– Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, Joan Pedro-Carañana, Daniel Broudy, Jeffery Klaehn, Matthew Alford, Miguel Álvarez-Peralta, Tabe Bergman, Aurora Labio-Bernal, Christian Fuchs, Yigal Godler, Jesse Owen Hearns-Branaman, Andrew Mullen, Barry Pollick, Milan Rai, Piers Robinson, Francisco Sierra Caballero, Miyume Tanji, James Winter, Florian Zollmann
This fucking book. It and Naomi Klein's No Logo were the two that laid the foundation of my formal education in communications. Had I graduated high school but two years earlier, I could've attended the book's 30ᵗʰ anniversary conference, which the university department under whom I later studied hosted. At the time, I was still a high school student, having plenty of difficulties which would soon seal my fate.
Back then, I was involved in my first stint of media work, carried forward on the back of nothing but my ability to use Adobe Photoshop and basic video editing software where other high school students could not. Yet while the technical aspects of media production seemed simple enough, the social elements did not. There, I held in my hand the ability to affect great social change, through the powers of mass broadcasting and captive audience. ... yet no change would ever dare happen. My ability to broadcast media within those tiny halls was constrained by unseen forces, from the power of authority figures in my life, yet also from the strained social relations between my fellow students. For the simple sin of wanting access to the only GPU-enabled multimedia computer in the local county, I was ensnared in a complex spider's web of unwritten rules governing my behaviour, and this predicament flummoxed me. It wasn't that I even wanted to use those platforms to get up to some mischief, but it was still made clear to me that no such mischief could ever be possible at all. Why were there these limitations on my expression? (Plenty of reasons, but few of them good.) From whence did they come? (More angles than I would've otherwise thought.) And more importantly... if all these bloody unwritten rules really are that important, then shouldn't someone write them down?!
In the next year, after I thought I left that hopeless little world behind, the words of Chomsky and Herman entered my life. Fresh from the fashionable vogue of the anniversary celebrations, I learned of “the propaganda model,” and was forever changed by its ponderous effect. I thought I recognized it... I had just recently lived it. Here they were, the unwritten rules of media production, for all to see. It shocked me. I thought it impossible, yet there it was. At that point in time, my entrance into university was a sad occasion. I was denied entry into the computer science major my family had so sternly expected of me, only given a “consolation prize” of university acceptance into another major, where the plan to restore my lost honour was “sneaking over” to computer science through the back door. The plan was swiftly derailed. Upon seeing the Chomsky-Herman propaganda model, it was love at first sight!
From the propaganda model's five simple steps, we can extrapolate the existence of just about any form of “media censorship,” even in societies where “freedom of speech” is the law of the land. And it really is quite simple! For a proper propaganda model to be in operation, all content must pass through these five “filters” to be fit for publication, and these filters may take place through either formal or entirely informal means. Given the amount of time I poured over these, I have 'em memorized by heart:
- Ownership: Or, the “control” filter. Who owns the media operation? As a generalized publication or media channel? Even should they be paying you to operate it for them at any one specific point, it is still theirs at the end of the day. They won't appreciate any use of their platform that doesn't also advance their interests, or in the very least runs counter to them.
- Advertising: Or, the “revenue” filter. Media is a business, and how does it make money to sustain itself? Even under the conditions where the media operation isn't ad-driven, it still forms partnerships with various other interests, and those continued partnerships is thus dependent on the media operation being agreeable to them. Advertisers may want or prefer specific types of content to appear alongside, while avoiding others. This filter will attempt to excise use of a media platform in ways which aren't conducive to profit, or runs counter to continued profitable conditions.
- Sources: Or, the “raw materials” filter. Media production is an industrial process: put in raw materials, it goes through the machine, and some amount of operational content may come out. Dependent on how often a given publication needs to operate, a journalist or media producer might end up relying on specific sources of information more often than others, especially if those sources can produce those same raw materials in a semi-reliable fashion. This filter will attempt to “protect” a media operation's long-term viability, by preventing any publication which might imperil relationships with these sources of raw materials.
