Propaganda in the Free Press
an Interview with Edward Herman
www.zmag.org/, May 3, 2003
Ed Herman, Professor Emeritus at the Wharton
School, University of Pennsylvania, co-authored the landmark book
Manufacturing Consent with Noam Chomsky. He's authored many other
books including: The Real Terror Network, The Washington Connection
and Third World Fascism and Corporate Control, Corporate Power.
Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now, has referred to him as, "one
of the leading intellectuals in the nation." He is a frequent
contributor to Z Magazine. An archive of Ed Herman's articles
can be found at www.zmag.org
David Ross: In Manufacturing Consent you
put forth what you call a propaganda model that attempts to show
the forces that give the mainstream media a fundamental elite
bias that are used to "manufacture consent" among the
citizenry. What are the different filters in the mass media that
compose your propaganda model?
Ed Herman: The propaganda model argues
that the way the media works is based on the underlying structural
conditions under which the media operates.
It consists of five elements that can
be looked at as filters of the news. Whether a news item is going
to be used by the media or not is going to depend on whether it
passes through these filters.
The first filter is ownership. Very wealthy
people and corporations, like General Electric, own and control
the dominant media. This is obviously going to give an elite bias
to the media. You must assume that the people who control the
media are going to dominate it. They're going to select people
that they want, and they are not going to let subordinates get
out of bounds.
In Manufacturing Consent, originally published
in 1988 but recently revised in 2002, we show the interests of
the controlling owners of the 25 largest media corporations. In
the middle of the table is the New York Times, which is owned
and controlled by the Sulzberger Family. At that time, their stock
was worth a half billion dollars. Right now it's probably worth
about $1.2 billion. So you're talking about control by very wealthy
people who are part of the corporate establishment. The idea that
they would allow their instruments to do something that was adverse
to the interests of the larger corporate community is absolute
The second filter is advertising. The
media depend on advertising as their funding source. Newspapers
probably get 70 percent of their revenue, on average, from advertising.
Television gets over 95 percent from advertisers. The TV stations
and networks all have people who go around and try to sell advertisers
on their programs. They have to convince them of the merit of
the programs in which they want to advertise.
What do the advertisers want? They not
only want a large audience, they want an elite audience-the more
money the audience has the better. They don't want to upset the
audience. They want what is called "a favorable selling environment"
for their products. So the advertisers have to be competed for,
and they're the underlying funding source. There's no question
that they influence what the media will do. They don't interfere
all the time. They don't call the media up and discipline them;
that's not the main way they work. The main influence they have
is that they have to be competed for by the media, and the media
has to convince them that their programming meets advertisers
Some advertisers actually have explicit
conditions on programming. For example, Proctor and Gamble, one
of the biggest advertisers, has an advertising rule that's written
down. It will not support programs that insult the military, or
that suggests that the business community is not a good and spiritual
community. Ben Bagdikian's excellent book, The Media Monopoly,
has citations from Proctor and Gamble directly. He also shows
that other companies have instructions stating that they will
not advertise in media that does not meet "certain standards"
which really are political standards.
So, if you're a radical paper, if you
really have messages that are going to upset the business community,
you're not going to get advertising. This filter limits who will
be able to get advertising, and therefore, who can afford to spend
a lot of money putting up a quality production. It also influences
how the media will approach programming and news because they
do not want to offend and chase away advertisers.
The third filter in our propaganda model
is what we call sourcing. The media needs sources of news. The
big media want sources that will supply them with news on a daily
basis that's credible, reliable and doesn't cost too much. Where
do you get that kind of news? You get it at the White House, the
State Department, the Pentagon, or you get it at the local city
mayor's office, the police department, or the General Motors Corporation.
These are the prime decision makers who make news.
There's a strong tendency for the media,
especially the big media, to get close to sources that are powerful,
who can give them news that's believable and news that doesn't
cost a lot to get. So a lot of the news outlets have people stationed
permanently at the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon,
and so on. When they do this, they develop a certain relationship
with these institutions. They become friendly with the people
who provide them with the news, who are nice to them, and in doing
that, they may occasionally get inside information, and so a symbiotic
relationship develops between these big sources and the media.
