NOVEMBER 1989 - VOLUME 10 - NUMBER 11
B O O K R E V I E W
U.S. Media Business and Government
In the United States, many people believe the press relentlessly challenges government policy and is antagonistic to business. Conservative commentators find the media overzealous; liberal observers more frequently celebrate the effectiveness of the media in checking abuses of power.
In one of their most clearly written and accessible works, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky offer a sharply contrasting view. They dispute the notion that the media operate independently of business and government, in defiance of authority. They argue instead that the media perform a propaganda function, serving "to inculcate and defend the economic, social, and political agenda of privileged groups that dominate the domestic society and the state."
The authors suggest that news must pass through five filters which cleanse it of stories, facts and perspectives contrary to the broad interests of business and the government. The filters are:
1. The size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth and profit orientation of the major mass media firms. Following the lead of Ben Bagdikian (see MM, May, 1987), Herman and Chomsky document the massive size of the major media firms and the intense concentration in the industry. They claim these characteristics align the media industry with the interests of business and government. Interlocking boards of directors and other close relationships between media corporations and other major corporations, are common. Moreover, the media companies are themselves profit-seeking multinational corporations and often the subsidiaries of other multinationals: for example, General Electric owns NBC. Herman and Chomsky argue that these tie create many shared interests between the major media firms and corporate America.
2. Advertising as the primary income source of the mass media. Advertisers do not desire large audiences per se, but audiences with buying power. Additionally, advertisers are unlikely to advertise on programs or in publications which attack them. Therefore, media firms which orient themselves to a working class and poorer audience, or which challenge corporate interests, will find that they are not able to generate advertising revenue. The authors point to the experience of the social democratic press in Britain to demonstrate the importance of this second filter. Three leftist papers failed or were absorbed into the mainstream press between 1960 and 1967, largely because they were unable to secure sufficient advertising support. Businesses did not advertise in these papers even though one of those papers had a readership double that of The Times, the Financial Times and the Guardian combined.
3. The media's reliance on information provided by government, business, and "experts" funded and approved by these entities. Journalists are dependent on sources for tips and commentary on news events. The government and large corporations have unparalleled resources which they can devote to reaching the public. They house public relations offices which make contact with the media through interviews, press conferences, press releases and other means. Reporters rely on public relations officers because they make reporting easier. They are easy to contact, trained at framing stories and always available to the mainstream press. Their institutional affiliations give government and corporate public relations officers immediate credibility. As journalists come to rely on and develop relationships with government and corporate sources, they become less likely to report stories critical of these sources, for fear that they will lose access to an inside source, and also to avoid harming any personal relationships that might have developed.
4. "Flak". Government and corporate entities respond to media criticism with "flak"--attacks on the media. Flak may come from corporate or government officials offended by news reports, or it may originate with corporate-founded institutional flak producers, such as Accuracy In Media (AIM). Flak received in one instance has a conservatizing effect on a news organization in the next.
5. Anticommunism. News organizations and reporters interpret both domestic and foreign stories in an anticommunist framework. Because anticommunism is deeply ingrained in the society, efforts to effect fundamental change are almost automatically labelled "communist," regardless of the validity of the claim.
Herman and Chomsky are most successful in demonstrating that the media, at least in their coverage of foreign affairs, do in fact act as propaganda vehicles for the government and business powers. They show that the media will treat similar events very differently, depending on whether the incidents are viewed favorably or negatively by U.S. elites.
Comparing the media's coverage of the Polish police's assassination of a Polish priest active in Solidarity and one hundred religious victims of state violence in Latin America, the authors show the differing standards used by the media in covering the activities of allies and enemies. The murder of Polish priest and Solidarity activist Jerzy Popieluszko received more mention on network news and was the subject of more column inches in the New York Times, Newsweek, and Time than all one hundred of the Latin American religious figures (including Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero and the four U.S. nuns killed in El Salvador) combined.
The quality and content of the media's treatment of the murders varied as well. Herman and Chomsky convincingly demonstrate that in the case of the Polish priest, the media detailed the gruesome nature of his murder and diligently sought to locate responsibility at the top of the government hierarchy. The media sanitized the murders of the Latin American victims, avoiding the details of their deaths and ignoring strong evidence that many of the Latin American victims (including Romero and the U.S. nuns) were killed at the command of top military leaders.
