THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF NEWS: CHOMSKY AND HERMAN

It's only fair to share...

CONSIDER THE PROPAGANDA MODEL AS PRESENTED BY CHOMSKY & HERMAN IN MANUFACTURING CONSENT. IDENTIFY ITS STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES AS A TOOL FOR UNDERSTANDING AND EVALUATING PROCESSES OF JOURNALISTIC PRODUCTION.

‘…manufacture of consent is capable of great refinements… and the opportunities for manipulation open to anyone who understands the process are plain enough.’
Lippmann, W. (1922) Public Opinion.

¬ ‘Traditional liberal theory perceives the political system to be constituted primarily by government and individuals. In this theory the media protect, inform, gather together and represent private citizens, and enable them to supervise government through the agency of public opinion.’ It is clear to the eyes of any contemporary critical reader that such and approach is inadequate (and I would say even utopian) for an understanding of the processes of cultural production in 20th C free-market democratic societies, in that it ‘fails to recognize that people are represented primarily through political parties, interest groups and the myriad structures of civil society. These are the principal building blocks of contemporary liberal democracy. A theory of media and democracy needs to be related, in other words to the collective and institutional forms of the modern political system.’
The game is indeed not played by all of us, individuals, part of a society, but rather on a macro-scale by lobbies, media conglomerates and governmental institutions. Discovering the rules – if any – of this game is an exciting step to the ‘understanding’ of what we are, and why we have become so.

¬ Chomsky and Herman offer us an analysis of this game. A powerful enunciation of it we find in their Propaganda Model, which I find extremely appealing, and since I became acquainted to it has motivated me to look deeper into ‘freeing’ myself from being an uncritical subject to hegemony. Yet, there are problems with it, which I will highlight in what follows.
According to their argument, ‘the mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of a larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interests, to fulfill this role requires systematic propaganda.’ The model is based on free-market economy structures and shaping forces, and concentrates on news production, that, according to Chomsky and Herman follows the frameworks of the dominant ideology, and is subject to the ‘dialectics’ between 5 ‘filters’.

¬ FILTER I – CAPITALIST OWNERSHIP AND SIZE
Chomsky and Herman takes us through the historical process from the radical press (early 19th C – whose function we have analysed when discussing Habermas’ theory) to the industrialisation of the sector in the emerging free-market economies, which came to mean centralisation and concentration of media ownership – in the US, for instance, 24 media ‘giants’/ franchises are responsible for virtually all media productions – and more and more are becoming linked to various other commercial and investment enterprises. Their goal is to make profit, which means that, say, a once bank director or governmental official can now sit at the top of a media empire.

Television having now become the main source of both national and international news, Chomsky and Herman yet allow that ‘the maturing of cable, however, has resulted in a fragmentation of television audiences and a slow erosion of the market share and power of the networks.’ The government palyed a major role: ‘This trend toward greater integration of the media into the market system has been accelerated by the loosening of rules limiting media concentration, cross-ownership, and control by non-media companies.’ This ‘loosening of rules’ is an important step towards globalisation… and, one could argue, capitalistic exploitation. In fact, on the one hand, the fact that Reader’s Digest can be read in 160 countries is a valuable way of making the same source of information available to a wide cross-countries readership, on the other hand though capitalist enterprises may turn to other countries for cheaper labour, which would result in yes more employment in such countries, but also stronger cultural/economic imperialism and de facto dependency from the ‘West’. This is already an example of the importance of ‘good’ relations between media and governments: the two are ‘closely interlocked, and have important common interests.’
This is an attention-grabbing point… it reminds me of Bush’s National Security Advisor who in December 2000 – in one of those propagandistic sentences that too often proliferate – said: ‘United we stand, divided we fall’…

¬ FILTER II – WHAT THE ADVERTISERS WANT.
The press is one of the media sectors that had most to reshape itself according to the advertisers’ needs; sometimes it was not only about reshaping, but disappearing: “if advertisers are not disposed for one reason or another to pay the ‘licence’ to the newspaper, then the paper will either have to accommodate itself to the advertiser or it will cease to be able to publish.” This was the sad case of the Labour paper Daily Herald, which, in 1964, had to close down even though its readership was higher than the one of Conservative newspapers like The Times (as reported by the National Readership Survey, 1964). As Dyer explains, the Daily Herald “appealed to the wrong kind of people. Its readership consisted of more men than women, older than younger, and it was predominantly working class as opposed to middle-class. Daily Herald readers were not useful to advertisers because they were not wealthy, did not drive cars, were not young and had not been defined as ‘consumers’ at that time.”

