Political Economy and the Propaganda Model of Noam Chomsky
Using one of the case studies outlined by Chomsky & Herman in ‘Manufacturing Consent – The Political Economy of the Mass Media’, critically assess the main propositions put forward in their analysis of the mass media. Is the ‘Propaganda Model’ still relevant today? Noam Chomsky along with Edward Herman has developed the “Propaganda Model” of the media works. They helped develop the detailed and sophisticated analysis of how the wealthy and powerful use the media to propagandise their own interests behind a mask of objective news reporting.
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Herman and Chomsky expound this analysis in their book ‘Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media’. In their 1988 book, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s ‘propaganda model’ argues that there are 5 classes of ‘filters’ in society which determine what is ‘news’; in other words, what gets broadcast by radio or printed in newspapers and shown on television. Herman and Chomsky’s model also explains how dissent from the mainstream is given little, or zero, coverage, while governments and big business gain easy access to the public in order to convey their state-corporate messages.
Noam Chomsky has been engaged in political activism most of his life; he spoke up firstly about the media coverage of Nicaragua. July 19, 1979 – the leftist Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN/Sandinistas) rolled into Managua, Nicaragua leader of the insurrection that had finally succeeded in overthrowing the dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Then there was the election in 1984. The American coverage for the elections in Nicaragua and el Salvador are a key aspect which Chomsky and Herman cover in Manufacturing Consent, and one which Chomsky spoke of on many occasions.
The media covered both elections in both countries simultaneously the American media condemned the outcome of the election in Nicaragua as a “soviet sham” because the new Nicaraguan government were against the American puppet government and were a more socialist country. Because President Reagan’s war created a need for a propaganda victory, in December 1983 the Sandinistas outsmarted Washington by scheduling their first post-triumph election earlier than originally planned— 2 days before Americans would decide whether President Reagan should continue to lead the country.
The Media coverage up to this point had been little in the way of truth, and of the actual happenings of Nicaragua in the past. What they were trying to achieve, for many years, and most of all about the upcoming elections of the time. The American press seemed to try and protect America’s interest and perception by the people, then to deliver unbiased reporting. The fact that most of the rest of the world was opposed to Reagan’s terrorist activities didn’t filter through to the Americans.
Most of the Nicaraguan people, along with many worldwide had hoped that if the Sandinistas won as expected, Washington would accept the results and call off President Reagan’s “freedom fighters”. This was a naive hope, as Secretary of State George P. Shultz made clear: “with or without elections we will continue our policy of pressuring Nicaragua”. Nicaragua was in the news on election night in the U. S, but the story that was in the news was not one on Nicaragua’s election. The story was of soviet MIGs.
As reported by CBS Evening News on November 6, 1984, the soviet freighter Bakuriani was on its way to Nicaragua with MIG 21 fighters aboard. The ‘sham election’ story was succeeded quickly by the security threat story. The overwhelming majority of objective observers concluded that the election was conducted competently and fairly by the Supreme Electoral Council, and that all Nicaraguan political parties had been given ample opportunity and resources to campaign and get their messages out to the people without serious hindrance from the Sandinistas.
While all this was going on, the American government stated on the complete flipside that the El Salvador election, whose victors were against the socialist uprising, was a victory for democracy. The Americans supported the oppressive party and condemned the socialists because it suited them and they could easily pass off the socialists as communists. The American government continued to support and fund the tyranny long after this travesty. “Only the naive believe that Sunday’s election in Nicaragua was democratic or legitimizing proof of the Sandinistas’ popularity.
The result was ordained when opposition parties tamely accepted terms that barred them from power. This plebiscite will not end the struggle for pluralism in Nicaragua. But neither can it serve as justification for recent American policy. “The Sandinistas made it easy to dismiss their election as a sham. … ” Nobody Won in Nicaragua, Editorial, New York Times, Nov 7, 1984 pg. A26. “No major political tendency in Nicaragua was denied access to the electoral process in 1984. The only parties that did not appear on the ballot were absent by their own choice, not because of government exclusion. … Opposition parties received their legal allotments of campaign funds and had regular and substantial access to radio and television. The legally registered opposition parties were able to hold the vast majority of their rallies unimpeded by pro-FSLN demonstrators or by other kinds of government interference. ” (http://www. williamgbecker. com/lasa_1984. pdf)”A member of the [opposition] Popular Social Christian Party, Jose Lazos said his party ‘recognized the percentage of the F. S. L. N. vote. ‘ ‘It was an honourable process’, he said. ” [Lazos also confided to the LASA delegation “We received the vote we expected”.
