Propaganda in the Free Press

Ed Herman, Professor Emeritus at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, co-authored the landmark book Manufacturing Consent with Noam Chomsky. He’s authored many other books including: The Real Terror Network, The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism and Corporate Control, Corporate Power. Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now, has referred to him as, “one of the leading intellectuals in the nation.” He is a frequent contributor to Z Magazine. An archive of Ed Herman’s articles can be found at www.zmag.org

David Ross: In Manufacturing Consent you put forth what you call a propaganda model that attempts to show the forces that give the mainstream media a fundamental elite bias that are used to “manufacture consent” among the citizenry. What are the different filters in the mass media that compose your propaganda model?

Ed Herman: The propaganda model argues that the way the media works is based on the underlying structural conditions under which the media operates.

It consists of five elements that can be looked at as filters of the news. Whether a news item is going to be used by the media or not is going to depend on whether it passes through these filters.

The first filter is ownership. Very wealthy people and corporations, like General Electric, own and control the dominant media. This is obviously going to give an elite bias to the media. You must assume that the people who control the media are going to dominate it. They’re going to select people that they want, and they are not going to let subordinates get out of bounds.

In Manufacturing Consent, originally published in 1988 but recently revised in 2002, we show the interests of the controlling owners of the 25 largest media corporations. In the middle of the table is the New York Times, which is owned and controlled by the Sulzberger Family. At that time, their stock was worth a half billion dollars. Right now it’s probably worth about $1.2 billion. So you’re talking about control by very wealthy people who are part of the corporate establishment. The idea that they would allow their instruments to do something that was adverse to the interests of the larger corporate community is absolute nonsense.

The second filter is advertising. The media depend on advertising as their funding source. Newspapers probably get 70 percent of their revenue, on average, from advertising. Television gets over 95 percent from advertisers. The TV stations and networks all have people who go around and try to sell advertisers on their programs. They have to convince them of the merit of the programs in which they want to advertise.

What do the advertisers want? They not only want a large audience, they want an elite audience-the more money the audience has the better. They don’t want to upset the audience. They want what is called “a favorable selling environment” for their products. So the advertisers have to be competed for, and they’re the underlying funding source. There’s no question that they influence what the media will do. They don’t interfere all the time. They don’t call the media up and discipline them; that’s not the main way they work. The main influence they have is that they have to be competed for by the media, and the media has to convince them that their programming meets advertisers needs.

Some advertisers actually have explicit conditions on programming. For example, Proctor and Gamble, one of the biggest advertisers, has an advertising rule that’s written down. It will not support programs that insult the military, or that suggests that the business community is not a good and spiritual community. Ben Bagdikian’s excellent book, The Media Monopoly, has citations from Proctor and Gamble directly. He also shows that other companies have instructions stating that they will not advertise in media that does not meet “certain standards” which really are political standards.

So, if you’re a radical paper, if you really have messages that are going to upset the business community, you’re not going to get advertising. This filter limits who will be able to get advertising, and therefore, who can afford to spend a lot of money putting up a quality production. It also influences how the media will approach programming and news because they do not want to offend and chase away advertisers.

The third filter in our propaganda model is what we call sourcing. The media needs sources of news. The big media want sources that will supply them with news on a daily basis that’s credible, reliable and doesn’t cost too much. Where do you get that kind of news? You get it at the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon, or you get it at the local city mayor’s office, the police department, or the General Motors Corporation. These are the prime decision makers who make news.

There’s a strong tendency for the media, especially the big media, to get close to sources that are powerful, who can give them news that’s believable and news that doesn’t cost a lot to get. So a lot of the news outlets have people stationed permanently at the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon, and so on. When they do this, they develop a certain relationship with these institutions. They become friendly with the people who provide them with the news, who are nice to them, and in doing that, they may occasionally get inside information, and so a symbiotic relationship develops between these big sources and the media.

