Nefarious Uses and Democratic Possibilities:

Propaganda in the U.S. Mass Media


"What is lacking, between the hype and the jeremaiads, is a perspective on the new media that combines criticism of nefarious uses (commercial, governmental, military) with an understanding of the democratic possibilities, in order to develop a theory of communications technologies as tools for social progress."[i]



Introduction | The Propaganda Model |The Picture Today| Conclusion | Notes | References



Everyone goes through life accumulating knowledge and experience to build a personal identity, and an individual worldview, or pair of lenses, as Patrick Wilson conceptualizes it [ii], through which we observe and understand new information and knowledge. The construction of these lenses is continuous and subconscious for most of us most of the time. Often, when we receive new cognitive input which "looks right" to the lenses we have constructed, we continue along without making much adjustment. At other times, we may come to a moment where something else shakes us up enough to require that we change the focus or find a new pair of lenses altogether. No matter how individual events or messages may shape our inner understanding and outer perception, we are likely to benefit most from seeing as much of the picture from as many points as possible. That is, our understanding and accuracy of vision is most assured by understanding context and seeing enough to make our own choices for where and how to put the "frame."

What happens when the information we are receiving is presented already framed; moreover, what if the frame is not readily visible to us?

This paper looks at a theory about the frame(s) created by the major mass media corporations responsible for much of our current information and entertainment "content." I will consider a "propaganda model" describing this framing process, published before the development of the Internet (and before the end of the Cold War), and reconsider it in light of current trends in mass media and multimedia corporations, including additional theories regarding the influences and driving forces behind mass media information production/distribution. Finally, I will discuss some ways and suggestions for preserving balance by raising awareness of "framing," and alternative views (those outside the mainstream mass media/multimedia in the United Sates).


The Propaganda Model

Chomsky and Herman [1] posit a "propaganda model" of mass media at work in the US, one which operates absent the presence of a totalitarian, monopolistic government, and in spite of (or even partially fueled by) the competitive forces of capitalism:

"It is much more difficult to see a propaganda system at work where the media are private and formal censorship is absent. This is especially true where the media actively compete, periodically attack and expose corporate and governmental malfeasance, and aggressively portray themselves as spokesmen for free speech and the general community interest. What is not evident (and remains undiscussed in the media) is the limited nature of such critiques, as well as the huge inequality in command of resources, and its effect both on access to a private media system and on its behavior and performance."[2]

This propaganda model is constructed of five "filters" through which the "raw material" of news must pass, successively, until only a narrow range of viewpoints and ideas is visible. In other words, these filters construct for us a "frame" which shapes the way we see and understand the information it contains; the danger in this may be that the frame is not always visible to us, and our blindness to it endangers our ability to judge its validity or fairness against our own worldview and experience.

The First Filter: Size, Ownership, and Profit Orientation of the Mass Media

Basically, the larger a media corporation becomes, the more difficult it is for smaller competitors to match them in terms of increased capital costs (for startup, production, and output for reaching large audiences). The largest (and most successful and dominant) media corporations are "owned and controlled by quite wealthy people." [3] Of these profit-seeking companies and their owners, many are "fully integrated into the market" and for all, the "pressures of stockholders, directors and bankers to focus on the bottom line"[4] are intense. As the potential profits in stock options rises, these pressures only increase. The owners and controllers of the top media corporations often count executives and board members from "outside" industries among their members, executives from other corporate areas and banking firms. "The larger the firm and the more widely distributed the stock, the larger the number and proportion of outside directors." [5]

Besides powerful ties to other large and influential corporations and financial institutions, the mass media companies have close ties to and dependence on government. This relationship is exhibited in companies' need for government licensing, franchising and government control.[6] The media corporations must foster good relationships with the government, and fund effective lobbying groups, besides general interests in policy issues which affect them: "business taxes, interest rates, labor policies,...enforcement and nonenforcement of the antitrust laws." [7]

Chomsky and Herman's discussion of media corporations' size and market integration predates the emergence of the Internet and the subsequent frenetic scramble by information and entertainment companies to gain larger shares of the "content" market. Since the publication of their book, and this model, the merging and expansion of those companies into huge megacorporations which control the information and entertainment market from raw materials to distribution of the final products has only increased. Their table of financial data for twenty-four large media corporations [8] (dating from December 1986) could almost generate nostalgia for the "good old days," considering that it listed Capital Cities/ABC in third ranking, which has now been gobbled up by Walt Disney (currently listed in first place among its industry cohort at Forbes' 500 [9] Also, consider that Time, Inc., made the list, and ratchet its holdings and diversification within the information and entertainment market up to include the holdings of its current parent company, AOL TimeWarner.

