The Political Economy of the Mass Media
Monthly Review, January, 1989
|Over the past generation, it has become
increasingly clear to those on the left that the U.S. mass media, far
from performing an autonomous and adversarial role in U.S. society,
actively frame issues and promote news stories that serve the needs
and concerns of the elite. Moreover, the importance of the leading
corporate mass media in contemporary politics radically transcends the
role of the mass media in earlier times. Hence, the Left has begun to
pay considerable attention to how the media are structured and
controlled and how they operate. Nevertheless, the ideology of the
"free press" has proven to be a difficult adversary for left critics;
as the media's operations are central to the modern polity, their
legitimacy is shielded by layers and layers of ideological
Recently, left analysis of the media has been enriched by the publication of Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (Pantheon, 1988), by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky. This book promises to be a seminal work in critical media analysis and to open a door through which future media analysis will follow. In Manufacturing Consent, Herman and Chomsky provide a systematic "propaganda model" to account for the behavior of the corporate news media in the United States. They preface their discussion of the propaganda model by noting their fundamental belief that the mass media "serve to mobilize support for the special interests that dominate the state and private support for the special interests that dominate the state and private activity." Although propaganda is not the sole function of the media, it is "a very important aspect of their overall service" (p. xi), especially "in a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest" (p.1).
Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky are certainly well qualified to provide a simple yet powerful model that explains how the media function to serve the large propaganda requiremen ts ofthe elite. Together and individually, they have written numerous articles and books which have chronicled the ways in which the U.S. media have actively promoted the agenda ofthe elite, particularly in regard to U.S. activities in the Third World. Manufacturing Consent is a work of tremendous importance for scholars and activists alike.
Herman and Chomsky quickly dismiss the standard mainstream critique of radical media analysis that accuses it of offering some sort of "conspiracy" theory for media behavior; rather, they argue, media bias arises from "the preselection of right-thinking people, internalized preconceptions, and the adaptation of personnel to the constraints" of a series of objective filters they present in their propaganda model. Hence the bias occurs largely through self-censorship, which explains the superiority ofthe U.S. mass media as a propaganda system: it is far more credible than a system which relies on official state censorship, although in performance the dominant media serve the agenda of the elite every bit as much as state organs do on behalf of the ruling bureaucracies in Eastern Europe.
The credibility and legitimacy of the media system is also preserved by the media's lack of complete agreement on all issues. Indeed, there is vigorous debate and dispute over many issues, as Herman and Chomsky readily acknowledge. They contend, however, that debate within the dominant media is limited to "responsible "opinions acceptable to some segment of the elite. On issues where the elite are in general consensus, the media will always toe the line. No dissent will then be countenanced, let alone acknowledged, except, when necessary for ridicule or derision.
In their propaganda model, Herman and Chomsky present a series of five "filters" to account for why the dominant U.S. media invariably serve as propagandists for the interests of the elite. Only stories with a strong orientation to elite interests can pass through the five filters unobstructed and receive ample media attention. The model also explains how the media can conscientiously function when even a superficial analysis ofthe evidence would indicate the preposterous nature of many of the stories that receive ample publicity in the press and on the network news broadcasts.
The first filter that influences media content is that ownership of the media is highly concentrated among a few dozen of the largest for-profit corporations in the world. Many of these corporations have extensive holdings in other industries and nations. Objectively, their needs for profit severely influence the news operations and overall content of the media. Subjectively, there is a clear conflict of interest when the media system upon which self-government rests is controlled by a handful of corporations and operated in their self-interest. The second filter is that of advertising, which has colonized the U.S. mass media and is responsible for most of the media's income. Herman and Chomsky review much of the evidence concerning the numbing impact of commercialism upon media content.
The third filter is that of sourcing, where "the mass media are drawn into a symbiotic relationship with powerful sources of information by economic necessity and reciprocity of interest" (p. 14). The media rely heavily upon news provided them by corporate and government sources, which have themselves developed enormous bureaucracies to provide this material to the media. They have developed great expertise at "managing" the media. In effect, these bureaucracies subsidize the media and the media must be careful not to antagonize such an important supplier. Furthermore, these corporate and government sources are instantly credible by accepted journalistic practices. Anti-elite sources, on the other hand, are regarded with utmost suspicion and have tremendous difficulty passing successfully through this filter.
