(also also see: Manufacturing Consent
, particularly the w/u by Purvis
II. The Propaganda Model
Any proposed explanation of the media’s behavior in terms of a propaganda system is bound to meet with
resistance. Journalists report that they perceive no pressure to censor news items, or to tailor their coverage in a
particular way. The entertainment media protest that they merely provide what the public wants—after all, the
people wouldn’t watch if they didn’t like it, they say. For these reasons, a propaganda explanation of media
behavior must also explain how the enactors (and victims) of that system could be completely unaware of it.
Chomsky and Herman’s model (henceforth, H&C), provides just such an explanation. H&C do the main work of
demonstrating its truth in their book, and the interested reader is directed to it if they wish to see more detailed
analysis supporting the model. I will here merely outline the model, and argue for its basic plausibility.
The key concept in the H&C propaganda model is that of filters. A physical filter is a tool for removing extraneous
material. Likewise, the conceptual filters employed in the propaganda system are conceptual tools for removing
extraneous information. H&C argue that all media reaching the public have first passed through five filters, each
one removing some content before passing the rest through:
1. Size, ownership, and profit orientation of the mass media
2. Advertising as the primary source of income
5. Anticommunism (or anti-anticapitalism)
These filters are supposed to act as economic "framing conditions" for our society, establishing basic parameters
for the presentation of information. Once these parameters are in place, conscious control (a conspiracy) is not
necessary to explain the behavior of the media, as the people who constitute the media (reporters, writers,
producers, etc.) learn to reflect the filters in their choices regarding the information they present. If a person were
to build a system of canals for water, it would not be surprising to see the water follow the path of the canal, even
without the conscious input of a human, directing each molecule of water in the direction she wants. The framing
conditions, the canal, have been put in place ahead of time, and pouring water through the system leads to a
predictable result. In an analogous way, the five filters serve as economic framing conditions, through which
information is ‘poured’, resulting in predictable outcomes(Edwards, 9)2.
1. The ownership/profit filter. Media sources generally operate under the profit model—they are businesses whose
purpose is to generate profit for their owners and shareholders. Naturally, there are a number of media sources
which do not operate under a profit model—National Public Radio and the Pacifica Network are two obvious
examples for whom the first filter does not directly apply. However, the mainstream media, which has the greatest
reach, is dominated by profit interests. This, according to H&C, is a natural consequence of the free market. The
cost of establishing a newspaper, for example, has become so high that a newspaper will lose money until it
manages to acquire an extremely high circulation. (H&C, 4) The initial debt incurred in starting a media source
often requires substantial investment from outsiders, who, as H&C show, are frequently extremely wealthy
individuals and families with extensive ties to other large, profit-driven corporations. Thus, the first filter is the fact
that media control is concentrated into the hands of wealthy individuals and large corporations.
What sort of information will this filter tend to pass through to the public? Only information which does not
challenge the societal position of the owners and corporations, or the profit system through which they maintain
that position. This control is established at least in the hiring of top level managers and the selective promotion of
lower level employees.
2. The advertising filter. Advertising is the primary source of revenue for most media sources, indeed, for many it
is the only source. Imagine two media organizations with equal circulation, one which supports itself solely on
subscription fees, while the other supports itself through a combination of subscription fees and advertising. The
second organization will have much greater resources available for the improvement of the product (better writers,
higher quality production, more marketing), and it will tend to take the subscribers of the first organization, due to
the combined effect of lower subscription price and apparently better product. This process tends to force media
sources out of business if they cannot win enough advertising support.
