D.3 How does wealth influence the mass media?

Anarchists have developed detailed and sophisticated analyses of how the wealthy and powerful use the media to propagandise in their own interests. Perhaps the best of these analyses is the "Propaganda Model" expounded in Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, whose main theses we will summarise in this section (See also Chomsky's Necessary Illusions for a further discussion of this model of the media).

Chomsky and Herman's "propaganda model" of the media postulates a set of five "filters" that act to screen the news and other material disseminated by the media. These "filters" result in a media that reflects elite viewpoints and interests and mobilises "support for the special interests that dominate the state and private activity." [Manufacturing Consent, p. xi]. These "filters" are: (1) the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth, and profit orientation of the dominant mass-media firms; (2) advertising as the primary income source of the mass media; (3) the reliance of the media on information provided by government, business, and "experts" funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power; (4) "flak" (negative responses to a media report) as a means of disciplining the media; and (5) "anticommunism" as a national religion and control mechanism.

"The raw material of news must pass through successive filters leaving only the cleansed residue fit to print," Chomsky and Herman maintain. The filters "fix the premises of discourse and interpretation, and the definition of what is newsworthy in the first place, and they explain the basis and operations of what amount to propaganda campaigns" [Manufacturing Consent, p. 2]. We will briefly consider the nature of these five filters below (examples are mostly from the US media).

We stress again, before continuing, that this is a summary of Herman's and Chomsky's thesis and we cannot hope to present the wealth of evidence and argument available in either Manufacturing Consent or Necessary Illusions. We recommend either of these books for more information on and evidence to support the "propaganda model" of the media.

D.3.1 How does the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth, and profit orientation of the dominant mass-media firms affect media content?

Even a century ago, the number of media with any substantial outreach was limited by the large size of the necessary investment, and this limitation has become increasingly effective over time. As in any well developed market, this means that there are very effective natural barriers to entry into the media industry. Due to this process of concentration, the ownership of the major media has become increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. As Ben Bagdikian's stresses in his book Media Monopoly, the 29 largest media systems account for over half of the output of all newspapers, and most of the sales and audiences in magazines, broadcasting, books, and movies. The "top tier" of these -- somewhere between 10 and 24 systems -- along with the government and wire services, "defines the news agenda and supplies much of the national and international news to the lower tiers of the media, and thus for the general public" [Ibid., p. 5]

The twenty-four top-tier companies are large, profit-seeking corporations, owned and controlled by very wealthy people. Many of these companies are fully integrated into the financial market, with the result that the pressures of stockholders, directors, and bankers to focus on the bottom line are powerful. These pressures have intensified in recent years as media stocks have become market favourites and as deregulation has increased profitability and so the threat of take-overs.

The media giants have also diversified into other fields. For example GE, and Westinghouse, both owners of major television networks, are huge, diversified multinational companies heavily involved in the controversial areas of weapons production and nuclear power. GE and Westinghouse depend on the government to subsidise their nuclear power and military research and development, and to create a favourable climate for their overseas sales and investments. Similar dependence on the government affect other media.

Because they are large corporations with international investment interests, the major media tend to have a right-wing political bias. In addition, members of the business class own most of the mass media, the bulk of which depends for their existence on advertising revenue (which in turn comes from private business). Business also provides a substantial share of "experts" for news programmes and generates massive "flak." Claims that they are "left-leaning" are sheer disinformation manufactured by the "flak" organisations described below.

Thus Herman and Chomsky:

"the dominant media forms are quite large businesses; they are controlled by very wealthy people or by managers who are subject to sharp constraints by owners and other market-profit-oriented forces; and they are closely interlocked, and have important common interests, with other major corporations, banks, and government. This is the first powerful filter that effects news choices." [Ibid., p. 14]

Needless to say, reporters and editors will be selected based upon how well their work reflects the interests and needs of their employers. Thus a radical reporter and a more mainstream one both of the same skills and abilities would have very different careers within the industry. Unless the radical reporter toned down their copy, they are unlikely to see it printed unedited or unchanged. Thus the structure within the media firm will tend to penalise radical viewpoints, encouraging an acceptance of the status quo in order to further a career. This selection process ensures that owners do not need to order editors or reporters what to do -- to be successful they will have to internalise the values of their employers.

