“So much for Objective Journalism. Don’t bother to look for it here – not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.”hunter s. thompson
Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky argued in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent that the institutional structure of the media necessarily influences how the news is shaped and presented, what views are given priority over another, and what ideas and beliefs are regarded as more socially acceptable than others. To make this easier to understand they hypothesised five filters that are intrinsic to the propaganda model.
We explain the five filters below and illustrate them with current examples to give you an up to date representation of what Herman and Chomsky were talking about in the 80s!
FILTER 1: Size, Ownership and Profit Orientation of The Mass Media
The cost of owning and running a newspaper producing business or another large media entity became prohibitive in the mid-20th century, when worker newspapers were overwhelmed by commercial papers driven by advertising revenue. As a result control of the media has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few large corporations.
Mergers and acquisitions reduce these numbers further each year. According to Business Insider, in 1983 50 companies controlled the majority of the US media. Today, a mere six corporations control 90%.
As H&C point out “these (newspaper) companies…are fully integrated into the market and the pressures of stakeholders, directors and bankers to focus on the bottom line is powerful.” Their survival as corporate entities is based on profitability within a capitalist system. As a result, any criticism or discussion of alternative economic systems is necessarily refuted or ignored as a matter of basic of self-preservation
Beyond self-evident limits on discussing economic systems that would render them obsolete, “these control groups obviously have a stake in the status quo by virtue of their wealth and their strategic position in one of the great institutions of society.” H&C illustrate this point by discussing the revolving door between business, politics and the media, the “symbiotic” relationship between each of these strands of the same overarching system.
For a dramatic example of this watch episode 3, season 1 of The Newsroom.
For a real life glimpse at modern press ownership click the below link to explore the current situation in the British Newspaper industry. Read up on any of the corporations or individuals listed as press owners and consider the view of the world these institutions/individuals have a vested interest in promoting!
FILTER 2: ADVERTISING
Herman and Chomsky postulate advertising in the media as another significant filter in the propaganda model. They argue that as corporations trying to survive (i.e. be profitable) within a capitalist system, media companies must attract and maintain revenue from advertisers. Indeed, for most big media advertising is the greatest source of revenue.
This reliance on advertising is problematic when it comes to how the media frames events or issues and what messages it chooses to communicate. The priority for advertisers is “attracting audiences with buying power.” Thus they necessarily want their product placed in media that will be disseminated amongst a certain target demographic (e.g. affluent, educated people who buy newspapers).
No longer is the newspaper the product to be sold to the audience, the audience becomes the product that is sold to the advertisers by the media company.
If the media attempted to engage a disenfranchised social group or discuss issues in contradiction to the advertisers interest (such as criticising the capitalist system) then advertisers would remove their patronage and this would threaten the newspaper’s survival. Cases of this have been documented, including at The New York Times in 1976, when the paper’s support for a tax rise led to a dip in the company’s stock price and wholesale editorial changes.
The links below illustrate the importance of advertising to newspapers in the UK. Even the Guardian, which prides itself on its “sense of duty to the reader and the community…to pursue the best interests of our audience” claimed 40% of its total income from advertising last year. Our headline graphic shows the Guardian exploiting a frightened population’s need for information during a pandemic to attract advertisers!
FILTER 3: SOURCING
Herman and Chomsky identify the sources that journalists use to produce their stories as another key filter of the propaganda model: “the mass media are drawn into a symbiotic relationship with powerful sources of information by economic necessity and reciprocity of interest.”
The media operate under financial constraints and profit imperative (as discussed previously) and will therefore be drawn to “authoritative” sources that provide a continuous and inexpensive flow of news. Since official sources are authoritative by default journalists can happily run stories about the US Military sourced from the Pentagon. It is likely to be significantly more time consuming and expensive for them to run a less flattering story about the US Military, when the source might be a rebel fighter on the other side of the world and concrete evidence (rather than an official’s word) would be required.
The PR departments of governments and corporations are only too happy to oblige the media in this respect, hence the press conference – a medium through which the organisations the media are supposed to interrogate manage the dissemination of information.
