Summary of the Theory
The Propaganda Model was developed by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, and was initially published in 1988 as the central theory of their seminal work, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of Mass Media. Although not published until 1988, the Propaganda Model is situated in paradigms of the Direct Effects Theory. Its ideas are derived from the work done by Harold Lasswell on wartime propaganda, during the 1920’s to the 1940’s, and by Jacques Ellul on the sociological techniques of propaganda and the media, during the 1950’s and 1960’s.
The Propaganda Model seeks to explain how audiences are influenced and how political consent is created based upon institutional biases, pressures and constraints. It also tries to explain how dissenting views are filtered or marginalized. Herman and Chomsky’s Propaganda Model posits that there are five filters that change, focus or distort the news to meet the needs of the elite, or more importantly the financially and politically powerful. As news is washed through these five filters, it is determined what events are newsworthy, how these events will be covered, where these events will be placed in the media, and how much coverage these events will receive.
The five filters of the Propaganda Model are: Ownership, Funding, Sources, Flak, and “Anti-Communism”. The key to the success of the model is that mass media is comprised of profit driven organizations, and that these organizations are firmly nested or seated in the financial market. As you will see as we discuss each of the filters, without money as an influencing and driving force within the Mass Media, the Propaganda Model would be ineffective.
The first filter is described by Herman and Chomsky as “the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth, and profit orientation of the dominant mass-media firms” (Herman and Chomsky, 2002). Basically this just explains that large media conglomerates are owned by large corporations, who are then in-turn influenced or impacted by the policies and legislature of the government. So, these organizations are not likely to be critical of a government that supports policies that are aligned with their interests.
The second filter of the Propaganda Model is titled “advertising as the primary income source of the mass media” (Herman and Chomsky, 2002). Since the bulk of operating costs of the mass media are paid through advertising commissions, media organizations are unlikely to provide coverage or produce content that is contrary to the beliefs of their advertisers. This is compounded by the fact that similarly to the first filter, these advertising businesses rely heavily on the policies and regulations of the government.
The third filter is “the reliance of the media on information provided by government, business, and “experts” funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power” (Herman and Chomsky, 2002). Since the cost of placing journalists everywhere would be exorbitant, media organizations rely on concentrating their personnel where news takes place or where it is announced, such as at government sponsored press forums like the White House or the Pentagon. In addition, due to vast quantity of events that take place on a daily basis, an easy solution for media organizations is to rely on press-releases or other Public Relations products, which have already been edited and tailored for media usage.
The fourth filter of the Propaganda Model is described as the use of “flak as a means of disciplining the media” (Herman and Chomsky, 2002). “Flak” is described as a negative response to a media statement or program. Flak can come in the form of complaints, lawsuits, petitions or government sanctions, and can be used to discredit organizations or individuals that do not support the “party line”. Journalism is a fairly cutthroat world, so for journalists or news organizations to be labelled could mean that they do not have the same access to information.
Finally, the fifth filter is labelled as “Anti-Communism as a national religion and control mechanism” (Herman and Chomsky, 2002). When Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of Mass Media was published in 1988, it was still during the Cold War. The fear of the Soviet Union and of communism following WWII, had been cultured, amplified and exploited through various historical events from the Korean Conflict, to the Bay of Pigs to the Vietnam War. This fear of the enemy or of an “evil dictator” has been a common theme, so following the end of the Cold War this fifth filter has come to be represented by terrorism in our present post 9/11 era.
In addition to the five-filters, another key component of the Propaganda Model is the concept of “Worthy” versus “Unworthy”. Herman and Chomsky’s prediction is that victims of groups or individuals identified as enemies by the mass media will be labelled as “Worthy” and as such will receive more coverage. In contrast, those victimized by the government or by its allies, will receive little to no coverage as they are deemed “Unworthy”. We will see examples of this as we examine the goodness of the Propaganda Model, and apply it to historical examples.
Herman and Chomsky, republished their work in 2002, with minor updates to the Propaganda Model. These updates included discussion and review of the main theory and the attached case-studies based upon three major factors: the dramatic centralization of the mass media that took place in the 1990’s; the increased globalization due to the rise of the internet; and, the deregulation and reduction of budgetary pressure to support non-commercial media. All three of these factors have only helped to enhance the impact that the five filters of the Propaganda Model have on the ability of money and power to “filter out the news fit to print, marginalize dissent, and allow the government and dominant private interests to get their message across to the public” (Herman & Chomsky, 2002).
Evaluation of the Theory
The goodness of a theory can be evaluated based upon the following five characteristics: Scope, Appropriateness, Heuristic Value, Validity, and Parsimony. Based upon these criteria you will see that the Propaganda Model is still an incredibly valid and sound mass communication theory.