- Flak: Or, the “negative reaction” filter. (Related to, but not to be confused with “flack,” for promoters or publicity agents.) This term stems from German military jargon during the Second World War. The Nazis used “flak” as an abbreviation for fliegerabwehrkanone, referring to defensive anti-aircraft cannon emplacements. If the publication of some bit of material is likely to prompt a negative reaction from the reading audience, this filter may attempt to prevent its publication, as to also prevent the ensuing headache. While this may seem simple enough, in actual practice, it is probably the most insidious filtration mechanism of the propaganda model. No media publication has the time or energy to anticipate every possible negative audience reaction, thus there is some amount of prioritization and triage. Most audiences and audience segments are perfectly safe to rile up and offend however you'd like, but there exist others who are definitely not: specifically, audience segments which may have a lot of money and capital to spend against your publication, should you raise their ire. The more organized a specific audience segment is, and the more resources they're willing to spend, the more likely it is for them to control your publication from without. These audience segments might not need to be a very large number of people in total, but they do require a large amount of capital.
- Anti-Communism: Or, the “ideology” filter. Through a confluence of all the previous filters, most forms of media ends up enforcing a grand system of homeostasis, which is inherently beneficial to the ruling classes and the national governments which they employ. The ideologies underwritten by this process informs quite a bit of how a media publication would operate, on both a long-term and short-term basis. This final filter favours the needs and circumstances of official authorities in most rushes towards publication, while simultaneously putting extra requirements on publishing materials which run counter to those same national interests. Manufacturing Consent was published during the Cold War, so nearly all major publications within capitalist countries had some form of anti-communist or anti-socialist bent to them, even when it didn't benefit each media publication's differing circumstance. Following the official end of the Cold War, this filtration mechanism has ended up taking on new forms and functions in different spheres.
Even now, seeing them written down here, there is still some sense of lingering awe. It inspires the same satisfaction one gets from looking upon an extremely elegant solution for a once-impossible coding problem.
The geographic location I grew up made interest in the propaganda model an extremely popular topic, at least for an otherwise academic and politically unsound thing. (There would be some amount of revived interest regarding the middle-east incursions based on false news reporting, but that was mostly for the older crowds instead of the new students.) For most people, “the media” is a monolithic entity that never seems like it could appear as anything other than what it is now, but that wasn't the case in my part of Canada. Tucked inside an enclave with American borders on our immediate east, south, and west; our broadcast media was filled with American content, with little spectrum available for Canadian channels. Being able to compare and contrast both the American and Canadian media was a popular passtime, allowing one to see how some slight differences in how media companies are structured can yield wildly different results, even when the on-the-ground conditions remain largely the same. The propaganda model was used as a definite answer for these many lingering curiosities.
The news media from the city of Detroit was a common thing to telescope through the lens of the propaganda model. Due to historical reasons, and no small amount of racism, the city was considered to have a massive “crime” problem; a vast majority of the local news items from my childhood in the 01990's until when I was an university undergraduate was about crime committed within the city limits. Yet, with only the tiniest bit of understanding from the propaganda model, it was clear what was really happening. The nightly television news was run on a shoe-string budget. They operated on a predictable routine, where a reporter would partner with the Detroit Police as a source of information, and relied on them to the detriment of everything else. Because the Detroit Police was over-represented as a source of news within the city, by force of Filter #3, the local news made Metro Detroit seem like an extremely dangerous place. (Detroit's sphere of news was a common subject of study for other media theorists, such as George Gerbner and his famous “mean world syndrome” cognitive bias.) Yet there arose an unfortunate corollary: what would happen to the Detroit news if no crime happened at all? Just for one day? Statistically speaking, it has to happen sooner or later, so what would a Detroit news reporter do? If the reporter was still relying on the police as a source of information, they would be under pressure to report that crime happened anyway, even if it was re-reporting yesterday's findings and “new developments” therein. The industrial structure of how news was produced within the city put a bias on making Detroit seem like a dangerous place, even if it wasn't any more or less perilous than other neighboring American or Canadian cities.
I knew, on an instinctual level, the propaganda model was true. I could apply the theory of the propaganda model to the workings of that tiny high school studio, and rationalized: “if it can scale down, then it can also scale up.” It inspired a kind of mania, and in my youthful exuberance as a fresh-faced student, I began looking for “propaganda models” in everything I could think of. ... even if my attempts at doing so were clumsy and wrongheaded. My time in university was not spent “learning new things,” but instead on the wild trip of having all my secret suspicions about the world confirmed to me in grand sequence, and I drunkenly stumbled from one topic to the next in search of similar highs. Anyone these days can look upon this account of things and plainly see that I was not using the propaganda model properly, even by its own standards. I was only ever using the propaganda model's individual components as they suited my purposes for the time. The Detroit news media may have been a blinding example of Filters #3 and #2 in action, but not the times when they were seemingly at odds with each other, and that still didn't necessarily imply the existence of Filters #4 and #1. My experience of one high school's media complex might have exemplified Filters #1 and #3, but Filters #2 and #4 were nonexistent, and my naïve oversimplification of Filter #5 in that instance is sure to raise a lot of eyebrows.