The growth in size and influence on the information- and entertainment-seeking audience of the media corporations over the last twelve years emphasizes the utility of considering this first filter alone as a decisive factor in shaping the information and its "messages" we receive.

Schiller, Drew, Besser, Carlsson and Bettig [10] all speak to the increasing expansion and vertical integration of the information companies in the age of the Internet and the promise (to profits) of the much vaunted "National Information Infrastructure." Moreover, the authors all draw lines to the increasingly controlled nature of the information to be received through the products and services of these mass media corporations. The pressure of profitability, and the focus within a capitalist economy to continuously increase capital ("it takes money to make money" and it takes ever more money to make more money), drives the need to ensure that information will have the least chance to offend or arouse its audience, especially the audience which is willing and able to pay the most money for it--which leads to the second filter in the propaganda model.

The Second Filter: the Advertising License to Do Business

As Herman and Chomsky explain, "an advertising-based system will tend to drive out of existence or into marginality the media companies and types that depend on revenue from sales alone. With advertising, the free market does not yield a neutral system in which the final buyer choice decides. The advertisers' choices influence media prosperity and survival [emphasis authors']." [11] With the added subsidy provided by advertisers, media companies which sell advertising space have an economic advantage over those which do not sell advertising. They are taking in monies in addition to the monies brought with subscription/circulation/sales. In addition, advertisers have less interest in advertising with newspapers or other media aimed at less affluent (poor, working class) audiences, since those consumers are less likely to be able to buy their products and services. They want the readers/viewers they reach to be buyers. Finally, the advertising factor sets up a de facto discrimination in how media gear the information/entertainment to its audience. The advertisers will buy space/time in outlets and programs driven to the audience with the most discretionary income to spend; therefore, they exert an indirect pressure on the content companies to concentrate on information and entertainment directed at the wealthier audience. "The idea that the drive for large audiences makes the mass media 'democratic' thus suffers from the initial weakness that its political analogue is a voting system weighted by income!" [12]

Additional discrimination comes into play when advertisers exercise discretion among media institutions based on their own practices and principles. If a program or article is critical of corporate practices by the advertising company or perhaps wider industry practices, it won't find sponsorship by the "offending" institution! Not wanting to offend those advertisers, media will increasingly learn to "behave," and stop producing content likely to have any controversial potential in relation to its powerful sponsors. Eventually, we are left with bland, corporate-friendly entertainment.

The Third Filter: Sourcing Mass-Media News

This refers to the fact that what Herman and Chomsky call the "raw material" of news must feed continuously into the mass media producers, with the pressure of their deadlines. In order to ensure the greatest chance that this raw material will be constantly available, as reliable as possible (from "authoritative" sources), and of national significance, the mass media producers look to the press agencies of government and business corporations. These institutions have press departments, prestigious reputations which contribute to their ostensible credibility, and perform actions and transactions regularly that are considered "news." Relying on such institutions also cuts down on the cost of investigating facts and details from lesser known and potentially less credible sources, and again, the bottom line is everything. Additionally, the size of the press machines and agencies for these large and powerful institutions often outnumber even collectively the press agencies for smaller groups. The military, as well, have press departments which are relative giants in size. So, if the raw material of news and information produced and disseminated by mass media originates within the government, big business and military sectors, there is not much chance that the viewpoint of that material will deviate from the viewpoint of those institutions.

In the age of the media megacorporations, they can produce their own news and information content, shaped by their own framework and profit demands. "...giant companies ...possess the hardware and software to fully control messages and images from the conceptual stage to their ultimate delivery to users and audiences." [13] We already see that shaping, in the push by multimedia companies to sell us entertainment and shopping, over educational information: "If people say they desire informational services more than entertainment and shopping (and say they're willing to pay for it) [as they did in a 1994 MacWorld survey cited by the author], why does the telecommunications industry continue to focus on plans oriented toward entertainment and shopping? Because the industry believes that, in the long run, this other set of services will prove more lucrative." [14] Controlling the entire content apparatus from raw material to finished product and dissemination of that product, the choice is ultimately theirs. In spite of what the audience may say it wants!

