News filters

The propaganda model–how is our news filtered?

The thesis of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, in their classic work Manufacturing Consent, is that money and power can be used:

  • to filter out news ‘unfit’ to print
  • to marginalize dissent
  • to reflect the interests of the corporations that own or advertise in media, and powerful political entities (think government) whose interests are often aligned with corporations (and vice versa).
  • to enable government and private corporations to ‘get out their messages,’ define public debates, etc.

The five filters

Imagine information being poured through five filters that are part of the system of mass media in the U.S.. What will you end up with? Each stage is likely to filter out some information. Maybe some of that information that gets left behind is scooped up by other outlets, non-commercial / alternative / non-profit outlets. What news is left at the end that is ‘fit to print,’ so to speak? Let’s look at the filters:

  1. Size, ownership and profit orientation
    1. Size is important
      1. It requires lots of investment capital to run a media outlet; the larger media conglomerates get, the more money it takes to buy one’s way into the game. Why do people try? Money, power, influence, connections . . . take your pick. Also, it can take political connections, relationships with the banking industry to get the licenses, come up with the investment capital, etc.
    2. Ownership is critical
      1. Expansion has led to concentration of ownership (we’ve discussed this one):
        • In 1983, 50 corporations dominated most of every mass medium; the biggest media merger in history was a $340 million deal. …
        • By 2004, 5 corporations dominate. In 2000, AOL Time Warner’s merger-$350 billion-more than 1,000 times larger than the biggest deal of 1983.” (Bagdikian, 2000)
      2. As media become less and less family-run operations and more market-based (i.e., commercial), there is greater pressures to de-regulate, take advantage of economies of scale. This will lead to increased concentration of ownership. This will also likely mean more takeovers and mergers, interlocking directorates (This is when you have board members from one company sitting on other boards, and they may be making decisions not based solely on their role as director of one board–there may be conflicts of interest). Whose interests are being served when members of a board are sitting on other boards? Does this create a fair playing field?
      3. Ties with government are very important to media owners
        1. There are requirement of licenses, franchises-subject to govt. control
        2. Government as source of discipline The FCC (Federal Commuincations Commission) could withhold or deny licenses, for instance. The airwaves are (theoretically) owned by the public, and licensed by the FCC. In practice this means that companies that depend on government policy have to be careful about criticizing public officials who could withold tax breaks, subsidies, enforce regulations, etc..
  2. Advertising
    1. Media outlets sell consumer audiences to advertisers
    2. Advertisers choose where to advertise-consumers’ choices may be more limited
    3. Cable TV-remember where it came from? It was supposed to be commercial-free
    4. Media outlets that depend on sales or subscription fees for revenue will lose out–these won’t provide as much operating capital, and will make it difficult to compete with ad-based outlets
    5. Public broadcasting, Mother Jones, the Nation, In These Times, The American Prospect–these magazines or outlets limit advertising or rely completely on donations. How do they survive? Why do they tend to cover different stories?
      1. Money clearly finances more glitz, entertainment, and if that’s what brings more eyeballs for the media outlets to attract advertisers … rather than more staff, reporters, etc.
      2. Cross-advertising (Fox is the worst offender)–cross-advertising is when the media outlet runs ads for other shows or programming from the same outlet or another company owned by the same outlet. Fox news local affiliates often run ‘news’ stories about Fox prime time TV series
      3. Role of ratings-Nielsen is the big ratings company, and right now there are controversies about their new electronic people meters (designed to get local TV market information). Rupert Murdoch doesn’t like them, because Fox hasn’t rated as well in these as it does with the paper TV diaries Neilsen traditionally used. Minority groups are also complaining about ratings differences that affect the viability of shows targeting racial and ethnic minority groups. What happens in the newsroom if ratings drop?
      4. The reality is that media outlets have to sell themselves to advertisers, but can face pressures from advertisers
        1. Gulf and Western pulled its advertising from public TV because of one show that was screened that it didn’t like); Chrysler has tried to pressure networks by insisting on reviewing programming before it would pay for advertising
        2. General Motors pulled its advertising from the Los Angeles Times last year because they were suggesting that unseasonable torrential rains might be connected to global warming and climate change (not good for the business of internal combustion engine manufacturers, apparently).
        3. In essence, the propaganda model contends that anything that interferes with the public’s ‘buying mood’ is risky
        4. What about public radio and TV, you say? Are they immune from the pressures of advertising? According to a 2006 study by, no. They take few chances and tend to have on ‘establishment’ guests that will espouse fairly safe, noncontroversial viewpoints.
  3. Sources–Certain sources of news are considered legitimate, such as government. This gives various agencies and individuals in government broad power over controlling messages, what is news, etc.–they’ve got lots of correspondents covering their activities as news, even where it might look, feel and smell more like marketing and PR. Sociologist Max Weber wrote about sources of legitimacy. He identified three. First, charismatic authority–the cult leader, religious figure–the charismatic individual whose followers would walk off a cliff for. Problem with charismatic authority, with respect to power, is that it doesn’t tend to transfer to other individuals–it’s a problem of succession. Second is traditional authority, for instance you may have heard of the ‘divine right of kings.’ If you’re a monarch, and people believe you reign under instructions from God, that’s pretty powerful stuff–they’re likely to believe whatever you say. The Pope’s authority in the Catholic Church is similar. The third type is rational-legal legitimacy. We often think of law, the constitution, etc.). We tend to want to believe people in positions of legitimate authority, which means we may be susceptible to liars. The media also has a great deal of legitimacy. Ever heard the phrase ‘As Seen on TV!’ (There’s even a website, with really great stuff that you probably need to own and have, yes, seen on TV)
    • There are specific institutions with lots of legitimacy–the White House, Congress, the Pentagon . . . . For journalists these are easy sources of information, with huge public relations staffs and sophisticated mechanisms for dispensing the news to hungry journalists dying for copy before 5:00 pm.
    • The White House media managers have rather large staffs–over 50 during the Bush/Cheney years. Their job is to try to ‘spin’ or ‘frame’ coverage in ways beneficial to their own interests. Journalists have their own agendas, sometimes related to a specific story, sometimes related to a story line their bosses want them to pursue, etc.  No White House is beyond using the media to its advantage to control as much as possible their ‘messages’ and shape public opinion. When the story line is ‘bad,’ they’ll look to change the subject. They may offer anonymous ‘background’ information. Anything the president does is news, including, apparently, fly-swatting.
    • The photo opportunity as news (check out the strategy)–if the White House can get its carefully orchestrated images on the nightly news as news, then they’ve had a successful day. Sometimes they do, much of the time in fact. Sometimes not.
    • Press conferences. After one term in office, Jimmy Carter had 63 press conferences, Ronald Reagan had 27, George H.W. Bush 142, Bill Clinton 133, George W. Bush 89, and Barack Obama 79. As George W. Bush’s Communications director Dan Bartlett once said about news conferences, “if you have a message you’re trying to deliver, a news conference can go in a different direction.” However, White Houses can try to restrict access to reporters by making them apply daily for credentials, or simply having presidents refuse to call on certain reporters and stick to the ‘friendly’ ones.
    • Deflecting pressure–spokespeople can speak for presidents, vice presidents; documents can be classified in the interest of national security, unpopular news can be released on Friday afternoon or over the weekend. These are all well-tested strategies to reduce public access to information.