What is clear is that advertisers and the structure of the media industry in general require ‘niche audiences’ to appeal to specific ads. Yet, even the suggestion that the policy of commercial broadcasting companies is influenced, in some way, by advertisers’ requirements, provokes sharp denials. ‘The programme controllers (of the ITV companies) are more Reithian than the BBC,’ declares Stephen Murphy, a TV officer at the IBA with a distinguished record as a BBC producer, ‘…Advertising pressure is simply not transferred through.’

Now – Chomsky and Herman’s main point here is that ‘with advertising the free-market does not yield a neutral system in which final buyer choice decides. The advertisers’ choices influence media prosperity and survival.’ I find the point very valid, yet it could be argued that there might always be a ‘niche’ for a, if we want, ‘secondary’ advertising to finance non-mainstream, ‘subcultural’ publications, for example, that this way have a chance to exist, as long as these publications actually mean a ‘differentiation’ of the publishing market, and express social diversity rather than just being forms of audience-buying.

Chomsky and Herman seem to focus perhaps too much on the ‘mass’ media, overlooking all that is not ‘mass’ and that yet has a potential to grow more popular; at the same time, we cannot but acknowledge the interest the government has in trying to keep most of these practices underdeveloped, in that they could have a destabilising effect.
In a democracy the problem is that ‘large corporate advertisers in television will rarely sponsor programs that engage in serious criticisms of corporate activities, such as the problem of environmental degradation, the workings of the military-industrial complex, or corporate support of and benefits from Third World tyrannies.’ This is an important point. Here are some examples to demonstrate my argument.

If we look at the emphasis in the coverage of the environmental disaster during the Gulf War and compare it to the one of the atomic experiments perpetrated by Chirac, the case is made, and the ‘dichotomies’, as Herman calls them, are obvious; Chomsky and Herman concentrate on the impact of Western policies on so called ‘Third World’ countries. Once more, if we look at the coverage of the recent move of US economic assets from El Salvador to other countries where labour is becoming even cheaper, and consider how dependent the Salvadorian economy is on that of the US, we find the coverage highly insufficient.

Taking this last as an example, a possible flaw of the Propaganda Model lies in that, as Hallin suggests, ‘this is not a case that can easily be assimilated to a model of the media that sees them essentially as a tool for a unified ruling elite.’
If media attention is paid to the situations we have here enounced, Chomsky and Herman claim that ‘such documentary-cultural-critical material will be driven out of secondary media vehicles as well, as these companies strive to qualify for advertiser interest, although there will always be some cultural-political programming trying to come into being or surviving on the periphery of the mainstream media.’ These could be therefore seen as exceptions to the model, that however Chomsky and Herman see as exceptions that confirm the rule.
On the same line of argument, we could also point out that often anyway the political parties do not agree on an issue, and the media do (at times) reflect that, in citing the contrasting arguments. As Golding and Murdock claim, Chomsky and Herman tend to ‘overlook the contradictions in the system. Owners, advertisers, and key political personnel cannot always do as they wish. They operate within structures that constrain as well as facilitate, imposing limits as well as offering opportunities. Analysing the nature and sources of these limits is a key task for a critical political economy of culture.’

¬ FILTER III – SOURCING MASS-MEDIA NEWS
The mass-media relay on powerful sources of information (e.g. the Pentagon, etc.) on the basis of economic motivations that dictate that ‘they concentrate resources where significant news often occurs,’ which already causes a pre-selection of news according to the dominant ideology. The cameras will be with the ‘worthy’ victims (in the Gulf War, for instance, the 163 Allied soldiers who died) rather than with the ‘unworthy’ ones (the 250.000 Iraqi soldiers + unknown number of civilians). This happens through a too well known process of de-humanisation (let us think of what is happening with the detainees at Camp X-Ray). In this process, the media call for the opinion of ‘experts’, that Chomsky and Herman see as regularly echoing ‘the official view’. Chomsky and Herman’s view on this matter can be, in my opinion, rather too extreme e.g. even CNN, which I see as having a definite tendency to echo the dominant ideological view, recently broadcasted a show hosted by Fionnuala Sweeney on the treatments of the prisoners at Camp X-Ray, where the guests did express – yet with caution… – a certain uncomfortable feeling on the way the military operations are being conducted and on the ‘unclear’ stand of the US in defining them ‘unlawful combatants’ – a phrase that does not mean anything politically – especially in relation to the Geneva conventions.

