In their seminal work ‘Manufacturing Consent – The Political Economy of the Mass Media’ (Pantheon, 1988), Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky set out their ‘propaganda model’ of the media. In a subsequent article written in 1996, Edward Herman reflected on the origins of the model:
‘We had long been impressed with the regularity with which the media operate within restricted assumptions, depend heavily and uncritically on elite information sources, and participate in propaganda campaigns helpful to elite interests. In trying to explain why they do this we looked for structural factors as the only possible root of systematic behaviour and performance patterns.’ (Herman, ‘The propaganda model revisited,’ Monthly Review, July 1996)
This would indeed seem a highly rational response; and yet it is rejected out of hand by the mainstream media. Consider that Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model has been mentioned four times by name in British national newspapers since 1988 (including two mentions in book reviews). The much vaunted Guardian has mentioned the model precisely once over this period. A detailed explanation of the kind you are reading now has never appeared in a national British newspaper.
Herman and Chomsky were right to be impressed by patterns of media performance. As readers will discover over the course of this book, the media adhere with awesome consistency to broadly similar presumptions about the priorities and goals of Western power.
But how can this happen in a free society? Surely no conspiracy theory could account for conformity in literally thousands of journalists and media workers operating within hundreds of media organisations. The idea is outlandish in the extreme – the political mechanisms for projecting Big Brother control of this kind do not exist; a plot on such a scale would be instantly exposed by any number of whistleblowers.
Far more plausible is Herman and Chomsky’s suggestion that media performance is largely shaped by market forces, by the bottom-line goals of media corporations operating within state-capitalist society. Built into the system itself, they suggest, is a range of filters that work ceaselessly to shape media output. Herman here explains with great concision:
‘The crucial structural factors derive from the fact that the dominant media are firmly imbedded in the market system. They are profit-seeking businesses, owned by very wealthy people (or other companies); they are funded largely by advertisers who are also profit-seeking entities, and who want their ads to appear in a supportive selling environment. The media are also dependent on government and major business firms as information sources, and both efficiency and political considerations, and frequently overlapping interests, cause a certain degree of solidarity to prevail among the government, major media, and other corporate businesses.
‘Government and large non-media business firms are also best positioned (and sufficiently wealthy) to be able to pressure the media with threats of withdrawal of advertising or TV licenses, libel suits, and other direct and indirect modes of attack. The media are also constrained by the dominant ideology, which heavily featured anticommunism before and during the Cold War era, and was mobilized often to prevent the media from criticizing attacks on small states labelled communist.
‘These factors are linked together, reflecting the multi-levelled capability of powerful business and government entities and collectives (e.g., the Business Roundtable; U.S. Chamber of Commerce; industry lobbies and front groups) to exert power over the flow of information.’ (Herman, Ibid)
Thus, media companies are typically large conglomerates – News International, CBS (now merged with Westinghouse), Turner Broadcasting (now merged with Time-Warner) – which may belong to even larger parent corporations such as General Electric (owners of NBC).
All are tied into the stock market, all have wealthy individuals sitting on their boards, many with extensive personal and business contacts in other corporations. General Electric and Westinghouse, for example, are huge multinational companies heavily involved in weapons production and nuclear power.
It is not hard to appreciate how press neutrality is compromised by these factors. Former Murdoch editor, Andrew Neil, wrote of his ex-boss:
‘Rupert expects his papers to stand broadly for what he believes: a combination of right-wing Republicanism from America mixed with undiluted Thatcherism from Britain.’ (Neil, quoted, Alan Rusbridger, ‘Sour Times – The only good editor is an obedient editor if you are Rupert Murdoch,’ The Guardian, October 24, 1996)
Media academics Peter Golding and Graham Murdoch accept that ‘media proprietors can determine the editorial line… of the papers and broadcast stations they own.’ (Peter Golding and Graham Murdoch, in Mass Media and Society, Arnold, 1996, p.15)
FAIR quote a US newspaper reporter whose bosses also own a TV station:
‘When the Nielsen TV ratings come out, I know I am expected to write a big story if the co-owned station’s ratings are good and to bury the story if the co-owned station’s ratings are down. Or another example. A few years ago, I ran a survey asking readers what they thought of local television news programs. My general manager told me the next time I do something that might affect our sister station, I better check with him first. I got the message. I haven’t done a similar project since then.’ (Quoted, Hart and Hollar, FAIR, op. cit)
Newspapers have to attract and maintain a high proportion of advertising in order to cover the costs of production; without it, the price of any newspaper would skyrocket, which would soon spell its demise in the marketplace. Britain’s most progressive broadsheet newspapers – the Guardian, the Observer and the Independent – are dependent on advertising for ’75 per cent or more of their total take’. (Peter Preston, ‘War, what is it good for?,’ The Observer, October 7, 2001)
Even the threat of withdrawal of advertising can affect editorial content. In April 2005, the Independent reported that General Motors had pulled its advertising from one of America’s biggest newspapers, the Los Angeles Times, after it called for GM chief executive, Rick Wagoner, to be sacked. The car manufacturer decided to stop advertising in the west coast publication due to ‘factual errors and misrepresentation’. (Katherine Griffiths, ‘Angry GM withdraws ads from LA Times,’ The Independent, April 9, 2005)
FAIR described how a survey of US media workers had found respondents concerned about ‘pressure from advertisers trying to shape coverage’ as well as ‘outside control of editorial policy.’ (Quoted, Hart and Hollar, FAIR, op. cit)
In May 2005, financial giant Morgan Stanley informed key publications of new guidelines that required its adverts to be pulled if negative stories about it are published. A key section of its planned addition to advertising contracts read:
‘In the event that objectionable editorial coverage is planned, agency must be notified as a last-minute change may be necessary. If an issue arises after-hours or a call cannot be made, immediately cancel all Morgan Stanley ads for a minimum of 48 hours.’ (Jon Fine, ‘Morgan Stanley Institutes New “Pull Ad” Press Policy Designed to Respond to “Objectionable” Editorial Coverage,’ AdAge.com, May 18, 2005)
Robert McChesney, professor of communications at the University of Illinois, notes that professional journalism relies heavily on official sources. Reporters have to talk to the PM’s official spokesperson, the White House press secretary, the business association, the army general: ’What those people say is news. Their perspectives are automatically legitimate.’
