In the previous posting in this series, I wrote about how Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent provide a good model for how a sophisticated propaganda model works. They point out that rather than direct control of news, what exists in the US is a system of five filters that has the effect of steadily weeding out of the system those who do not serve the needs of the dominant interests. In the previous post, I described three of the filters. Today, I will discuss the other two.
4. Flak and the enforcers
Chomsky and Herman define flak as “negative response to a media statement or program.” They point out that “If flak is produced on a large scale, or by individuals or groups with substantial resources, it can be both uncomfortable and costly to the media. Positions have to be defended within the organization and without, sometimes before legislatures and possibly even the courts. Advertisers may withdraw their patronage.” (p. 26)
They point out that there are many groups that have been created with the specific aim of creating flak to keep the media in line. Those that have the most resources tend to be the ones most able to maintain a sustained barrage of flak and it should be no surprise that the best funded are those who advance the interests of the big corporations or wealthy individuals. It is also no accident that the charge of a “liberal media” is so incessantly repeated, despite any evidence to the contrary. Doing so ensures that the media will internalize that critique and reflexively try and make sure that nothing they do could be so interpreted.
The treatment that Tom Ricks experienced when he spoke about some of Israel’s actions during the invasion of Lebanon is a good example of this kind of flak. Whenever a mainstream media outlet suggests that the motives of ‘our’ governments (US or Israel) is anything less than perfectly pure, or that the motives of ‘them’ (currently Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran, Syria, or North Korea) is anything other than evil, you can be sure that they will encounter flak from all the agencies and lobbying groups with a vested interest in maintaining the standard narrative.
After awhile, journalists and their editors realize that life is a lot simpler if some things are simply left unsaid, irrespective of whether they are true or not. This is why comedy shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report and late night comics have a little more freedom to say what is actually on their minds. They can deflect some flak by invoking comedic privilege.
So while avoiding topics or statements that might generate flak becomes a decision that can be explained and even justified on business principles, the net result is that media coverage becomes hugely sympathetic and favorable to the interests of the government, corporate interests, and the think tanks that are funded by them, because they are the ones who can generate and sustain huge amounts of flak.
This also explains why the very people who are always trashing the media are the very ones who are always given plenty of time by that same media to air their views. As Chomsky and Herman point out, “Although the flak machines steadily attack the mass media, the media treat them well. They receive respectful attention, and their propagandistic role and links to a larger corporate program are rarely mentioned or analyzed. . .This reflects the power of the sponsors, including the well-entrenched position of the right wing in the mass media themselves.” (p. 28)
Chomsky and Herman wrote those words in 1988 but they still apply. I am told that new CBS evening news anchor Katie Couric interviewed Rush Limbaugh on the news program on Thursday, September 7, even though Limbaugh’s shtick is to routinely berate the “liberal media.”
Take, for another example, Ann Coulter (please!). Media Matters reports:
Republican hatemonger Ann Coulter has continued her attack on the media, including making a recent statement where she reaffirmed her wish that Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh had bombed The New York Times’ building.
There seems to be no low to which Coulter won’t sink in her pursuit of airtime. She recently apparently endorsed the murder of Rep. John P. Murtha (D-PA) and suggested that Democratic support of a recent Supreme Court decision is “siding with Al Qaeda.” Coulter’s musings about violence against her perceived enemies are nothing new; she once suggested that former President Clinton be assassinated.
You might think that the media would distance themselves from such advocacy of political murder. But you’d be wrong: Coulter continues to be invited on a wide range of television programs, including on MSNBC and NBC.
Media Matters poses the question: “Is there nothing she could say they would find inappropriate?” The answer is no, not as long as she advances the interests of her sponsors, whereas someone who thoughtfully and carefully and (most importantly) competently argues against the powerful interests will find it hard to get even a fraction of the airtime she does.
5. Anticommunism as a control mechanism
This final filter is interesting. Chomsky and Herman wrote their book in 1988 when the Soviet Union was still in existence and Cold War anti-communistic ideology and rhetoric was still dominant. They write:
“This ideology helps mobilize the populace against an enemy, and because the concept is fuzzy it can be used against anybody advocating property rights or support accommodation with Communist states and radicalism. . .Liberals at home, often accused of being pro-Communist or insufficiently anti-Communist, are kept constantly on the defensive in a cultural milieu in which anticommunism is the dominant religion. . .Many of them have internalized the religion anyway, but they are all under great pressure to demonstrate their anti-Communist credentials. This causes them to behave very much like reactionaries.” (p. 29)
While anti-Communism ideology is still there as an important controlling mechanism (for example, those who advocate single-payer health insurance policies are routinely charged with advocating “socialized medicine”), one could replace “communism” with “terrorism” and “property rights” with “human rights” in the above passage and have an almost perfect description of the current political climate. This lends support for my long-held view that fear is the dominant controlling factor that authoritarian governments use in controlling their populations, and they will always find something to keep the public’s knees shaking, as long as we let them.
Before the terrorist threat conveniently came along, the decline of the Soviet Union in 1991 as an existential threat to the US resulted in a need for a replacement threat to maintain fear. For a while it was alleged that drugs and crack cocaine that was threatening the very fabric of American life and the “drug cartels” were the new global enemy and the “war on drugs” was the grand crusade in which the country was engaged. Remember the much-hyped Medellin cartel, that fearsome South American group that was supposedly threatening to destroy life and civilization as we know it? For a while back in the 1990s, people were constantly being alarmed by suggestions that drug dealers were lurking everywhere, even behind the bushes in our elementary schools, trying to coax our children into becoming addicts so that the US would be turned into a nation of drug-crazed addicts.
While the drug war served as a stop-gap fear generator, it was really not a good long-term candidate since much drug use takes place among the elites in the US, and it is hard to see the rich and famous being given the ‘perp walk’ and put in jails and tortured.
“Terrorism” is more serviceable as a fear device since its threats are vague and indiscriminate. Linking it to Islam makes it seems deliciously alien and exotic and dangerous, just like Communism was, although in actual fact there is little to distinguish Islam from Christianity or Judaism since they are all merely variations of the same superstition.
Next in the series: How the media filters work and how they can be combated.