D.3.2 What is the effect of advertising as the primary income source of the mass media?

The main business of the media is to sell audiences to advertisers. Advertisers thus acquire a kind of de facto licensing authority, since without their support the media would cease to be economically viable. And it is affluent audiences that get advertisers interested. As Chomsky and Herman put it, "The idea that the drive for large audiences makes the mass media 'democratic' thus suffers from the initial weakness that its political analogue is a voting system weighted by income!" [Ibid., p.16].

Political discrimination is therefore structured into advertising allocations by the emphasis on people with money to buy. In addition, "many companies will always refuse to do business with ideological enemies and those whom they perceive as damaging their interests." Thus overt discrimination adds to the force of the "voting system weighted by income." Accordingly, large corporate advertisers almost never sponsor programs that contain serious criticisms of corporate activities, such as negative ecological impacts, the workings of the military-industrial complex, or corporate support of and benefits from Third World dictatorships. More generally, advertisers will want "to avoid programs with serious complexities and disturbing controversies that interfere with the 'buying mood.'" [Ibid., p. 18].

This also has had the effect of placing working class and radical papers at a serious disadvantage. Without access to advertising revenue, even the most popular paper will fold or price itself out of the market. Chomsky and Herman cite the UK pro-labour and pro-union Daily Herald as an example of this process. The Daily Herald had almost double the readership of The Times, the Financial Times and The Guardian combined, but even with 8.1% of the national circulation it got 3.5% of net advertising revenue and so could not survive on the "free market".

As Herman and Chomsky note, a "mass movement without any major media support, and subject to a great deal of active press hostility, suffers a serious disability, and struggles against grave odds." [Ibid., pp. 15-16] With the folding of the Daily Herald, the labour movement lost its voice in the mainstream media.

Thus advertising is an effective filter for new choice (and, indeed, survival in the market).

D.3.3 Why do the media rely on information provided by government, business, and "experts" funded and approved by government and business?

Two of the main reasons for the media's reliance on such sources are economy and convenience: Bottom-line considerations dictate that the media concentrate their resources where important news often occurs, where rumours and leaks are plentiful, and where regular press conferences are held. The White House, Pentagon, and the State Department, in Washington, D.C., are centres of such activity.

Government and corporate sources also have the great merit of being recognisable and credible by their status and prestige; moreover, they have the most money available to produce a flow of news that the media can use. For example, the Pentagon has a public-information service employing many thousands of people, spending hundreds of millions of dollars every year, and far outspending not only the public-information resources of any dissenting individual or group but the aggregate of such groups.

Only the corporate sector has the resources to produce public information and propaganda on the scale of the Pentagon and other government bodies. The Chamber of Commerce, a business collective, had a 1983 budget for research, communications, and political activities of $65 million. Besides the US Chamber of Commerce, there are thousands of state and local chambers of commerce and trade associations also engaged in public relations and lobbying activities.

To maintain their pre-eminent position as sources, government and business-news agencies expend much effort to make things easy for news organisations. They provide the media organisations with facilities in which to gather, give journalists advance copies of speeches and upcoming reports; schedule press conferences at hours convenient for those needing to meet news deadlines; write press releases in language that can be used with little editing; and carefully organise press conferences and "photo opportunity" sessions. This means that, in effect, the large bureaucracies of the power elite subsidise the mass media by contributing to a reduction of the media's costs of acquiring the raw materials of, and producing, news. In this way, these bureaucracies gain special access to the media.

Thus "[e]conomics dictates that they [the media] concentrate their resources were significant news often occurs, where important rumours and leaks abound, and where regular press conferences are held. . . [Along with state bodies] business corporations and trade groups are also regular purveyors of stories deemed newsworthy. These bureaucracies turn out a large volume of material that meets the demands of news organisations for reliable, scheduled flows." [Ibid., pp. 18-19]

The dominance of official sources would, of course, be weakened by the existence of highly respectable unofficial sources that gave dissident views with great authority. To alleviate this problem, the power elite uses the strategy of "co-opting the experts" -- that is, putting them on the payroll as consultants, funding their research, and organising think tanks that will hire them directly and help disseminate the messages deemed essential to elite interests. "Experts" on TV panel discussions and news programs are often drawn from such organisations, whose funding comes primarily from the corporate sector and wealthy families -- a fact that is, of course, never mentioned on the programs where they appear.