Herman and Chomsky's fourth filter is the development of right-wing corporate "flak" producers such as Accuracy in Media to harass the mass media and to put pressure upon them to follow the corporate agenda. This filter was developed extensively in the 1970s when major corporations and wealthy right-wingers became increasingly dissatisfied with political developments in the West and with media coverage. These flak producers have actively promoted the (absurd) notion that the media are bastions of liberalism and fundamentally hostile to capitalism and the "defense" of "freedom" around the world. While ostensibly antagonistic to the media, these flak machines provide the media with legitimacy and are treated quite well by the media.
The final filter is the ideology of anticommunism, which is integral to Western political culture and provides the ideological oxygen which makes the propaganda model operate so vigorously. Anticommunism has been ingrained into acceptable Journalistic practices in the United States, to the point that even in periods of "detente" it is fully appropriate and expected for journalists to frame issues in terms of "our side" versus the communist "bad guys."
Furthermore, anticommunist ideology is essential to making the double standard of the propaganda model work effectively. As the authors note, "when anticommunist fervor is aroused, the demand for serious evidence in support for claims of 'communist' abuses is suspended by the media , and charlatans can thrive as evidential sources" (p. 25). Conversely, for journalists or editors to challenge the anticommunist doctrine as well as pass through the other four filters, they "must meet far higher standards; in fact standards are often imposed that can barely be met in the natural sciences" (p. 291).
The bulk of Manufacturing Consent is made up of case studies, in which Herman and Chomsky analyze the validity of the propaganda model for explaining media coverage of five major sets of recent news stories. Herman and Chomsky present the facts in each case and then thoroughly dissect the treatment of the story by the elite media: The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, and CBS News in particular. Each chapter is meticulously researched and most draw heavily on the authors' earlier works in these areas.
Chapter two compares the treatment by the media of the murder of Polish priest Jerzy Popieluszko in 1984 with the treatment of hundreds of prominent victims of death squads 'in Central America in the 1980s. As Herman and Chomsky forcefully establish, the propaganda model gen"worthy victims" and "unworthy victims," depending upon their relationship to elite interests. Media coverage is extensive and of outrage for the former, while it is generally unsympathetic, if it exists at all, for the latter. Similarly, Chapter three reveals how the media covered the elections in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua earlier this decade exactly as one would anticipate from the propaganda model. Chapter four tracks the media treatment of the Bulgarian-KG"plot" to murder the Pope in the early 1980s. A right-wing concoction, this ludicrous story received extensive and generous coverage as it passed through the filters of the propaganda model with flying colors.
Almost one-half of Manufacturing Consent, chapters five and six, is dedicated to applying the propaganda model to news coverage of the Vietnam war and the developments in Laos and Cambodia since the late 1960s. These chapters are of particular importance, because they take dead aim on the current, almost universally accepted thesis that the media were opposed to the war and responsible for turning the public against it. To the contrary, the media continued to present the war in a manner consistent with elite interests until the very end, as the propaganda model would anticipate. As for Cambodia, it provides a striking example of how the propaganda model operates; the U.S. destruction of the countryside and civil society prior to 1975 was scarcely acknowledged by the media, while the later atrocities under the Khmer Rouge were the basis of extraordinary outrage with minimal concern for accuracy.
In the concluding chapter, Herman and Chomsky demonstrate that the Watergate affair -- the oft-purported highwater mark of the vigorous and feisty free press defending the constitution and bringing down a corrupt regime -- actually conformed to the propaganda model, being an example of the media responding to a crisis among the elite. The chapter discusses some of the obvious limitations of the corporate media system for the media requirements of a genuinely democratic society and suggests that progressives will have to put media restructuring on their political agendas.
In the interview that follows, Edward Herman answered a series of questions concerning some of the implications and issues arising from Manufacturing Consent. Since the interview is with Edward Herman, it is possible that Noam Chomsky may not agree with every point and nuance.
Robert McChesney: Why did you elect to use the term "elite" rather than ruling class?
