Democracy requires the free flowing information, critical thinking skills, and broad participation. When monopoly powers of any kind interfere with these principles, democracy suffers. Today, more than ever before, our democracy (or “Democratic Republican,” if you like) is under assault by monopoly powers–powers that control the media, political representatives, and write the rules for our society. Policy that flows from the interests of the powerful would never be accepted by the electorate, and using force wouldn’t work today (and would interfere with kind of market “freedom” that the powerful want to uphold). So the only way to get the electorate to go along with the interests of the powerful is to use propaganda. People’s consent must be engineered, manufactured. (…And it explains why conservatives still exist today, despite such broad access to real facts!)
The powerful have been using this method for centuries, but with greater sophistication since World War I. This explains why a citizen could make a comment like, “Keep your government hands of my medicare”; it explains why they would support repealing the “death tax,” which only effects the heirs of the very wealthy. It explains the strong connection that many Americans make between love of country and support for military strength and war. It explains why an under-paid employee will reject the idea of a labor union, viewing it as connected to socialism. More recently, it explains the overall low polling scores of the healthcare bill of 2010—even though most Americans accept specific ideas in the bill, many are willing to march to Washington with the Tea Party in protest…not realizing that they would benefit greatly from many aspects of the new law.
Understanding how power works is critical for citizens in a democracy, because it empowers them to fight back, and to remain independent. One of the best models for understanding power in general, and thought control specifically, is MIT professor Noam Chomsky’s propaganda model. Chomsky has been called by the New York Times, “Arguably the most important intellectual alive.” The Nation magazine has said, “Not to have read him is to court genuine ignorance.” The Boston Globe called him, “America’s most useful citizen.” The New York Times Books Review proclaims: “Chomsky is a global phenomenon…perhaps the most widely read voice on foreign policy on the planet.” He has also been called the most cited living scholar. His propaganda model was developed with Edward Herman. (See links to their books below.)
Chomsky and Herman’s propaganda model goes beyond the worn-out narrative of the “liberal media” that was conjured up by the Right. The model does not assume some kind of back-room conspiracy either. It is an “institutional analysis” of how facts become “filtered” to present content to the public that favors the media’s real customer: big businesses, those who advertise with the media establishment. As a result, media content comes out with a bias that favors the interests of those in power: the rich, corporations, etc. (However, there are independent media sources that are supported by consumers rather than “sponsors” and advertisers; some of the best sources are: Democracy Now!, The Nation magazine, public radio and TV, the BBC, Al Jazeera, city weekly magazines…see the links section of this blog). A documentary film about Chomsky’s model was released in 1993 (and it is excellent…and free online!). See also Chomsky’s books, “Media Control,” and “Necessary Illusions.”
We have included a summary of the propaganda model here. This model should be studied by all who seek the liberation and empowerment of ordinary citizens.
Editorial Bias: Five Filters
Herman and Chomsky’s “propaganda model” describes five editorially-distorting filters applied to news reporting in mass media:
- Size, Ownership, and Profit Orientation: The dominant mass-media outlets are large firms which are run for profit. Therefore they must cater to the financial interest of their owners – often corporations or particular controlling investors. The size of the firms is a necessary consequence of the capital requirements for the technology to reach a mass audience.
- The Advertising License to Do Business: Since the majority of the revenue of major media outlets derives from advertising (not from sales or subscriptions), advertisers have acquired a “de-facto licensing authority”. Media outlets are not commercially viable without the support of advertisers. News media must therefore cater to the political prejudices and economic desires of their advertisers. This has weakened the working-class press, for example, and also helps explain the attrition in the number of newspapers.
- Sourcing Mass Media News: Herman and Chomsky argue that “the large bureaucracies of the powerful subsidize the mass media, and gain special access [to the news], by their contribution to reducing the media’s costs of acquiring […] and producing, news. The large entities that provide this subsidy become ‘routine’ news sources and have privileged access to the gates. Non-routine sources must struggle for access, and may be ignored by the arbitrary decision of the gatekeepers.”