These big sources with this symbiotic
relationship don't want dissidence-people that will criticize
them severely. So the media are a little reluctant to go out and
spend a lot of money to find dissenters who will call the White
House, or the President, or high officials liars, even when they
lie. This is a very fundamental thing that practically every media
analyst understands-that there becomes a dependence on these dominant
sources by the media and a symbiotic relationship develops that
affects what kind of news they will cover. It's also cheap and
easy to take their statement. Nobody's going to question it except
people who are powerless. This filter largely determines what
is news, and it makes it difficult for the media to even look
for other news, which is problematic and expensive to get.
The fourth filter is what we call flack,
which means negative feedback. We can all produce flack. We can
all call the paper or write a letter to the paper and complain,
but the complaints that really affect the media are the ones that
can really threaten them seriously, like the government, big advertisers,
the Pentagon and other organized groups. So flack has its effect
mainly from powerful groups, and some of these groups are already
the ones that provide the news. This tends to further consolidate
the power of these dominant sources.
The fifth filter is what we call ideology.
In the American ideology, the one element in which Noam Chomsky
and I think is important in the propaganda model is anti-communism.
The anti-communist ideology was very important until the Soviet
Union fell, but even now it still has some residual importance.
The other ideological filter is the idea that the market can do
everything, that it is the proper way of solving all our problems.
These ideologies are really imbedded in the System, and they affect
journalists, media editors, and how the media views the world.
In Manufacturing Consent, we used some
examples to illustrate the propaganda model. In 1981, the Solidarity
Union was struggling for freedom in Poland against the communist
government. That struggle was given enormous publicity in the
media because it had the ideological anti-communist notion and
the U.S. government loved it. The business community loved it
because it doesn't like communism. So it went through the filters
easily. None of the filters objected.
But at the very same time, the new military
government that took over Turkey in 1980 was crushing the unions.
That event got almost zero publicity in the United States, and
the reason for that is because it was a friendly government that
was doing what the U.S. government wanted; It had an open door
and it was anti-communist. The owners and the advertisers in the
mass media wouldn't like it very much. The main sources like the
State Department certainly wouldn't like the publicity. The State
Department was very eager to talk about what was happening in
Poland, but they didn't want to talk about what was happening
to the Turkish unions, our ally. And flack? Who would carry out
flack to defend the Turkish unions that were being crushed? No
one of importance in the United States. Ideologically, these are
anti-communists. So the propaganda model works beautifully in
that instance. It didn't pass through the filters.
DR: Is it compatible with a democracy
to have these filters in the mass media, filtering out unwanted
information that is contrary to an elite agenda?
Ed Herman: I don't think it is. A democracy
assumes that you're going to have a free flow of information that
is not going to be constrained by special interests, and these
filters reflect special interests. The majority of people are
not involved in the working of these filters. The majority of
people, for example, are being hurt by downsizing and by the growing
insecurity in the economy. There ought to be media that would
attend to these issues. In fact there are. There are marginal
alternative media institutions that will publicize these things,
but the New York Times and CBS will not.
In 1986, Alan Greenspan went before Congress
and explained why there wasn't a great threat of inflation in
the United States. The reason, he said, was because workers were
scared to death. Workers were so insecure that they were not able
to ask for wage increases. I thought at the time, and I still
think, 'My god, what a condemnation of the system.' Worker insecurity
should be considered a real welfare detriment. If the system is
making workers insecure, isn't this bad? Isn't the system supposed
to be helping, making the workers happy? Yet the media didn't
pick this up at all.
All the union busting and the terrible
weakening of the unions in the 1980's got almost zero attention.
The media were focusing on the stock market, in which 80 percent
of the people were not participating in any degree whatsoever.