Edward S. Herman: "Ruling class" has become a cliche that pegs a writer on the ideological spectrum, perhaps unfairly. We have tried to avoid language that arouses ire without serving any useful analytical purpose. And in our work, elite serves as well as ruling class.
RM: Do you perceive this elite fundamentally in class terms, i.e. is it best understood as being comprised of capitalists and the highest level managers of advanced capitalism?
RM: You elect to term the ideological filter "anticommunist." Why is this more appropriate than terming it more broadly the "dominant ideology," which might permit the filter's extension to areas that do not lend themselves to anticommunist interpretation but, nonetheless, are critical to elite interests?
ESH: This is a reasonable suggestion and maybe we should have done this. Other elements of the dominant ideology, like the benevolence of one's own government and the merits of private enterprise, are referred to at various points in the book, but in discussing filters we wanted to focus on the ideological element that has been the most important as a control and disciplinary mechanism in the U.S. political economy.
RM: The hypothesis that the media will never legitimize ideas or positions that do not have some representation among the elite seems virtually ironclad. How do mainstream scholars and the dominant media respond to this point? How have they responded to your model and previous work on the media in general?
ESH: The mainstream hasn't noticed our model yet. This book represents our first extensive statement of a model. It will be interesting to see how it is treated, especially to see if it will be dismissed as a "conspiracy theory" despite our pointing out very carefully in the preface that our model is close to a "free market" analysis and does not rely on conspiracy at all.
RM: This hypothesis also has very serious implications for activists in the United States whose very political agenda is centered around opposition to elite interests and elite control of U.S. society. What does the propaganda model suggest regarding how anti-elite progressive political movements will be characterized in the media?
ESH: It suggests that they will be systematically denigrated and denied reasonable access. This of course was nicely illustrated by the treatment of Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition in this election.
RM: How would you characterize media treatment of the Jackson candidacy?
ESH: As he was challenging some major priorities of the elite, one would expect him to be treated badly by the mass media, and he was in many ways: nitpicking, the emphasis on non-electability, an inordinate focus on his mistakes and associations that would be seen as damaging in the U.S. political context (Castro, PLO, Hymie, etc.) and, of course, a refusal to present and debate his program.
RM: All of the case studies dealt with issues concerning U.S. foreign policy or international issues. Is the propaganda model equally applicable to domestic politics? Are there are qualifications you would make to the model before you would apply it to media coverage of domestic issues?
ESH: We think it is very much applicable to domestic issues as well, although it will be somewhat qualified by two things: the greater likelihood of elite conflict, and the fact that there are non-elite domestic interests -- the poor, social workers, victims of Love Canals, etc. -- who, though relatively weak, have more voice than murdered Vietnamese or Guatemalan peasants. We had intended a chapter on some domestic issue, like the Reagan attack on EPA, or homelessness, or the redistribution of income, and the mass media reporting of these matters, but ran out of time and space. We may address domestic and other omitted case studies in separate articles or in a supplementary volume. Incidentally, one of my favorite books -- Images of Welfare by Peter Golding and Sue Middleton -- shows that a propaganda model works well in looking at the media's handling of "welfare" in Great Britain.
RM: Considering the extensive work Chomsky and you have done on the Middle East, it was surprising that this was not included as a case study. Why was this?
ESH: Again, time and limitations on the size of the book was a factor, plus the fact that Chomsky did a fine job of analyzing the U.S. press on the Middle East in his Fateful Triangle.
RM: How would you evaluate the media coverage of the Palestinian uprising?
ESH: Overall, very bad, with some notable individual exceptions in both print and broadcasting media. Given the savagery and scope of the attacks on unarmed women and children, the large-scale imprisonments, and the terrible conditions imposed on the prisoners, the media coverage amounts to a virtual cover-up. Such assaults on workers in Poland or any minority group (especially Jews) in the Soviet Union would have produced massive coverage and frenzied indignation. Koppel's Nightline program on which he allowed Palestinians to describe their experiences was almost unique -- Palestinian victims are usually voiceless and seldom humanized. Their victimization is filtered through Israeli and official U.S. (and coopted "expert") sources.
RM: Have there been any significant developments in media coverage of Nicaragua and El Salvador in light of the peace agreement?
