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On The Propaganda Model Theory of the Mass Media

Noam Chomsky (left) `and Edward S. Herman (right) co-authors of the propaganda model.

Straight away my first post breaks one(1) of my rules of writing, given that the impetus for writing this comes from something I read from that denizen of rigour Nick Cohen(2). The focus of the article however will be a sympathetic reconstruction of Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky's 'Propaganda Model of Mass Media'. Something which admittedly, I wish had a less tin-foil hat sounding name.

As context is necessary I am going to quote from the article that prompted me to write this and briefly have a bit of a go at Nick Cohen, mainly because I sat through his book Waiting for the Etonians and want my time/money back. Alas, I am forced to settle for having a pop at him on the internet.

The rest should hopefully be transgression free, at least in so far as dem rulezzz' go(3).

I will quote in full the paragraphs I take issue with you to save you from reading the article(4). But first to head something off before it begins. I sympathise with Cohen's broader point in the article that people ought be aware that the enemy of their enemy is not necessarily their friend, and that more specifically Julian Assange is an odd bloke, to say the least.

But Cohen should have read his Popper(5) in his self appointed role as sole defender and inheritor of classical liberalism and would surely agree agree that one needs to present the best version of ones opponents argument when attempting to refute it (6).

Spoiler Alert: He does no such thing.

But, the quote;

'“News outlets are more propagandistic than journalistic,” a lugubrious voice explains, before the camera cuts to a distinguished-looking gentleman who opines that the elite in Britain and the US maintain power by controlling “attitudes and opinions”. The distinguished-looking gentleman is Noam Chomsky expounding on an old theme: his propaganda model of journalism. Rather than looking at why revolutionary socialism failed, Chomsky and his many adherents on the defeated radical left say the masses are brainwashed into voting against their interests by journalists, who are under the control of rich proprietors and advertisers.

All journalists, that is. Not this or that news organisation but the media as a malign totality. I have many objections to the view that democratic consent is “manufactured”. The strongest was provided by the supposedly brainwashed US electorate last November. Trump received just two endorsements from the editorial boards of America’s 100 largest newspapers. He still won. Needless to add, Chomsky has now joined Assange, Farage and Trump’s march on Moscow and makes a mockery of his supposed opposition to propaganda by appearing on Putin’s propaganda networks. "

The theory he gives such a shocking description of is Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky's 'Propaganda Model of the Mass Media'  which is to be found in their jointly authored 1989 book 'Manufacturing Consent: Political Economy of the Mass Media'. 

I stress the two authors here for a reason - it's on the cover of the book, it's in the first paragraph of the Wikipedia page, the little bubble that appears at the top of the page if you fucking Google it will tell you this, the theory is co-authored. It's not 'Chomsky's Theory' any more than it's 'Crick's Discovery of the structure of DNA" or 'Garfunkel's classic tear-jerker 'Bridge Over Troubled Water'.

I make this point here to illustrate how poorly researched this pop at Chomsky is. However, it could still be the case that the theory itself is as horribly naive as it as painted. It isn't, and after reading this, and hopefully then the book, I hope you will agree.

What will hopefully follow is a sympathetic reconstruction(7) of Herman and Chomsky's position and an attempt to critique it in a way that plays the ball (the theory) rather than the man (the authors of the theory) - with a view to discerning whether recent events have debunked the propaganda model. I will at points refer back to Cohen's 'analysis', because it actually gives a good account of the flavour of the criticism that has been forthcoming of the model, so at least he's in good company.


S.1 The Premise of the Propaganda Model's Argument

The premises of the model are;

(a)News media sells a product to a market and this is how it makes money.

(b)The product they sell is audiences.

(c)The market they sell audiences to is advertisers.

(d)News media needs to make money to survive, therefore it will not act in ways that prevent it from making money.

So far so uncontroversial, right? It has long been the case that the majority of the income of newspapers has been from advertisements within newspapers rather than sales of the newspapers(8) although the exact proportions for each publisher will obviously vary. It is also the case that now more as a proportion of revenue is coming more from advertising than from sales. Further that, as the move to online journalism continues to swallow up readership, and print circulations as a whole continue to drop(9) this tendency is becoming more pronounced.

