Understanding the 'propaganda model' requires the appreciation of some subtlety. Our media system is not propaganda in the sense that it is the result of conscious efforts on the part of ruling elites, (at least it wasn't yet as of 1986, when Manufacturing Consent was written) but rather it functions as propaganda and has the same effect. Chomsky and Herman show in great and persuasive detail how our news media system serves the interests of ruling elites, and bolsters their position, while ignoring or degrading opposing positions.

This happens because our media system is subject to filters that invariably skew the content. The filters, explained in exhausting detail by Chomsky and Herman, and only briefly summarized here are:

1) Concentration of ownership of the media and inherent conflicts of interest.
Major media outlets in our society are owned and controlled by some of the largest mega-corporations. This was true when the book was written 15 years ago, and has gotten exponentially worse since then. A short survey will reveal that between Viacom, AOL/Time Warner/Turner, General Electric and Cap Cities/Disney/Paramount, and Jacor, that's about it for television networks and local television stations, not to mention movie studios, record labels, radio stations, and magazines, and a bunch of newspapers and internet sites. Of course these corporate entities will not encourage news reports or features that are detrimental to their interests or portray them in a bad light, and if all of the interconnected cross-ownership, subsidiaryship, and deals between these and other corporations is factored in, what is detrimental to their interests or portrays them in a bad light could be just about anything. Thus news in our society tends to avoid reporting that raises or sheds any new light on any major issues, often focusing on so called 'human interest' stories, or when current events are reported, limiting the range of debate and skewing the coverage. A recent survey revealed that 70% of television reporters have had stories they were working on cancelled by producers due to the fact that those stories would negatively impact the parent company in some way.

2) Advertising orientation of the media.
The fact that the source of revenue for the news media in our society is advertising only further serves to bolster the tendency described above, for even if by some miracle through the vast web of ownership the corporate owners of a certain media outlet don't have a conflict of interest in how a particular story is slanted, the advertisers might, in which case the story is slanted or withdrawn. Chomsky and Herman provide many examples of this. Furthermore, news programs must first and foremost be of a nature that encourages consumption, and encourages consumption of the particular products advertised, and the result is that the news and range of debate is skewed this way. And lastly, news programs must, by their nature as a vehicle for advertising, be aimed at attracting the segments of the population most likely to engage in conspicuous consumption, further skewing their coverage toward the 'human interest' stories mentioned above, and away from coverage that might raise difficult issues. A recent study revealed that the percentage of articles on the front page of the New York Times that dealt with government declined nearly 50% from 1975 to 1999, while the percentage of articles about celebrities or sports increased by about the same amount. And of course the Times is the 'paper of record,' so we can expect that things are even worse in other newspapers and especially television.

3) Reliance on official sources.
The tendency in reporting in the US is for official sources, whether government or corporate officials or representatives, to 'carry' the story, through sound bites and brief softball interviews. Relatively little interpretation is left to the reporters, and this would in fact be a fair and accurate way of presenting news if entire speeches were quoted rather than just sound bites, and if opposing sources were given equal time. Unfortunately, opposing sources are not given equal time, and are portrayed in the light that their opinion is less than expert and 'lay,' while the empty triumphant sound bites of officials are given official weight. This serves to further skew coverage and debate.

4) The relentless pursuit of government and corporate 'flack' machines.
On the rare occasion that a report that reflects badly on the status quo and ruling elites makes it through the previous three filters, it will likely be subject to a barrage of flack from those that have an interest in squelching its effect. As an example, those parties can draw on vast resources to flood the airwaves with positive content that negates the effect of an item of bad publicity, as Philip Morris has done recently. Or they can draw on their resources and connections within the web of ownership to demand response time, to an extent that other aggrieved parties cannot.

5) Capitalism as the 'national religion.'
This final filter was entitled "Anti-communism as the national religion" by Chomsky and Hermann, but deserves updating because although communism has disappeared from the world stage, this filter hasn't disappeared from our media. This filter explains why in the past the atrocities of Pol Pot were headlines every day, while the larger death toll in East Timor, carried out by the Indonesian government with the support of the US government, or the atrocities under Augusto Pinochet, in Chile, carried out with CIA trained armies, were barely reported at all. Today, this filter bolsters the tendency by the media, already there from filters 1 and 2, to equate society with 'the economy.'

The result of all of this skewed coverage and reporting is that the news media in America functions as propaganda just as well as any system concocted by a dictator. The range of debate and issues presented on, say, CNN, is as narrow as anything Pravda could have some up with. What a fine book Manufacturing Consent is.

