothesizes that news discourse is in effect bound to power and predicts that the primary sources of news will be agents of power. According to this framework, official sources are those that reflect the interests of power, social class and dominant social institutions. The model predicts that media debate will be framed by official sources. Thus, in terms of its analytic and critical focus, the model seems to me to share much in common with critical discourse analysis, as practiced by Teun van Dijk and others, which is widely accepted within the social sciences. While the influence and impact of the propaganda model continue to grow every year, early resistance to the model within the academy is noteworthy, as is the disturbing fact that that this resistance has yet to fade out entirely. What may be said about and learned from this?

Ed Herman: The overlaps with critical discourse frames are numerous, but this is because the subject is immense and many tracks can be followed that are often not inconsistent with one another but stress different things. We don’t stress subtle language variations and/or the nuances in effects when the elite is split and a certain amount of dissent becomes permissible. Our emphasis is on the broader routes through which power affects media choices, how this feeds into media campaigns, and how it results in dichotomization and systematic double standards. The propaganda model focuses heavily on the institutional structure that lies behind news-making in ‘a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest.’ This leaves lots of room for other tracks and sub-tracks in areas we deal with.

The resistance and hostility to the propaganda model had several sources. One is that it is a radical critique, whose implication is that modest reforms that don’t alter the structure very much aren’t going to affect media performance very much. This is hard for non-radicals to swallow. Another source of resistance has been based on our relatively broad-brush strokes with which we model a complex area. This makes it allegedly too mechanistic and at the same time lacking in a weighting of the elements in the model! But we don’t claim that it explains everything and we are clear that elite differences and local factors (including features of individual media institutions) can influence media outcomes. We argue that the model works well in many important cases, and we await the offering of one that is superior. But we also acknowledge that there remains lots of room for media studies that do not rest on the propaganda model. This same room opens the way to criticizing the model for its failure to pursue those tracks and fill those spaces.

Jeffery Klaehn: Criticisms of the propaganda model within the context of scholarly discourse have by this point in time been quite exhaustively rehearsed, yet misconceptions about the model continue to circulate widely, in university departments and on the worldwide web. Even though you have written extensively about dissent culture, for instance, I have heard critics liken the model to the Marxist idea of false consciousness. Some commentators have suggested that the model takes ruling-class interests for granted as being unified. Others have suggested that because the model does not study audience effects, it ought to be dismissed entirely. On another level, there have been graduate students at universities in Canada and the US who have applied the propaganda model in doctoral dissertations only to encounter serious difficulties when finding themselves up against political and ideological biases of their supervisors. At the faculty level, sociology colleagues whom I have taught with in the past have suggested to me that studies applying the propaganda model are more akin to ‘political criticism’ than scholarship, implying that this work is somehow less than serious academic scholarship, even though these had been published in books and peer-reviewed journals. Here the bias could not be more transparent. What are your thoughts on the misplaced criticisms and on these attitudes toward the model, on the levels of misconception that continue to exist within certain circles?

Ed Herman: The key as I have noted is that it is a radical model, a class-based and class-bias model, and that in itself will explain much of the hostility. That will make it ‘political,’ whereas analyses that take the status quo as a given and that confine themselves to modest reforms are ‘non-political.’ This kind of critique is implicitly political. Applications of the propaganda model do take ruling class interests as unified on some issues and as yielding consistent premises in the MSM (like benevolent intent in external ventures, and the superiority of market over government interventionary solutions to economic problems). But we are very clear that the ruling class may be divided on some issues, with important consequences for the media and the space within which journalists can work.

Jeffery Klaehn: Globally, scholars continue to engage in debate on the extent to which the professional disciplines ought to conceptually engage with ‘real-world’ social inequalities, and the question of relevance in relation to the explicitly public and political. Did you create the propaganda model to be fundamentally democratic, that is, available for reading and use by specialists and non-specialists alike? And might this too be linked to the model’s critical reception within the academy?

Ed Herman: We are democrats and oppose elite rule and great inequality. The propaganda model shows that the MSM are elite institutions that serve an elite and not the general populace. This seems to us a rudimentary fact, but the model spells it out in its main features. We certainly didn’t write this for specialists alone – we wrote it for everybody. Obviously elite interests and their supporters will find the thrust of the model upsetting and wrong-headed.

Jeffery Klaehn: What about the ‘complexity’ of social reality – the idea that contemporary social issues are somehow too complex, too difficult for the ordinary person to fathom, hence the need for academics and specialists, so the argument goes.

Ed Herman: Social reality is very complex, but that is why a relatively simple and straightforward model like the PM is especially useful – cutting through that complexity to essentials. Ordinary persons can grasp complex realities as well as the elite, but we are happy to help them do this in a world where elite interests often try to obfuscate that reality.

Jeffery Klaehn: In what ways might the propaganda model be modified, improved or updated today?

Ed Herman: We modified it in 2002 to include free market ideology as an important ideological premise, complementing anticommunism. We could possibly improve it by spelling out in much more detail the ways in which elite divisions and local factors affect the media and allow dissent more space, although there is always the danger that the view of the forest might be lost in the profusion of detail on the trees. We could update on the growing command of militarism and war and the consequent growth in war propaganda. We may do this in an Epilogue to an edition of Manufacturing Consent being published in the UK by Bodley Head to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the publication of the model.

Jeffery Klaehn: In Manufacturing Consent, the propaganda model was used to study the media coverage published in elite, agenda-setting newspapers. Chomsky has described the rationale for this – noting that what is published in areas more geographically remote to the centers of political and economic power tends to be less constrained because, in effect, it doesn’t matter as much. Can the model be applied to other media, such as television news and the internet? Should it be? What about other media, such as popular films and comic books? Is it possible to explore media content and/or various political-economic elements of the contexts in which these media are produced, applying general principles associated with the model?

Ed Herman: The model certainly applies to television news, and in fact it can probably be applied as well to other media forms, modified as necessary by the extent to which they deal in matters of strong elite interest, the importance of advertising, and their ownership. A great many of the more important institutions in the categories that you name are parts of media conglomerates, and operate under similar pressures and rules. There may be special features of these media and local conditions that will modify the applicability of the propaganda model. But there is no logical reason why they shouldn’t be subject to the same general principles and be worthy of study along these lines

Leave Comment