First presented in the book Manufacturing Consent: the Political Economy of the Mass Media, the theory views the private media as businesses selling a product - readers and audiences rather than news - to other businesses (advertisers). It postulates five "filters" that sort out the type of news that finally gets published. These are: ownership, funding, sourcing, flak, and anti-communist ideology the first three being the most important.
Herman and Chomsky note that all the mainstream media are large corporations which are themselves part of bigger conglomerates (like Westinghouse or General Electric) which extend beyond traditional media fields. Due to their size, these companies have powerful interests that may be affected when certain information is publicized. Thus, a bias against news that conflicts with the interests of those who own the media is to be expected.
- If the managers fail to pursue actions that favor shareholder returns, institutional investors will be inclined to sell the stock (depressing its price), or to listen sympathetically to outsiders contemplating takeovers (p. 11).
It follows that if maximizing profit means sacrificing news objectivity, then the news sources that ultimately survive cannot but be fundamentally biased.
The role played by this filter is best seen, the authors suggest, by adopting a traditional business framework. Like every other company, a newspaper has a product and an audience. However, in this case, the product is composed by the affluent readers who buy the newspaper �who are also the educated decision-making sector of the population-, while the audience includes the businesses who pay to have them buy their advertised goods. Seen in this light, news are nothing more than a "filling" to get privileged readers to see the advertisements that compose the real content, and will thus take whatever form is best conducive to achieve that end. Stories that conflict with the "buying mood" will tend to be marginalized, as will information that presents a picture of the world that collides with advertisers' interest.
To some extent, the people buying the newspaper are themselves the product which is sold to the businesses buying advertising space; the newspaper itself has only a marginal role as the product.
The president of the French television station TF1 stated this clearly in an interview in 2004, published in the book "Les dirigeants face au changement" (Editions du Huiti�me jour) (ref below):
- "... the job of TF1 is to help Coca-Cola, for example, to sell its product. (...) In order that an advertising message is perceived, the brain of the television viewer must be available. Our broadcasts are aimed at making that brain available: i.e. by distracting it, by relaxing it and preparing it between two messages. What we sell to Coca-Cola is time with this available human brain."
The mass media need a constant flow of information to supply their daily news demands. In an industrialized economy where consumers demand information about multiple global events, this task can only be filled by the corporate sector, which has the necessary material resources. This includes mainly The Pentagon and other governmental bodies. A "symbiotic relationship" thus arises between the media and parts of government, sustained by economic necessity and reciprocity of interest. On the one hand, government and news-promoters strive to make it easier for news organizations to buy their services; according to the authors (p. 22), they
- provide them with facilities in which to gather
- give journalists advance copies of speeches and forthcoming reports
- schedule press conferences at hours well-geared to news deadlines
- write press releases in usable language
- carefully organize their press conferences and "photo opportunity" sessions
On the other hand, the media itself becomes reluctant to run articles that harm the bodies which provide them with the material they depend on. "It is very difficult to call authorities on whom one depends for daily news liars, even if they tell whoppers. (ibid.)"
The complexity of the relationship also gives rise to a "moral division of labor", in which "officials have and give the facts," and "reporters merely get them." Journalists therefore adopt an uncritical attitude that makes it possible for them to accept corporate values without experiencing cognitive dissonance.
The authors summarize their theory thus:
- A propaganda model has a certain initial plausibility on guided free-market assumptions that are not particularly controversial. In essence, the private media are major corporations selling a product (readers and audiences) to other businesses (advertisers). The national media typically target and serve elite opinion, groups that, on the one hand provide an optimal "profile" for advertising purposes, and, on the other, play a role in decision-making in the private and public spheres. The national media would be failing to meet their elite audience’s needs if they did not present a tolerably realistic portrayal of the world. But their "societal purpose" also requires that the media’s interpretation of the world reflect the interests and concerns of the sellers, the buyers, and the governmental and private institutions dominated by these groups (p. 303).
Following the theoretical exposition of the propaganda model, Manufacturing Consent contains a large section where the authors seek to test their hypothesis. If the propaganda model is right and the filters do influence media content, a particular form of bias would be expected�one that systematically favored corporate interests. The model then becomes amenable to scientific treatment: for it has empirical consequences that can be falsified.
Further, the authors attempted to prove their model with the most rigorous scientific tests. As Chomsky said (quotes are from Understanding Power, 18f), "the first way we tested the model in Manufacturing Consent was to submit it to what is really its harshest possible test: we let the opponents select their own ground. ... you take the examples they select to prove their position [...] and you look at those examples to see whether they follow the Propaganda Model." And so the book studies the examples regarded as paradigmatic examples of the independence of the press, such as the Vietnam war, Watergate, and the Iran-Contra Affair, and finds that these examples actually confirm the model.
They also look at naturally-occurring "historical control groups" where two events, similar in their relevant properties but differing in the expected media attitude towards them, are contrasted using objective measures such as coverage of key events (measured in column inches) or editorials favoring a particular issue (measured in number). The authors find this also confirms the theory.
Finally, the authors examine what points of view are expressed in the media. In one case, the authors examined over fifty of Stephen Kinzer's articles about Nicaragua in the New York Times. They show that Kinzer fails to quote a single person in Nicaragua who is pro-Sandinista and contrast this with polls reporting a 9% support for all the opposition parties taken together. The authors conclude that such a persistent bias can only be explained by a model like the one they advocate. ("[They're] only 9 percent of the population [but] they have 100 percent of Stephen Kinzer," Chomsky quips.)
Chomsky summarizes: "we've studied the a great number of cases, from every methodological point of view that we've been able to think of, and they all support the Propaganda Model. And by now there are thousands of pages of similar material confirming the thesis in books and articles by other people too. In fact, I would hazard a guess that the Propaganda Model is one of the best-confirmed theses in the social sciences. There has been no serious counter-discussion of it at all, actually, that I'm aware of."
Since the publication of Manufacturing Consent, both Herman and Chomsky have adopted the theory and given it a prominent role in their writings. Chomsky, in particular, has made extensive use of it to account for media attitudes towards a wide array of events, such as the Gulf War (1990), the Panama invasion (1989), and the Iraq invasion (2003). Seeking to establish an institutional framework to analyze media functioning, Herman joined Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), which has criticized and attempted to document media bias and censorship since 1986.
With the emergence of the World Wide Web as a cheap but potentially wide-ranging means of communication, a number of independent websites have surfaced which adopt the propaganda model to subject media to close scrutiny. Probably the most consistent and serious of these efforts is MediaLens, a British-based site authored by David Edwards and David Cromwell.
- Herman, Edward S. and Chomsky, Noam. Manufacturing Consent: the Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon Books, 1988.
- Chomsky, Noam. Understanding Power: the Indispensable Chomsky. New York: the New Press, 2002.
- Herman, Edward S. 'The Propaganda Model: A Retrospective,' Against All Reason, December 9, 2003.