The Standing Invitation

The Propaganda Model

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In 1988, Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman donned their media-analyst hats and proposed a fascinating and frightening concept of how journalism really works in western nations.

Most people’s conception of the media is that it is a force that power must in some way deal with. The newspapermen make their living by exposing government lies and deceptions; they are on the side of their readers, the general public, and not on the side of the powerful elites. Whenever the powers-that-be want to do something naughty, their first thought must be: how should we handle the media? This can either be done subtly, for example by deflecting interest elsewhere or trying to mask their plans as something else; or it can be done not so subtly, by closing down newspapers, torturing reporters and censoring broadcasts – but one way or another, the media must be dealt with.

The alternative, say Chomsky and Herman, is something they call the propaganda model.

In this alternative rendering, media is expensive, and requires the support of the powerful simply in order to exist; and, while it must at least keep up the image of covering stories in the real world, its primary function is to protect the people who pay for it through advertising.

Newspapers that consistently run stories that go against these commercial interests will lose money and eventually go bust, but this kind of macroscopic selection process will rarely happen. Most probably, canny editors will shelve stories from reporters who insist on reporting on the wrong topics, and journalists who don’t behave themselves will be moved somewhere from which they can’t do any damage.

All this sounds plausible, but difficult to prove. The most cited counterexample is Watergate: here, newspapers brought down the President of the USA, surely a demonstration that a free press really is free to take on whoever it likes.

What Chomsky and Herman argue is that Watergate was not the biggest story people could have reported on. Because two stories were unfolding at once: Watergate, that got the media attention, and COINTELPRO, which few people today have heard of, but which is infinitely more shocking and scary than a story about a politician lying to cover himself.

Why was COINTELPRO not more extensively covered? And why is it so little known today? Because to cover a campaign of terrorism, illegal surveillance and state-sponsored murder of political activists is something that is just not done.

And this is the scariest part of their thesis: that people in the media often don’t know that they’re protecting power. They are not lying to themselves. They believe every word they say. But if they were the kind of people who believed something else, they would not be working in the media. The whole system, from school to university to the inner halls of the media, has the effect of reinforcing the idea that there are some ideas that are simply not to be questioned.

 

REFERENCES

This is laid out systematically in C&H’s Manufacturing Consent, which I confess I have not read, although Chomsky sketches the central thesis in many of his books – see Understanding Power.

A video of Chomsky arguing this with Andrew Marr can be found here.

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Written by The S I

August 31, 2011 at 11:59 pm

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