As a second example of the media's double standards, the authors contrast coverage of elections in U.S.-supported El Salvador and Guatemala with coverage of Nicaraguan elections. To advance U.S. geopolitical interests, the Reagan administration characterized the 1982 and 1984 Salvadoran and the 1984-5 Guatemalan elections as free and fair and said that the 1984 Nicaraguan election was a meaningless exercise in which the basic conditions for elections were not met and which should not be allowed to obscure the dictatorial nature of the Sandinista government. According to Herman and Chomsky, the media will relay these conclusions to the U.S. public, irrespective of the facts in the three countries.
The media did, in fact, parrot the Reagan administration's line; and Herman and Chomsky conclusively demonstrate that, in order to do this, the media was forced to apply vastly different standards to El Salvador and Guatemala than to Nicaragua. Relying on a massive amount of evidence collected from human rights and academic organizations such as Amnesty International, Americas Watch, and the (U.S.) Latin American Scholars Association, the authors assert that "neither El Salvador nor Guatemala met any of the...basic conditions of a free election, whereas Nicaragua met some of them well, others to a lesser extent." Yet the media presented a very different picture. Any regular reader of newspapers in the United States is familiar with the Nicaraguan government's harassment and censorship of the Nicaraguan opposition paper La Prensa. But a consumer of the mainstream media would have searched in vain for reports about the plight of La Cronica del Pueblo and El Independiente, two Salvadoran papers which had been critical of the government. La Cronica was closed in 1980 "because its top editor and two employees were murdered and mutilated by the security forces;" El Indepediente shut down six months later, when "the army arrested its personnel and destroyed its plant."
Herman and Chomsky further buttress their theory of the media as an elite propaganda machine with five additional case studies. In each instance they show that the media suppressed or ignored evidence and perspectives which contradicted the interests of US. elites.
The authors do not adequately substantiate their theory of why the media behaves as it does. The five filters of the propaganda model stand as very valuable hypotheses; undoubtedly the institutional factors Herman and Chomsky outline strongly influence the news produced by the media. But the main shortcoming of Manufacturing Consent is that the authors, for the most part, do not explore how institutional forces manifest themselves in the production of news. Thus the reader is unable to discern the relative importance of the factors they describe or to determine if other factors should be incorporated into their model. For example, sexism and, particularly with respect to foreign affairs, racism, might well be filters through which the news passes, each arguably more important than "flak."
Herman and Chomsky avoid examining how news is produced--what reporters and editors do, or even the direct ways in which publishers and owners interfere with stories--because they want to focus attention on institutional influences. But those institutional forces are only effective as they are channelled through the reporters and editors. While some reporters may be corrupt "errand boys" for the elite, Herman and Chomsky believe most are honest and often courageous in the performance of their duties. They do not set out to suppress facts; rather, they report reality as they see it through the lens of an internalized elite perspective.
In Necessary Illusions (and other works by the two authors), however, Chomsky argues that the internalization of a business worldview occurs generally among intellectuals, not just among reporters. If this is so, it suggests that the class position not only of media owners but of columnists and reporters is also an important factor in determining what is reported and how it is reported.
Based on five lectures delivered in Canada in 1988, Chomsky's Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies covers much of the same ground as Manufacturing Consent but Manufacturing Consent is a clearer and more comprehensive presentation of the propaganda model. The most valuable parts of Necessary Illusions are the appendices which follow the text. In one of the appendices, Chomsky responds to critics of the propaganda model, offering a detailed defense of the theory and elaborating its nuances. He compares U.S. and other Western media coverage of the same events, demonstrating that the Canadian press, for example, covers stories which are not found in the U.S. mainstream media. This serves as a supplement to comparisons of media coverage of similar events in allied and enemy countries, and as another means of demonstrating the validity of the predictions of the propaganda model. The appendices also contain a variety of informational nuggets; Chomsky offers clear and concise essays on subjects ranging from Costa Rica to Woodrow Wilson's Red Scare, from the Containment Doctrine to the state of civil liberties in the United States.
In Necessary Illusions and especially in Manufacturing Consent, Herman and Chomsky provide compelling evidence that the media fulfil a propaganda function for business and government. And they offer valuable hypotheses about how and why the media do not adopt a more independent, critical and genuinely adversarial stance in their coverage of foreign affairs. As with any useful theory, Herman and Chomsky's book suggests future areas of exploration.The media's coverage of domestic issues merits the same scrutiny that they have applied to the reporting of foreign affairs. Additionally, the model needs to be fleshed out to include a careful examination of how the news is produced. Hopefully, the authors or others will take up these challenges. In the meantime, their work deserves the widest possible readership.