It is also the case that we tend to underestimate the proportion of newspaper revenue generated by advertising, which in the UK at least is ~50% for print publications and ~75% for online according to these guyz'. Dem guyz' also found that, again in the UK, 62% of people underestimated these proportions(10).

At this point it should be obvious that what is under discussion in the Propaganda Model is a tendency within a market. Speaking of markets and the effects and tendencies they display does involve an assumption. Namely, that the effects and tendencies displayed do not, and more so can not be impacted in any meaningful as a totality by the intentions of people acting within or upon them, in so far as those people attempting to act within or upon them act as individuals and not in ways that impact on the totality of the market(11).

They display the tendencies they do because of the way that transactions take place within them. Thus, when you speak of the 'political economy(12) of the mass media' what you are speaking about is precisely that, political economy - not intentions of the actors within the political economy.

It is a misplaced criticism to attribute Herman and Chomsky the view that journalism or the media acts as a 'malign totality' because strictly speaking the model does not say that journalists or those actors in the media act consciously, or in tandem, to produce the outcomes that we see. They simply transact, and the transactions are morally neutral, it should be relatively uncontroversial that transactions produce externalities (an effect of a transaction which is not the primary one intended) whether foreseen or not.

All kinds of externalities occur in all kinds of markets as a result of all kinds of transactions, and the majority, if not all transactions produce some externalities. So, if I buy a bunch of bananas from Tesco - one of the externalities of the transaction would be a certain amount of CO2 emissions, because they had to be transported from wherever they where grown to London.

No one claims that Del Monte and other fruit distributors act as a malign totality to add carbon to the atmosphere, we are however happy to accept that one of the consequences of their transaction is to do so, without having to make a claim about their intentions or moral character. Thus, when the claim is made that the food importing industry is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions it would be ridiculous to try and attack it by saying "SURELY NOT ALL? YOU'RE SAYING - NOT THIS OR THAT FOOD IMPORTER - BUT ALL OF THEM? ACTING AS A MALIGN TOTALITY?"

I've gone off topic and broken several of my own rules, but essentially the model predicts that, if the idea is to make money selling a product to a market, then certain things won't happen and certain things will. That there will be externalities to the transaction - this as a function of the transactions taking place, not as a function of the intentions of the people making the transactions.

S.2 Hypothesis of the Propaganda Model

Given the funding model of the news media we can assume that;

(a) An advert is unlikely to be placed next to a story within a print publication which casts the advertiser in a bad light. That's not a conspiracy theory, that is a part of someones job and that someone is called the 'Production Editor'.

(b)An advert is unlikely to be placed on the same webpage as content that casts the advertiser in a bad light(13). Again, not a conspiracy theory - that is someones job, they work in an industry called 'Programmatic Advertising'

So with this in mind how many adverts for Volkswagen do you think will be run next to articles about the Volkswagen emissions scandal? How many adverts for diesel cars in general do you think are run next to stories about that fuels contribution to pollution?

I don't actually know the answer to that, so a further question one could ask is. If an advert for Volkswagen was run next to one of these stories, how happy about that would Volkswagen be? Would Volkswagen not be right in thinking someone dropped a fucking bollock on the ad-placement they'd paid for?

In the cases listed here, how likely is it that when the advertiser found out where their ad was being served they asked that it was changed or removed?

You can assume then that, apart from stories that directly reference the advertiser and cast them in a negative light, advertisers would probably be unlikely to want to appear next to content that casts them in a bad light by association.

Thus, it is unlikely that a company would want its ad's appearing next to violent extremist content, a video promoting white nationalism or anything else that might tarnish their brand. Sensible, no?

Again, with that in mind what do you suppose happened when this story was run?(14)


S.3 Predictions of the Propaganda Model

What Herman and Chomsky believe will result from this aspect of their model is that;

(a) Certain voices within the media that it is not in the interests of advertisers to be placed next to, will find themselves not published as often.

That's it. That is what the model predicts.

Not that there is a conspiracy to freeze out certain peoples opinions, not that there are press barons and crafty journalists working tirelessly to censor the free press. The model simply predicts that if I work for The Daily Redtop and I pitch a story about how Redtops largest advertiser is damaging society - the editor might think twice before commissioning it. It predicts that if the advertisor pays for a service which is not delivered, they may stop paying for the service and may take their business else where.

