20 Years of Propaganda?
Critical Discussions and Evidence of the Ongoing Relevance of the Herman and Chomsky Propaganda Model
University of Windsor, Ontario, Canada, May 2007
Report on some of the conference proceedings
The year 2008 will mark the 20th anniversary of the publication of the book, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky (Pantheon, 1988). In this book, the authors put forth a model, the Propaganda Model (PM), as a way of understanding how the mass media system interrelates with the economy, political system and society. Since putting forth their PM (with its ownership, advertising, sources, flak and ideology filters), there have been many changes and technological advances in the communication and media landscape. The 2007 conference, and the spring 2008 publication based upon the proceedings, will, through vigorous debate, discussion and fresh insight, make great strides in critically analysing (perhaps revising and updating) the ongoing relevance of the Herman-Chomsky Propaganda Model as a useful conceptualisation for understanding 21st century media and society.
The Propaganda Model's Usefulness for Understanding 21st Century Media and Society
The PM is stronger now than it was twenty years ago when we published Manufacturing Consent. Each of the filters has changed, rendering them more powerful. (1) Ownership filter has changed because of corporate concentration and the process of globalisation. Public service broadcasting has also declined in its importance and influence. Also, the media conglomerates are much closer to governments now and are consequently much more influenced by them. (2) Advertising filter has changed because of corporate concentration and globalisation. Newspaper sales are in decline and many advertisers have migrated to the Internet. Therefore, their power over the media has increased; the balance of power has moved decisively in their favour. (3) Sourcing filter has changed because media corporations have cut back on their investment in news production in favour of more 'infotainment'. There is also a greater reliance now on pre-packed government sources. Government are now the 'primary definers' of what constitutes news. Governments, in effect, now manage the media, rendering them more dependent and malleable. (4) Flak filter has changed in that governments are more powerful as flak agents. We have also witnessed the emergence of the blogging phenomenon and the growing influence of right-wing bloggers as flak agents [see Eric Boehlert (2006) Lapdogs, Free Press]. (5) The ideology filter has been transformed as anti-communism, although not yet dead, is considerably weaker. It has been replaced by the 'marvel of the market'. The notion of 'terrorism' is also a powerful ideology which is suitably vague e.g., state versus non-state terrorism and the ignorance that the United States (US) is arguably the prime terrorist state in the world today. The rise of the Internet potentially challenges the model. However, it still holds for the operation of the mass media. Also, its impact and emancipatory potential should not be overestimated; research has shown that only six per cent of Internet users are accessing alternative sources with most using existing news outlets. We are also witnessing an attempt by media conglomerates to try and control the Internet - manifest in the current battle over net neutrality for example. In short, new technology is being re-occupied by the old guard. The existence of mass protest movements, which are part of the resistance to the capitalist system, does not alter the PM. The model is focused upon the operation of elite institutions. The PM demonstrates that such resistance, together with the general population, is the target of corporate propaganda. We need to keep these two phenomena - the PM and progressive social movements - separate in our analysis. The PM is a model of class warfare [see Jeff Faux (2006) Global Class Warfare, Wiley]. Faux focused on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the fact that the general publics in North America and Mexico opposed NAFTA, as reflected in public opinion polls. However, as the PM predicted, the media uniformly favoured NAFTA. The book by David Harvey [(2005) A Brief History of Neo-liberalism, Oxford University Press] and the PM fit together beautifully. There is also the book by Thomas Ferguson [(1995) Golden Rule, University of Chicago Press] in which he uses the example of the media obsession with the defence budget when most of the general public wanted greater spending on education. Once again, as predicted by the PM, the media focused on the former at the expense of the latter. The US media has been a perfect accomplice for US foreign policy. Media apologetics have recently reached a new low, with Iran the latest target of US aggression. We are no longer in an age of Orwell; we are in the age of Kafka.