The Fourth Filter: Flak and the Enforcers

"The ability to produce flak, and especially flak that is costly and threatening, is related to power." [15] In order to carry the most weight with media corporations, flak (defined by the authors as "negative responses to a media statement or program") has to be produced "on a large scale, or by individuals or groups with substantial resources." [15] Those powerful individuals and groups, then, are likely to be the White House, ad agencies, corporate sponsors, applying (complaining) to the media companies, or putting pressure on stockholders and employees to then pressure the media companies.

Influential flak can also come from institutions formed specifically to represent the corporate and other powerful interests in protecting their media representation. "Along with its other political investments of the 1970s and 1980s, the corporate community sponsored the growth of institutions such as the American Legal Foundation, the Capital Legal Foundation, the Media Institute, the Center for Media and Public Affairs, and Accuracy in Media (AIM). These may be regarded as institutions organized for the specific purpose of producing flak." [16]

Criticism from outside the powerful corporate or government institutions and from outside the desirable demographics of the advertisers is less influential in changing media policies. It would have to come in huge numbers from the "regular" folks to sufficiently pressure or embarrass a media producer into changing its policy or offering apologies.

Perhaps this filter changes within the realm of the Internet and major multimedia content providers in one sense, although no less insidiously, even if it reduces consumer flak considerably: with the ability of the provider and the accompanying advertisers to collect highly detailed information on each user's vital statistics, purchasing decisions and viewing habits, there is certainly less chance that the user will be presented with information not shaped specifically for her/him. However, with programming and content, as described above, geared more for entertaining users or coercing purchases out of them, the fact that messages are shaped to fit his "interests" is essentially meaningless for providing anything truly significant or serious.

The Fifth Filter: Anticommunism as a Control Mechanism

Until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union's dissolution, this filter could be seen as very effective in creating a strong "Us vs. Them" atmosphere. Certainly during the 1950s, anyone even remotely connected to Communism was at best suspect, at worst a monster. Things relaxed a little with the rise of the "New Left" in the 1960s, but the extremist stance against the "Reds" spiked again during Reagan's tenure as US President (the time of Herman and Chomsky's publication). Reagan's "Evil Empire" rhetoric and attendant foreign policy actions (overt and clandestine) created media which "framed [issues] in terms of a dichotomized world of Communist and anti-Communist powers, with gains and losses allocated to contesting sides, and rooting for "our side" considered an entirely legitimate news practice." [emphasis added] [17]

The "ideology and religion of anticommunism" [18] is powerful as a propagandic mechanism in and of itself.

With the end of the Cold War in 1991, it would seem we have lost one filter. However, it appears, following upon the "events of September 11" and the decision by President George W. Bush to declare "war on terrorism," we have replaced anticommunism with an even more powerful cause--antiterrorism. While it is true that the peaks of anticommunist fervor in the US made of the communists an unambiguous and dastardly enemy for freedom-loving, democratic Americans (as the argument went), consider the idea of antiterrorism and the current environment in the mass media. Is there anyone anywhere who would go on the record to state that "terrorism" has a point or a place, that they believe in "terrorism?" Even for those who commit acts of terrorism for whatever reasons they have, we may assume that they don't call themselves (or consider themselves) to be "terrorists." Like the debates which have arisen in the last fifteen years or so surrounding women's reproductive rights, where the arguments settled for awhile in a place where "pro-lifers" were on one side of the fence (and "pro-choicers" on the other)--who would consider themselves "anti-life?" The terminology is such that it makes implications and frames the question in the minds of all of us so that public discourse is corralled and directed.

The ideology and religion of antiterrorism is readily apparent in current mass media output. "God Bless America" and fervid showings of patriotism are ubiquitous. President Bush's antiterrorism rhetoric is eerily similar to Reagan-era anticommunist rhetoric: are we not going to "root out" the "evildoers," and do whatever it takes to end terrorism for all time and all places? In an NY Times article on December 7, 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft made the "us and them" explicit, when he "defended the [Bush] administration's array of antiterrorism proposals and accused some of the program's critics of aiding terrorists by providing 'ammunition to America's enemies.'" [19] If you aren't with us all the way, you're one of them.

Ashcroft's statement implies that questioning any of the anti-terrorist policies, even to raise legitimate concerns about privacy, Fourth Amendment rights, human rights, or simply the effectiveness of those policies, is akin to abetting terrorist acts. Such statements create an atmosphere which chills and halts public discourse. It also means to express the sentiment that anyone who questions the administration's decisions does not know what is best. Leave it to the experts!