The Propaganda Model was based on the US Government and Media, however work has been done to show that this theory still applies to countries with similar capitalist politico-economic structures, such as Great Britain. As for its predictive power, this theory is more explanatory in nature. It helps to explain how a system can filter out news that does not support government policy and can shape these stories in favour of their message.
It is incredibly logical that as news filters through the five layers that it is washed to produce information that supports those in financial and political power. It is also logical that when the Evil Dictator Saddam Hussein bombed the Kurdish people of Norther Iraq, they were “Worthy” of our media attention. However, when the Kurdish people along the Turkish Iraqi border are bombed by our NATO Ally Turkey, they are “Unworthy” of our media attention.
In May 2007, twenty years following the publication of the Propaganda Model, the University of Windsor, in Windsor Ontario Canada, held a conference titled “Twenty Years of Propaganda”, focusing on the validity of the model in the digital age. To me this demonstrates that there is still work being done in this field and that Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of Mass Media, is encouraging new ideas and future study.
In the book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of Mass Media, Herman and Chomsky use four historical examples from the Indochina Wars of the 1950s and 60s to the Central American revolutions of the 1980s to demonstrate their model. Then following the initial publication work was done to again successfully apply it to the first Gulf War and the Indonesian insurrection in East Timor. Again following its updated publication in 2002, further study has been completed to apply this model to the second Gulf War. Obviously in all of these cases the common factor is that these studies were conducted based upon the American media and government. However, similar traits can be identified when we look to examples from Canada, Britain and Australia.
The Propaganda Model is relatively simple to explain and understand, yet the ramifications of what it explains is far from simple. One of the keys to a parsimonious theory is that it has the least possible assumptions. The only assumption is that the Propaganda Model will work in any capitalist society.
As it is a model, there is the ability to add to it and as Herman and Chomsky discuss in their updated publication, it is adaptable which we have seen in the fifth filter being originally establish as the fear of communism, has now been adapted to involve terrorism.
I believe that the Propaganda Model is incredibly useful in describing a very real-world phenomena that has been and continues to take place in the United States of America.
Through the various case studies completed by Herman and Chomsky, and the applications since the publication of the model, we have seen through these numerous examples its ability to explain how audiences are influenced by the mass media.
CNN – A Digital Mass Media Network
The Cable News Network (CNN) is a 24-hour American news channel. Founded in 1980 it is owned by the Turner Broadcasting System which is a subsidiary of Time Warner Inc, the world’s third largest multi-media conglomerate. Often viewed as one of the leading US news broadcasters, CNN was the first all-news television channel and with 399,000 daily American viewers, it is ranked second in cable news ratings after the Fox News Channel. (http://www.mediaite.com/tv/2014-cable-news-ratings-cnn-beats-msnbc-in-primetime-demo-fox-still-1/). CNN’s reached extends far past the US boarders with its other network, CNN International. With bureaus around the globe, CNN is broadcast in over 200 countries.
Historically CNN has been on the leading edge of news reporting from the Challenger Disaster in 1986 to first Gulf War to the tragic events of September 11th, 2001. In addition, to the standard news reporting, the channel also has numerous daily and weekly news centered programs, and has made celebrities out of reporters such as Connie Chung, Wolf Blitzer, and Anderson Cooper. CNN has expanded from cable television to also being one of the most visited online news sources and used news apps. The network also posts videos of most of their reports on their YouTube channel and has expanded into radio, where it broadcasts online through the TuneIn and SoundCloud applications and by satellite via SiriusXM. In addition, CNN has an incredibly active Facebook page and Twitter feed.
Application of the Theory
CNN is a solid example of the application of Herman and Chomsky’s Propaganda Model. Even though the network claims to be a neutral news source, there are numerous examples of how not only do the five filters impact the news that is reported, but that CNN themselves play a role in washing the news for other broadcasters.
Ownership & Funding
As stated earlier, CNN is owned by the Turner Broadcasting System, a subsidiary of Time Warner. In 2001 Time Warner merged with AOL for $165 billion, the largest media merger in history. Time Warner now has an incredibly diverse multi-media portfolio with their fingers in the film, television, music, print and online. Some of these include Warner Brothers, New Line Cinema, HBO, Cinemax, Comedy Central, Time magazine, Sports Illustrated, TMZ.Com, Columbia House, and Tommy Boy records to name but a few. With the heavy reliance on US broadcasting policy and legislature, Time Warner and Turner Broadcasting Systems, must be influenced by the American government and this disseminated through their various channels including CNN.
Even with the incredible span that CNN has, both its domestic and international channel(s) remain incredibly reliant on news conferences and press releases from both the public and private sector. This reliance is reinforced due to quickly spinning news cycle, which often leads to the requirement to publish what they receive without further investigation. In addition, because CNN relies heavily on freelance reporters, these correspondents are fighting to be included in these news conferences and press releases, and are fighting to have their work used by the network. Similarly to the Spiral of Silence, this often leads to these journalists not straying from the main reporting themes for fear of isolation, or more importantly being excluded from the information in the future.
