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BF199 Modernity: Critique and Resistance
Week Three—
Mass Media and Propaganda
Chomsky – Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, ch1.
Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman – Manufacturing Consent
In this famous text, Chomsky and Herman discuss the effects of various institutional
pressures on mainstream news media in America (and by extension other “Western”
While these pressures repeat some of the trends of late capitalism, what is particularly
interesting here is the challenge these pressures pose to the modern Enlightenment
conception of critical thinking:
1) Insofar as we are all capable of thinking rationally and critically, we are all the universal
subjects of modern Enlightenment thought. But what are we thinking critically about?
Our contemporary world is a global one, and thus much of the information we have
about the world must come to us through media (we can’t be everywhere at once!) If
this information is skewed by passing through various filters before it gets to us, how
can we know whether we are being rational or not?
The warning to be critical is all well and good, but if we have no alternative source of
information to compare with, it becomes more and more difficult to feel we have any
access to truth at all.
2) Moreover, the fifth filter Chomsky and Herman describe – anti-communism – has
interesting links with Freud’s notions about externalizing aggressivity.
This is one way to channel our irrational drives in a way that allows us to live together
peacefully, but at what (or whose) cost?
Five Filters on Mainstream News
1: Size and Concentration of Ownership
2: Advertising
3: Sources
4: Flak
5: Anti-Communism (Dichotomization)
Note what the metaphor of filtering implies: Is there unfiltered news, and what might that look
like? If not, what kinds of filters might we want to employ if we had free reign?
Chomsky and Herman argue that the filters work so naturally that news
media people
are able to convince themselves they choose and interpret events
objectively. What does that say about the rest of us?
This is the function of ideology: When you think you are outside of it, that is when it is at its
Filter 1: Size and Concentration of Ownership
• Mainstream media firms are large, controlled by wealthy people, and subject to marketprofit-oriented forces.
• In our world of giant corporate mergers, mass media producers are closely interlocked
with and have common interests with other corporations.
Are media and corporations in bed together, so to say?
The one interest mainstream media corporations and other corporations share above all
is to sustain and extend the power of their own capital.
This means
a) selling products,
b) undermining the competition, and
c) shutting out critique of the institutions that support them (the
competition), including government, police, the military, and especially
capitalism as such.
The history of rule through market forces:
***Take note of the changes from the early 1800s to the late 1800s.
In the early 1800s there existed a strong, radical, working class press, which threatened
the ruling elite.
The elite attempted to squelch this working class press through direct legislation:
Libel laws, Requirement of security bond, and various taxes, which made it impossible
for working class groups and individuals to create viable news media alternatives.
But by the mid-1800s, these techniques give way to faith in marketplace as a
mechanism of control.
By the end of the 1800s, the shift from a strong, working class press, to a press
dominated by elites was clear.
A rise in the scale of newspapers based on technological improvements increased
capital costs, meaning that one required an enormous amount of money to start up a
news media organization that would be economically viable.
Is there a strong, radical, working class press today?
Filter 2: Advertizers
• Advertizers have acquired the de facto licensing authority over mainstream media, since
newspapers have ceased to be economically viable on their own.
▪ That is to say,
our expectation of cheap or even free information favours those
news sources who rely on advertizing.
If we expected to pay for information perhaps this wouldn’t be the case.
Notice: in academia, information is not free. One must pay for books, for journal
subscriptions, etc. These costs are higher than ordinary magazines which rely upon
Newspapers that rely on advertizing can afford a copy price far below production
• A cheaper product means more people will buy it, increasing both
advertising interests (and profits) and corporate interests (and profit).
• Cheap = making money (over competition).
And this means that advertizers have a strong input into what kind of news can and
can’t be published.
If we (advertisers) don’t like your content we won’t advertise with you (we won’t
pay you for our publicity), so you’ll have to charge your customers more for the
product, so you’ll get beat-up in the competition.
They can’t stop you from publishing directly, but they can choose to put their
resources somewhere else…
What are advertizers (amazon, sears, etc.) interested in?
Attracting audiences with buying power (not just audiences per se).
Thus, news media will tend to favour the interests of the wealthy and to ignore the
interests of the poor.
