All it takes is a passing glance at most of our media to see how terrible it is- that is, if their objective is to report meaningful reality.
Fortunately, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, in 1988, dissected why and attempted to explain the phenomenon in their groundbreaking book called Manufacturing Consent (there’s also a documentary on it which can be found on YouTube. Back in 1988, a large portion of the media was mainly consolidated to nine major companies. Today, that number is down to about five, allowing for the possibility of this monstrosity to actually exist.
So much of our media consists of either ridiculous stories not important to our lives, narrow Democrat vs Republican discourse, or simply neglects to cover hard-hitting stories that report truth to power. Manufacturing Consent proposed the Propaganda Model to explain the failure of mass media through five filtering mechanisms that help shape the final end product of news.
Herman and Chomsky smashed the previously given notions that the media are adversarial to power, that they serve the public, and that they are merely objective purveyors of fact. Instead, the authors propose, our media manufacture our consent for the interests of those in power, be they economic or political.
Filter 1: Ownership
It’s no secret that an independent outlet, or some small news website has a degree of freedom to publish stories that large corporate outlets don’t have. And the corporate outlets dominate what we see.
One of the problems with corporate conglomerates dominating the news is conflicts of interest. Take Disney, for example, who owns a huge portion of media organizations, from ESPN, to Marvel, to the History Network (including the History Channel) and many others. Now, let’s say you’re an enterprising journalist at ABC News (who Disney also owns), and a damaging story comes across about Disney that would harm the company’s brand. The Propaganda Model would indicate you’re not as likely to run that story due to this conflict of interest. Multiply this across all of the Disney affiliates and the other corporate conglomerates and you have some serious problems with reporting stories.
Filter 2: Advertising
This filter could be sub-headlined: where is the bread buttered?
Most media outlets rely on advertising funds for large portions of their budgets. The outlets- both big and small- go where the money is, and that rests with businesses, corporations, and the like. The competition over advertisers creates a situation where media outlets are scared to offend their advertisers and lose critical revenue. So what kind of news do you get as a result of this? A product that is careful not to offend advertisers, simply put.
Turn on the TV to a cable news program and pay attention to the issues they discuss and the way the issues are discussed. Then watch the commercials. You’ll notice that those corporations paying for the advertising are either 1) not discussed, 2) not discussed in a disparaging way, or 3) their interests are promoted in an indirect way. Let’s take one example: pay attention to the cable news outlets advertising pharmaceutical drugs and notice that network either not discussing any meaningful healthcare reform or disparaging those who do.
Issues that conflict with the interests of advertisers are also a big no-no. If a news outlet does that, they risk the advertiser spending money with a competitor and at the end of the day, these corporations exist to make money.
This is one of the reasons independent media struggle so much to stay afloat. By discussing issues and perspectives that matter to working people, corporate interests are inevitably threatened. The effect is an independent media that are oftentimes forced to rely on individual donations- a much smaller money pool than, say, corporations like Comcast or Amazon with their multi-billion dollar advertising budgets.
Robert McChesney once wrote that: “the hallmark of the media system is its relentless, ubuiquitous commercialism.”
Filter 3: Sourcing
A lot of the news you see comes from what are called sources, or insiders, to stories and issues being reported on. Oftentimes as a reporter, if you don’t have any inside sources, you don’t have a story. Now, imagine yourself as a reporter obtaining information from a source. You depend on this source for information, stories, verification, the whole nine yards. Are you going to risk offending this source and thus losing that juicy information pipeline? The Propaganda Model indicates this is not very likely.
Take even the White House press corps who are always present when the President gives press briefings. Ask tough and hard-hitting questions as a reporter and you risk being removed from the press corps list.
The result? A system where reporters and sources are in bed with one another and thus, combining their interests- in the service of government and corporate power, of course.
Filter 4: Flak
When media do step outside their narrow bounds of acceptable discourse, what is called flak oftentimes occurs from those attempting to discipline the media.
