IV. Moral Agency in a Propaganda System
My remaining question is relatively straightforward: given that a propaganda system does operate in the mass
media, does our society enable, or disable, the practice of full moral agency, as defined in the preceding section?
Answering this question requires us to consider the effects of the propaganda system on individuals.
As discussed above, people make all of their decisions from within some context, a framework which establishes
the relevance, and the relative value, of different concerns in the decision process. When people leave one context
for another (moving from the home to the workplace, for example), they are forced to some extent to change the
framework through which they make decisions. In judging the ‘goodness’ of these decisions, they apply normative
standards, allowing them to pick out the right framework for the right situation. It was this skill that I identified
above as one essential component of full moral agency, the evaluative ability to justify the framework through
which a decision is made. These normative standards, as with the lower level frameworks used constantly, are
created through a social process. People follow the example of others that they respect and they learn from their
mistakes, as revealed through the impact of prior decisions on others within their social framework, and through
critical discussion with others. One source of a normative framework is the mass media, which possesses almost
unrivaled power in establishing standards for society, due to its ability to provide information and language which
can be shared by all.
But what is the character of this normative standard created by the media? If the propaganda model is correct, it
reflects the interests of media ownership and the profit system, is not offensive to advertisers, is underwritten by
information provided by ‘expert’ credible sources (the government, industry, and some members of academia), is
not offensive to large groups in society, and reflects a common anti-anticapitalism (or other anti-ideology). This
normative standard, then, is one that is antithetical to the practice of evaluating the values and framework of
judgement of society. Further, a propaganda system will not fully satisfy the informational requirements of the
moral agent. Let’s examine each of the five filters in turn to see how:
(1) The ownership filter. The normative standard created by the media would reflect assumptions that are in the
interest of the ownership of that media, including the preeminence of the profit system and the corporate structure
which enables the wealthy to maintain their societal positions. Those at the top of the social ladder have the
greatest stake in maintaining the status quo, and the media they control is likely to reflect this preference. Societal
standards which promote the status quo are obviously antagonistic to the critical attitude required by moral agency,
as criticism of the status quo is one of the fundamental ways in which evaluation is achieved. This filter will also
tend to remove information which is damaging to ownership interests, making informed choice difficult if not
impossible in situations where that information is difficult for the individual to acquire.
(2) The advertising filter. The societal norms will reflect the interests of advertisers, who require people to act
primarily as consumers. Media sources will then tend not to provoke controversy, will tend to encourage the
"buying mood", and will not seek to provide "extra" information that might lead individuals to question the
structure of society.
(3) The sourcing filter. The societal norms will reflect the interests of the cultural elite, the government, industry,
and academics who stand as the standard sources of information for the media. Further, this filter results in the
entrenchment of "expert" opinion as the only source of valid information, which encourages the perception that the
non-elite should be passive in their acceptance of domination—that they should not seek to acquire information
themselves, or question the opinions provided by those in power. Both of these results tend to undermine the ability
of individuals to act as moral agents, as they lack the information and confidence necessary to engage in critical
review of their decisions.
(4) The flak filter. The tendency of controversial media material to produce flak is the most obvious threat to the
critical attitude required by moral agency. Those who do present controversial material are taught quickly that it is
much easier to avoid difficult subjects, and the media gradually becomes free of examples of critical voices. While
this in itself does not completely prevent informed moral agency, it certainly makes cultivation of the critical
attitude much more difficult, due to the absence of respected and critical examples in the public sphere, and due to
the absence of information which might be damaging to powerful interests in society.
(5) The anti-anticapitalism, anti-ideology filter. The anti-ideology filter results in a narrowing of the range of
acceptable debate in public discourse. Since moral agency requires the cultivation of the ability to criticize societal
norms and decisions, any limitation to the range of acceptable debate places a limit on the degree to which moral
agency can be practiced.