Is the PM too narrow? Its focus is imperialism on the part of the US and it is therefore US-centric. What about the relationship between domestic and foreign news issues and coverage and the relationship between news and entertainment? The PM makes the sweeping assertion that we are all fact gathers, but is this true? Are people riveted to the facts? Will the exposure of media lies bring about political change? The PM stress on information leads to a split-level analysis. On the one hand, the five filters are seen as effective where there is elite consensus. On the other hand, the rhetorical level of critique, using denunciation and sarcasm and manifest in terms such as the 'manufacture of consent', implies agency on the part of media workers. In terms of domestic news coverage, does the PM still apply? Can the PM be modified to incorporate entertainment media, video games, etc? Would it survive such a modification?
The PM as a model is readily accessible to students. It presents an empirical and moral critique of the state of the mainstream media. However, there are some serious limitations to the model. It is reductionist in nature and there are too few variables. There are other factors which lock the media into a propaganda role, for example the links between intelligence agencies and the media. Also, ideology is reduced to that of propaganda campaigns. The PM treats the mainstream media in terms of institutions of capital. However, it does not pay attention to internal institutional factors, for example the agency of news journalists. But new production is not simply a production line as the PM implies. The PM is also functionalist and disempowering in terms of the agents of social change. Furthermore, it takes no account of audience effects, despite using terms like indoctrination, etc. Finally, there is the issue of division amongst the elite and the existence of audience mobilisation in support of alternatives. A useful model to complement the PM is the hierarchy model proposed by Pamela Shoemaker and Stephen Reese [(1991) Mediating the Message, Guildford Publications] which provides a device for conceptualising media operations and effects. Another useful model, which attends to agency and structure, is that of field theory, proposed by Pierre Bourdieu. The PM certainly has political resonance, but these other models are arguably more sophisticated and provide for comparative analysis.
Expanding the Propaganda Model
I am a Marxist and an unapologetic reductionist; this type of analysis has its merits if we are to try and understand the complex world that we live in. European media systems are very different to that in the US and a number of criticisms can be levelled at the PM from a Marxist perspective. (a) The notion of the capitalist elite - the PM treats the elite as if it were a unified bloc, where divisions are tactical rather than fundamental. However, there can be major disagreement within the elite, for example the campaign by the Mirror newspapers in Britain against the Iraq war. Of course, the owners of this media group are capitalist, so how should we account for this? In addition to the class war between capital and labour, there are differences between different fractions of capital, i.e., capital versus capital as well as capital versus labour. Evidence of such divisions undermines the PM. (b) Bourgeois democracy - the debate about the media as an institution needs to be contextualised within the reality of what is a bourgeois democracy. However, some societies are characterised by a greater range of what is considered legitimate opinion, when compared to the US, the country the PM is based upon. (c) The political economy of the media - what we have is a media system produced by the elites for the masses. Therefore, the elites must attend, in however distorted a way, to the concerns of the masses if they are to sell their media. (d) International differences - public sector broadcasting is widespread in Europe and this makes for a different media system. The newspaper market is also more competitive in Europe compared to the US; political differentiation is therefore more marked. (e) Competing sources - there are a more diverse range of sources in European media systems. Plus, a dependence on corporate and government sources does not necessarily imply that the media will automatically 'follow the line'. (f) The social position of journalists - they are wage workers, even if a recent study found that many British journalists had been schooled in the private sector. Consequently, the newsroom is also a site of class conflict. Journalists' professionalism is a distorted expression of their desire to be autonomous from the corporations they work for. Conclusions: professional autonomy of journalists is an important factor, journalists can be 'won over' and should be targeted and supported in the class war, and there is a crucial difference in media operation in 'normal times' compared to crisis periods. This has implications for the role of the media and its function in crises.