So, if you argue that democracy requires a media that is going
to be able to treat the interests of 80 percent of the people
generously and fairly, this elite media that we have doesn't do
In the election of 2000, the New York
Times explained why it was okay for presidential candidate, Ralph
Nader, not to participate in the national debates, and why his
candidacy was irrelevant. They said the other two parties "afford
adequate options" to the public. Nader was opposing the big
military budget and the corporate abuses that were growing, but
he was not allowed into the debates. I think this is a very good
illustration of the fact that the media were not allowing a discussion
of the basic issues that were affecting the majority of people.
They were following an elite agenda. They wouldn't talk about
an agenda that would address the interests of 80 percent of the
This has a corollary in the political
system itself. The election was essentially between two parties
that were funded by business and that served the business agenda.
So the inadequacy of the media as a democratic instrument was
well paralleled by the inadequacy of the political options that
were given to the public. A democracy needs a really good information
system that is going to speak for the majority as well as the
elite and discuss issues that are relevant to the needs of the
majority. If this doesn't happen, then we don't have a democracy.
DR: If the media is a propaganda organ
with these filters that filter out objective information, where
can listeners go to learn the truth?
Ed Herman: That's a tough proposition.
Actually, if you read the mainstream media, and if you have some
advance knowledge of what to look for, there's a lot in there
that you can find, but you have to know what to look for. In other
words, you have to have frames of reference and an analysis that
allows you to look at the media critically. This is where a guy
like Noam Chomsky is so incredibly valuable-he's very smart-but
he's also a very good producer of frames of reference. When you
read his books you realize you're looking at a different world.
You're learning to look at these things in a totally different
light. So even when you're looking at the mainstream media, it
becomes a little more illuminating because you can see what they've
put at the bottom of the article that should be at the top.
This is also true if you read media in
foreign countries. I subscribe to something called Latin American
Press, which comes out of Peru. It publishes a lot of critical
articles about what's going on in Latin America. When you read
Latin American Press, it's like you're looking at a different
world. You're reading John Ross on Mexico.
You also get another frame of reference
when you read good foreign analysts like John Pilger from England,
who is an excellent author and also a great journalist. You won't
find a correspondent like him in the United States.
There's also Robert Fisk who writes on
the Middle East. These people have whole different modes of looking
at things that are very important. Getting good frames of reference
is fundamental. To do that you have to read good books, good analysts,
people like the ones I've mentioned.
There are some domestic media that are
worthy, along this line of discussion, like Z Magazine, where
I write a monthly article and in which there's a lot of other
good articles too. Additionally, there's Znet [www.zmag.org.-DR],
which is a website with a tremendous number of good articles that
give alternative views of the world. There are other magazines
and papers like In These Times, The Progressive, and to some extent,
The Nation-which is going downhill somewhat-that will give you
an alternative analysis. On the Pacifica Radio Network, you can
hear people like Amy Goodman and others. It's the only radio network
in the United States that provides an alternative view of things.
On KPFA, you can listen to Dennis Bernstein talk about the Middle
East, or hear Chris Welch. You're going to get a different view
of the world.
Another important thing people can do
if they have access to the web is to just surf around. If you
go to Znet and fiddle around with sites on the different media
groups, very soon you'll be in networks that'll give you a lot
of alternative information. Getting into email and getting friendly
with websites is enlightening. It's a wonderful alternative to
reading the mainstream media.
I also mentioned the foreign press. On
something like the Afghanistan war, even Britain-which is a close
ally of the United States-even in Britain, you can read the Guardian,
The Independent, The Mirror, or even the Daily Herald, which are
all better than the New York Times. The U.S. media system has
become so closed to alternative materials on issues where the
government has strong positions and where lobbies are important,
like in the Middle East, that even mainstream media in our allied
countries provide a real option.
There are some really strong dissident
media. Probably the best journal in the world is a journal called
Le Monde diplomatique, not the Le Mode newspaper, which is a mediocre
French newspaper, but Le Monde diplomatique. It's a monthly that's
very good. It comes out in French, but it's now available in English
on-line. If you subscribe to the Manchester Guardian, you'll get
a weekly dose of Le Monde diplomatique.
David Ross does a talk show on KMUD radio
in Redway, CA. He has worked on the Ralph Nader presidential campaign,
corporate malfeasance, U.S. foreign policy and environmental issues.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.