First presented in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, the "Propaganda model" views the private media as businesses interested in the sale of a product – readers and audiences – to other businesses (advertisers) rather than that of quality news to the public. Describing the media's "societal purpose", Chomsky writes, "... the study of institutions and how they function must be scrupulously ignored, apart from fringe elements or a relatively obscure scholarly literature". The theory postulates five general classes of "filters" that determine the type of news that is presented in news media. These five classes are:
The first three are generally regarded by the authors as being the most important.
Although the model was based mainly on the characterization of United States media, Chomsky and Herman believe the theory is equally applicable to any country that shares the basic economic structure and organizing principles which the model postulates as the cause of media biases.
The sheer size, concentrated ownership, immense owner wealth, and profit-seeking imperative of the dominant media corporations could hardly yield any other result. It was not always thus. In the early nineteenth century, a radical British press had emerged which addressed the concerns of workers. But excessive stamp duties, designed to restrict newspaper ownership to the 'respectable' wealthy, began to change the face of the press. Nevertheless there remained a degree of diversity. In postwar Britain, radical or worker-friendly newspapers such as the Daily Herald, News Chronicle, Sunday Citizen (all since failed or absorbed into other publications) and the Daily Mirror (at least until the late 1970s) regularly published articles questioning the capitalist system.
Herman and Chomsky argue that since mainstream media outlets are either large corporations or part of conglomerates (e.g. Westinghouse or General Electric), the information presented to the public will be biased with respect to these interests. Such conglomerates frequently extend beyond traditional media fields, and thus have extensive financial interests that may be endangered when certain information is widely publicized. According to this reasoning, news items that most endanger the corporate financial interests of those who own the media will face the greatest bias and censorship.
It then follows that if to maximize profit means sacrificing news objectivity, then the news sources that ultimately survive must be fundamentally biased, with regard to news in which they have a conflict of interest.
The second filter of the propaganda model is advertising. Most newspapers have to attract and maintain a high proportion of advertising in order to cover the costs of production; without it, they would have to increase the price of their newspaper. There is fierce competition throughout the media to attract advertisers; a newspaper which gets less advertising than its competitors is put at a serious disadvantage. Lack of success in raising advertising revenue was another factor in the demise of the 'people's newspapers' of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The product is composed of the affluent readers who buy the newspaper – who also comprise the educated decision-making sector of the population – while the audience includes the businesses that pay to advertise their goods. According to this filter, the news itself is nothing more than "filler" to get privileged readers to see the advertisements which makes up the real content, and will thus take whatever form is most conducive to attracting educated decision-makers. Stories that conflict with their "buying mood", it is argued, will tend to be marginalized or excluded, along with information that presents a picture of the world that collides with advertisers' interests. The theory argues that the people buying the newspaper are themselves the product which is sold to the businesses that buy advertising space; the news itself has only a marginal role as the product.
The third of Herman and Chomsky's five filters relates to the sourcing of mass media news: "The mass media are drawn into a symbiotic relationship with powerful sources of information by economic necessity and reciprocity of interest." Even large media corporations such as the BBC cannot afford to place reporters everywhere. They therefore concentrate their resources where major news stories are likely to happen: the White House, the Pentagon, 10 Downing Street, and other centralised news "terminals". Although British newspapers may occasionally complain about the "spin-doctoring" of New Labour, for example, they are in fact highly dependent upon the pronouncements of "the Prime Minister's personal spokesperson" for government-related news. Business corporations and trade organisations are also trusted sources of stories considered newsworthy. Editors and journalists who offend these powerful news sources, perhaps by questioning the veracity or bias of the furnished material, can be threatened with the denial of access to their media life-blood - fresh news. Thus, the media become reluctant to run articles that will harm corporate interests that provide them with the resources that the media depend upon.
This relationship also gives rise to a "moral division of labor", in which "officials have and give the facts," and "reporters merely get them". Journalists are then supposed to adopt an uncritical attitude that makes it possible for them to accept corporate values without experiencing cognitive dissonance.
The fourth filter is 'flak', described by Herman and Chomsky as 'negative responses to a media statement or [TV or radio] program. It may take the form of letters, telegrams, phone calls, petitions, law-suits, speeches and Bills before Congress, and other modes of complaint, threat and punitive action'. Business organisations regularly come together to form flak machines. Perhaps one of the most well-known of these is the US-based Global Climate Coalition (GCC) - comprising fossil fuel and automobile companies such as Exxon, Texaco and Ford. The GCC was started up by Burson-Marsteller, one of the world's largest public relations companies, to rubbish the credibility of climate scientists and 'scare stories' about global warming.
For Chomsky and Herman "flak" refers to negative responses to a media statement or program. The term "flak" has been used to describe what Chomsky and Herman see as targeted efforts to discredit organizations or individuals who disagree with or cast doubt on the prevailing assumptions which Chomsky and Herman view as favorable to established power (e.g., "The Establishment"). Unlike the first three "filtering" mechanisms – which are derived from analysis of market mechanisms – flak is characterized by concerted and intentional efforts to manage public information.