Essentially, over-reliance on official sources for news can produce at the least self-serving accounts, at worst propaganda, and this goes for presidential press conferences, candidates’ press conferences, to corporate press conferences.

  1. Flak This is negative feedback. Flak happens on both ‘sides.’  This is direct flak, and can include other organizations, such as the Pentagon, or even phone calls from the White House complaining about critical coverage. Here’s an example of direct flak, from John DiIulio, former director of Faith based initiatives for the White House. First his quote, then the next day his retraction:

‘In eight months, I heard many, many staff discussions, but not three meaningful, substantive policy discussions. There were no actual policy white papers on domestic issues. There were, truth be told, only a couple of people in the West Wing who worried at all about policy substance and analysis, and they were even more overworked than the stereotypical, non-stop, 20-hour-a-day White House staff. Every modern presidency moves on the fly, but, on social policy and related issues, the lack of even basic policy knowledge, and the only casual interest in knowing more, was somewhat breathtaking-discussions by fairly senior people who meant Medicaid but were talking Medicare; near-instant shifts from discussing any actual policy pros and cons to discussing political communications, media strategy, et cetera’

The retraction the next day: “My criticisms were groundless and baseless due to poorly chosen words and examples. I sincerely apologize and I am deeply remorseful.”

Corporations also can sling flak–Chrysler once demanded editorial approval for any magazine carrying its advertising.  There are lots of media watchdog sites that give flak to newsmakers and media outlets. Here’s an example from the Pentagon, going after cartoonist Tom Toles. The people who confirmed that U.S. casualties in Iraq are higher because soldiers were not equipped with adequate body armor are trying to stifle Toles’ constitutionally protected free speech, because it denigrates soldiers’ sacrifices, apparently (of course Toles was making a comment about the Pentagon’s use of propaganda to minimize or deflect attention from its role in elevated levels of casualties):

“While you or some of your readers may not agree with the war or its conduct, we believe you owe the men and women and their families who so selflessly serve our country the decency to not make light of their tremendous physical sacrifices.” (from a letter to the Washington Post)

Journalist Tom Englehart at one point documented a fairly long list of critics of the Bush/Cheney Administration who were targeted by the White House flak machine. The list was so long it was divided into three installments (here’s the second, and here is the third). What does this show? It shows how effectively news sources with some legitimacy can heap negative feedback on their critics, and how these filters can interact with one another (think about the advertiser and ownership filters, especially).