These big sources with this symbiotic relationship don’t want dissidence-people that will criticize them severely. So the media are a little reluctant to go out and spend a lot of money to find dissenters who will call the White House, or the President, or high officials liars, even when they lie. This is a very fundamental thing that practically every media analyst understands-that there becomes a dependence on these dominant sources by the media and a symbiotic relationship develops that affects what kind of news they will cover. It’s also cheap and easy to take their statement. Nobody’s going to question it except people who are powerless. This filter largely determines what is news, and it makes it difficult for the media to even look for other news, which is problematic and expensive to get.

The fourth filter is what we call flack, which means negative feedback. We can all produce flack. We can all call the paper or write a letter to the paper and complain, but the complaints that really affect the media are the ones that can really threaten them seriously, like the government, big advertisers, the Pentagon and other organized groups. So flack has its effect mainly from powerful groups, and some of these groups are already the ones that provide the news. This tends to further consolidate the power of these dominant sources.

The fifth filter is what we call ideology. In the American ideology, the one element in which Noam Chomsky and I think is important in the propaganda model is anti-communism. The anti-communist ideology was very important until the Soviet Union fell, but even now it still has some residual importance. The other ideological filter is the idea that the market can do everything, that it is the proper way of solving all our problems. These ideologies are really imbedded in the System, and they affect journalists, media editors, and how the media views the world.

In Manufacturing Consent, we used some examples to illustrate the propaganda model. In 1981, the Solidarity Union was struggling for freedom in Poland against the communist government. That struggle was given enormous publicity in the media because it had the ideological anti-communist notion and the U.S. government loved it. The business community loved it because it doesn’t like communism. So it went through the filters easily. None of the filters objected.

But at the very same time, the new military government that took over Turkey in 1980 was crushing the unions. That event got almost zero publicity in the United States, and the reason for that is because it was a friendly government that was doing what the U.S. government wanted; It had an open door and it was anti-communist. The owners and the advertisers in the mass media wouldn’t like it very much. The main sources like the State Department certainly wouldn’t like the publicity. The State Department was very eager to talk about what was happening in Poland, but they didn’t want to talk about what was happening to the Turkish unions, our ally. And flack? Who would carry out flack to defend the Turkish unions that were being crushed? No one of importance in the United States. Ideologically, these are anti-communists. So the propaganda model works beautifully in that instance. It didn’t pass through the filters.

DR: Is it compatible with a democracy to have these filters in the mass media, filtering out unwanted information that is contrary to an elite agenda?

Ed Herman: I don’t think it is. A democracy assumes that you’re going to have a free flow of information that is not going to be constrained by special interests, and these filters reflect special interests. The majority of people are not involved in the working of these filters. The majority of people, for example, are being hurt by downsizing and by the growing insecurity in the economy. There ought to be media that would attend to these issues. In fact there are. There are marginal alternative media institutions that will publicize these things, but the New York Times and CBS will not.

In 1986, Alan Greenspan went before Congress and explained why there wasn’t a great threat of inflation in the United States. The reason, he said, was because workers were scared to death. Workers were so insecure that they were not able to ask for wage increases. I thought at the time, and I still think, ‘My god, what a condemnation of the system.’ Worker insecurity should be considered a real welfare detriment. If the system is making workers insecure, isn’t this bad? Isn’t the system supposed to be helping, making the workers happy? Yet the media didn’t pick this up at all.

All the union busting and the terrible weakening of the unions in the 1980′s got almost zero attention. The media were focusing on the stock market, in which 80 percent of the people were not participating in any degree whatsoever. So, if you argue that democracy requires a media that is going to be able to treat the interests of 80 percent of the people generously and fairly, this elite media that we have doesn’t do it.