Thus it is FALSE to say that advertizers want to attract the largest possible audience, regardless
of who it is made up of, because they want to attract people with money and power.
Also, advertizers want to avoid programs with serious complexities and disturbing
controversies that interfere with the buying mood.
This leads inexorably to:
entertainment news or fluff news, which have no meaningful
impact on readers’ understanding of political or economic realities.
We get a lot of news every day, tons of facts and bits of information, but how much of it
actually matters? How much of it challenges our assumptions and beliefs?
The stories can be intense or titillating – reports on individual acts of extreme violence for
example – but suggestions of corporate or systematic failure must be downplayed in favour
of a reassuring corporate message.
Filter 3: Sources
• The mainstream media lives in a symbiotic relationship with powerful expert sources of
knowledge out of economic necessity and mutual interest.
• That is to say, government and corporate bureaucracies partially subsidize the news
industry by doing the work of writing news stories for them in the form of press
• The news industry returns the favour by supporting the interests of these bureaucracies
in its reporting simply by publishing those press releases without questioning their
truthfulness. This both satisfies the newsmakers and saves money on investigative
• Government and corporate sources also have the merit of being recognizable and
• Through experts, news personnel are able to protect themselves from accusations of
bias and libel suits.
• Governments and corporations go to great pains to make things easy for news
building facilities,
providing advance copies,
holding press conferences geared to deadlines,
writing in usable language,
scheduling photo opportunities.
In the case of the pentagon, this subsidy is at taxpayers’ expense:
Taxpayers are literally paying to be propagandized to!
Filter 4: Flak
• Elites use their wealth to produce negative feedback for news stories that
threaten them.
Flak is public negative response to a media program, usually aired through a competing
media outlet.
It is uncomfortable and costly for media sources, because it may cause advertisers to
That is to say, if the reliability and objectivity of a particular news source is called into
question, this may lose the audiences that advertizers want to reach, so they may look
Media corporations will thus go to great lengths to avoid flak, and to comply with its
demands (e.g. by publicly apologizing), even when the story was legitimate.
The ability to produce flak is directly related to power. Those with wealth and “pull”
have the ability to create real flak by mobilizing the cultural capital that comes with
university think tanks,
government officials,
corporate experts, etc., while the poor and powerless do not.
Note that this implies that flak will always have a particular political orientation.
While direct flak would be going on TV yourself to complain about a story, indirect flak
includes the funding of right-wing think tanks like American Legal Foundation, Capital
Legal Foundation, Media Institute, Centre for Media and Public Affairs, Accuracy in
▪ E.g. The Media Institute’s primary function is to note the failure of media
to give adequate weight to business point of view.
Note that the names of these organizations all imply objectivity, neutrality and balance,
while what they are actually doing is ensuring that the media is biased in a particular
way. This is again the functioning of ideology: It only works so long as you don’t see it
Filter 5: Anti-Communism (Dichotomization)
• Issues are dichotomized as communist/anti-communist. Victims are divided into
worthy/unworthy (of sympathy and attention) categories. What is villainy in the enemy
will become an incidental background fact in oneself.
• People tend to look “less” for evidence when national pride/patriotism are encouraged
through simple dichotomization (good/bad, right/wrong, up/down).
Example: Calling dead American civilians victims of terrorism and dead Iraqi civilians collateral
Through the 80s and early 90s, Communism was the ultimate evil haunting property
The Soviet, Chinese and Cuban revolutions were traumatic for Western elites. “What if it
happens here?!”
What’s more, the fuzziness of the definition of communism (do you mean Marx’s
version? Or Stalinism? Or Castro’s Cuba?) means it can be used against any threat to
When anti-communist fervour is aroused, the demand for serious evidence is
The Hollywood Blacklist: 1947-1960 4 minutes
Issues are dichotomized as communist/anti-communist. As long as it isn’t communist it’s
okay. Victims are divided into worthy/unworthy (of sympathy and attention) categories.
It is vital to connect this to anti-terrorism, in which state terror, torture, and masssurveillance are justified on the grounds of protecting universal freedom
Warning: Very Graphic Content (40 minutes total)
Noam Chomsky: Manufacturing Consent 1 of 9 3 minutes
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