The Propaganda Model Redux

Originally posted: August 24, 2008

Greencastle, Ind. – This year marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. Herman and Chomsky’s now classic, if still controversial, study puts forward a “propaganda model” for analyzing and explaining U.S. press performance and behaviors.

Briefly stated, the propaganda model identifies five factors — ownership, advertising, sourcing, flak and anticommunist ideology — that act as “filters” through which information is processed by news workers and organizations. In turn, these filters affect how news stories are selected and framed for presentation to the American public.

When it first appeared, some critics dismissed Manufacturing Consent as just so much conspiracy theory. Others hailed the book as a groundbreaking analysis of the structural factors that shape U.S. journalistic institutions and practices.

Notwithstanding two decades of critique and refinement, recent events underscore the continued relevance of the propaganda model for understanding how and why U.S. news media operate as they do.

Consider, for example, U.S. press coverage of the ongoing conflict in the Caucasus.

With the world’s attention focused on the summer Olympics in Beijing, the former Soviet Republic of Georgia invadedsemi-autonomous region of South Ossetia. As has been well documented since, the Russian response to the invasion was quick, brutal and decisive: a bit of “shock and awe” that caught the Georgian leadership, and its Western European and U.S. sponsors, flatfooted.

Without missing a beat, the U.S. news media got busy burying the fact that Georgia instigated the conflict, favoring instead a Cold War-era narrative of Russian aggression.

What’s more, while the U.S. press reports on the carnage with graphic visuals and dramatic first-hand accounts of atrocities — a storyline rarely afforded civilian casualties of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — precious little background information on the root causes of the conflict is made available to American audiences.

Instead, the establishment press focuses on Russia’s territorial ambitions and the ethnic roots of the conflict, all but neglecting the troubling geo-politics of oil that is fueling the current crisis.

But according to William D. Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New American Foundation, “The United States has been arming and training Georgia’s armed forces throughout the Bush years under the guise of fighting terrorism, but it’s fair to say that a stronger motive may be the fact that the critical Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline — an outlet for oil from Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan that bypasses Russian territory — runs smack through Georgian territory.”

Likewise, U.S. press coverage has consistently downplayed the extent to which NATO expansion, and the prospects of U.S. missile defense systems stationed across Central Europe, have exacerbated tensions between Russia and the West since the end of the Cold War.

Just as the propaganda model would predict, then, U.S. news outlets uncritically repeated the Bush administration’s line regarding the conflict.

For instance, on Aug. 15, President Bush declared, “With its actions in recent days, Russia has damaged its credibility and its relations with the nations of the free world. Bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century.”

And yet, rather than call Mr. Bush out for his hypocrisy regarding the military invasion of a sovereign state, the U.S. press accepted Bush’s statement with nary a hint of skepticism, let alone a note of irony.

Equally galling statements from so-called foreign policy “experts” were likewise taken at face value. For instance, Republican presidential candidate John McCain insisted, with a straight face no less, that, “In the 21st century, nations don’t invade other nations.” Perhaps McCain will share that bit of news with the people of occupied Iraq the next time he pays them a campaign visit.

And lest we think public broadcasting does not participate in propaganda campaigns, news reports and analysis on public radio and television rarely stray from the administration’s narrative: Russia is the bad guy in all of this, and the United States has purely humanitarian interests in Georgia.

For instance, speaking on National Public Radio, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright echoed Bush-McCain’s dubious assertions. “I think clearly, the problem is coming from Moscow. … And I think if the U.S. is going to be effective, we have to let the Russians know directly that we think this is not acceptable behavior in the 21st century.”

Like their counterparts in the corporate media, public broadcasters fail to challenge political and business leaders and their do-as-we-say-not-as-we-do attitude toward international relations and the rule of law.

In the 20 years since Manufacturing Consent was published, four of the five filters that Herman and Chomsky identified in the propaganda model have intensified.

The 1996 Telecommunication Act opened the door to unprecedented consolidation of ownership in the media industries. And as communication scholar Robert McChesney wryly notes, media audiences are “marinated” in a sea of commercial messages that promote an unsustainable consumer culture.

Moreover, in the wake of media consolidation newsroom staffs have been decimated by bottom- line thinking of the sort that eliminates jobs for working journalists, encourages media workers to rely more heavily on official sources and fosters U.S. news media dependence upon “pre-packaged” news items produced by the public relations industry.

With the end of the Cold War, Herman and Chomsky’s final filter — anticommunist ideology — has dissipated. Arguably, however, a broader ideology infused with free-market fundamentalism has taken its place. It is an ideology that puts profit before people: a belief system that merges the interests of the state with those of the corporate sector.

In an earlier era, such an arrangement was called fascism — a system that was supported and legitimated by a sophisticated propaganda apparatus.

In short, the implications of the propaganda model are quite clear: in the absence of an independent press — free from direct and indirect manipulation by powerful economic interests on one hand, and government entities on the other — the prospects for democratic self-governance are slim to none.

Kevin Howley is associate professor of communication at DePauw University.

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