The fifth and final news filter that Herman and Chomsky identified was 'anti-communism'. Manufacturing Consent was written during the Cold War. A more apt version of this filter is the customary western identification of 'the enemy' or an 'evil dictator' - Colonel Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, or Slobodan Milosevic (recall the British tabloid headlines of 'Smash Saddam!' and 'Clobba Slobba!'. The same extends to mainstream reporting of environmentalists as 'eco-terrorists'. The Sunday Times ran a series of articles in 1999 accusing activists from the non-violent direct action group Reclaim The Streets of stocking up on CS gas and stun guns.
Anti-ideologies exploit public fear and hatred of groups that pose a potential threat, either real, exaggerated, or imagined. Communism once posed the primary threat according to the model. Communism and socialism were portrayed by their detractors as endangering freedoms of speech, movement, the press, etc. They argue that such a portrayal was often used as a means to silence voices critical of elite interests.
Following the theoretical exposition of the propaganda model, Manufacturing Consent contains a large section where the authors seek to test their hypotheses. If the propaganda model is right and the filters do influence media content, a particular form of bias would be expected – one that systematically favors corporate interests.
They also looked at what they perceived as naturally-occurring "historical control groups" where two events, similar in their relevant properties but differing in the expected media attitude towards them, are contrasted using objective measures such as coverage of key events (measured in column inches) or editorials favoring a particular issue (measured in number).
Finally, the authors examine what points of view they believe are expressed in the media. In one case, the authors examined over fifty of Stephen Kinzer's articles about Nicaragua in the New York Times. They criticize Kinzer for failing to quote a single person in Nicaragua who is pro-Sandinista and contrast this with independent polls reporting only 9% support for all the opposition parties taken together. Chomsky states
|–||[The polls] show that all of the opposition parties in Nicaragua combined had the support of only 9 percent of the population, but they have 100 percent of Stephen Kinzer.||–|
Based on this example and select others, the authors argue that such a persistent bias can only be explained by a model like the one they advocate.
Since the publication of Manufacturing Consent, both Herman and Chomsky have adopted the theory and have given it a prominent role in their writings, lectures, and theoretical frameworks. Chomsky, in particular, has made extensive use of its explanative power to lend support to his own interpretations of mainstream media attitudes towards a wide array of events, including the following:
Herman, seeking to build upon a more institutionalized framework to analyze mainstream media functioning, joined the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), which has since 1986 attempted to expose media bias through critique, documentation, and statistical analysis.
With the emergence of the World Wide Web as a cheap and potentially wide-ranging means of communication, a number of independent websites have surfaced which adopt the propaganda model to subject media to close scrutiny. Several examples of these are, Free Press, FAIR and Media Lens, a British-based site authored by David Edwards and David Cromwell.
In May, 2007, both Chomsky and Herman spoke at the University of Windsor in Canada summarizing developments and responding to criticisms related to the model. Both authors stated they felt the propaganda model is still applicable today (Herman said even more so than when it was originally introduced), although they did suggest a few areas where they believe it falls short and needs to be extended in light of recent developments.
Chomsky has commented in the "ChomskyChat Forum" on the applicability of the Propaganda Model to the media environment of other countries:
|–||That's only rarely been done in any systematic way. There is work on the British media, by a good U[niversity] of Glasgow media group. And interesting work on British Central America coverage by Mark Curtis in his book Ambiguities of Power. There is work on France, done in Belgium mostly, also a recent book by Serge Halimi (editor of Le Monde diplomatique). There is one very careful study by a Dutch graduate student, applying the methods Ed Herman used in studying US media reaction to elections (El Salvador, Nicaragua) to 14 major European newspapers. [...] Interesting results. Discussed a bit (along with some others) in a footnote in chapter 5 of my book "Deterring Democracy[".]||–|
Gareth Morley argues in an article in Inroads: A Journal of Opinion that widespread coverage of Israeli mistreatment of protesters as compared with little coverage of similar (or much worse) events in sub-Saharan Africa is poorly explained. Chomsky responded that when testing a model, examples should be carefully paired to avoid reasons for discrepancies not related to political bias. For instance, general coverage of the two areas compared should be similar. In this case, according to Chomsky, they are not: news from Israel (in any form) is far more common than news from sub-Saharan Africa.
Historian Walter LaFeber criticized the book Manufacturing Consent for overstating its case, in particular with regards to reporting on Nicaragua, and not adequately explaining how a powerful propaganda system would let military aid to the Contra rebels be blocked. Herman responded in a letter by stating that the system was not "all powerful" and that LaFaber did not address their main point regarding Nicaragua. LaFaber replied that:
Mr. Herman wants to have it both ways: to claim that leading American journals "mobilize bias," but object when I cite crucial examples that weaken the book's thesis. If the news media are so unqualifiedly bad, the book should at least explain why so many publications (including my own) can cite their stories to attack President Reagan's Central American policy.
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