Coming off that freshman's high and getting down to brass-tacks on this subject has been a long and trying process. Complicating matters, the curriculum of my undergraduate education was focused entirely on the now-antiquated broadcast media, but a lot of the specifics of how these would necessarily translate to a digital sphere were still up-in-the-air. Chomsky and the not-yet-late Herman made the ambiguous case Internet media would've largely been the same as “traditional” media, based on the fact that the majority of the most popular English-language news websites were the same publications that already had significant pre-internet operations, in either newsprint or on television. Rather than grow new audiences entirely, those websites were able to dominate the anglophonic internet simply by importing their old audience onto the new medium. (McLuhan had already famously stated the majority of content on any new media is usually ported in from already-extant older media.) Therefore, it stood to reason that the Internet-based operations of those news organizations would be subject to the same limitations as their pre-internet counterparts. ... but during that time, we could only rely on that as a tacit assumption, with little in the way of proof and even less idea of how to know if it was actually any different.
I can also lob a few criticisms at “the PM,” as academics sometimes refer to it. The model starts off with a few good ideas, that by all accounts would be correct for any objective look at media processes, but it soon runs out of steam. Calling out the “anti-communism” of something at the height of the Cold War is not much different from slapping a giant “et cetera, et cetera” on the model's ass and hoping for the best. Chomsky and Herman tried to apply more than a few retroactive updates to the fifth filter, but not to much effect. Their original updated appellation was just “fear,” coming from the dizzying heights of the “War on Terror” and its jingoistic mania, but that filtration mechanism only covered a few highly-specific censorship cases that did not have general application. Other academics offered the much more accurate “ideology” appellation, but that risks casting an extremely wide net without actually explaining much, like how the substantivist writers used to annoy me by describing virtually any complex problem as being “capitalism's fault.” (Accurate? Yes. Helpful? No.) Does “anti-communism” still exist? Yeah, kinda, it's just different now. We have this thing called “neoliberalism” these days, and even if it is holding anti-communism's old championship belt, the fighting style isn't quite the same. Even that can again be another quality unique to Filter #1, as it stems not from any particular coherent ideology, but instead from “private property” as a concept applied to media ownership. Filter #5's true purpose is to describe the peculiar tendency of all media having this strange inclination to act like national media, even should it happen in nations with no default prescriptions for state-sponsorship. In the Cold War, under the shadow of the fight between elite-managed capitalism and state-managed capitalism, there existed easy explanations for this mysterious magnetism in both directions. Outside the Cold War, those explanations have vanished, yet the strange tendency stubbornly persists and we no longer know why.
Making matters more complicated, you could try using the PM to ask the question “is this propaganda?” where the answer is clearly and obviously “yes,” only to end up short of a definite conclusion. The “FOX News” cable channel is probably the most famous example of a propaganda setup in the English-speaking world. Anyone outside of the United States would take one look at Fox News and go, “yep, that's state-sponsored television.” They would be correct to do so, even if most Americans would bristle against the label. The effect and nature of state media is always easiest to notice from the outside. Modern social networks are quick to label Russian or Chinese news publications as “state media,” but are loath to apply similar labels to media from other countries. Americans might look at the Canadian CBC and correctly think “that is state-sponsored television,” though many Canadians wouldn't necessarily agree because the CBC doesn't always act the part. Conversely, Fox News is always in propaganda mode, and rare is the day when it isn't. Fox News has deep connections to one of the major political heterodoxies which manage the American state, and is deeply embedded in them for the course of its day-to-day operations. Fox News employs a unified messaging structure, the existence of which dates back to at least 02003, and synergizes with the media operations of the political wings of the Republican Party. So dependent they are on this unified messaging structure from their state counterparts, it can be observed that Fox News has difficulty responding to developing events and other breaking news that a cable news channel is supposedly strong in, often “waiting a day” before the command structure “kicks in” with a more curated response. (This was most notably apparent during the Trump administration, when the allied-president's wild antics often forced the channel on the defensive.) Fox News operates on a “walled garden” approach to the construction of reality, keeping their viewership in a constant state of emotional peril that isolates them from any kith and kin who aren't also Fox News viewers, and this effect needs constant maintenance to remain in place or else it breaks down. Deep political embedding and a highly selective worldview, wholly supported by active censorship and deliberate omission: by any reasonable standard, Fox News is a propaganda outlet and can be readily identified as one.