Whereas, McChesney notes, ‘if you talk to prisoners, strikers, the homeless, or protesters, you have to paint their perspectives as unreliable, or else you’ve become an advocate and are no longer a “neutral” professional journalist.’ (Interview by Robert Jensen, The Sun magazine, Baltimore, September, 2000)
Media organisations are also under intense pressure from state-corporate flak. This may take the form of letters, telegrams, phone calls, petitions, law-suits, speeches in parliament and other modes of complaint and punitive action. Business organisations regularly come together to form flak machines.
In the summer of 2003, the British government launched an awesome flak campaign against the BBC. A year later, BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan, chairman Gavyn Davies and director general Greg Dyke had all resigned or were sacked. The BBC’s director of news, Richard Sambrook, was also moved sideways to a different post.
All of the above happened despite the fact that those opposing the war have been overwhelmingly vindicated by events in Iraq.
Powerful interests regularly exploit dominant ideologies like anti-communism, anti-terrorism and appeals to patriotism in targeting dissent.
In May 2004, British journalists and politicians fulminated over photographs published in the Daily Mirror that appeared to show Iraqi prisoners being abused by British soldiers. The British military, it was claimed, now possessed incontrovertible proof that the pictures were fake. Mirror editor, Piers Morgan – a fierce opponent of the war – was condemned far and wide for inciting additional hatred of British troops in Iraq, so putting their lives at risk. Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips said in a BBC interview:
‘I think it’s an act of treachery, actually, against the interests of this country. At a time of war, to publish a lie which puts our troops in such an appalling light is unforgivable.’ (Newsnight, BBC2, May 14, 2004)
In the House of Lords, Lord Maginnis of Drumglass asked:
‘Did the dishonest activity of Piers Morgan not compare with the treachery of William Joyce? Was it not high treason and should not this latter-day Lord Haw-Haw be made to feel the full rigours of the law? What action, including criminal charges, does the Government anticipate will be taken against the former editor?’ (‘Morgan “Like traitor Lord Haw-haw“,’ The Express, May 28, 2004)
Piers Morgan was sacked by his employer, Trinity-Mirror, under pressure from US shareholders. The BBC’s business editor, Jeff Randall, noted: ‘These companies don’t actually shoot high-profile media types for fun, but they certainly don’t lose any sleep over it.’ (BBC1, News At Ten, May 14, 2004)
A year later, and the Mirror’s pro-war newspaper rival, the Sun, published photographs of Saddam Hussein in his underwear in May 2005. Previously published photographs and footage of Saddam’s capture and medical examination by American forces were felt by many Iraqis to be deeply disrespectful and humiliating – insurgents cited this event as a factor in motivating their decision to take up arms. George Bush’s deputy press secretary, Trent Duffy, said the release of the Sun’s pictures violated American military regulations, and probably the Geneva Conventions. He added: ‘I think this could have a serious impact.’ (David E. Sanger and Alan Cowell, ‘Hussein Photos in Tabloids Prompt US Call to Investigate,‘ New York Times, May 21, 2005)
The timing of the publication of the photographs could hardly have been worse – at least 620 people, including 58 US troops, had been killed in a massive upsurge in violence since April 28, when Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari had announced a new Shiite-dominated government.
But while a large number of political and media pundits called for the Mirror’s anti-war editor to be sacked for endangering British lives, the Sun’s managing editor, Graham Dudman, received almost no criticism at all – there was no outcry over the increased risk to British troops, no calls for Dudman to go.
This article is an extract from Guardians of Power a new book written by David Edwards and David Cromwell of Media Lens.