An example of this is Cenk Uyger’s previous career with MSNBC, where he hosted a program back in 2011. His program became known for challenging establishment narratives and bucking acceptable dialogue- asking questions that some in power preferred not to be asked. One day, Uyger reports, he was in a meeting with the head of MSNBC at the time, who told him “I was just in Washington, and people in Washington tell me that they’re concerned about your tone”. Uyger left MSNBC shortly afterwards after reportedly being demoted for his behavior.
Democracy Now! details another story– this one concerning the propaganda designed to convince the public that the U.S. needed to invade Iraq. Janet Yellin discussed her experiences as both a reporter for MSNBC and ABC News back in 2002/2003 with Anderson Cooper:
“JESSICA YELLIN: I think the press corps dropped the ball at the beginning. When the lead-up to war began, the press corps was under enormous pressure from corporate executives, frankly, to make sure that this was a war that was presented in a way that was consistent with the patriotic fever in the nation and the president’s high approval ratings. And my own experience at the White House was that the higher the president’s approval ratings, the more pressure I had from news executives—and I was not at this network at the time—but the more pressure I had from news executives to put on positive stories about the president. I think, over time, as President Bush’s—
ANDERSON COOPER: Really? You had pressure from news executives to put on positive stories about the president?”
Note Anderson Cooper’s surprise to the flak being presented here- he does not appear to even be aware of the possibility of executives influencing the news from above. Yellin continues:
“JESSICA YELLIN: Not in that exact—they wouldn’t say it in that way, but they would edit my pieces, they would push me in different directions, they would turn down stories that were more critical, and try to put on pieces that were more positive. Yes, that was my experience.”
Filter 5: Artificial Fear
We have large corporate ownership and the powers of advertising, sourcing, and flak covered. Now we need an artificial enemy- a threat to induce fear in the population, for a fearful population can be controlled.
Back when the Propaganda Model was proposed in 1988, anti-communism was the focus. But today, it’s more accurate to say that anti-terrorism or anti-Islamism is the new fashionable object for artificial fearmongering.
Back when The Bush Administration was pushing the fear button to greenlight their illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, there were two main ‘justifications’ given. 1) Iraq leader Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction (which he didn’t have) and 2) the also completely fictitious link between Iraq and Al-Qaida.
Fears of terrorist attacks against the U.S. have been drummed up for years to embroil the U.S. in multiple illegal wars in the Middle East and elsewhere that we’ve already discussed at length. And the threat of being killed by an Islamic terrorist in the United States is very small and on the scale of, say, falling objects or cows. Even a rising white supremacist movement has been responsible for arguably even more terrorism in the U.S. than Islamic terrorism since 2001.
But it’s so much easier to drum up fear and hate for foreigners that appear different from us than addressing issues with some of our own citizens, or deaths resulting from avoidable accidents or healthcare.
Putting it all Together
Add the five filters together and you get an accurate picture of how western media often operates as little more than court stenographers for power. Sure, much of our news is now online compared to print when Manufacturing Consent was first published, but the core filters remain largely the same.
All this isn’t to say that journalists and reporters are constantly self-censoring their own work. The reverse is more often the case. The critical point is that news organizations hire- from the outset- the types of journalists and reporters that already hold the beliefs or attitudes that a particular media outlet looks for.
To take an example, the average journalist at the Washington Post is quite likely to already hold a pro-establishment bias before they were hired. Not much need to spike their news or censor them. But would an average journalist at The Intercept or Democracy Now! get hired for the Washington Post in the first place? Not as likely.
And there certainly are genuinely good journalists and reporters in media. We’ve linked to many of them already in our previous articles. But you have to sift through the chaff to get to the wheat, and that is one of the central purposes of what we try to do: help readers find news and media worth paying attention to.
Here are some examples of discussions about how media operate when producing the news:
Matt Taibbi, Katie Halper, and Chris Hedges, all journalists, discuss some of the problems of media as members of the media themselves.
Or take Chomsky himself discussing the Propaganda Model with a BBC reporter. Or Cenk Uyger calling out the media at an event with the National Press Club.
It is a daunting task learning how to sift through the garbage of media, but for a country that loves to laud its democratic values, there is no option but to get our hands dirty with it.