... but what if you used the Chomsky-Herman propaganda model to verify that? In a bizarre twist, the answer would suddenly be “no, it isn't propaganda, and cannot possibly be.”
The propaganda outlet known as Fox News does not adhere to the propaganda model. This was not always the case; there was once a time when it did, but it stopped. In April of 02017, the once-primetime-powerhouse of Bill O'Reilly faced an expulsion from Fox News after 20 otherwise-successful years on air. Following the wake of several settled-out-of-court lawsuits regarding coworker harassment, some “nefarious liberals” of Fox News's ever-expanding definition of “liberal” saw fit to turn Filters #4 and #2 against the right-wing channel, running a combo attack of an “advertiser boycott.” It worked, which eventually saw O'Reilly's swift departure from the network, but it would be the last time anyone would pull such a mean trick on them. Following that period, which had already seen News Corporation's non-news holdings spun off into another company, Fox News made changes regarding their underlying structure. While the tenor and content would not be different, how that content would be underwritten saw significant patching. In 02015, the “carriage fee” which saw Fox News added to the subscription packages of most popular cable television packages was as little as only $1.50, but that amount would quickly increase. By 02021, bereft of most advertisers, the majority of Fox News's revenue now comes from its $1.72 per-subscriber-per-month carriage fee, which is automatically included with other cable channels and cannot be removed. This means that the vast majority of cable subscribers are supplying materiel to Fox News, even if they do not actually watch it, amounting to an estimated $7.75 per-subscriber monthly subsidy when compared against Fox News's actual viewership numbers. The less cable subscribers there are, the higher this post facto subsidization becomes. Combining this with moving towards only using on-air talent who are already independently wealthy, such as the frozen foods industry heir Tucker Carlson and the New York real estate “slumlord” Sean Hannity, Fox News effectively freed itself from the yoke of Filter #2 and greatly lessened its vulnerability to Filter #4. With its raw material sources (#3) already embedded inside the American political apparatus (#5) who are already friendly with the channel's ownership, (#1) Fox News can get all of the benefit of being a state media propaganda outlet without any of the pesky downsides! Does Fox News adhere to a propaganda model? Likely. Is it the propaganda model as we know it? No, absolutely not. Like everything else Fox News does, it is off in its own little world and is subject to rules only it understands. ... or so we hope.
The strange thing is, it wasn't the first time a propaganda outlet did this style of rewrite to the rules of operation. Presaging these events only a few years beforehand, the Quebec-based business magnate Pierre Karl Péladeau's “SUN-TV” cable news channel attempted this exact same gambit. ... but failed when the Canadian federal telecommunications regulator—the CRTC—would not permit their demand for default access in cable packaging, due in part from SUN-TV earlier decrying the CBC for its “socialistic” reliance on government mandates for common access. Without that industry-backed subsidization, the so-called “Fox North” right-wing news channel would last only four years on air before its closure in 02015, managing less than 5000 total viewers and unable to pay its employees.
Some might argue that my pithy analysis might adhere too much to the letter of Chomsky and Herman's law, whilst violating the spirit. I can very easily imagine either author looking upon my discontent, responding what does that matter? “The media serve, and propagandize on behalf of, the powerful societal interests that control and finance them.” So long as this truism remains, the exact processes thus engaged can be entirely arbitrary.
... yet that only describes a criminal motive on the part of the media-operating elite, and however true it may be, it alone will not constitute opportunity and method—or even provide evidence—proving the crime of propaganda indeed occurred. While this might be difficult for us here in the current day, it no doubt came very easy to Chomsky and Herman for their own time. The text itself of Manufacturing Consent is old, and the political context it writes within is well before I was born. Reading it for the first time felt more like a history textbook, rather than the political theory it imagined for itself. The propaganda model is but a single opening chapter, and the rest forms example, after example—after excruciating example—of how some news stories get repeated in the news media while others do not. Part of the reason why Manufacturing Consent was so popular came from its long database of case studies. (Though I will admit to having no small difficulties in tracking down the original sources used in Chomsky's other books, like Necessary Illusions.) Yet Manufacturing takes its own propaganda model almost for granted, opting to let the rest of the evidence speak for itself. ... even when the evidence only serves to make a similar, yet nonetheless different point.