Manufacturing Consent is more than a book by Noam Chomsky, and more than a concept borrowed from Walter Lippmann's book Public Opinion. It is also a documentary film about the views and life of the world renowned linguist and political dissident Noam Chomsky. The film was released in 1992 and is 167 minutes long. It was created by Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick. The film has won some fifteen international awards.

The films' more interesting parts include Noam Chomsky defending his choice to support a French professor's right to free speech and a case study of atrocities carried out in Southeast Asia. Would you be surprised that the end of Nazi Germany was not the end of genocide? Very recently genocide has been committed in Cambodia and East Timor. The U.S. backed the Indonesians while they carried out genocide in East Timor. The film shows how the the tragedy in Cambodia had much more media coverage than East Timor. It (the film) also gives some reasons as to why the media would cover Cambodia and not East Timor which basically relates back to Noam Chomsky's and Edward Herman's analysis on how the media functions.

There are several clips of interviews, debates, and arguments featuring Bill Moyers, Peter Jennings, William F. Buckley Jr., Tom Wolfe, Michel Foucault and many others in the film. The special features on the DVD version shows an extended excerpt of the debate with William F. Buckley Jr. where Chomsky makes Buckley look like a fool.

Chomsky not only made, but substantiated the point that, while American mass media are not officially censored as in, say, China, mechanisms exist that in fact silence dissent even more effectively.

Chinese students often tell me that "in America, you can criticize the government if you like". To a point, that's true. But who will listen? You may even be able to raise a few paltry thousands of dollars and print a seditious tabloid, but The Man spends hundreds of millions every day to saturate the public sensorium with his version of the truth.

I like to tell my students that if you stand on your bicycle on a busy street corner in a city in China, you will probably be arrested quickly. Your fate then ranges from jail to "mental hospital" to a one-way trip to the football stadium. But in the few moments before arrest, you are very likely to be heard, and it is possible that people will talk about what you said long after you are dead.

In America, if you stand on a soapbox, you may well be able to lecture for hours, if not days, without police intervention of any kind. But unless you are saying what the teevee has already said, few people will listen to you, and nobody will remember you after they get home and eat dinner.

There is probably more well-informed opinion in any three randomly chosen Everything2 noders than in the entire nationwide Six-O'Clock News crew. But who do you think Mr. & Mrs. America are listening to right now?

In Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky0 propose a radical theory to explain the behavior of the US mass media. According to their model, the "raw material" of news is subjected to a series of filters: corporate ownership, dependence on advertising, reliance on official sources, influence of "flak" machines, and anti-communist bias. These filters serve the needs of the "elite," who are defined as the government, corporate owners, media executives, and a few powerful advocacy groups ("elite" is a clever choice of word, since any mention of elitism is sure to raise leftist hackles). The result, they claim, is a system in which stories that serve "elite" interests are emphasized, while those that undermine those interests are downplayed or suppressed.

Apparently, the existence of these filters has to be inferred from the number and kinds of articles that are published, since Herman and Chomsky do not present specific examples of reporters or editors who are willing to admit that this actually happened in the specific cases they describe.1 Moreover, anyone who actually pays attention to the media can come up with innumerable counterexamples. A few minutes' brainstorming yielded the following: Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, the Iran-Contra scandal, the Savings and Loan crash, Ivan Boesky, Michael Milken, the Enron collapse, Arthur Andersen accounting scandals, antitrust litigation against Microsoft and Standard Oil and AT&T, the conviction of Imclone's CEO Samuel Waksal, Freddie Mac woes, and assorted scandals at major publications--Jayson Blair at the New York Times, Janet Cooke at the Washington Post, and Stephen Glass at New Republic. Then there are books published by major media corporations that critique the putative "elite": works by Ralph Nader and Michael Moore--and, indeed, Manufacturing Consent itself (the version I have was published by Pantheon Books, one tentacle of publishing giant Random House.2

To explain away such cases, all of which blatantly contradict their thesis, Herman and Chomsky resort to a series of evasions and fudges:

1. Dependence on subjective standards. They claim that such counterexamples are not really counterexamples at all--that the tone and placement of articles matters, as well as their existence. This is a rather clever standard, since it means that supporting examples can be counted as evidence while counterexamples can all be dismissed out of hand as exceptions. (They don't specify the number or type of counterexamples that would be required to disprove their thesis. Nor do they explain how the tone of Manufacturing Consent was changed to get it through the filters.) Moreover, it means that any article can be counted as supporting evidence if in some way, no matter how minor, it doesn't quite say exactly what Herman and Chomsky think it should. For example, in contravention to the predictions of the "propaganda model," Time explicitly acknowledged that the Guatemalan government "obviously violates human rights" (p. 76). But this doesn't satisfy Herman and Chomsky, and it's not clear that anything would.