More recently, the blogosphere has served as a sort of ‘instant’ flak against politicians–woe to those who deny saying something and think no one will find that video footage confirming they said it. Jon Stewart’s Daily Show makes a living doing this. The most harsh form of flak occurs when critics boycott not the news shows, but the advertisers on the newscasts (you should by this point be able to grasp the potential effectiveness of that strategy, and the chill it might put on certain kinds of stories). So suffice it to say, stories that might threaten the powerful or offend an audience are approached more carefully than others, because of the potential for flak.

  1. Anti-communism/terrorism filter

The Cold war may be over, but anti-communist rhetoric is alive and well. The capitalist economic system is reflected in how commercial media operate, how their advertisers operate, and how US Foreign Policy is carried out. For example, politicians and news organizations will rarely if ever have flattering things to say about the leaders of leftist (socialist or communist) states, such as Fidel Castro (Cuba), Hugo Chavez (Venezuela).  But in Nigeria, where generals often rule and governments have been know to kill their own citizens, news about problems with oil production is more likely to focus on ‘terrorists.’  Why? Would news organizations invite flak were they to try to cover complex political issues that suggested left-wing governments occasionally might do something right? Haiti’s brutal repression under the Duvaliers was barely covered, but when leftist priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected president, there were questions about his political sympathies, and very little investigation when he was essentially kidnapped and sent to the Central African Republic on an unscheduled flight. Noam Chomsky suggests that US commercial news outlets systematically underreport atrocities perpetrated by right-wing governments, while covering those from the left.

It’s instructive as well to think of the flip side of anti-communism–pro-capitalism. For instance, when the debate over national health insurance began after Pres. Obama’s election in 2008, the ‘public option’ was a part of the discussion. This would have been a system much like Medicare (for the elderly), or the VA (for Veterans), or TriCare (for the military)–government-administered. However, there was very little coverage of this option, and Pres. Obama made it clear early on, with very little questioning from the media, that any legislation would favor a large role for the private insurance industry.


As well as the anti-communism filter, now we can imagine an anti-terrorism filter. Are news organizations free to report on any anti-American activities characterized as terrorist in any sort of sympathetic or even complex light? It’s good vs evil, for the most part, and when it isn’t, the consequences can be swift, as then-ABC talk show host Bill Maher found out the week after 9/11.  Even if there are legitimate questions regarding US Foreign Policy and its global pursuit of terror suspects, it is unlikely such questions will find a place in public forums (imagine other countries claiming the right to fly unmanned vehicles over US air space and target individuals, possibly US citizens, that they believed were threats to their own security).

So while most of the debate over media bias is about partisan bias–systematic distortion favoring one political party or the other–we’re discussing here something different–a commercial bias. Owners–getting larger and larger all the time–and advertisers, obviously don’t want to endorse news that hurts their financial interests. If corporate CEOs felt differently, felt some commitment to journalism and the need for an adversarial press to hold leaders accountable in a democracy, well, what do you think their boards of directors, or the shareholders, would do if it meant lower returns on investment? Journalists clearly don’t graduate from journalism school to become lackeys of the corporate world, but they may be trying to do their best in a situation where they face various structural constraints, and their bosses face their own financial pressures. The result could be news content that is driven not by journalistic principles, but by the need to balance news and financial pressures. If there’s no audience, there are no advertisers, there is no revenue, and there are no paychecks. Now not all models are of the commercial variety–news outlets can be non-profit, or public-funded. But filters exist even in those outlets–someone is paying the bills (for instance, if Congress appropriates money for National Public Radio, will the latter think twice before exposing a scandal involving influential senators who have long supported public radio?).

This situation often leads to a focus on entertainment. The news traditionally was given some independence, insulation from financial and political pressures. News divisions weren’t expected to sustain themselves financially–they were a place to inform the public. Yes the propaganda model has probably always existed, but modern techniques make it much more effective at hiding the agenda behind news stories, television programs, etc. As ownership of media leads to greater concentration, and even ownership by corporations that are not media-based, there is more pressure for news to come ‘in line’ with the rest of a corporation’s holdings–to be a vehicle for increasing profit and shareholder value, for selling other products or services provided by the corporation and its subsidiaries.

From this point of view, the whole concept of ‘the news’ can take on a new freshness. Is it ‘news?’ Does the fact that it’s called ‘news’ lend it legitimacy and credibility that it hasn’t earned, at least from many media outlets? Is it persuasion? Entertainment? Infotainment? Who benefits? Why is it that non-commercial sites have such different news?


Ben H. Bagdikian. 2000. The Media Monopoly (Sixth Edition). Boston: Beacon Press.

Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky. 1988. Manufacturing Consent. New York: Pantheon Books. (Chapter 1, ‘A propaganda model,’ pp 1-35)