An Analysis of Edward Herman and Noam Chomskys Propaganda Model

Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, in Manufacturing Consent, provide a misleading argument as they posit that the mass media serves as an instrument of power which mobilizes support for the hegemonic groups in society. Such a view was initially forwarded in the beginning of their text as they state,
(T)he mediaserve to mobilize support for the special interests that dominate the state and private activity,their choices, emphases, and omissions can often be understood best, and sometimes with striking clarity, by analyzing them in such terms.

The succeeding parts of their text present their argument in support of this claim in the form of what they coined as the propaganda model. In line with this, the following discussion provides a refutation of Herman and Chomskys propaganda model. The refutation focuses on their conceived role of the medias reliance on the information provided by the primary entities of power in society. The initial part of the discussion will provide an outline of Herman and Chomskys propaganda model whereas the later part of the discussion will provide the bases for the refutation of their claim.

The propaganda model, as it is specified by Herman and Chomsky, provides an explanation of the rare deviation between the views heralded by media reports and the members of the corporate and political elites in the United States. For both authors, the term propaganda accurately depicts the information provided by the media as it serves to veil the true intentions of the hegemonic groups in society (Herman and Chomsky xiii). As such, the goal of a propaganda model is to show the process through which media information is affected by the corporate and political elites.

A propaganda model focuses on this inequality of wealth and power and its multilevel effects on mass-media interests and choices. It traces the routes by which money and power are able 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.

The model thereby sketches the foundations that led to the current relationship between the media and the hegemonic groups. At this point, it is important to note that Herman and Chomskys argument is based on a free market analysis which perceives the media as a social entity that is completely embedded in the power relations determined by the arrangements of the free market. They point out however that the conditions set by this type of market are not without constraints. The manifestations of this can be seen in the different filters specified by Herman and Chomsky in their propaganda model, these being (1) corporate filter, (2) advertising filter, (3) sourcing filter, (4) flak filter, and (5) ideological filter.

The two initial filters demonstrate the role of private interests in the media. The corporate filter focuses on the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth, and profit orientation of the dominant mass-media firms which emphasizes the common interests shared by both the members of the media and the major corporations in society. Herman and Chomsky point out that as a consequence of the existence of shared interests between both groups, information that runs contrary to the interests of major corporations and political groups are less likely to be heard as opposed to those which forward the dissenting views. In the same manner, the advertising filter manifests the link between the media and commercial interests. This is apparent as media output is created in such a way that is appealing to the type of audience that are targeted by the advertisers. As a result of this, there is an imposed limitation to critical programs that are considered to interfere with the buying mood. The two initial filters, in this sense, manifest the extent of the restraints on what is considered as the free market. In Herman and Chomskys perspective such is the case since as opposed to providing an avenue for critical discourse, the media merely provides an avenue for the maintenance of certain hegemonic interests as a result of the private interests of these groups on media organizations and vice versa.

In conjunction to the two initial filters, the three later filters aim to reinforce the machinations in society enabled by the corporate and advertising filters. Since journalists are highly dependent on their elite sources in the construction of the news, they tend to be reliant on certain entities from both the corporate and political elites. As a result of this, the news broadcasted to the public become tinted by the perspectives of these entities. In addition to this, the flak filter also highlights which types of information are considered to be less controversial. Flak here refers to the negative responses to a media statement or program(in) the form of letters, telegrams, phone calls, petitions, lawsuits, speeches, bills before Congress, and other modes of complaint, threat and punitive action. In journalists attempt to distance their selves from flak, there is a heightened tendency to merely provide information that is considered to be acceptable to the public. Finally, the role of the ideology filter is apparent as it provides a worldview that enables the publics adherence to the current setup in society. As Herman and Chomsky state, (I)deology helps mobilize the populace against an enemy, and because the concept is fuzzy it can be used against anybody advocating policies that threaten property interests or support accommodation.... (contrary to the elite perspective) (29).
As can be seen from the previous discussion, Herman and Chomskys propaganda model perceives the media as the central tool of propaganda in capitalist democratic societies. In Chomskys framework, the medias position in maintaining the place of the status quo does not necessarily entail the medias coercion as its members are conceived to be a part of the framework. In the case of the third filter, for example, the symbiotic relationship between journalists and their sources necessitates the media, for pragmatic reasons, to provide the views of the corporate and political elites.

The media need a steady, reliable flow of the raw material of news. They have daily news demands and imperative news schedules that they must meet. They cannot afford to have reporters and cameras at all places where important stories may break. Economics dictates that they concentrate their resources where significant news often occurs where important rumours and leaks abound, and where regular press conferences are held.

In this sense, the members of the media are not coerced to participate in the framework that enables the proliferation of propaganda since market forces dictate which entities may be considered as the most pragmatic sources of information.

An interesting aspect of Herman and Chomskys propaganda model lies in their criticism of the mechanisms involved in the medias production of information. They themselves recognize this as they argue that the importance of the model lies in its ability to provide a systematic and highly political dichotomization in news coverage based on serviceability to important domestic interests. By emphasizing the medias role in creating forms of bias in society, they specify the politics involved in the formation of such a bias. Despite of this, Herman and Chomskys propaganda model is misleading as it fails to account for instances of genuine social and political changes in society.

As was mentioned in the initial part of the discussion, Herman and Chomsky situate their model within the context of capitalist democratic societies. The free market exists as a result of the capitalist setup in society. Such a setup coincides with the conditions of democratic government since such a government ensures the maintenance of the practice of liberty and equality in society. In addition to this, a democratic society also ensures the existence of pluralism. In an ideal situation, the media ought to serve as the vehicle for the manifestation of the plurality of values in society. As such, the media is forced to weigh the conflicts between liberty and equality. Such is the case since in order to pave the way for the objective delivery of news, the members of the media ought to continually assess which current events ought to be given importance over others. In Herman and Chomskys propaganda model, the structure of the media as an institution prevents it from delivering objective information that manifests the plurality of values and views in society. In the case of the sourcing filter, this is due to the pragmatic value of accepting information from the members of both the corporate and political elites. The problem with such a perspective however is evident if one considers that by considering the members of the elite entities as the main source of the media information, it fails to account for the instances wherein genuine change occurs as a result of media information.

It is important to note that Herman and Chomskys propaganda model assumes the journalists internalization of the mechanics of the institution. In other words, it assumes that journalists internalize specific beliefs and attitudes which in turn affect their performance in the field. From a purely quantitative analysis of the institution, Herman and Chomsky thereby implicitly base their argument on a psychological process which entails that when  a person is submerged in a particular situation that requires the performance of certain actions, that person will immediately adapt to conditions set in his environment. This implicit basis for their argument however fails to account for the aspect of rational choice in the sense that it is possible for a media personnel to critically analyze a situation and rationally decide the type or form of action that he will follow. Although such a view ought to be framed within Chomskys perspective that freedom of choice is wildly misrepresented in society, it is still important to consider that by failing to account for the aspect of psychological phenomena in their propaganda model, they also fail to account for the role of choice in explaining the elite framing of media information. Another problem evident in Herman and Chomskys propaganda model lies in its implicit assumption that the type of information that the media propagates has an effect on its audience. Even if it is the case that it has an effect on its audience, it still assumes that the media deliberately provides information that aims to ensure the maintenance of the status quo.

Within this context, Herman and Chomskys propaganda model provides a misleading account of the medias role in the maintenance of the hegemonic groups in society as it fails to account for the implicit assumptions of their propaganda model. By failing to account for these implicit assumptions, they forward a claim which provides a view of media personnel as entities incapable of rational choice.


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