The Picture Today

At the very least, the "filters" discussed by Chomsky and Herman are still in place and at work. The direction of expanding and merging media corporations has continued with fewer huge corporations owning an array of television, radio and film production companies, newspaper and magazine publications, hard- and soft-ware manufacturing and retail outlets, movie theaters and video rental outlets, and Internet service providers. The continued homogenization of information and entertainment (the least offensive, most sellable product ensuring the most profit) leads toward a meaningless competition where the viewpoints expressed ultimately fall within a very narrow range. "Concentrated media ownership and control results in, to use Edward Herman's terminology, 'marginal' or 'meaningless' diversity. Moreover, the commodity process itself conditions the output of the communications system." [20]

"The contest of CNN against ABC against BBC against TV GLOBO against NHK will supposedly demonstrate the 'freedom of the airwaves.' Competition will be emphasized to obscure the essential sameness and increasingly homogenized package of modern life, a package that is paradoxically very different from the lives of most people." [21] Global media broadcasting is escalating the encroaching "monoculture," towards the "final airport-ization and enclave-ization of reality for the haves, while the have-nots remain unseen and unnoticed, except as panhandlers, rioters, and tribalists." [emphasis added] [21] Those of us who don't buy in to the only available message, as bland and irrelevant to our own lives as it will be, will be seen as troublemakers.

The picture such a world forms is one much like Aldous Huxley's Brave New World of people sleepwalking through life, pacified by images and messages produced for that purpose, while under constant surveillance, only in this case "Big Brother" is a media megacorporation, collecting bits and bytes about individuals in order to sell them more of the same. The only choices we will have will be the false choices of what to purchase from a preselected array, or the closed set of activities from a menu called "interactivity." [22] "By providing limited choices, interactivity mimics shopping and the false control offered over work by self-management and workers' participation schemes, wherein workers decide how to accomplish the business's mission, but, crucially, not what the mission is." [emphasis author's] [23]

What, then is the mission? How can relatively powerless individuals find a way out of or around the "monoculture" and see beyond the frame we are given as an audience?

The only answer to that question seems to lie in raising awareness of how we are presented with information, and learning to look hard for the frame as well as at the picture. We must also, at the same time, become conscious of our own pairs of lenses. Using mass media and multimedia information technology as ubiquitously as most of us will be doing (if not already), the first step toward seeing beyond and around the frames is understanding that they are present. We use the term information literacy to describe that consciousness, an awareness of not only the message, but the messenger and the way the message is presented.

Another step is to look for alternatives to the mass media for new and different "voices." The more we can expose ourselves to a variety of viewpoints, the more detailed and well-contextualized the picture and our understanding of its significance. Alternative voices are harder to find, and require more of our energy and time to seek out, but they can provide the balance which is otherwise lacking. Alternatives abound on the Internet, and in publications such as 'zines, small presses, companies, activist groups, radio stations which are not corporate-sponsored. It can be illuminating as well to consider extra-U.S. programs and publications, including those not corporate- or government-sponsored, when possible.

Making a conscious choice to question what we receive as an audience, even if it fits perfectly with our worldview, we might have the opportunity to adjust our lenses or don a new pair, at least temporarily, and see things in a way which we never thought possible. The Internet is still a potential tool for organizing and maintaining some independence of voice, and until it achieves perfect "commodification," where our impulse to traipse around serendipitously is stifled by pricetags attached to every instance of information use [24].



We spend our lives unconsciously building ways of seeing the world and understanding it. When we turn to the media for input, information, images, education, we receive content which is also framed in a particular way. It seems almost quaint to think of propaganda in the U.S. mass media in this post-Cold War, postindustrial, "revolutionary" world. However, the propaganda model proposed by Herman and Chomsky twelve years ago still fits today's Information Age very well. With the increasing focus on big business and big profits through expansion, vertical integration and stock market integration, we seem to be moving inexorably toward a time when only a single (the most lucrative) or very few points of view in the mass media will be available at all; a time when we are receiving the blandest, least controversial messages, and anyone who questions or argues with those messages will be increasingly marginalized or even vilified for their troubles. The U.S. mass media has proven to be particularly homogenous and intolerant of a range of views in the atmosphere created by the acts of September 11. The only way to try and maintain meaningful discourse and understanding of the world may lie in our efforts to increase our own awareness, and that of others, and in our efforts to seek out and listen to alternative voices.

Introduction | The Propaganda Model |The Picture Today| Conclusion | Notes | References