- Flak and the Enforcers: “Flak” refers to negative responses to a media statement or program (e.g. letters, complaints, lawsuits, or legislative actions). Flak can be expensive to the media, either due to loss of advertising revenue, or due to the costs of legal defense or defense of the media outlet’s public image. Flak can be organized by powerful, private influence groups (e.g. think tanks). The prospect of eliciting flak can be a deterrent to the reporting of certain kinds of facts or opinions.
- Anti-Communism: This was included as a filter in the original 1988 edition of the book, but Chomsky argues that since the end of the Cold War (1945–91), anticommunism was replaced by the “War on Terror“, as the major social control mechanism.
- Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.
- All over the place, from the popular culture to the propaganda system, there is constant pressure to make people feel that they are helpless, that the only role they can have is to ratify decisions and to consume.
- The more you can increase fear of drugs and crime, welfare mothers, immigrants and aliens, the more you control all the people.
- Because they don’t teach the truth about the world, schools have to rely on beating students over the head with propaganda about democracy. If schools were, in reality, democratic, there would be no need to bombard students with platitudes about democracy. They would simply act and behave democratically, and we know this does not happen. The more there is a need to talk about the ideals of democracy, the less democratic the system usually is.”
- “…the point of public relations slogans like “Support Our Troops” is that they don’t mean anything […] that’s the whole point of good propaganda. You want to create a slogan that nobody is gonna be against and I suppose everybody will be for, because nobody knows what it means, because it doesn’t mean anything. But its crucial value is that it diverts your attention from a question that does mean something, do you support our policy? And that’s the one you’re not allowed to talk about.”
- “…sectors of the doctrinal system serve to divert the unwashed masses and reinforce the basic social values: passivity, submissiveness to authority, the overriding virtue of greed and personal gain, lack of concern for others, fear of real or imagined enemies, etc. The goal is to keep the bewildered herd bewildered. It’s unnecessary for them to trouble themselves with what’s happening in the world. In fact, it’s undesirable — if they see too much of reality they may set themselves to change it.”
- The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”
- I believe in Cartesian common sense. I think people have the capacities to see through the deceit in which they are ensnared, but they’ve got to make the effort.
- We should be seeking out forms of authority and domination, and challenging their legitimacy…But any form of coercion and control requires justification. And most of them are completely unjustifiable. Now, at various stages of human civilization, it’s been possible to challenge some of them, but not others. Others are too deep-seated, or you don’t see them or whatever. And so, at any particular point, you try to detect those forms of authority and domination which are subject to change and which do not have any legitimacy, in fact which often strike at fundamental human rights.
- The title [Manufacturing Consent] is actually borrowed from a book by Walter Lippmann, written back around 1921, in which he described what he called “the manufacture of consent” as “a revolution” in “the practice of democracy,” What it amounts to is a technique of control. And he said this was useful and necessary because “the common interests” — the general concerns of all people — “elude” the public. The public just isn’t up to dealing with them. And they have to be the domain of what he called a “specialized class.”
- It’s not the case, as the naive might think, that indoctrination is inconsistent with democracy. Rather, as this whole line of thinkers observes, it’s the essence of democracy.
- When [the powerful] can’t control people by force and when the voice of the people can be heard, you have this problem. It may make people so curious and so arrogant that they don’t have the humility to submit to a civil rule and therefore you have to control what people think. And the standard way to do this is to resort to what in more honest days used to be called propaganda. Manufacture of consent. Creation of necessary illusions. Various ways of either marginalizing the general public or reducing them to apathy in some fashion.
- It’s the primary function of the mass media in the United States to mobilize public support for the special interests that dominate the government and the private sector. What are those interests? The major decisions over what happens in the society — decisions over investment and production and distribution and so on — are in the hands of a relatively concentrated network of major corporations and conglomerates and investment firms. They are also the ones who staff the major executive positions in the government. They’re the ones who own the media and they’re the ones who have to be in a position to make the decisions. They have an overwhelmingly dominant role in the way life happens. You know, what’s done in the society. Within the economic system, by law and in principle, they dominate. The control over resources and the need to satisfy their interests imposes very sharp constraints on the political system and on the ideological system.