ESH: Since the Guatemala Peace accords were signed the U.S. mass media have outdone themselves in obfuscation. First, they have regularly refused to acknowledge that the document says that the most important condition for peace is that all forms of aid by outside parties to insurgents be terminated. As this threatens U.S. intervention, the loyal U.S. media have played dumb and contributed to the Democrats posture that in "humanitarian" aid to the contras they were keeping within the bounds of the accords. Second, they have focused incessantly on Nicaragua's actions relating to the accords, although it has clearly made the most extensive efforts to meet their requirements. Third, they have largely suppressed information on the increasing terror in El Salvador, featuring heavily CIA-sponsored "unrest" in Nicaragua, ignoring serious anti-labor violence in the client state. Until Jim Wright spoke up, the very obvious deliberate U.S.-sponsored destabilization ("Chileanization") was off the press agenda. A propaganda model works beautifully in understanding the main thrust of press coverage in Central America.
RM: In the context of the propaganda model, how would you compare of the media treatment of the U.S. downing of the Iranian jetliner in 1988 to the treatment of the Soviet downing of KAL 007 in 1983?
ESH: The propaganda model fits perfectly. A little-noted fact in the discussion of the KAL 007 shootdown is that the administration was able to claim falsely that the Soviets knew it was a civilian plane, and get away with this very deliberate act of disinformation for a very long time. The press collaboration in allowing a lie to be institutionalized and assuring that its ultimate exposure involved the administration in no costs, is high-order propaganda service.
RM: Your most recent research addresses media coverage of the U.S.withdrawal from UNESCO. Did this coverage conform to the expectations of the propaganda model?
ESH: It exceeded these expectations. An outright government propaganda agency couldn't have done better. A forthcoming book by me, Herbert Schiller, and William Preston, Jr., put out by the Institute for Media Analysis and University of Minnesota Press, analyses this in detail.
RM: How would you apply the propaganda model to the operations of PBS?
ESH: We do discuss it briefly in a footnote. PBS has done better over the years in presenting dissenting views than the commercial media, despite the government's role in its organization and financing. This shows how terrible the commercial media are. The restraints stemming from commercial and profit interests outweigh the limitations stemming from government quasi-control. This is why the right wing hates PBS and urges its liquidation, or at least keeping it on a year-to-year budget and increasing its dependence on advertising. I don't think PBS could ever become a systematic voice of serious dissent, but it can provide more than the networks, and more honest reformism.
RM: What is the range of improvement within the existing media system?
ESH: In the short run, very little. A political turnabout is needed to constrain and weaken commercial control, widen access to radio and TV, and strengthen public, educational, and community radio and TV. A reinvigorated labor movement and grassroots organization and recognition of the importance ofthe media are probably a precondition for even modest alteration of the status quo.
RM: Can a journalist survive within the dominant media without internalizing the filters?
ESH: Theoretically, yes. But most don't. It can be done if you are willing to live something of a double life, not make much progress in the organization, and suffer continuous compromises on your principles. The strain can be great.
RM: In the conclusion, you seemed to indicate that media activists should concentrate their efforts upon getting broadcast channels. Why the emphasis upon broadcast media?
ESH: Because of their ability to reach large numbers whose class interest should make them more amenable to critical messages.
RM: You conclude at the very end of Manufacturing Consent that in the long run progressives need to put media issues in their political agendas. How important is media restructuring to a general progressive agenda?
ESH: Very important. Control over definitions of reality, the agendas that people are allowed to think about, the ability to reiterate messages and manipulate symbols are basic ingredients of power. Because the media as constituted will not allow Jesse Jackson's agenda to be discussed and debated, but will push the "government on our back," burden of welfare, Soviet threat, and similar ideological messages, the Left is at a huge disadvantage in the battlefield of ideas and symbols. It is always on the defensive. This reflects its underlying position of institutional weakness, but the two interact. Media control strengthens institutional control, and vice versa. Power has to be gained on both fronts.
RM: Aside from your notion of working for more access to broadcast channels, can you think of any other tangible proposals to help construct a media system better suited to the needs of a self-governing society?
ESH: Access should include ownership, not merely an occasional program or appearance. We have to start from the bottom. Grassroots organizations have to become more media-oriented and more concerned to reach out to similar groups and beyond. We can't neglect progressive print media either.