Part of this stems from how Manufacturing Consent was first conceived. To compare: the Canadian economist Harold Innis first tried arguing against the economic fundamentalism of British Imperial orthodoxy, correctly stating widely-applied British economic theory did not have equal relevancy to different parts of the world, all due to slight differences in how specific economic superstructures were set up. Innis's objections were widely ignored, yet gained a later following when he adapted his theories, making them no longer about misplaced imperial orthodoxy; but instead about media. Chomsky and Herman fell into the same improvisational trap. The earlier draft of Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (published 01988) was instead called The Political Economy of Human Rights, (published 01979) and it explored why human rights law had unequal or uneven application across the board. The later book borrows very heavily from the earlier. People and countries which were American allies would have infringements to their human rights rightly condemned and prosecuted, but the same would not happen to similar sorts who were victimized by other American allies. This meant that human rights could only be understood through the lens of political hegemony, begetting a system of “worthy and unworthy victims” in the practical triage of human rights law, even as it was understood back before the advent of the International Criminal Court. This thesis is plainly and observably fact—Manufacturing Consent illustrates it brilliantly—but this earlier draft was not popular. Worse, some of the lingering concerns from The Political Economy of Human Rights forms a seedy underbelly of propaganda model application, which sometimes results in the unfair-but-technically-true accusations of “genocide denialism.” (Many of these earliest forms of the propaganda model were applied to preliminary news reports of the mass slaughters happening in Cambodia's Khmer Rouge Revolution, but much like the Khmer Rouge, these early analyses did not go well.) By updating the base text to be no longer about American foreign policy, but instead about the media, Chomsky and Herman's underlying political theory found new and renewed purchase.
When Innis and McLuhan stated that “the medium is the message,” it implied the technological affordances of any given medium of communication would put inherent limitations or biases on the content it can convey. Chomsky and Herman extended this from purely technological considerations to the social milieu in which that media is controlled and operated. It's hardly a scientific discovery to notice if a given set of media is operated within a capitalist society, there would be a bias for media promoting capitalism and another bias against that same media promoting communism. Yet there is a corollary: if either the technology or the social milieu were to change, so too then, would the biases and limitations thus imposed. For a model which attempts to predict and categorize the likely routes upon which media censorship is wont to occur, this is of the utmost importance! The propaganda model operated on the same base assumptions that mass-broadcast television and large-circulation newsprint did, and these assumptions were necessary to how the propaganda model functioned. If those assumptions were to be systematically challenged, as the bursting of the “Dot-Com Bubble” in the late 01990's certainly did, then the propaganda model must also adapt to survive.
Chomsky and Herman obliquely have an awareness of this in Manufacturing Consent's opening chapter, wherein “market forces” greatly reduced the total number of newspapers published-and-operated at the turn of the century, due to the new dynamics forcing those publications into courtship with mass-market advertising. Though Chomsky and Herman only make brief mention of it, these early days of the mass media saw the standards for successful circulation greatly increase from once-manageable numbers, many different newspapers shut down or merged together, and editorial bents with common content either standardized or greatly homogenized across the board: all for the purpose of appealing to corporate advertisers as a new and highly-lucrative revenue source. No longer selling content to their audience, but instead selling their audience to advertisers. According to Chomsky and Herman's own logic, the propaganda model which they illustrate could not have existed at any point in history prior to this epoch, even though propaganda in general clearly did. It stands to reason there would be some point in the future where the model would no longer apply, even if propaganda still does.
Following the same patterns which happened in other realms of media study, the propaganda model might have been little more than a clever lie. Two leftists, writing at the height of the Cold War from within the capitalist superpower, desperately wanted their rightly-or-wrongly marginalized voices to be heard. After some stops and starts, they got what they wanted by adopting their specific brand of politic into “the propaganda model.” It was not what they set out with the intent of doing, but it was what happened anyway. It certainly does explain the strange habit I noticed in the archival media of Chomsky from the day: he would mention the infallible existence of the propaganda model, only to immediately forget about it and talk about something else instead. What would start out with the promise of interrogating the United States' use of propaganda, would instead end up just criticizing the United States as a whole, and this pattern would repeat. His CBC Massey Lecture does this in spades, and if I wasn't already aware of the model's core function, I would've found it quite annoying. In my not-entirely-accurate summation of Chomsky, his heart may have always been set on the earlier draft regarding the political economy of human rights, and simply used the propaganda model as a tool to achieve those ends.