This is a natural consequence of a market system, but it does create a problem for the standard view that the
market provides "better" news and media service. One justification of the market system is that consumers can
"vote with their pocketbook", boycotting producers that engage in questionable practices or that provide inferior
products. But when the most profitable media organization is the one with the greatest advertising revenue, the
consumers themselves cannot directly vote with their pocketbooks, the advertisers do. H&C mention the case of
the Daily Herald, a British newspaper which focused on issues of concern to the working class. Despite holding 8.1
percent of daily circulation in Britain (twice the readership of The Times, Financial Times, and The Guardian put
together), it could only garner 3.5 percent of advertising revenue, and was forced out of business. The people did
vote with their pocketbooks, in support of the Daily Herald, but the paper failed anyway because advertisers have
much bigger pocketbooks, and they voted against the Daily Herald.(H&C, 15)
So what kind of information will pass through a media organization which is dependent on advertising revenue for
its survival? Information which does not challenge the practices of specific, favored advertisers, the corporate
system, or the need for strong consumption of resources (and it is much better if the information can manage to
encourage the corporate system, the need for strong consumption of resources, and champion the causes of specific
3. The sourcing filter. News organizations require a steady stream of information which can be processed into the
news we see. One source of this information is the investigative reporting that news organizations pride themselves
on. But such reporting is expensive, and frequently it challenges the interests of media ownership. It is much
simpler to avoid issues that might hurt the owners, and much easier to rely on standard, credible sources of
information. Several common sources of credible information are the government itself, corporations, trade groups,
and some universities. These sources receive media time and respect, thereby further enforcing their societal
positions. This has a crucial impact: it establishes a standard of credibility in society which is only met by
institutional figures, marginalizing further those individuals and groups which do not already enjoy popular support
and media time. This makes it much more difficult for marginal, critical voices to receive widespread attention, as
their positions will have to be so much better justified than those of the groups which receive attention by default.
Further, this provides government and elite interests an easy road to publicity, allowing them to manage the news
into a format suitable for their purposes, and to set the terms under which debate takes place on important issues.
4. The flak filter. Whenever a controversial story or program is aired, some groups in society immediately respond
by flooding the offending media source with complaints and threats of boycotts. Large groups, and those already in
strong societal positions, will tend to be more effective in their flak campaigns due to their larger numbers and
larger monetary base. Such flak is a direct threat to the media source, and any advertisers that support the
program. Therefore, in general, media management and advertisers will choose not to support such programming.
In particular, programs which are critical of societal norms, almost by definition, will generate more controversy
(and flak) than any other kind of program, thus media management will tend not to risk airing such programs.
This filter tends to pass material, then, which is uncontroversial, and supportive of the views of groups already
dominant in society, as those groups are the ones most likely to effectively utilize flak in controlling the media.
5. The anticommunism filter. This filter is sometimes also referred to as the "evil-empire filter", the "anti-ideology
filter" or the "anti-anti-capitalism filter." Anticommunism has been an integral element of American society for at
least 80 years, though its power may be waning as the communist states around the world crumble and accept a
market system—it is no longer necessary to beat the dead horse. But this type of ideological filter may still be in
operation, as evidenced by the coverage of the anti-globalization movement in the past few years. Few of the
protestors are ever interviewed, and stories about the protests focus on "violent anarchist elements", without
discussing the merits of the protestors’ varied positions, or even offering a definition of what the protestors mean
That said, the function of an ideological filter like this one is to marginalize voices which are not sufficiently in line
with the standard view, and to limit the range of debate to a small set of ‘acceptable’ choices. This can be seen in
America today in the two-party system, which increasingly homogenizes political debate while loudly proclaiming
the important "differences" between the Republican and Democratic parties. If these two choices represent the
outer limits of acceptable political views, then how insane must a person be to suggest some choice outside this
spectrum? Thus positions outside the standard range of debate are labeled "communist" or "anarchist", or are
simply ignored. This happens when the ideas suggested really are "communist", and also when they are simply
"more liberal" than the mainstream, or "too radical". Thus the range of debate in mainstream media is limited to a
few select issues, and generally to the particular methodology to be employed in seeking already agreed upon
goals. Questioning the desirability of these goals is so far outside the "normal" range of debate that it can safely
be labeled "communist" or "anarchist", and ignored.
In concluding this overview of the propaganda model, it is helpful to remind ourselves what sort of material will tend
to pass through all five of these filters: material which reflects the interest of the ownership of the media source,
does not offend advertising sources, relies on "credible" sources from government, industry, and academia, does
not offend prominent groups or individuals in society, and which does not, at least, promote anti-capitalist views,
though it is often better if it can manage to denigrate such views (or other marginalized ideologies) as well. It is
important to recognize that these filters are postulated not as some "shadowy conspiracy", but as the natural result
of market forces, and it is only reasonable to expect that the media would reflect a bias toward those forces. The
writers, reporters, actors, etc. who constitute the "face" of the media learn to reflect that bias as well, just as we all
do, through the operation of market forces, which enforce particular outlooks in the selection of topics and the
framing of questions.
Taken together, these filters constitute a grave threat to democracy. If a functioning democracy requires
well-informed citizens, a propaganda system like this one cannot promote a functioning democracy. But, as I hope
to show in the next two sections, there is a much more fundamental danger in the effects such a system has on the
people who are subject to it.