‘It is a radical model, a class-based and class-bias model.’ This is Edward S Herman’s definition of the ‘propaganda model’ of the media that he and Noam Chomsky set out in Manufacturing Consent. The authors argue that the US mass media serve and ‘propagandise’ for society’s rich and powerful elites, who control and finance the media. They put forward a structuralist argument, claiming that media content is fundamentally shaped by who owns and finances the institutions that produce it. The propaganda model predicts that everything from the types of stories covered to what elements are emphasised and what facts are ignored can best be understood by analysing it through inequalities in wealth and power.
Manufacturing Consent sets outs five news filters that shape media output:
Herman and Chomsky emphasise that the media’s propaganda role is not created by coercion of the press but by the subtler, but more effective, forces of free market logic. Censorship is largely self-censorship by reporters and commentators, who adjust to the realities of media organisational requirements, and by people at higher levels in media institutions who need to maximise profit. Media leaders do similar things because they see the world in similar ways. Herman and Chomsky demonstrate that where elites disagree this will be reported but anything that challenges fundamental societal arrangements will be excluded from media discussion.
After outlining their propaganda model in the first chapter, the authors devote the next five to illustrating its application empirically. Based exclusively on foreign news coverage, their case studies detail how the media, time and again, fail to ask even basic questions, remain silent in the face of government cover-ups and ignore historical context.
Some of the propaganda campaigns they cite are instituted by governments – for example, the Reagan administration’s attempt in the 1980s to discredit the Nicaragua elections as ‘a sham’ but its endorsement of the US-sponsored El Salvador elections as ‘a step towards democracy’. Other stories are initiated by the corporate media – for example, the attempt to link the 1981 assassination attempt on the pope to the Bulgarian KGB, when all credible evidence suggested it was the individual act of a Turkish fascist.
Manufacturing Consent focuses on how consent among journalists is created. The book is concerned with why a press that is not state-censored still reproduces the favoured messages of societal elites. It does not claim that a misinformed media creates a misinformed public; indeed, in several cases the authors highlight how public views are at odds with media messages. Yet some critics argue that by drawing on Walter Lippman’s concept of propaganda the authors are implying that audiences believe everything they are told by the media.
Manufacturing Consent would benefit from a chapter addressing how the media affects popular opinion, not just to clarify Herman’s and Chomsky’s argument, but also because media content does undoubtedly influence public understanding. While audiences don’t just agree with everything the media says, what they read, see and hear in the media is still a key source of information for most people.
The brilliance of Manufacturing Consent, though, lies in the case studies. The authors’ exposition and damning indictment of both US foreign policy and the media’s reporting of it stands in stark contrast to the media’s woeful reporting of the same events.
The model itself, that media content is shaped by the capitalist conditions of its production, should not be particularly controversial, yet Manufacturing Consent still provokes intense debate. This is probably a consequence of its overtly political aims. Inequality, wealth and class bias are not subsidiary points in the propaganda model; they form the cornerstones of the analysis. The authors convincingly argue that they are the lens through which media content can best be understood.
Herman and Chomsky conclude that if we want a ‘better’ media, lobbying for more regulation or state funding is not enough. We also have ‘to be the media’. As long as the news is produced by multinational corporations it will continue to reflect their interests. If we want media that reflect our interests then we must create that media.
The propaganda model shows us that Murdoch’s fall from grace has not freed our media. There may have been a changing of the guard but it is the voices of the powerful that are still being heard.