It's worth noting that this is the same kind of standard that conservatives use to argue for the existence of a liberal media bias. During the second Iraq war, it allowed conservatives to argue that the coverage was plagued with liberals gloating about quagmires, while leftists claimed that the coverage was nothing but jingoism. No doubt both sides could find something unsatisfactory about the coverage, but this just means that it fell somewhere in between their biases.

2. Shifting of standards from case to case. When discussing "worthy and unworthy victims," they simply count the number of articles that each set of victims received. They show that the number of articles compatible with the US government's agenda was larger than the number of articles incompatible with it. In the section on "demonstration elections," however, this standard proves problematic; it works for El Salvador, but not for Nicaragua. According to Herman and Chomsky, the Nicaraguan elections were not favored, but the basic conditions for an election were better--yet the mass media paid "substantial attention to basic conditions" in Nicaragua (p. 137), and there were more articles incompatible with the government's agenda (p. 132-136). To avoid this problem, Herman and Chomsky simply change to a more complicated standard; in the rest of the book, they abandon this standard entirely. This is a classic social science error: you come up with a test that yields the results you want; then you apply it to a new situation; if it doesn't yield the desired results, you keep revising it until it does; then you stop and report that you've proven your thesis.

3. Uneven trust of sources. Herman and Chomsky apply different standards to the same type of source, depending on what that source is saying. For example, sometimes the word of a single ordinary person is given credence (p. 119), and sometimes it's downplayed (pp. 124, 129). Refugee testimony is uncritically accepted in the case of Vietnam (p. 177) and in Cambodia in the early 1970s (p. 273); when they are evaluating reports of refugees from the Khmer Rouge, they suddenly cite the "truism" that refugee reports need to be evaluated carefully (see this for what Chomsky and Herman originally said). More generally, the potential biases of sources that support their thesis--i.e., those other than the US mass media--are never seriously considered.

4. Vagueness about the identity and powers of the "elite." Herman and Chomsky seem to trust that their readers will understand that the "elite" refer to a muddle of icky corporations and politicians whom we all know are in each others' pockets. This allows Herman and Chomsky to change the definition of the elite from example to example to fit the needs of their model. For example, in chapters 2 and 3, the Reagan administration is the elite, and is supposedly able to suppress an enormous amount of nasty "truths" about what's really going on in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Suddenly, during Iran-Contra, a second elite appears that's able to bring that information to light. How did the elites in the Reagan administration suddenly lose their stranglehold over the mass media? If this second elite, which is implied to be Congress, has the power and desire to make Reagan look bad, why didn't they do it before? If the information that Herman and Chomsky present is true, it would've been useful and easy for this second elite to paint Reagan as a deluded mass murderer, supporting the restriction of his power and the augmentation of their own. So why didn't they? Along identical lines, the Johnson and Nixon governments allegedly had incredible power to suppress putative truths about Indochina. But Watergate is explained away as a threat to the Democratic party, which part of the elite. But surely it would have been useful (and, once again, rather easy) for the Democrats to paint Richard Nixon as a murderer sending American boys to kill innocent people and die for no reason. Why didn't they? None of this is ever explained.

5. Refusal to consider alternative explanations. This is another classic social science error. When testing an idea, it's never enough to claim that the results are consistent with your model; you have to rule out other competing models that could explain your results. Indeed, anyone who has actually written for a newspaper (as I have) will no doubt find this model to be rather incomplete. Incredibly, Herman and Chomsky pay almost no attention to the effects of reader choice3 ; everything is attributed to the whims of the "elite." Of course, there are many other factors that play a role. For example, a story about a gruesome murder might get top billing on a slow news day, but might be pushed to the back pages on a day when other headlines are judged more important or more likely to catch a reader's interest. Then again, maybe there have been a lot of gruesome-murder stories lately, and the editor wants something different this time around. Something like this probably explains Watergate. Herman and Chomsky state that Watergate actually supports their thesis, because the machinations against the Democratic party threatened elite interests, while those against the Socialist Workers' party did not. Alternatively, perhaps the news editors believed that their readers would be more interested in the crimes against the Democratic party than in those committed against a party to which almost none of them belong.

On a more general level, plenty of people (consciously or unconsciously) seek out news sources that tell them what they want to hear.4 I suspect that most people don't want to hear that their government is engaged in murderous acts of terror, and wouldn't buy a paper that made such a claim (and thus they wouldn't see the ads, etc.)5 (I'm not claiming by any means that any of this is a good thing. It isn't. I'm only claiming that it happens and is scarcely accounted for by Herman and Chomsky's theories.) On the whole, it's easy to paint a picture of an elite-dominated media if you systematically downplay every other force that plays a role.