D.3.4 How is "flak" used by the wealthy and powerful as a means of disciplining the media?

"Flak" refers to negative responses to a media statement or program. Such responses may be expressed as phone calls, letters, telegrams, e-mail messages, petitions, lawsuits, speeches, bills before Congress, or other modes of complaint, threat, or punishment. Flak may be generated by organisations or it may come from the independent actions of individuals. Large-scale flak campaigns, either by organisations or individuals with substantial resources, can be both uncomfortable and costly to the media.

Advertisers are very concerned to avoid offending constituencies who might produce flak, and their demands for inoffensive programming exerts pressure on the media to avoid certain kinds of facts, positions, or programs that are likely to call forth flak. The most deterrent kind of flak comes from business and government, who have the funds to produce it on a large scale.

For example, during the 1970s and 1980s, the corporate community sponsored the creation of such institutions as the American Legal Foundation, the Capital Legal Foundation, the Media Institute, the Center for Media and Public Affairs, and Accuracy in Media (AIM), which may be regarded as organisations designed for the specific purpose of producing flak. Freedom House is an older US organisation which had a broader design but whose flak-producing activities became a model for the more recent organisations.

The Media Institute, for instance, was set up in 1972 and is funded by wealthy corporate patrons, sponsoring media monitoring projects, conferences, and studies of the media. The main focus of its studies and conferences has been the alleged failure of the media to portray business accurately and to give adequate weight to the business point of view, but it also sponsors works such as John Corry's "expose" of alleged left-wing bias in the mass media.

The government itself is a major producer of flak, regularly attacking, threatening, and "correcting" the media, trying to contain any deviations from the established propaganda lines in foreign or domestic policy.

And, we should note, while the flak machines steadily attack the media, the media treats them well. While effectively ignoring radical critiques (such as the "propaganda model"), flak receives respectful attention and their propagandistic role and links to corporations and a wider right-wing program rarely mentioned or analysed.

D.3.5 Why do the power elite use "anticommunism" as a national religion and control mechanism?

"Communism," or indeed any form of socialism, is of course regarded as the ultimate evil by the corporate rich, since the ideas of collective ownership of productive assets, giving workers more bargaining power, or allowing ordinary citizens more voice in public policy decisions threatens the very root of the class position and superior status of the elite.

Hence the ideology of anticommunism has been very useful, because it can be used to discredit anybody advocating policies regarded as harmful to corporate interests. It also helps to divide the Left and labour movements, justifies support for pro-US right-wing regimes abroad as "lesser evils" than communism, and discourages liberals from opposing such regimes for fear of being branded as heretics from the national religion.

Since the end of the Cold War, anti-communism has not been used as extensively as it once was to mobilise support for elite crusades. Instead, the "Drug War" or "anti-terrorism" now often provide the public with "official enemies" to hate and fear. Thus the Drug War was the excuse for the Bush administration's invasion of Panama, and "fighting narco-terrorists" has more recently been the official reason for shipping military hardware and surveillance equipment to Mexico (where it's actually being used against the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas, whose uprising is threatening to destabilise the country and endanger US investments).

Of course there are still a few official communist enemy states, like North Korea, Cuba, and China, and abuses or human rights violations in these countries are systematically played up by the media while similar abuses in client states are downplayed or ignored. Chomsky and Herman refer to the victims of abuses in enemy states as worthy victims, while victims who suffer at the hands of US clients or friends are unworthy victims. Stories about worthy victims are often made the subject of sustained propaganda campaigns, to score political points against enemies.

"If the government of corporate community and the media feel that a story is useful as well as dramatic, they focus on it intensively and use it to enlighten the public. This was true, for example, of the shooting down by the Soviets of the Korean airliner KAL 007 in early September 1983, which permitted an extended campaign of denigration of an official enemy and greatly advanced Reagan administration arms plans."