- There are two different groups…two targets for propaganda. One is what’s sometimes called the political class. There’s maybe twenty percent of the population which is relatively educated, more or less articulate, plays some kind of role in decision-making. They’re supposed to sort of participate in social life — either as managers, or cultural managers like teachers and writers and so on. They’re supposed to vote, they’re supposed to play some role in the way economic and political and cultural life goes on. Now their consent is crucial. So that’s one group that has to be deeply indoctrinated. Then there’s maybe eighty percent of the population whose main function is to follow orders and not think, and not to pay attention to anything — and they’re the ones who usually pay the costs.
- And they do this in all sorts of ways: by selection of topics, by distribution of concerns, by emphasis and framing of issues, by filtering of information, by bounding of debate within certain limits. They determine, they select, they shape, they control, they restrict — in order to serve the interests of dominant, elite groups in the society.
- In fact, if the system functions well, it ought to have a liberal bias, or at least appear to. Because if it appears to have a liberal bias, that will serve to bound thought even more effectively. In other words, if the press is indeed adversarial and liberal and all these bad things, then how can I go beyond it? They’re already so extreme in their opposition to power that to go beyond it would be to take off from the planet. So therefore it must be that the presuppositions that are accepted in the liberal media are sacrosanct — can’t go beyond them. And a well-functioning system would in fact have a bias of that kind. The media would then serve to say in effect: Thus far and no further.
- We ask what would you expect of those media on just relatively uncontroversial, guided-free market assumptions? And when you look at them you find a number of major factors determining what their products are. These are what we call the filters, so one of them, for example, is ownership. Who owns them? The major agenda-setting media-after all, what are they? As institutions in the society, what are they? Well, in the first place they are major corporations, in fact huge corporations. Furthermore, they are integrated with and sometimes owned by even larger corporations, conglomerates — so, for example, by Westinghouse and G.E. and so on.
- [Student:] What I wanted to know was how, specifically, the elites control the media- what I mean is- [Chomsky:] It’s like asking: How do the elites control General Motors? Well, why isn’t that a question? I mean, General Motors is an institution of the elites…So what we have in the first place is major corporations which are parts of even bigger conglomerates. Now, like any other corporation, they have a product which they sell to a market. The market is advertisers-that is, other businesses. What keeps the media functioning is not the audience. They make money from their advertisers. And remember, we’re talking about the elite media. So they’re trying to sell a good product, a product which raises advertising rates. And ask your friends in the advertising industry. That means that they want to adjust their audience to the more elite and affluent audience. That raises advertising rates. So what you have is institutions, corporations, big corporations, that are selling relatively privileged audiences to other businesses. Well, what point of view would you expect to come out of this? I mean without any further assumptions, what yodd predict is that what comes out is a picture of the world, a perception of the world, that satisfies the needs and the interests and the perceptions of the sellers, the buyers and the product. Now there are many other factors that press in the same direction. If people try to enter the system who don’t have that point of view they’re likely to be excluded somewhere along the way. After all, no institution is going to happily design a mechanism to self-destruct. It’s not the way institutions function. So they’ll work to exclude or marginalize or eliminate dissenting voices or alternative perspectives and so on because they’re dysfunctional, they’re dysfunctional to the institution itself.
- This is an oversimplification, but for the eighty percent or whatever they are, the main thing is to divert them. To get them to watch National Football League. And to worry about “Mother With Child With Six Heads,” or whatever you pick up on the supermarket stands and so on. Or look at astrology. Or get involved in fundamentalist stuff or something or other. Just get them away. Get them away from things that matter. And for that it’s important to reduce their capacity to think.
- These are not just academic exercises. We’re not analyzing the media on Mars or in the eighteenth century or something like that. We’re dealing with real human beings who are suffering and dying and being tortured and starving because of policies that we are involved in, we as citizens of democratic societies are directly involved in and are responsible for, and what the media are doing is ensuring that we do not act on our responsibilities, and that the interests of power are served, not the needs of the suffering people, and not even the needs of the American people who would be horrified if they realized the blood that’s dripping from their hands because of the way they are allowing themselves to be deluded and manipulated by the system.