... but if the propaganda model really was a baited trap, then it was a trap I fell into willingly. At the time, I had a problem in need of solving, and the propaganda model offered a solution. Ours was a transactional relationship, but that once-fruitful well has run dry, and I am now in need of new transaction.
To that end, I was fortunate to discover a copy of the academic volume: The Propaganda Model Today. It was written by a bevvy of academics, a few names of whom I recognized, and their attempts at bringing the propaganda model into the current context. Like any other research volume I've perused, the exact quality of each individual chapter runs the range of research rigor and topic interest. Each writer identified ways in which the PM might be modified or extended to better ensure future accuracy, in attempt to prevent its mechanisms from becoming too outdated. They based their extensions on the PM's three self-stated hypotheses: the second of which regarding the five filters existing in systems where media are subject to market forces, the first of which regarding the possible existence of elite consensus, and the third of which was ass-covering bullshit. It was the editors' contention that the propaganda model still adheres to all of these self-stated hypotheses.
There are, however, a few noteworthy exceptions. The propaganda model has a fully honed sense for sorting out military adventures, wars, and foreign policy issues; but these same strengths are notably lacking when it comes to analyzing much more common entertainment media. Barry Pollick found evidence of a propaganda model of some variety employed by the National Football League, to bolster the online reputations of the team owners, at the explicit expense of the actual players who do the labour in keeping the games active. ... but despite clear and obvious evidence of a propaganda system in place for both Google search results and New York Times articles, there were limitations in trying to tie it specifically to the Chomsky-Herman propaganda model. Matthew Alford attempts to interpret “A Screen Entertainment Propaganda Model” by throwing out the five primary filters, to instead focus on Chomsky-Herman's lesser-known idea of “news residue,” in order to determine if any filtration system had taken place.
- That which has little or no political relevance, and, in terms of the political world, is merely distraction.
- That which is overtly supportive of establishment goals.
- That which initially appears to criticise the political system but, on closer reading, provides it with fundamental support.
- That which does genuinely challenge Western power systems but is explicitly marginalised by the media mechanisms.
- That which does genuinely break through the filtration system, which invariably occurs for irregular reasons and/or with serious caveats.
Alford did provide some noteworthy examples of each time this filtration residue could be found on entertainment products, but they came with caveats of their own. There was relative difficulty in measuring the results, Filter #5 continued its ineffable vagueness, the other four seemed arbitrary in their application, and there were limitations regarding the “filtration” model inherently. With the advent of news syndication via telegraphy wires, sources of news were standardized across publications who source their content from newswire reporting. Each individual paper would simply select newswire reports of interest to them, ignoring the rest. This permitted publications to begin curating their own specific editorial bents, but it is also what allowed the “filtration system” which forms the backbone of the PM to exist, and it only works in systems where the majority of a publication's content is provided to them from other sources. (It was, after all, filtering through a large amount of chaff to get to the stuff it wanted.) The filtration-system supposition falls apart under conditions where publications produce the majority of their own content, like the more creative ventures are wont to do. Even if the same self-censoring pressures of the PM might be at play, especially where significant embedding within an industry environment causes a producer to favour some types of content over others, the PM itself cannot approximate those dynamics in this context.
Broudy and Tanji posed the case for a “missing” filtration layer regarding systems security. This was primarily based on the post-9/11 mania, whereby the Bush administration gained the ability to nix various news stories they claimed were dangerous to “national security.” While the exact verbiage was new for the time, the general pattern was observed earlier in history when President John F. Kennedy could influence the American Society of Newspaper Editors during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 01962. This method of censorship was replicated multiple times regarding the publishing of scandalous government secrets. During the George Floyd Rebellion, a splinter group from the original WikiLeaks was able to access and publish a tranche of documents dubbed “BlueLeaks.” BlueLeaks revealed all sorts of improprieties within American “law enforcement,” which was already under scrutiny regarding the Floyd protests, but also with regards to the attempted killing of Jacob Blake and the technically-not-murder of Breonna Taylor. Yet BlueLeaks was subject to incredible amounts of censorship, both in the news and on social media, on the grounds of “dissemination of hacked materials.” Curiously, this same reasoning was not provided when the main WikiLeaks branch published the stolen emails of Democratic National Convention operatives during the earlier 02015 election, perhaps because the publication of those were a matter of benefit to some sections of the American political elite. Despite both “leaks” involving the publication of hacked materials of public interest, BlueLeaks represented a threat to system security, but the WikiLeaks DNC emails represented business-as-usual.
