After two decades, the “propaganda model of news” remains one of the best frameworks available for understanding how the media operate.
To maintain their mainstream status, there are certain things the media are bound to do given their structure. The premier analysis on how the media function within the American economy was given by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman just over two decades ago. Dubbed the “propaganda model”, their extensive elaboration on the media’s institutional structure, which begins with how they are funded and sustained to how they tend to serve the centers of domestic power, targets not just the way they disseminate information or the quality of information, but the context in which that information is provided to the general public.
Context, meaning both a thorough grasp of the media’s societal role as well as how the media’s information is presented, is crucial in understanding the media’s narrative when the propaganda model appears to be falling short. The thesis behind the propaganda model is that when faced with a decision that can potentially conflict or support powerful interests, the media will respond favorably towards power with little or no hesitation. The media under one understanding of the propaganda model are thus supposed to be predictable, consistent, and their narratives should display little deviation.
This is the fundamental problem that many who now attempt to discredit the propaganda model encounter. When the media narrative does deviate, and power appears to tumble (or in some cases does), the model supposedly loses its credibility. Chomsky tried to dismiss this problem in 1998′s Manufacturing Consent with his relentless analysis comparing the media’s intense coverage of Watergate to its marginal reporting on the US supported genocide in East Timor, arguing that “Watergate shows that power can defend itself” while thousands were being slaughtered in Timor with western diplomatic support. In this case, the supposed deviation from the model that suggests the media’s role as “watchdog” is a smashing success should only be taken seriously if the media is a “watchdog” for the powerful interests who happened to unremittingly oppose the Nixon administration.
He further compared the media coverage of Watergate, which brought down what he accurately calls “the last liberal president”, to the non-issue that was made of the FBI’s covert program of political subversion, COINTELPRO. The latter was a covert and unprecedented attack on civil liberties that peaked with the assassination of Fred Hampton, while Watergate helped remove a president from power who was possibly associated with a non-violent burglary. His emphasis on context didn’t need the word “context”. The media’s deviations are, according to Chomsky’s expanded look at the model (which functions as a response), one of two things: 1) a very marginal, yet substantive deviation from supporting power, or 2) a non-substantive projection of a deviation that supports a different sector of political power.
Chomsky’s hard-hitting analysis that should break down this argument has not been enough for the critics of the model. However, the media continues to provide fresh cases in point that not only support Chomsky’s rebuttal, but support the propaganda model’s expectation that the media will consistently support powerful economic interests. The most recent examples now center upon exposing corruption, within both governments and businesses, which gives the critics and the public an impression of a free press that vigorously challenges power but, in fact, does the exact opposite.
Consider, for example, the media’s investigation into former NewsCorp executive James Murdoch, who unknowingly oversaw a phone hacking scandal that broke last July. The result has been a close look at how Murdoch feels about journalism, or what the AP calls an “inquiry into media ethics”. The press is asking the Murdoch plenty of questions as to how he could allow his subordinates at the tabloid News of the World to illegally phone tap. Whose phones were they tapping? The AP reports that they “hacked into the phones of hundreds of high-profile people”. Besides the fact that “high-profile people” always seem to be those affected when the media starts reporting on a scandal, the system in which the media operates has gone unchecked. NewsCorp is growing, the expansion of capital and concentration of decision-making power has only become stronger, and the fundamental problems that fostered Murdoch’s corruption have gone unchecked.
As the propaganda model would suggest, corruption does not serve the interests of power. Corruption, whether it’s Anthony Weiner’s sex scandal or Murdoch’s phone tapping of “high profile people” only in theory exposes the institutional structure as a means by which the wealthy gain more power. In reality, it steadily provides the media with a way to project its self-serving (yet perfectly natural) public relations-style image of a press that vehemently challenges authorities. Therefore, the reporting of corruption isn’t a substantive deviation for the corporate media to take; there are market forces pressuring them to report gossip, economic reasons, and most importantly, institutional factors that rest upon external power (indirectly or directly) influencing their decision to report such information instead of substantive issues. The propaganda model, in the face of problems that are believed to discredit it, remains one of the most reliable frameworks available for understanding how the media operate, even after two long decades of scrutiny.