I'm certainly not trying to claim that the US mass media are perfect or even adequate. They're not. Most of what passes for TV news is infotainment, and much of what passes for reporting is heavily salted with opinion. As best as I can tell, the only way to get anything like complete information is to hop back and forth between left-wing, right-wing, and mainstream sites, keeping in mind the various biases that are likely to plague each one.6 While Herman and Chomsky provide some good examples of information that did not make it into the mainstream media, their model fails to account for the behavior of the media as a whole.


0Not "Chomsky," not "Chomsky and Herman." Herman and Chomsky. Herman is the first author, at least in the version in my library. Poor guy must get tired of everyone unconsciously relegating him to second place.

1 I am referring here to their examples in chapters 2-6. Early in the book, they do cite a source saying that the media receive substantial criticism when they point out Reagan's mistakes and are accordingly pressured into overlooking them. This is a good point, but here as elsewhere it's not clear whether this is attributable to the "flak" machines or to well-meaning (but misguided) ordinary citizens. There are also a few cases in which they assure us that unidentified journalists admit to this sort of thing, but no names are given.

2Corporate ownership is more complex and intertwined than a redneck's family tree. But here's a brief summary. My edition of this book was published in 1988 by Pantheon Books, which has been an arm of publishing giant Random House since 1961. (Random House also owns Bantam, Ballantine, and Knopf, among others). At that time, Random House was itself owned by Advance Publications (a newspaper publishing conglomerate that owned numerous local newspapers as well as the the New Yorker and Conde Nast fashion magazines). Pantheon is now owned by media conglomerate Bertelsmann (which also owns Bantam, Doubleday, Dell Books, Arista, BMG, and so on).

All of this means that--ironically enough--when you buy this book and put it on your bookshelf to show that you're, you know, "with it" and "in the know" and stuff, you're not really rebelling; you're giving money to a gigantic mass media corporation and two rich old white guys from the academic elite. I never quite know what to make of this. Part of me thinks it's just a moral compromise on their part; the more paranoid part thinks they're tipping a wink to the nondeluded in the audience and giggling all the way to the bank.

3It's barely and grudgingly acknowledged in one footnote (p. 14). The section on the advertising filter focuses on corporate attempts to squash embarrassing stories. There is scarcely any acknowledgement (a few sentences on pp. 17-18 and a mention in the conclusions that this might be a "nuance" or "secondary effect" (p. 304). It is not addressed in the main part of the book, and there is no acknowledgement and that this might work in the other direction--that advertisers want the TV executives to produce programs that the people want to see. Likewise, the "flak" filter might sound like an entry point for dissent, but it's attributed to--you guessed it--large and putatively conservative organizations funded by corporations. Apparently leftists don't organize effective letter-writing campaigns.

4Of course, this would be true of leftist publications as well, the readers of which seem to have a strong emotional desire to hear that the great capitalist nation is really a murderous failure. Publications or individuals who go against this theme are likely to be attacked or "exiled"--see, for example, the vicious reaction to Christopher Hitchens's post-9/11 writings (http://www.counterpunch.org/chomskyhitch.html).

5See also note 3 about the advertising filter. Incidentally, this seems to be a fairly standard mode of thought among leftists. It goes something like this: Corporations and governments are the root of every evil in civilization. The poor innocent oppressed people (whom the leftists are claiming to represent) have done nothing wrong at all, except by allowing themselves to be duped--and of course they simply couldn't help it anyway. Put another way, information about corporate malfeasances (which is useful for leftist interests) is given great emphasis, while information about the bad judgements of the populace (which would be contrary to leftist interests) is downplayed or suppressed. Sound familiar?

6For example, during the second Iraq war, there was some debate about the looting and destruction of antiquities. I found the first reports of this on left-wing sites. The right-wing sites only had a bit of grumbling about how it wasn't really a problem, and why should we care anyway? Some time later, the right-wing sites were the first to report that the original estimates were wrong and "only a handful" of items were destroyed. The leftist sites just grumbled skeptically. Then the leftist sites reported that there were far more than a handful, the right-wing sites reported that all the major items had been stored away and were safe, etc., etc., etc. The point is that all these sites--both left and right, mainstream and not--are more likely to report information that is in accordance with the biases of their readers (which is not what Herman and Chomsky are asserting). Stick to just one and you'll be deluded.

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