In addition, to this filter impacting CNN’s output, the network also plays a role as part of this filter. Because of its large geographic span of reporters, the network is often relied upon by other news sources. This means that whatever washed news product CNN is broadcasting then further disseminated by other sources.
During the research for this paper it was difficult to find examples of “Flak” being used against CNN, however there are several examples of the network firing on-air personnel because they expressed opinions that were viewed as controversial or not in-line with the mass media giant. The first example is the release of Lou Dobbs in 2009 from his network contract. As one of the original CNN broadcasters, the story was spun that the departure was amicable from the perspective of both parties, however Dobbs was known for attracting controversy especially within the last decade of his time on the channel. The second example took place in 2010, when Octavia Nasr, the twenty-year veteran of CNN’s Arab Affairs desk, was fired for sending a tweet about her admiration of a Muslim Hezbollah Cleric, following his death. Without the context that Nasr is a Lebanese-Christian, that Hezbollah’s political wing is part of the Lebanese government, and finally that this gentleman was a Muslim-moderate who was highly revered by millions within the Middle East, many American’s might misinterpret the tweet for supporting Muslim-extremist terrorism.
The last example of Octavia Nasr, reinforces the perpetuation of the Muslim-Terrorist fear that has been used CNN, to gain viewership and to direct the main themes of the mass media. In addition, in 2009 Maya Arulpragasam, also known by her stage name M.I.A. conducted an hour long interview where she spoke out against the violence being committed against the Tamil people of Sri Lanka by its Sinhalese government. The Tamil’s are often linked with their military wing, the Tamil Tigers, who in the eyes of the world are a terrorist organization, but in the eyes of many of the Tamil people are freedom fighters. In her interview, she used the term genocide to frame the killing of more than 70,000 people on both sides of the conflict. This interview ended up being cut down to two minutes and focused on M.I.A.’s hit single “Paper Planes”. Because the US government classifies the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist organization, however as much of the slaughter can be attributed to the Sri Lankan government, CNN would never air something in contrast to the fear that the idea of terrorism portrays.
This is an incredibly challenging section of this paper to write, because in my mind the aim of the media should be to portray unbiased news, in order to inform the audience so that they can make their own minds up. However, in the case of CNN, because it is so deploy embedded into the Time Warner media conglomeration and their reliance on the US Government, there is no way that they can avoid the filters of the Propaganda Model. With the increased centralization of the media and reduced pressure for the government to fund non-commercial media such as National Public Radio (NPR) or the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), the filters of Propaganda Model only become more capable.
Having followed the second Gulf War from beginning to end with much professional interest, it was quickly apparent that the news that was being broadcast on American news stations was being washed for public consumption. Compared to many of the European news networks, who were broadcasting the horror and atrocity of the conflict, here in North America, the war was being portrayed as a battle of “Good” versus “Evil”. This was compounded by the idea that if you did not support the war in Iraq you were Un-American and that the idea of “Supporting the Troops” was inexplicable linked to supporting the conflict.
Following the 2008 Presidential election and the change in leadership, only then did the audience start to see the cracks in the story. The idea that weapons of mass destruction or “WMDs”, were as existent as the boogeyman, and the fact that US corporations were making exorbitant sums of money in providing wartime services, yet using a third-world labor force in order to reduce costs and increase profits. Based upon these examples, my prediction is that the Propaganda Model will only become stronger, more influential and more applicable as we continue to see media conglomerates making annual profits in the billions of dollars.
Extension of the Theory
Expansion of the Propaganda Model has already begun to meet this digital age. With Google being the world’s largest media owner, other digital conglomerates like Apple, Yahoo and Microsoft who are also producing and airing information and news, must now be included as part of the Ownership filter. Of course the corporations that traditionally used print, radio and television are now using the internet to advertise, so they continue to be included in the Funding filter.
Where we may see this model continue to expand is when we include the idea of who controls the infrastructure and security apparatus that supports the internet. As it stands right now it is controlled by a US based not-for profit organisation, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICann). There are representatives from seven different nations who are members of Icann, but many of these countries wish the organization to be replaced with another more global governing body.
The fact is that the Propaganda Model continues to work even in this digital age; however, Herman and Chomsky have always said that this model only works in a capitalist environment. Countries like China and Russia have state sponsored media systems, which have demonstrated control over all forms of mass media including the internet within their borders. I would be interesting to see what the difference between the Propaganda Model and one developed on an autocratically government would be, specifically what filters are used to wash their news and make it more palatable for the masses.