The Propaganda Model

IssueOctober 2011
Feature by Alison Edgley

According to Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Propaganda Model (PM) of the media, the mainstream media do not operate as a fourth estate. Although they may challenge individuals and even governments, they do not challenge the edifice behind which the concentrations of economic and political power are maintained. Events that might threaten established interests are either ignored or treated with indignation, whereas events that bolster support for the status quo are given a lot of attention, and apparently sober assessment.


What makes an item newsworthy according to the PM? Herman and Chomsky argue that five filters shape news and influence whether an item is newsworthy or not.

Mainstream media are dominated by massive conglomerates. Media ownership is highly concentrated, and ownership of outlets with substantial outreach is unavailable to the majority. Like other corporations, the mainstream media have corporate interests. Mainstream media are dependent upon advertising revenue from corporations. These corporations can and do withdraw their business if they perceive their interests being challenged.

The requirement for regular and credible stories leads to a heavy reliance on government and other elites for information about events. Government and corporates can mobilise “flak and enforcers” to ensure powerful pressure is exerted when interests are perceived to be threatened.

The ideology of anticommunism, and more recently the “war against terror” have served to ensure that it is legitimate news practice to root for “our side”. Commentators may question the means, but the end – to remove any threat to the economic and power distribution of the status quo – is not up for debate. The underlying principle – support of established privilege – goes unexpressed and unchallenged.

It is this final filter which establishes the invisible boundaries of thinkable thought. Such state-endorsed propaganda is not made explicit, but is assumed and remains implicit. Protecting corporate interests and established privilege is presented as in the interests of all citizens and is therefore subsumed as uncontentious and neutral.

Chomsky is not arguing that the interests of the state and all corporate interests are homogenous. In the classic example of the Vietnam war, hot dispute was waged, but focussed on how the war should be fought, not whether it should be fought in the first place.

As Chomsky argues: “if you want to learn something about the propaganda system, have a close look at the critics and their tacit assumptions”.

Fierce debate then is permissible, but only within certain boundaries. Indeed debate or “feigned dissent” is encouraged, because it has a “system-reinforcing” effect. Dissent contributes to the illusion that the media are “free”, independent and defiant, when in fact they represent and pursue private corporate interests and agendas.

Chomsky uses Orwell’s term “newspeak” to refer to the way in which language is used to constrain thought and limit radical dissent.

For example, if a Western government is elected by universal suffrage, it must be democratic, and if it claims to be defending democratic principles, it is therefore assumed that it must be.

Chomsky prefers to look at the evidence. In case after case, exploring the evidence exposes the way in which so-called democratic governments are involved internationally in violent repression in support of dictatorships. Chomsky chooses more representative terms to depict the actions of such “democratic” governments. Using the US military’s own definitions he argues that these governments use “terrorism”, “invasion”, “fraud” and “propaganda” to ensure favourable outcomes.

The PM presents us with an account of our media operating a non-Orwellian version of thought control because it is achieved through a guided free market in ideas. The guides are the filters. As Chomsky argues, the media fulfils its “societal purpose” which is to “protect privilege from the threat of public understanding and participation”, by narrowly defining the terms of the debate, cultivating a “virtuous attachment” to government and avoiding the study of institutions and how they function.

As such, this guided free market in ideas ensures some ideas and views (Chomsky’s own, for example) are regarded as so outlandish that they are treated with derision and as unworthy of expression.

Testing testing

Is the PM empirically verifiable? Chomsky offers three tests of the model:

1) Analysis of reporting that is held up as an example of independence.

2) Comparing paired examples of historical events to explore disparities in treatment.

3) Testing the range of permitted opinion on important topics. (Chomsky’s own account of events is pervasively ignored or misrepresented in the media and the PM is not part of the debate about how the media functions among academics).

The Watergate affair is held up as an archetypal example of investigative journalism, demonstrating both the media’s independence and willingness to challenge the political establishment. The Watergate affair focussed upon the fact that Nixon’s administration was exposed as having paid criminals to break into the Democratic Party headquarters.

At the same time it was also revealed, but received barely any attention, that the FBI had been involved in disruption and intimidation of Socialist Workers Party activities (another legal political party). Government documents revealed a systematic programme of terror and intimidation of Young Socialist Alliance members and Black Panthers. Indeed the FBI directed the assassination of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, both Black Panthers. Police raided their flat claiming they were responding to gunfire, but this was established as false.

Chomsky describes this event as a “Gestapo-style political assassination” which, for him, “completely overshadows the entire Watergate episode in significance by a substantial margin”. On foreign policy, the Propaganda Model predicts that enemy states who harm their people receive much media attention, and the victims by sheer weight of coverage are treated as “worthy” of attention. By contrast, states friendly to western interests who harm their people, receive little or no attention, and their victims are treated as “unworthy” of mainstream media attention. The Propaganda Model predicts different treatment depending on how useful the case is in propaganda terms.

Herman and Chomsky compare the coverage in October 1984 of a Polish (then an enemy state) priest, Jerzy Popieluszko (worthy victim), who was killed, with the killing of 100 Latin American (client state) religious figures (unworthy victims) between 1964 and 1980. One Polish man was given almost twice the column inches as the 100 from Latin America. The tone of coverage was also different. Popieluszko’s murder was reported in tones of righteous anger, whereas there was a distinct lack of indignation about the death of the Latin American victims.

Herman and Chomsky argue that coverage of Polish atrocities was likely to increase popular support for US foreign policy, whereas coverage of the Latin American victims would endanger US support for one of its client regimes.

In Chomsky’s view, the propaganda system primarily targets educated elites who would experience too much cognitive dissonance if the truth were exposed. As Chomsky argues, most people are not gangsters and would agree it’s wrong to steal food from starving children. That this happens under the guise of foreign policy is easier to ignore when supported by the propaganda system.