“The System” (capital S) grants the elite a monopoly over the boundaries of acceptable public debate, and control over the “correct” interpretation of key terms and ideas. There was some matter of debate over the precise definition of “elite” in this context, being the oft-misapplied term that it is, but for the most part it would form an aggregate group of persons who have functional capacity towards Filters #1 and #4 of the PM. This allows corporate, political, and military power to define dissent or opinion against the status quo as traitorous. It was Broudy and Tanji's contention this was used to fringe the discussion of whistleblowers who expose wrongdoing in the interest of the public itself, painting unflattering portraits of figures who call public attention to abuses, as happened to the American military whistleblower Chelsea Manning. “System Security” thus applies both to instances where systems are genuinely imperiled, in addition to when systems move to protect their own selfish wants. I'm rather torn on the necessity of this distinction, as while the post-9/11 mania was certainly an interesting time to study media censorship, it was not something the PM was originally designed to classify. The intellectual milieu of the PM was more about studying how “market forces” use diffuse and seemingly non-coercive means to achieve desired results, so when a centralized government authority shows up to make mandates about what can and cannot appear in the press, you're very suddenly in wildly different territory that the PM can't help you with. The appeal of the PM to my younger self was that even small-time media projects could still fall victim to these machinations, but this “system security” framework as such would pin the PM entirely to the realm of elite media and little else.
I have heard Chomsky previously state the PM is best applied to elite media specifically, yet if this really were the case, we might be left with a problem. Piers Robinson offers the question “does the propaganda model actually theorize propaganda?” My summary of that paper is the simple answer of “no.” The propaganda model very effectively theorizes how propaganda spreads, but it does not state where the propaganda itself comes from. Even if we can describe elite capture of both government and media, the creative processes of that same elite still remain an academic mystery. We can determine how an elite-controlled media will act once they have specific goals in mind, but the process of anticipating what goals they're likely to reach in the first place, is not something the PM can help with on its own. I am unsure if this is a fundamental flaw to the PM as a concept, or perhaps instead a clue, hinting at the existence of a larger riddle to unravel.
Yet for all the issues I have with it, there is still that ever-fleeting flash of utter brilliance that entirely captures my attention. This was most apt in Christian Fuchs's chapter on the PM as applied to social media, where he found Filter #4 had extremely heightened importance. He fits the dynamics we see regarding automated spamming, online hate speech, and forms of state-sanctioned trolling, all fit neatly into Filter #4 as “mediated lobbying.” In the broadcast age of mass media, the flak filter was the hardest to understand due to how it happened alongside media, rather than from within. Broadcast media had limited bandwidth in terms of broadcast time, where any amount of media lobbying needed to compete with all other forms of content. Digital media removes this limitation, now allowing flak to eat up as many resources as it wants. The amount of sway for Filter #4 has far outpaced Filter #2, which is the opposite of what it was for mass broadcast. Now these two filters operate independently of the other, and often find themselves at complete odds. During the George Floyd Rebellion, the amount of flak on social media got so unpleasant, a large swathe of multinational corporations attempted an advertising boycott on Facebook, in attempt to influence things to a better direction. It did not work. The boycotting corporations very quickly saw revenues lessen, and the social media companies rebuffed their attempts quite casually. Advertising is now entirely a paper tiger, still important to many of the underlying economics for various digital media systems, but no longer able to call the shots as it once did. How the mighty have fallen! ... and how the worse have taken their place.
Because of all these issues, I am trapped betwixt the need to discount the propaganda model for its slippery adaptations to the new media environment, while also unable to throw it away wholesale. For every one thing like Fox News where the propaganda-model can no longer accurately describe the plain propaganda before us, there still exist other publications where the propaganda model is in full effect, such as the “MSNBC” cable news channel where all five classical filters remain marked and noted. This will-it-or-won't-it fluttering has made me wonder if mass media systems should consider adopting a cybersecurity-based model for how their content is influenced by internal or external forces. Some media publications have specific weaknesses which render them vulnerable to hegemonic influence, but those same venues can also be exploited by other actants seeking undue gains. This remains an untested hypothesis. While private computer systems are extremely interested in their own security, for these public-facing mass media systems, exploitation might just be the entire underlying point.