LASA report, ibid. , p. 18. — B. B. ] “A team of observers from the Washington Office on Latin America, a church-sponsored lobbying group, said the electoral process had been ‘meaningful’ and had provided a political opening in Nicaragua. “The group, in a statement prepared after the voting ended on Sunday, said the process had been ‘well-conceived’ and had afforded ‘easy access to vote with guarantees of secrecy. ” From Sandinista Claims Big Election Victory, by Gordon Mott. New York Times, Nov 6, 1984. “However, [Virgilio Godoy, the PLI presidential candidate who dropped out the day after a visit from the U.
S. ambassador] went on to compare favourably Nicaragua’s election with presidential elections in El Salvador earlier this year.‘If the US is going to try to be honest in evaluating these elections, it will be a real problem for the Reagan administration,’ Mr. Godoy said. ‘If the US administration said that the Guatemalan and Salvadorian elections were valid ones, how can they condemn elections in Nicaragua, when they have been no worse and probably a lot better than elections in Salvador and Guatemala. ‘The elections here have been much more peaceful.
There were no deaths as in the other two countries, where the opposition were often in fear for their lives. ‘” Nicaragua vote seen as better run than Salvador’s By Dennis Volman, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor November 5, 1984, p. 13. Managua, Nicaragua “Reviewing the history of the negotiations between the FSLN and the opposition parties since 1981, and especially during the current election year, Stephen Kinzer, the Managua-based correspondent of The New York Times, told our delegation ‘The FSLN gave in on almost all of the opposition parties’ demands concerning how the electoral process would be run.
Their stance seemed to be, “if any clause of the election law causes serious controversy, we’ll modify it. ” Most of the opposition’s complaints about the process had nothing to do with the mechanics of the elections, but rather were more general criticisms of the political system…. What some of these groups want is a complete change in the political system: to abolish the CDSs (Sandinista Defence Committees), get the Sandinistas out of the army, prohibit [incumbent] government officials from running for office, and so forth. In short, they want Nicaragua to become a parliamentary democracy first, before they will participate.
But this isn’t Switzerland! ‘ ” (LASA report, ibid. , p. 12. )”Suppose that some power of unimaginable strength were to threaten to reduce the United States to the level of Ethiopia unless we voted for its candidates, demonstrating that the threat was real. Suppose that we refused, and the threat was then carried out, the country brought to its knees, the economy wrecked and millions killed. Suppose, finally, that the threat were repeated, loud and clear, at the time of the next scheduled elections. Under such conditions, only the most extreme hypocrite would speak of a free election.
Furthermore, it is likely that close to 100% of the population would succumb. “Apart from the last sentence, I have just described U. S. -Nicaraguan relations for the last decade. ” —Noam Chomsky, The Boston Globe, March 4, 1990El Salvador in 1982 and 1984, and Nicaragua in 1984, provide a virtually controlled experiment in media integrity or submissiveness. The U. S. government promoted the Salvadoran elections as marvels of democratic advance, under adverse conditions, while trying to undermine and discredit the Nicaraguan election as a sham, even though facts did not support claims of superiority of the former election.
In the case of El Salvador, the U. S. government agenda stressed the importance and excellence of the election. They focused on the long lines of smiling voters, the size of the turnout, rebel opposition and alleged efforts at disruption. Additionally, they downplayed the absence of fundamental conditions of a free election, such as the freedoms of press and assembly; the ability of all groups to run candidates; and freedom from state terror and coercive threats. The idea that the American press was so quick to praise one and condemn the other is what Chomsky refers to as the ‘propaganda model’ of the mass media.
The American government dictates the press into writing about what benefits the American government more so than writing about the truth. Is the Propaganda Model still relevant today? In their propaganda model, Herman and Chomsky present a series of five “filters” to account for why the dominant U. S. media invariably serve as propagandists for the interests of the elite. Only stories with a strong orientation to elite interests can pass through the five filters unobstructed and receive ample media attention.
The model explains how the media can conscientiously function when even a superficial analysis of the evidence would indicate the preposterous nature of many of the stories that receive ample publicity in the press and on the network news broadcasts. However, what, if any of what Chomsky and Herman presented is still relevant today? The model was dubbed a conspiracy theory by many critics on both left and right although Herman says he and Chomsky had looked for structural factors as the only possible root of systematic behaviour and performance patterns.
In defending ‘Manufacturing Consent: Political Economy of the Mass Media’, Noam Chomsky’s collaborator Edward Herman says; “Institutional critiques such as we present in this book are commonly dismissed by establishment commentators as ‘conspiracy theories,’ but this is merely an evasion. We do not use any kind of ‘conspiracy’ hypothesis to explain mass-media performance. In fact, our treatment is much closer to a ‘free market’ analysis, with the results largely an outcome of the workings of market forces. Herman goes on to further explain how the model is not a conspiracy theory and relevant: “The propaganda model describes a decentralized and non-conspiratorial market system of control and processing, although at times the government or one or more private actors may take initiatives and mobilize co-ordinated elite handling of an issue. ” The “propaganda model” has as little in common with a “conspiracy theory” as saying that the management of General Motors acts to maintain and increase its profits.