It predicts that as a journalist I may, like any other employee of any other company, internalise the companies expectations about the work I produce - it doesn't say that this is overt policy. Largely because it doesn't need to be.

Someone working in a shop is implicitly expected not to shit talk the shop and it's products, they internalise that expectation without it ever being made explicit. The (not-so) radical observation of Herman and Chomsky is that if the press is run as a business the people who work within it will act in ways that people engaged in business act. They may do things for good and for bad reasons but ultimately they will avoid acting in ways that they know will compromise the business or their position within it.

What world would one expect to emerge from such a model?

One specific prediction that Herman and Chomsky make is that, in general, given the funding model of the press - newspapers and other publications that are critical of capitalism will, in general, find it difficult to survive because they will find fewer advertisers willing to advertise with them.

They further predict that this tendency over time will result in the narrowing of the political positions on show in the major publications, as critical voices find it harder to secure funding.

Thus, on major issues there may be extremely virulent debate - but the debate in general, and I stress in general because we are talking of a tendency not an absolute, will exist between two points of reference rarely deviating from the assumptions inherent in the debate.

As an example(15);

If you're not aware of the Harry Potter(16) universe because you've been living under a rock/don't have a soul - a bad man called Voldemort returns to power after being in a magical exile for over a decade and Harry Potter and Dumbledore want to warn the wider wizarding community of the shit-show that's about to go down. They are ridiculed, hilarity ensues, people say it's because Dumbledore is making a play for power or that he's lost his marbles blah blah, a heartwarming coming of age tale ensues.

I digress, fundamentally the headlines and one can assume the body of the article make the wrong assumption. The correct idea that Voldemort has returned does not enter the debate. The question instead becomes about whether Dumbledore has lost his mind or is making a play for power - not whether he is telling the truth, which remains an un-interrogated explanation for his behaviour.

The contention of the propaganda model being that a lot of the debate that we see in major publications takes this kind of form, it misses the point because it has narrow assumptions about the world.

To stay with the Harry Potter universe, the existence of this magazine;

Which takes the position of believing Harry Potter and Dumbledore, does not invalidate the propaganda model because it is a self funded outfit run by one man. We can assume it exists insulated from market pressures. But even if it did rely on ad revenue in some form, it still wouldn't invalidate the model because I stress again, it is a tendency we are talking about not an absolute. The prediction is not that The Quibbler wouldn't exist, but that it would find it more difficult to secure advertising business than the Daily Prophet for a number of reasons, one of which would be that the Prophets editorial messaging is more 'brand safe' than the Quibblers.


Now that I have given account of what I take to be the theories best features I am, as promised, going to briefly try and summate why I think the theory is often warped into a horrendous parody of itself by friends and foe's of Herman and Chomsky's, admittedly, mainly of Chomsky's alike(17).

In a sentence:

It is because the idea that 'the press' understood as a monolithic entity behaves for any other reason than for the quest for truth and holding the powerful to account is one that many, especially those who work within it do not want to admit and find offensive.

The reason this is the case is largely as a result of a fundamental misunderstanding of what kinds of statements such as those professing a belief in freedom of speech, freedom of press and the role of press in a free society are - as well as some related misunderstandings about the tenets of liberal political theory more generally. I plan on writing about these in future and will link to them in this when I do so, but put briefly.

Any 'freedom of...' type right is not a recommendation as to how a private citizen acting in a private capacity (for example taking part in a transaction) should act, it is an instruction to states as to where the legitimate limits of state actions are when acting in a public capacity.

Thus, to say "The press acts out of a concern for freedom of speech" is not only peak fucking ideology masquerading as reason, it doesn't make sense when you interrogate the meaning of the concepts contained in the statement. Moreover, 'the press' as a monolithic entity doesn't 'act' at all, only individuals transacting with each other - it is also extremely difficult to see how exactly one would act as a private citizen out of a concern for free speech when transacting.

Confused? You should be, because high sounding reasons such as 'we act out of a concern for democracy' when applied to transactions taking place in a market are nonsense on bullshit on stilts wading through billious clouds of ill-reasoned platitudes.