In the election of 2000, the New York Times explained why it was okay for presidential candidate, Ralph Nader, not to participate in the national debates, and why his candidacy was irrelevant. They said the other two parties “afford adequate options” to the public. Nader was opposing the big military budget and the corporate abuses that were growing, but he was not allowed into the debates. I think this is a very good illustration of the fact that the media were not allowing a discussion of the basic issues that were affecting the majority of people. They were following an elite agenda. They wouldn’t talk about an agenda that would address the interests of 80 percent of the public.

This has a corollary in the political system itself. The election was essentially between two parties that were funded by business and that served the business agenda. So the inadequacy of the media as a democratic instrument was well paralleled by the inadequacy of the political options that were given to the public. A democracy needs a really good information system that is going to speak for the majority as well as the elite and discuss issues that are relevant to the needs of the majority. If this doesn’t happen, then we don’t have a democracy.

DR: If the media is a propaganda organ with these filters that filter out objective information, where can listeners go to learn the truth?

Ed Herman: That’s a tough proposition. Actually, if you read the mainstream media, and if you have some advance knowledge of what to look for, there’s a lot in there that you can find, but you have to know what to look for. In other words, you have to have frames of reference and an analysis that allows you to look at the media critically. This is where a guy like Noam Chomsky is so incredibly valuable-he’s very smart-but he’s also a very good producer of frames of reference. When you read his books you realize you’re looking at a different world. You’re learning to look at these things in a totally different light. So even when you’re looking at the mainstream media, it becomes a little more illuminating because you can see what they’ve put at the bottom of the article that should be at the top.

This is also true if you read media in foreign countries. I subscribe to something called Latin American Press, which comes out of Peru. It publishes a lot of critical articles about what’s going on in Latin America. When you read Latin American Press, it’s like you’re looking at a different world. You’re reading John Ross on Mexico.

You also get another frame of reference when you read good foreign analysts like John Pilger from England, who is an excellent author and also a great journalist. You won’t find a correspondent like him in the United States.

There’s also Robert Fisk who writes on the Middle East. These people have whole different modes of looking at things that are very important. Getting good frames of reference is fundamental. To do that you have to read good books, good analysts, people like the ones I’ve mentioned.

There are some domestic media that are worthy, along this line of discussion, like Z Magazine, where I write a monthly article and in which there’s a lot of other good articles too. Additionally, there’s Znet [www.zmag.org.-DR], which is a website with a tremendous number of good articles that give alternative views of the world. There are other magazines and papers like In These Times, The Progressive, and to some extent, The Nation-which is going downhill somewhat-that will give you an alternative analysis. On the Pacifica Radio Network, you can hear people like Amy Goodman and others. It’s the only radio network in the United States that provides an alternative view of things. On KPFA, you can listen to Dennis Bernstein talk about the Middle East, or hear Chris Welch. You’re going to get a different view of the world.

Another important thing people can do if they have access to the web is to just surf around. If you go to Znet and fiddle around with sites on the different media groups, very soon you’ll be in networks that’ll give you a lot of alternative information. Getting into email and getting friendly with websites is enlightening. It’s a wonderful alternative to reading the mainstream media.

I also mentioned the foreign press. On something like the Afghanistan war, even Britain-which is a close ally of the United States-even in Britain, you can read the Guardian, The Independent, The Mirror, or even the Daily Herald, which are all better than the New York Times. The U.S. media system has become so closed to alternative materials on issues where the government has strong positions and where lobbies are important, like in the Middle East, that even mainstream media in our allied countries provide a real option.

There are some really strong dissident media. Probably the best journal in the world is a journal called Le Monde diplomatique, not the Le Mode newspaper, which is a mediocre French newspaper, but Le Monde diplomatique. It’s a monthly that’s very good. It comes out in French, but it’s now available in English on-line. If you subscribe to the Manchester Guardian, you’ll get a weekly dose of Le Monde diplomatique.


David Ross does a talk show on KMUD radio in Redway, CA. He has worked on the Ralph Nader presidential campaign, corporate malfeasance, U.S. foreign policy and environmental issues. He can be reached at [email protected].

Leave a comment