Even though Chomsky and Herman's theories were more practically useful than Naomi Klein's, I think my immediate reaction to both of them might not have been so different after all. The practice of “branding” put me off for whatever reason, and thus I viewed it as a “problem” to be “solved.” When I was younger, I still believed in the ideas of “freedom of speech” being the standard which society held itself to, thus the propaganda model was also a problem to be solved. Any society where the propaganda model has taken root cannot, by the same token, be a society that values “free speech.” Society must therefore adapt and better itself, in order to hold up the selfsame values it once claimed. ... this was what I thought at the time, but I took the wrong lesson from it. There was absolutely nothing in those purported values which didn't overwrite the “free speech” of society's elite as the only type that really mattered. There was nothing to “fix,” for it was already consistent, just horribly unequal. The propaganda model was a means of dehumanizing oneself to the inherent hypocrisy of this truth.
Yet there is one last thing which worries me the most about the PM. This doesn't really have much to do with the text or theory of Manufacturing Consent on its own, but instead regards the social context in which it must reside. The third core hypothesis of the propaganda model predicts that “critical studies and commentary on media performance will tend to be ignored and marginalized.” Part of me still interprets this as “academic ass-covering,” to presuppose why their own speaking “truth” to power would end up marginalized in advance of its own consideration. Yet what would it mean if this hypothesis could be properly falsified? Many scientists throughout history proposed a theory of evolution, yet it was only Charles Darwin who would be popularized, because his specific version of the theory was extremely beneficial to the elite of his day. (Allowing them to repurpose his “survival of the fittest” rhetoric to enact forms of “Social Darwinism.”) If the only ideas which are allowed to promulgate through mass society are the ones that are of benefit to society's elite and their interests, for the third core hypothesis to remain true, what does it mean that I could discover the propaganda model in the first place? What am I to make of the fact that I did not go searching for it, but rather that it found me, and was allowed to do so at all?
If I took the wrong lesson from my encounter with the propaganda model, what would be the correct one? Many of my fellow undergraduate students went on to positions in media companies, mainstream or otherwise, and even public relations firms. How did they interpret the “purpose” of the PM? Public relations theory and media manipulation were taught part-in-parcel with media criticisms such as the propaganda model. All this neatly placed into a larger picture, and wasn't—itself—filtered out for “not fitting in.” The two books The Political Economy of Human Rights and The Political Economy of the Mass Media were the same core idea with only minor differences, and that difference was the propaganda model hypothesis. One book met with great success, even in an elite-controlled consensus, and the other was so ignored it didn't even need to be marginalized. From this small difference, we see great effect. As loath as I am to admit this, the only reasonable conclusion to draw would be the propaganda model had some manner of elite utility. So what was it?
To make a guess of my own, as Naomi Klein handed her opponents the very club they used to beat her with, so too did Chomsky and Herman. The only difference for their case, was that it was a much slower boil. We may have been raised in a society where “censorship” was decried as this supposedly evil thing that could only ever happen in dictatorships, to later twist ourselves into knots avoiding a very real double standard when “censorship” or “oppression” occurs anyway, even in our supposedly democratic and non-authoritarian society. Thus we walked down a delusional path, where other people's censorship is bad and terrible, yet our own same censorship is always reasonable and just. What my fellow students may have taken from the propaganda model, in their own efforts to make themselves as “employable” as possible to these few and highly select media companies, was how to make themselves agreeable to those specific needs. And Lo! There it was, a simple five-step plan for everyone to follow, where you'd no longer have to constantly second-guess yourself. Thank you, Dr. Chomsky and Dr. Herman, for your super-helpful “how-to” manual for when it comes to interfacing with the wants and needs of a highly selective mainstream media! Censorship happens all the time, either through purely technological means like the McLuhanistic school of media study would posit, or through social/political/economic means as the Chomskyists would have it. Either way, you'd best get used to it, and “getting used to it” is exactly what the utility of the propaganda model was for.
Knowing what I know of the authors, I think this would horrify them.