But now to put to answer the charge that Trumps win invalidates the model because, and I quote Cohen again;

"Objections to[..]the view that democratic consent is “manufactured”. The strongest was provided by the supposedly brainwashed US electorate last November. Trump received just two endorsements from the editorial boards of America’s 100 largest newspapers. He still won."

The assumption here that is faulty, is that the model predicts that the press acts as a monolith to brainwash the electorate. Simply put, that's not what the model predicts, it's pretty much as simple as that.

What the terms of the debate in the US election within 100 largest newspapers where is an empirical matter and it can be analysed, and will probably continue to be analysed for a long time to come. My hope here is that in this post I've given you the theoretical toolkit to look and see for yourself.

As for the whole fake news thing, that's a whole other pile of shit I don't want to get into right now, maybe in future eh'?

As someone once said "There are 1000 ways to misrepresent Chomsky (and Herman)" you'd just hope that when doing so people wouldn't be so deliberately ignorant and willing to almost wilfully miss the point.


(§1) Rule One - if you're interested.

(§2)I feel more comfortable with breaking the rule given that the impetus to do so comes from the author of the original piece misrepresenting the position of someone else, in effect I can break Rule One because he broke Rule Four - two wrongs make a right, apparently.

(§3)This breaks Rule Two - I'm a maverick, for sure.

(§4)Although feel free, in fact I encourage it, you can see what a weird move is made in the flow of the argument running through the piece to arrive at the point that it does.

(§5) - Section 9. - He certainly expected it of his interlocutors - I believe it's also in the introduction to the Open Society & It's Enemies [Routledge] although I could be wrong and will check this later/amend it if I'm wrong.

(§6)Another possibility being that Cohen hasn't but should probably do so in future, if not just out of intellectual integrity and pride in his own work.

(§7)Meaning give an account of it's most convincing features. Toward the end of the book Herman and Chomsky gives examples of outcomes of the model and present them as features within it, which are less convincing to me at least. Notably in the section on Anti-Communism - I can think of how this could be amended to make it more rigorous and not as North America centric as it is now, which I may go into later if I CBA.

(§8) In 2014, the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) stopped releasing industry-wide revenue data. Its last reported figure was total revenue in 2013 of $37.6 billion, with $23.6 billion in ad revenue and $10.9 billion in circulation revenue. - - (Numbers from the Pew Research Centre - in case you can't be bothered clicking through - They are for North America, but it is a large market and the one Herman and Chomsky focus on so I feel justified)

(§9) "In 2015, $59.6 billion was spent on any digital advertising, including on search engines, social media, news or any other kind of website. This is up 20% from 2014, according to estimates by eMarketer. This growth rate is slightly higher than in the previous three years, when annual growth hovered arond 15-17%." - (Again, numbers from Pew, again they are for North America ya-da-ya-da-ya)

(§10) Admittedly from a small sample size of 2,000 people so the exact percentage is likely to be off, as well as being different for the USA - it is at least instructive, if we should take it with a pinch of salt.

(§11)For example by setting prices by law, or creating laws to limit what can be printed.

(§12)It is actually my suspicion that because 'political economy' is an archaic term for 'economics' many actually misunderstand this and had the book been called "The Economics of the Mass Media" this misunderstanding wouldn't be so wide spread amongst those that had only read the cover, or not as the case may be.

(§13) How this can actually be achieved is through targeting keywords on the page so the ad can be displayed or by negatively targeting key words so the ad is not displayed.

(§14) Honestly, I wish I didn't have to link to The Sun - but they broke the story. Although, as with all Sun stories its poorly researched and misrepresents the point. But there ya' go.

(§15) Dis iz 4 da millenials, rep dat'.

(§16) I use a fictional example to avoid making the issue about whether I've correctly identified what the poles of the debate are - Harry Potter being a fictional world where one can know the full story, kind of.

(§17) In this section I am not speaking about Cohen specifically at risk of parodying what his views are, and at further risk of making the kind of mistake he makes when he characterises Chomsky as a revolutionary socialist who is in thrall to Russia. You can knock Chomsky all you want, but you can't deny he has been consistently critical of both State Socialism and State Capitalism. If you don't believe me check out this, from the height of the Cold War;


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