The media propaganda model in action


In the previous post, I quoted a former Fox News staffer who revealed in 2003 how the senior management at Fox News carefully monitored and directed what news would be covered and, more importantly, how it should be covered. This was done by means of “The Memo” that was sent out by top management every day to all the news staff. For example, the staffer said:

[J]ust after the U.S. invaded Iraq, The Memo warned us that anti-war protesters would be “whining” about U.S. bombs killing Iraqi civilians, and suggested they could tell that to the families of American soldiers dying there. Editing copy that morning, I was not surprised when an eager young producer killed a correspondent’s report on the day’s fighting – simply because it included a brief shot of children in an Iraqi hospital.

These are not isolated incidents at Fox News Channel, where virtually no one of authority in the newsroom makes a move unmeasured against management’s politics, actual or perceived. At the Fair and Balanced network, everyone knows management’s point of view, and, in case they’re not sure how to get it on air, The Memo is there to remind them.

When the existence of The Memo was revealed, there was some criticism of this practice. Most people took this as a sign of how biased Fox News is. But what distinguishes Fox News’s propaganda model is just the crudity of its methods, reminiscent of the amateurishness of totalitarian governments. A really good propaganda model designs a system where journalists think they are acting autonomously as independent seekers of truth. So to examine such a good system, we should move away from Fox and look at how the rest of the media operates and the same staffer who revealed the existence of The Memo demonstrates this when he compares his experience at Fox with that at other news outlets.

Not once in the 20+ years I had worked in broadcast journalism prior to Fox – including lengthy stays at The Associated Press, CBS Radio and ABC/Good Morning America – did I feel any pressure to toe a management line. But at Fox, if my boss wasn’t warning me to “be careful” how I handled the writing of a special about Ronald Reagan (“You know how Roger [Fox News Chairman Ailes] feels about him.”), he was telling me how the environmental special I was to produce should lean (“You can give both sides, but make sure the pro-environmentalists don’t get the last word.”)

This is quite a compliment to the other news outlets. But the real compliment to them is not that they are unbiased seekers and revealers of the truth but that the propaganda model works so invisibly there that even someone who worked within the system for so long was oblivious to its operation.

To avoid any misunderstanding, let me emphasize that I am not doubting the writer’s sincerity. I am sure that he and other journalists at these other places very rarely encounter any direct political interference in their work. But that does not mean that their news does not have an agenda. It is just that the agenda is not overtly enforced.

Another misunderstanding I wish to avoid is that the agendas I am talking about is not the “liberal” or “conservative” agenda that gets much discussed. The whole debate over whether the media is “liberal” is a bogus one, whose roots and purposes will be examined in a later posting. As I said in an earlier post, what we have in the US is a single pro-war/pro-business party with two factions, and the media reflects this. The two factions are divided over social and moral issues such a church-state separation, abortion, affirmative action, flag burning, pledge of allegiance, sex education in schools, evolution, sex, etc. The existence of heated debates over these issues can easily give one the impression that there are deep divisions in the country that are reflected in the media and in government.

Some deep divisions do exist. But it is noteworthy that they usually involve issues that do not affect the entrenched economic interests of the country. Behind the smokescreen provided by these angry debates over social and cultural issues is a smoothly operating one-party system that serves the interests of an elite group. But most people do not care to delve too deeply into the kinds of arcane governmental actions that are of most interest to the business industries. Those decisions, and the rules interpreting them, are made by small congressional committees that operate in closed committee rooms in close collaboration with industry lobbyists and well outside the glare of the media lights.

As I wrote about a year ago:

If you are in the mood for being disgusted about how unbelievably corrupted the democratic process has become in Congress in general, see this article titled Four Amendments & a Funeral: A month inside the house of horrors that is Congress by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone and posted on August 10, 2005. The article describes how the legislative process has become far removed from what you might have idealized in your government classes or in Schoolhouse Rock. As Rep. Bernie Sanders says “Nobody knows how this place is run. If they did, they’d go nuts.”

The whole system operates in a manner similar to that used by magicians and conjurors and three-card Monte tricksters. They usually have a line of patter and lots of motion to distract you from the fact that the actual action is elsewhere. All the high profile, high energy, heated rhetoric over social and cultural issues serve as essentially entertainment, as patter, to distract you from what is really going on. In fact, a useful rule of thumb for political and media observers is to not pay a lot of attention to what politicians disagree about but instead look at what they agree on. That is where all the scandals are. When someone calls for bipartisanship on some issue, that is when you should be most on your guard.

For an example of how successful the propaganda system is, in a recent poll, 46% of the public and 65% of Republicans agree with the proposition that “there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 terror attacks” despite the fact that this was always known to be a falsehood and that even George Bush himself on occasion has explicitly denied that there was a connection, and even claims that no one in his administration claimed such a connection.

Such a result, so convenient to this administration in persuading the public to support its illegal and immoral invasion of Iraq, could only come about due to a highly sophisticated propaganda operation where people were misled and lied to without realizing how they were being led by the nose.

Understanding that this is how the government operates is important in understanding how the media works. The media is designed to cover those areas that create disturbance and is not well suited to explore those areas where there is no public disagreement among high officials. This is why they almost always miss the big issues.

In the next posting on this topic, I will look at the filters that operate in the media that produces the kinds of journalists and journalism that allows this subversion of Lincoln’s ideal of government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

POST SCRIPT: Surrendering freedoms

The same survey I referred to above also seems to indicate that a disturbingly large percentage of people (and a majority of Republicans) are willing to freely give up the rights enshrined in the Fourth Amendment to the constitution for what they think is security.

Benjamin Franklin said that “They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security.” And that is exactly the kind of state where we are moving towards, where there is neither security nor liberty.

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