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Also see: (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
3. Sourcing
4. Flak
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 favored subscribers).

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 by "anarchism".

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.

Also see:

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