¬ FILTER IV – ‘FLAK’ (i.e. direct or indirect critique of media output)
Chomsky and Herman argue that ‘the producers of flak add to one another’s strength and reinforce the command of political authority in its news-management activities. The government is a major producer of flak, regularly assailing, threatening, and ‘correcting’ the media, trying to contain any deviations from the established line.’

In a way, this filter seems to present a contradiction within the structure of the Propaganda Model, in that flak can also come from individuals, rather than governmental apparatuses, in a way therefore enhancing democratic rights. Yet, Chomsky and Herman argue that for a flak to be highly influential it needs to be backed up by large companies, which could result in expensive lawsuits for the media, which have thus a tendency to watch carefully what they show. Something that needs critical attention, for instance, might not then be discussed in that it could highlight government faults, with the resulting problems for the media enterprises.

¬ FILTER V – ANTICOMMUNISM (i.e. the Devil…)
After WWII Truman decided to keep the military power unaltered, and to convince Americans this was right, he started a campaign (backed by the media) disseminating the always-effectual moral panic, against the dark evil, the black man: Communism (let us thin of the Cold War years).

The same will happen with Bush Sr, who gave the people of the world something to think about, the Gulf War. He even showed us the Allied efforts live on CNN… not that we could really see anything apart from a black background and some flashing green lights… but of course we like him now! It looks to me like if all these presidents follow a recurrent path to be successful and remembered: Truman and Communism, Kennedy and the Vietnam War, Nixon (first and only American president to resign – and this is a happening always brought forward when advocating the watchdog role of the media) and the Moon Landing, Bush and the Gulf War (and the demonising of Saddam Hussein). Same with his son today… I’d love to see how things would be if he had not started the ‘War against terror’…It is fantastic how they manage to posit themselves as the ‘good’, of course, while simply saying they are fighting the ‘evil’. A crusade against the evil – ‘I’m proud to be American, where at least I know I’m free’…

After all, America is founded (and we can here go back to the Federalist Papers) on private property, therefore it is not surprising that ‘Communism as the ultimate evil had always been the spectre haunting property owners, as it threatens the very root of their class position and superior status.’
America has therefore long become a high National Security State, where the Secret/ Intelligence Services play a major role, a role that is closely linked to the media.

¬ An important point to make, I believe, is that Chomsky and Herman also do not take into account the audience’s de-coding process, through which messages can be yes uncritically assimilated, but also interpreted differently from how they were meant when encoded, or even totally rejected.

¬ Finally, we could argue that Chomsky and Herman’s model, that claims that ‘in the manipulation and manufacturing of consent which the elites of liberal democracies require, journalism is a key ideological institution,’ whilst offering an extremely valid tool for understanding the workings of news production in free-market systems, at the same time has a tendency to be simplistic, static and deterministic (crf. Schlesinger’s argument). As Hallin claims – to my agreement – ‘the problem is that the model is perfectly one-dimensional; no forces working in other directions are taken into account in any serious way. The professional ideology of journalism, to give an example, is dismissed as merely a false consciousness that conceals from the public and the journalists themselves their true role. My own view is that this ideology, while it is obviously not to be taken simply at face value, is central to understanding the way the media operate.’

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brian, McNair (1994) News and Journalism in the UK. London, Routledge.
Curran, J. (1991) Mass Media & Society. London, Arnold.
Dyer, G. (1982) Advertising As Communication. London, Routledge.
Hallin, D. C. (1994) We Keep America on Top of the World. London, Routledge.
Herman, E. & Chomsky, N. (1994) Manufacturing Consent. London, Vintage.
Marris, P. (1996) Media Studies: A Reader. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *