The American Propaganda System & What ‘We’ Should Do About It


(By: Victor Herzfeld)

The amount our daily communication and discourse – be it familial, social, commercial, or political – which is made through technological mediums as opposed to face to face communications is expanding exponentially. ‘The media’ has become an immersive communicative environment. This has become so clear that it is thought of as a truism. It should also be clear that the American media system is no friend of the Left’s aspirations for a post-capitalist self-managed society. However, increasingly it appears that the media system is incompatible with democracy even it’s most minimal liberal formulation. This begs the question, what do we (leftists) do about it.

This article is the first of three on the topic of the American media and propaganda system. This first article is devoted to how bad the current situation is, that is, how unbelievably undemocratic our “free press” is, has been, and is becoming. The second article is our humble addition to the project of imaging a media system that is democratic and has the potential to be self-managing. The last article will address the issue of how do we even begin to demand a media system adequate for a self-managed society given the immense resistance power will have to those demands.

The Propaganda System, as described by Chomsky and Herman

In 1988 Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman wrote a now classic text on the media entitled Manufacturing Consent. In it they describe what they called the ‘Propaganda System’ which warped what news is produced and published. According to Chomsky and Herman the system has five limiting lenses: (1) Ownership, scale, and structure of the media firms; (2) Reliance on advertising; (3) Reliance on expert opinion; (4) Flak; and (5) Anti-communism.

Ownership, scale, and structure of the media firms: Owning serious media organizations requires large amounts of capital, which limits ownership to elite capitalist enterprises.

Reliance on advertising: Because the media system is reliant on advertising it will produce materials that pleases advertisers. Chomsky and Herman identified three points at which reliance on advertisement as funding would change outcomes: first, advertisers are most interested in people who have more disposable income to spend on advertised products, i.e. media will seek the following of wealthier more privileged segments of the population; two, advertisers will favor programming that encourages “the buying mood,” which does not include critical public affairs coverage; and finally, there is overt discrimination of advertisers toward offending political content and most of the advertisers are themselves large multinational corporations, so we can imagine what political content they find offensive.

Reliance on expert opinion: The news media has a constant need for new information, and are accordingly reliant on institutions giving them ready made news. These institutions are, of course government and corporate PR offices. This privileges the voices of the powerful in two ways: first, the PR industry is willing to do the work for journalists in exchange for being able to get their powerful clients’ views to the public packaged as news; and second, critical media can be excluded from access to major news sources.

Flak: By flak, Herman and Chomsky described an enforcement mechanism that imposes the biases structural elements (ownership, reliance on advertising, and reliance on experts) demand upon the content producers – reporters, authors, editors, etc. The American propaganda system cannot or prefers to not to use overt military or police censorship. How then are the norms demanded by corporate media owners, advertisers, and the PR offices to be enforced? Through a thousand small acts of retaliation. The pulling of advertisement from a program too critical to the corporate world; the denial of a promotion to a reporter known for intellectual or ethical independence; the savage attack on a critical piece of investigative journalism, etc, are all flak. The net result of flak is that people who have accommodated themselves to thinking how the structure of the media requires them to think rise to positions of power and prestige in media, and others do not. For a particularly biting example of this take a look at the experience of Gary Webb, the reporter who broke the story of the CIA facilitating the smuggling of cocaine into the urban centers of the United States.

Anti-Communism: Here the authors described how the pervasive ideological force of anti-communism allowed power to characterize anything critical as communism and therefore dangerous and in need of exclusion. Contemporarily, we could look to terrorism, or the hegemony of neo-liberal ideas as playing a similar role that anti-communism did in the late cold war.

Since 1988

The Media is more monopolistic, not less: Eight years after Manufacturing Consent was first published, the Telecommunications act of 1996 was passed. This law directed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to deregulate the ownership rules of the print media, and TV and radio broadcast media, due to the supposed competitive revolution the internet was going to unleash in the media market. Now, in 2014, most internet media corporations (Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, eBay, Microsoft, Intel, Cisco, Oracle, and Qualcomm) are monopolies in their services or products, and the ownership of traditional news paper, radio, and TV media is more concentrated than ever. For example, one company, Clear Channel has gobbled up 850 radio stations since the passage of the Telecommunications Act, and five companies now own 24 of 25 top cable channels and account for 85% of prime time viewing. See this chart for a good break down on the biggest media corporations’ holdings.

Advertising has increased, but it no longer supports news reporting: The advertising sector in the United States is estimated to have accounted for 2 billion dollars in annual economic activity in 1940 (the birth of the PR industry), 12 billion dollars in 1960, 54 billion dollars by 1980, and 150 billion dollars by 2010. Marketing expenditures, which are inclusive of advertising but also include much more, are estimated to be roughly one trillion dollars annually. This is a structural feature of a capitalist economy which has moved beyond selling commodities which satisfy needs to selling the satisfaction of constructed needs.

Advertisers used to have to support the production of news information in order to have a site to place their advertisements (newspapers, magazines, etc.). Not anymore. The two most significant mediums for advertising are now TV (which is currently dominant in terms of dollars spent in advertising) and the Internet (which is clearly the emergent medium for advertising). However, most actual news reporting is still done by traditional print mediums (news papers and magazines), which are exactly those organizations being abandoned by the advertising sector.

A short viewing of “if it bleeds it leads” (sensationalist) TV news will make the point that TV is not a medium where news reporting is being done. However, the situation on the internet is arguably worse. Instead of paying for news or even entertainment content production, advertising on the internet has funneled huge amounts of resources into surveillance. Our every move is now tracked so that advertisers can buy access to us on an individual level, armed with the knowledge of what it is we watch, read, buy, etc. For the capitalist class this is certainly a boon: why support popular intelligence (news production) when they can support a massive system of commercial surveillance, which of course can double as political surveillance where need be.i This confluence of commercial and political surveillance has been painfully illustrated by the recent disclosures of the NSA helping themselves to the accumulated data of telecommunications and internet service companies.

The media is more subservient to official sources now than ever: With the decline of newspapers and funding for reporting the media has become even more reliant on and subservient to official sources. This decline has occurred in the same period as the political disciplining and starving of the social sciences and the humanities in the public university system. Such that the ability of counter-hegemonic “experts” to find refuge and prestige in the university system has also declined. The loudest voices that remain are those of corporate and Pentagon PR.

The same study on media in Maryland, referenced above for the point that traditional print media do the majority of original reporting, also found that 86% of all news stories are initiated by government or corporate PR, rather than reporter investigation. Only 14% of news stories they reviewed began with a reporter asking a question, the rest were put to the public upon the suggestion of power.ii Consider the enormity of PR. The Pentagon PR budget is estimated to be five billion dollars annually. Evidently, the Pentagon spends more money on military music than the entire Federal budget for public broadcasting (550 million dollars and 446 million dollars, respectively). The PR representatives of the Pentagon and military contractors dominate the airwaves as “experts”, whenever a new imperialist project is being sought by this or that sector. See this, this, this, and this.

But the PR problem is not all the pentagon. According to Robert McChesney and John Nichols, reporters are now outnumbered by PR agents four to one. Which means the public rarely receives news not crafted, at least in part, by the powerful who either are the subject of the news, or have some particular interest in what the public thinks about it.

A Silver Lining?

Some will be objecting at this point, claiming that the openness of the Internet and the cheap publishing the Internet makes possible has created some countervailing push in a democratic direction. This is not entirely untrue. After all cheap publishing, and particularly “social media” has been cited as a factor in most, if not all, of the political ruptures of the recent past, be they uprisings in the Arab world, or the spread of protests around structural racism and policing here in the United States. The internet has lowered the cost of distribution of media content, and therefore, has partially democratized distribution. Accordingly, the Internet provides an opening that should not be dismissed.

However, the openness of the internet is currently under attack in the move to end net-neutrality, and the Internet being transformed into a surveillance apparatus, both for commercial purposes, and state repression. See the Guardian’s innumerable articles on the Eduard Snowden disclosures. Furthermore, the Pentagon and other governments are actively trying to hack the mechanisms of opinion forming on the Internet, see this, this, and this. And, do not forget that facebook was recently revealed to be manipulating users emotions for ‘research’, rumored linked to the Pentagon.

Even leaving all this aside, if we assume for arguments sake that net-neutrality will be preserved and that the NSA will be restrained, the Internet’s open system of distribution will do nothing to reform the dangerously anti-democratic institutional arrangements of news and cultural media production. After nearly two decades of living with the Internet it is clear that cheap and immediate distribution alone will not democratize the media system.

What do we do about the media system?

To review, Herman and Chomsky gave an elucidating description of why our news media particularly, and our media generally function to support power. In the time since this seminal work was published, the situation has worsened in almost every axis of analysis.

What do we do about it? The Left must first, imagine a horizontal media system – what are the institutions that must be built to replace those which now control how information is produced and distributed. We add our voice to the efforts of others currently engaged in this imagining in the next article in this series. Second, the Left must build a mass social movement to demand the actualization of the imagined horizontal media system. The analysis of this project and how it should relate to a larger left revolutionary project is the question taken up in the third article in this series.

i Our ideas on the role advertising plays in manufacturing demand in the economy and the relationship of this to ideological power are borrowed significantly from the work of John Bellamy Foster, the current editor of the Monthly Review. This particular analysis of the political confluence of the states desire to surveil the population and the vast surveillance apparatus assembled for advertising is borrowed from the article by John Bellamy Foster and Robert McChesney, Surveillance Capitalism, Monthly Review, Volume 66, issue 3.

ii Much of the thoughts expressed in this series of articles are developed in reading the author and communications scholar Robert McChesney. Robert McChesney and Jonathan Nicholas pointed out startling significance of the Pew Research study on the Baltimore media landscape in Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Off the Lights.

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