"In sharp contrast, the shooting down by Israel of a Libyan civilian airliner in February 1973 led to no outcry in the West, no denunciations for 'cold-blooded murder,' and no boycott. This difference in treatment was explained by the New York Times precisely on the grounds of utility: 'No useful purpose is served by an acrimonious debate over the assignment of blame for the downing of a Libyan airliner in the Sinai peninsula last week.' There was a very 'useful purpose' served by focusing on the Soviet act, and a massive propaganda campaign ensued." [Ibid., p. 32]

D.3.6 Isn't it a "conspiracy theory" to suggest that the media are used as propaganda instruments by the elite?

Chomsky and Herman address this charge in the Preface to Manufacturing Consent: "Institutional critiques such as we present in this book are commonly dismissed by establishment commentators as 'conspiracy theories,' but this is merely an evasion. We do not use any kind of 'conspiracy' hypothesis to explain mass-media performance. In fact, our treatment is much closer to a 'free market' analysis, with the results largely an outcome of the workings of market forces."

They go on to suggest what some of these "market forces" are. One of the most important is the weeding-out process that determines who gets the journalistic jobs in the major media. "Most biased choices in the media arise from the preselection of right-thinking people, internalised preconceptions, and the adaptation of personnel to the constraints of ownership, organisation, market, and political power."

In other words, important media employees learn to internalise the values of their bosses. "Censorship is largely self-censorship, by reporters and commentators who adjust to the realities of source and media organisational requirements, and by people at higher levels within media organisations who are chosen to implement, and have usually internalised, the constraints imposed by proprietary and other market and governmental centres of power." [Ibid., p. xii].

But, it may be asked, isn't it still a conspiracy theory to suggest that media leaders all have similar values? Not at all. Such leaders "do similar things because they see the world through the same lenses, are subject to similar constraints and incentives, and thus feature stories or maintain silence together in tacit collective action and leader-follower behaviour." [Ibid.]

The fact that media leaders share the same fundamental values does not mean, however, that the media are a solid monolith on all issues. The powerful often disagree on the tactics needed to attain generally shared aims, and this gets reflected in media debate. But views that challenge the legitimacy of those aims or suggest that state power is being exercised in elite interests rather than the "national" interest" will be excluded from the mass media.

Therefore the "propaganda model" has as little in common with a "conspiracy theory" as saying that the management of General Motors acts to maintain and increase its profits.

D.3.7 Isn't the "propaganda thesis" about the media contradicted by the "adversarial" nature of much media reporting, e.g. its exposes of government and business corruption?

As noted above, the claim that the media are "adversarial" or (more implausibly) that they have a "left-wing bias" is due to right-wing PR organisations. This means that some "inconvenient facts" are occasionally allowed to pass through the filters in order to give the appearance of "objectivity"-- precisely so the media can deny charges of engaging in propaganda. As Chomsky and Herman put it: "the 'naturalness' of these processes, with inconvenient facts allowed sparingly and within the proper framework of assumptions, and fundamental dissent virtually excluded from the mass media (but permitted in a marginalised press), makes for a propaganda system that is far more credible and effective in putting over a patriotic agenda than one with official censorship" [Ibid., Preface].

To support their case against the "adversarial" nature of the media, Herman and Chomsky look into the claims of such right-wing media PR machines as Freedom House. However, it is soon discovered that "the very examples offered in praise of the media for their independence, or criticism of their excessive zeal, illustrate exactly the opposite." [Ibid.] Such flak, while being worthless as serious analysis, does help to reinforce the myth of an "adversarial media" (on the right the "existing level of subordination to state authority is often deemed unsatisfactory" and this is the source of their criticism! [Ibid., p. 301]) and so is taken seriously by the media.

Therefore the "adversarial" nature of the media is a myth, but this is not to imply that the media does not present critical analysis. Herman and Chomsky in fact argue that the "mass media are not a solid monolith on all issues." [Ibid., p. xii] and do not deny that it does present facts (which they do sometimes themselves cite). But, as they argue, "[t]hat the media provide some facts about an issue. . . proves absolutely nothing about the adequacy or accuracy of that coverage. The mass media do, in fact, literally suppress a great deal . . . But even more important in this context is the question given to a fact - its placement, tone, and repetitions, the framework within which it is presented, and the related facts that accompany it and give it meaning (or provide understanding) . . . there is no merit to the pretence that because certain facts may be found by a diligent and sceptical researcher, the absence of radical bias and de facto suppression is thereby demonstrated." [Ibid., pp xiv-xv]