By providing this path of least resistance organisations create a leverage system over the media. Journalists have an incentive to be compliant – or they may be shut out and “the scoop” given to rivals. Personal relationships are also created between journalists and their sources. “It is very difficult to call authorities on whom one depends liars, even if they tell whoppers” notes Mark Fishman, who has written of a system of “authorised knowers.”
Outside of established traditional sources the media rely on a limited stable of these “authorised knowers”. Academic institutions, business groups and think tanks are regularly contacted for comment. The viewer may mistakenly assume that the speakers they provide are independent, when, in fact, many thinktanks are funded by wealthy individuals/organisations, something virtually never communicated to the audience by the news team.
For an example of the insidious nature the sourcing of information can take click the link below.
FILTER 4: FLAK
“Flak refers to negative responses to a media statement or [TV or radio] programme. It may take the form of letters, phone calls, petitions, lawsuits, speeches and Bills before Congress and other modes of complaint, threat and punitive action.”
Flak is used by Herman and Chomsky to describe how certain individuals or institutions will attempt to discredit and/or intimidate journalists who question or oppose the established power and doctrine they represent.
“The government is a major producer of flak,” Chomsky and Herman note, “regularly assailing, threatening and “correcting” the media, trying to contain any deviations from the established line.” Business groups and heavily funded entities like the Israel lobby are additional examples of organisations that seek to exert influence through flak.
The latter makes for an interesting case study. Active globally but particularly influential in the corridors of power in the UK and USA, the Israel lobby is an umbrella term for a collection of individuals and organisations whose prime directive is to influence the foreign policies of these two governments so that they align with and support the policies and interests of Israel. Al Jazeera produced an excellent undercover series that exposed the influence and imperatives of the lobby in the UK (YouTube link above).
This article by Greg Philo of the Glasgow Media Group also offers insight into the effectiveness of the Israel Lobby’s flak.
FILTER 5: ANTI-COMMUNISM-terrorism and FEAR
“I think when we talked about the fifth filter we should have brought in all this stuff – the way artificial fears are created with a dual purpose… partly to get rid of people you don’t like but partly to frighten the rest. Because if people are frightened, they will accept authority.”
Writing at the time of the Cold War Herman and Chomsky identified the trend of anti-Communism as the fifth filter influencing the media at this time. It should be noted that Communism did not pose a direct military threat to America, no Communist nations were poised to invade the US. The threat was to US property and elites (helped by the media) launched a sustained campaign to protect their interests.
As a result, H&C argue, issues came “to be framed in terms of a dichotomized world of Communist and anti-Communist powers, with gains and losses allocated to contesting sides, and rooting for ‘our side’ considered an entirely legitimate news practice.”
This is the key part of how this filter works. By removing nuance and making the debate binary the propaganda model again interrupts and suppresses oppositional voices. The debate becomes either you are with us or against us. To accept one aspect is to accept the entirety, and to question one aspect is to question, and thus criticise, the whole.
This creates a system where dissenting voices “are kept continuously on the defensive (or) lapse into silence, paralyzed by the fear of being tarred with charges of infidelity to the national religion.” In the case of McCarthyism in the US, citizens were literally put on trial to defend themselves against accusations that they were Communists.
Today anti-Communism has largely been replaced by “The War on Terror”. The (at times very real) threat of Islamic extremism has been exploited by the US and UK to expand and impose their interests in the Islamic world and to keep their citizens in a constant fear of both externally and internally radicalized groups committing atrocities.
Powerful papers such as the Daily Mail foment a “cultural milieu” of Islamophobia that functions in the same way as the anti-Communist rhetoric. One issue, Islamic extremism, becomes conflated with immigration and asylum, Iranian Nuclear ambition, grooming gangs in the north of England, the spectre of sharia law and the Burqa to name but a few. To question or oppose one aspect is to oppose the totality and to run the risk of being branded an apologist for terrorists! Few journalists would be willing to risk such a short career…