As Chomsky notes, “to confront power is costly and difficult; high standards of evidence and argument are imposed, and critical analysis is naturally not welcomed by those who are in a position to react vigorously and to determine the array of rewards and punishments. Conformity to a ‘patriotic agenda,’ in contrast, imposes no such costs. ” Meaning that “conformity is the easy way, and the path to privilege and prestige… It is a natural expectation, on uncontroversial assumptions, that the major media and other ideological institutions will generally reflect the perspectives and interests of established power. [Necessary Illusions, pp. 8-9 and p. 10] So in totally ruling out the ‘conspiracy theory’ label, Herman writes that “the dramatic changes in the economy, the communications industries, and politics over the past dozen years have tended on balance to enhance the applicability of the propaganda model. The first two filters–ownership and advertising–have become ever more important. The decline of public broadcasting, the increase in corporate power and global reach, and the mergers and centralization of the media, have made bottom-line considerations more influential both in the United States and abroad.
The competition for advertisers has become more intense and the boundaries between editorial and advertising departments have weakened further. Newsrooms have been more thoroughly incorporated into transnational corporate empires, with budget cuts and even less management enthusiasm for investigative journalism that would challenge the structure of power (Herman and McChesney, 1997). ” What Herman is saying is that the journalists own voice has been reduced. The Internet and new communication technologies are breaking the corporate stranglehold on journalism somewhat and opening an unprecedented era of interactive democratic media.
Some think that they permit media firms to shrink staff while achieving greater outputs and they make possible global distribution systems, thus reducing the number of media entities. Herman states “there are, by one conservative count, 20,000 more PR agents working to doctor the news today than there are journalists writing it. ”Looking for more modern examples to see if ‘The propaganda model’ still applies Herman uses the media’s treatment of the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the subsequent Mexican crisis and meltdown of 1994-95.
He states that “once again there was a sharp split between the preferences of ordinary citizens and the elite and business community, with polls consistently showing substantial majorities opposed to NAFTA — and to the bailout of investors in Mexican securities — but the elite in favour”. Media news coverage, selection of “experts,” and opinion columns were skewed accordingly; their judgment was that the benefits of NAFTA were obvious, agreed to by all qualified authorities, and that only demagogues and “special interests” were opposed.
Labour has been under siege in the United States for the past fifteen years according to Herman, “but you would hardly know this from the mainstream media. ” Using the example of the long Pittston miners’ strike to show “the propaganda model’s” relevance in a similar way to Nicaragua, Timor, Jerzy Popieluszko and so many of Chomsky and Herman other examples the strike was afforded much less attention than the strike of miners in the Soviet Union.
The more recent examples to think of would be the American media coverage of the whole “war on terror” compared with most of the world’s media. Much of the world opposed the Iraq war and Americas invasions. In conclusion, the propositions put forward by Chomsky and Herman, such as the ‘five filters’ and their theories of mass media compared with worldwide media seem to be based on very solid ground, with a good foundation of case studies and research. The case study of Nicaragua being a prime example that backs up their studies in Manufacturing Consent.
It is quite clear to see how the American media has filtered different stories and overall tried to sway people’s perceptions on the issue. The fact that the similar situation in El Salvador was so comparable proves a great basis to highlight Chomsky and Herman’s theories. Also when talking about if ‘the propaganda model’ is relevant today in which Herman talking on whether it is still relevant claims that “The applicability of the propaganda model in these and other cases seems clear. I agree that ‘the propaganda model’ is most certainly applicable today. To what extent remains to be seen through research, though I disagree that the internet has brought on an even greater level of control to mass media, although it is worth noting that the internet was a lot different back in the 90’s when Herman talked about it. | Bibliography http://www. chomsky. info/onchomsky/2002—-. htm http://ics. leeds. ac. uk/papers/vp01. cfm? outfit=pmt&folder=30&paper=1227
The Social and Political Thought of Noam Chomsky by Alison Edgley http://anarchism. pageabode. com/afaq/secD3. html http://www. chomsky. info/onchomsky/20031209. htm http://www. williamgbecker. com/nicaragua_1984_election. php http://www. chomsky. info/onchomsky/198901–. htm Washington’s war on Nicaragua by Holly Sklar http://www. williamgbecker. com/lasa_1984. pdf http://www. fifth-estate-online. co. uk/comment/Mullen_paper_FEO. pdf http://www. llc. manchester. ac. uk/research/projects/etrist/conferences/fileuploadmax10mb,169799,en. pdf