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Propaganda and media

Milan Rai recaps the Chomsky-Herman "Propaganda Model" of the mainstream media.

When the idea of the Rebellious Media Conference first bubbled up a year ago, there were two things that we really wanted to achieve with the event. We wanted to inspire people with excellent examples of radical media – the extraordinary achievements of The NewStandard were a prime example (see articles on this page). We also wanted to get a much wider circle of people (activists, journalists and others) engaging seriously with the Chomsky-Herman Propaganda Model of the media. (There are other strands also.)

Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman have described the workings of the western mainstream media, and of mainstream academia, as “brainwashing under freedom”. There is no central authority determining and enforcing “the party line” through intimidation and terror, but there is strict intellectual conformism on a huge scale.

The Chomsky–Herman “Propaganda Model” of the western mass media is a “guided-free-market” model, in which thought is controlled by market forces operating in a highly unequal society. Media institutions are large profit-seeking corporations which rely on advertising revenue from other businesses. They select for employment and promotion reporters and commentators who have developed the “right” attitudes through educational and on-the-job experiences.

In largely-free societies such as Britain and the United States, indoctrination is achieved by setting down the boundaries of acceptable opinion, and then allowing debate to flourish within these confines.

Herman and Chomsky comment: “That the media provide some information about an issue... proves absolutely nothing about the adequacy or accuracy of media coverage. The media do in fact suppress a great deal of information, but even more important is the way they present a particular fact – its placement, tone, and frequency of repetition – and the framework of analysis in which it is placed.” They explain that: “the enormous amount of material that is produced in the media and books makes it possible for a really assiduous and committed researcher to gain a fair picture of the real world by cutting through the mass of misrepresentation and fraud to the nuggets hidden within.”

“That a careful reader, looking for a fact can sometimes find it, with diligence and a skeptical eye, tells us nothing about whether that fact received the attention and context it deserved, whether it was intelligible to most readers, or whether it was effectively distorted or suppressed.” Chomsky sums up decades of work, with collaborators and associates, by suggesting that “thousands of pages of detailed documentation” have demonstrated “beyond any reasonable doubt” that in democratic societies too, “the doctrines of the state religion are firmly implanted and widely believed, in utter defiance of plain fact, particularly by the intelligentsia who construct and propagate these doctrines.”

Chomsky urges: “For those who stubbornly seek freedom, there can be no more urgent task than to come to understand the mechanisms and practices of indoctrination.” What is needed is what Chomsky calls “intellectual self-defence” by the general public against the media and the state.

In the case of Britain’s war in Afghanistan, there is quite a fierce debate in the mainstream over the costs and benefits of the war, and the proper speed at which withdrawal should occur. Two factors which are routinely ignored in this debate are what the people of Afghanistan think about ending the war, and what the people of Britain think about ending the war. Quite a lot is known about both of these topics (see PN 2530, 2508), but this information is firmly ignored as the British political debate takes place on anti-democratic assumptions.

The Guardian, in its latest editorial on Afghanistan, refers to the war as a “bungled liberal intervention” (24 June). The Independent, in a leader on 12 June, does not criticise the war on grounds of principle, but says that “the net benefit to the Afghan people – let alone to British national security – of our presence there does not justify the cost in British lives”. Near the liberal extreme of the British media, the war is seen as “liberal”, and judged only in terms of costs and benefits, not measured against law or morality. The primary concern is the cost to the public purse.

In the run-up to the Rebellious Media Conference, and the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan, JNV will be publicising The Three Big Lies About Afghanistan: www.j-n-v.org

Milan Rai is a co-editor of Peace News and co-organiser of the Rebellious Media Conference. He is giving a workshop on Chomsky’s politics at PN Summer Camp.