Alternative Media, Social Change and the Propaganda Model
The PM is a well-crafted synthesis of the work produced
by media sociologists in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, particularly British
research. It drew upon political economy work (Peter Golding, Graham Murdock),
the sociology of organisations (Jeremy Tunstall) and cultural studies
(Stuart Hall). However, what is missing from the PM? It does not attend
to 'framing', propaganda per se (the psychology of persuasion), it falls
into the 'science trap' with its preconditions and it fails to account
for agency. The PM is an example of a 'deficit model', that is to say,
it is underpinned by a belief that the media should be a watchdog, a fourth
estate and a defender of the public sphere against concentrated power.
It is therefore premised on the notion that if only the media did these
things, then everything would be okay. However, is this really what the
mass media aspire to, have ever aspired to? The penetration of the media
by intelligence agencies (planting stories) surely deserves to be a sixth
filter? [See the research by Richard Keeble (2006) 'Hacks and spooks',
www.medialens.org]. What we need is a model that conceives the media as
a means of social control, which attends to corporate power, capitalism,
the ruling class and the secret government.
I want to talk about manufacturing compliance - looking at the role that the media play in the reproduction of capitalist societies. Criticisms of the PM: (a) It is a model of media performance not the role of the media in society. (b) The PM neglects the role of the public relations industry and organised propaganda. (c) The PM has nothing to say about public opinion or media impact. If we expand upon these, the title of the book in which the PM was outlined i.e., Manufacturing Consent implies some sort of media impact. However, the model does not account for media effects. Critically, however, there is evidence that propaganda can have an impact upon public opinion, consider for example the role of weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war [see PIPA/Knowledge Networks Poll, 'Misperceptions, the Media and the Iraq War at www.worldpublicopinion.org].
Furthermore, the role of public relations/propaganda has expanded greatly over the last twenty years. The industry is not just concerned about shaping the media agenda and public opinion. It is also concerned with communicating with elites, for example the role of the Trilateral Commission and the Bilderberg Group. The industry and their political allies aim for 'total spectrum dominance'. Consequently, information provided by the media and propaganda is blurred and are seen as one and the same thing. Then there are the issues of hegemony, power, consent and coercion. Antonio Gramsci's Prison Notebooks are instructive here. Leadership by an elite is not just based upon the consent of the masses, it is also based upon occasional coercion (the deployment of lies, threats, etc.) and the media is one arena in which this occurs, hence the manufacture of compliance.
Pedagogy and the Propaganda Model
I teach the PM as a scientific model, a hypothesis, a model concerned with content and, just as importantly, with absences i.e., it provides a structural analysis of the media system that identifies not just what is there but what is not there. The PM is easily tested. Empiricism is very important for progressive-left forces as the evidence is on our side. The flexibility of the PM is also a distinct advantage. It needs to be adapted, however, to take account of new technologies (such as the Internet), the end of the Cold War, etc. There is a new ideological filter: the 'war on terror'. The PM is useful for teaching undergraduates, for introducing them to the skills they need to think analytically and critically. The PM was the basis for the film, 'The Myth of the Liberal Media' (see Media Education Foundation to access the film). The idea of a liberal media is a deflection device and this is a good starting point for media and communication students. There is a section in the film from the 'Manufacturing Consent' DVD which tests the PM in terms of the Cambodia versus East Timor coverage. What is missing from the film, however, is any analysis of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Why? Looking back, this is my reluctance to deal with this controversial topic because of the powerful flak forces that operate. This phenomena also permeates the academy, witness Eqbal Ahmad who paid a high price for keeping the issue of Palestine alive in the face of a concerted campaign for pro-Israeli forces in the US, such as the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting, and Israel itself. The right-wing is now targeting universities, for example David Horowitz and company. Karl Marx differentiated between the mode of analysis and the mode of exposition, for example the difference between his Grundrisse and Capital. Progressive-left politics requires (a) scientific analysis and (b) translation of such analysis for ordinary people. The division within media and communication studies, between political economy (i.e., PM) and cultural approaches (i.e., Stuart Hall) is not a useful one. Progressive-left forces need to take teaching seriously.
Andy Mullen, Northumbria University.