We in the United States have a media problem. We have a free press protected by the Constitution. Our country has numerous independent reporters, journalists, editors and other media makers. Yet our mass media are amazingly conformist. They seldom challenge the core interests of the U.S. power elite (also called the capitalist ruling class). Although controversy within well-defined limits is permitted and even encouraged, truly dissident voices rarely gain access to our mass media. The ideological submission of our mass media is particularly extreme on issues of militarism and imperialism. If our mass media are truly free and independent, why does such astonishing compliance happen?
A plausible answer was suggested 30 years ago by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky in their path breaking book “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media” (1988). Herman and Chomsky proposed a “propaganda model” for how the U.S. mass media operate. The marginalization of dissent in the mass media is not a conspiracy. It emerges spontaneously from the gross inequalities of wealth and power in American society.
The propaganda model asserts that, to be considered newsworthy, information must pass through five important filters or elimination screens. The first filter is the corporation screen. The American mass media are profit-making enterprises owned and controlled by giant corporations. Four corporations currently possess the lion’s share of U.S. mass media. Newsworthy information must not compromise the profit-making capacity of these mammoth enterprises and is constrained accordingly.
The second filter is the advertising screen. Mass media obtain most of their income from advertising. Newsworthy information must not offend existing or potential advertisers.
The third information filter of the propaganda model is the source funnel. The material presented in the mass media derives heavily from a limited set of information sources. These sources are usually governments, experts approved by governments, or business organizations allied with or licensed by governments.
The fourth information filter is the so-called flak barrier. If mass media deviate severely from the approved narratives, they face strident attack from watchdog organizations which may impugn their credibility, intimidate advertisers and threaten licensing.
The ideological screen is the fifth and final filter specified by Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model. Information on the mass media must not contradict the hegemonic ideology. During the Cold War, anticommunism was the hegemonic ideology in the USA. Today, the ideology regulating mass media might be neo-liberalism or American exceptionalism or some combination thereof.
One important prediction of the propaganda model is that our mass media will treat friends and enemies of U.S. imperialism very differently. This results in differential representation of victims. The victims of enemy regimes (e.g. targets of the Russian bombing of Aleppo) are considered “worthy.” They merit deep sympathy and ample media attention. But victims of U.S. imperialism or regimes friendly to it (e.g. casualties of Israel’s bombing of Gaza or U.S. supported bombing of Mosul) are deemed “unworthy.” These unworthy victims deserve only muted sympathy, and they get scanty if any media attention.
The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center’s “Peace Train” runs every Friday in the Colorado Daily.