Sep 08 2006

The media filters

Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent provide a good model for how a sophisticated propaganda model, such as that which exists in the US, works. They point out that rather than direct control of news, what exists is a system of filters that has the effect of steadily and almost invisibly weeding out of the system those individuals and media businesses that do not serve the interests of the ruling elites.

They point to five filters at work:

1. Size, ownership, and profit orientation

They point out that in the nineteenth century in Britain “a radical press emerged that reached a national working-class audience. This alternative press was effective in reinforcing class consciousness: it unified the workers because it fostered an alternative value system and framework for looking at the world.” (p. 3) Of course such a press was seen as a major threat to the elites and they sought to suppress it using punitive measures, by “using libel laws and prosecutions, by requiring an expensive security bond as a condition for publication, and by imposing various taxes designed to drive out radical media by raising their costs.”

Those punitive measures were not successful in driving out the working class press. What was successful in both England and the US in driving out the popular working class press was the rapid increase in the costs of running a newspaper due to technological improvements, along with the need to reach larger audiences. The cost of printing machinery alone now runs into hundreds of thousand of dollars even for small publications. This results in newspapers having to have large amounts of startup capital and an ability to suffer losses for a long time before they start to become profitable. This means that ownership of a media outlet is only possible to those with deep pockets, which effectively rules out all but those with wealth. So a class bias is built into the system from the beginning. Furthermore, only those with access to high levels of government can obtain the lucrative broadcast licenses for radio and TV, thus further cementing the links between government and the wealthy classes and the media.

2. The advertising license to do business

In the early days of newspaper publishing, the price of the newspaper had to cover the cost of publishing. But the growth of advertising has resulted in those publications that can generate a lot of advertising being able to set a selling price well below cost. This results in those publications that do not attract advertisers being at a huge price disadvantage. Actually, this is a double whammy. Advertisers are not be interested in the size of the circulation per se, but in the demographics of those numbers. They tend to target their advertising at those publications which succeed at attracting upscale readers with disposable income, the very people who can afford to pay a higher subscription price, while those publications that target the lower-income market are likely to get less advertising and thus have higher newsstand prices, even though their readership can afford it less.

Advertising distorts in other ways too. In order to attract advertisers and corporate sponsors, the media have to make sure not to offend them. “The power of advertisers over television programming stems from the simple fact that that they buy and pay for the programs (p. 16). . .[A]dvertisers also choose selectively among programs on the basis of their own principles. With rare exceptions these are culturally and politically conservative. Large corporate advertisers on television will rarely sponsor programs that engage in serious criticism of corporate activities, such as the problem of environmental degradation, the workings of the military-industrial complex, or corporate support of and benefits from Third World tyrannies.” (p. 17)

The auto industry is a good example. Newspapers in general tend to treat the auto industry and dealers very gently because they spend so much on advertising. The auto sections of the paper are usually just puff pieces sprinkled into the advertisements for auto dealers and cars.

One is far more likely to see analyses of welfare fraud than auto dealer fraud because poor people ‘don’t count’ and if they are offended and stop reading, the advertisers don’t really care. But they do care if the Gap-shopping, Benz-driving, golf-playing readership drops.

3. Sourcing mass media news

The media, being a business interested in enhancing profits for their owners and shareholders, naturally seek to cut costs. They cannot have reporters everywhere where news may break because that is too expensive. So they tend to focus on predictable, set-piece news events, “manufactured” news, which essentially means covering the press conferences of government and business sources. “These bureaucracies turn out a large volume of material that meets the demands of news organizations for reliable, scheduled flows.” (p. 19)

“Another reason for the heavy weight given to official sources is that the mass media claim to be “objective” dispensers of the news. Partly to maintain the image of objectivity, but to also protect themselves from criticisms of bias and the threat of libel suits, they need material that can be portrayed as presumptively accurate. This is also partly a matter of cost: taking information from sources that may be presumed credible reduces investigative expense, whereas material from sources that are not prima facie credible, or that will elicit criticism and threats, requires careful checking and costly research.” (p. 19)

It thus costs the media little extra to report the words of the powerful in government or business or those who spout the conventional wisdom. “In effect, the large bureaucracies of the powerful subsidize the mass media, and gain special access by their contribution to reducing the media’s costs of acquiring the raw materials of, and producing, news.” (p. 22) Government leaders know this, which is why they are so eager to go on the air and repeat the same things over and over again, such as their fraudulent case for invading Iraq and their claims that things there are going just fine and that those who criticize the war are appeasers and terrorist sympathizers. In fact, just this week, George Bush has been making pretty much the same speech over and over and the media covers it. All the administration officials have to do is simply make assertions without producing any evidence, and they can be sure it will be reported.

But even well-informed private citizens who go against the official line will have to provide detailed arguments and evidence in order to be taken seriously and even then, television would eliminate them because that medium requires very short sound bites and you do not have the luxury of building a case. If I say “Saddam Hussein is a war criminal” on TV, I do not have to produce any evidence in support because that is the official line. If, instead, I say “George Bush is a war criminal”, I cannot expect that statement to be accepted uncritically, and to make a strong case for it requires time, and that is a luxury that TV does not provide, let alone the flak the media will get for allowing me to say it. So for purely business, and not ideological, reasons it makes sense for the media to keep out those who would make the latter charge, unless the person making it has prima facie credibility by also belonging to the government and business elite.

This is where the lack of division among the two parties on major issues of war and the economy comes into play. As long as we have effectively a one-party state on such matters, there will be correspondingly little careful examination of these issues. This is where the Democratic Party leadership shares some responsibility for the mess the US has got into in Iraq. By not providing a strong critical stance on the case for war early on, it failed to provide the cover the media needed to be able to investigate all the lies and deceptions that the Bush administration foisted on the public in the run up to the war and even since then.

In the case of the Vietnam war, the media only started reporting critically about the war when it began to be a serious drain on the economy and the business elites feared that the massive war expenditures were hurting the general economy, although the weapons industry still benefited. Furthermore, the draft was causing unrest even among the middle and upper classes, an important demographic for the media, and political leaders started facing angry constituents that forced them to question that war’s rationale and implementation. We see the same thing beginning to happen with the Iraq war. Political leaders are now starting to question the war, although at this stage they are focusing on the safer question of poor implementation rather than the more fundamental questions of the war’s immorality and illegality. The sudden upsurge in the attacks of Donald Rumsfeld and the calls for his resignation are the first signs that the elite consensus is breaking down.

The same thing happened with Watergate, which is always brought up as an example of how the media in the US is an antagonist of big government, rather than the cozy partner it really is. What happened there was an intra-party dispute within the ruling one-party system, where one faction (the Republicans) was seen by the other faction (the Democrats) as violating the unwritten rules by which they shared power. They don’t care if yours or my phone is tapped, but tapping each other’s phones is breaking the rules of the game. Since each faction has support in the government and corporate bureaucracies, reporting on Nixon’s shenanigans was not the media attacking the system itself, but just reporting on a factional power struggle within the one-party consensus.

Next in the series: Two more filters


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  2. 2
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