How institutional filters operate

Many people have criticisms of the media. They hold the media responsible for the sorry state of civic discourse and the fact that, for example, about half the population still believes that Iraq had something to do with 9/11. Their plaintive cry “If only the media would do its proper job, then people would be better informed and we would have better government” is often heard. They wonder why the media highlights some stories and ignores others, and suspect dark motives.

In this series on the way the media operates, I have tried to steer the discussion away from issues of human motivation and bias in understanding the media. What we have is not a system of individuals consciously and deliberately steering news coverage in a particular direction which they know to be false or misleading. Only a few people at the very top of the institutions are likely to be like that.

Instead we have a system in place that has the effect of weeding out all but those individuals who view the news in a particular way. Most of the journalists who remain and prosper in the system are those who have internalized the values of the corporate media system and its rules of operation. Rather than thinking of themselves as doing something that is less than good journalism, they actually think that they are upholding its finest traditions, of maintaining “objectivity” and “neutrality”. So by and large they will be able to work with a clear conscience. That is the sign of a really good propaganda model. People cannot fake things on a consistent basis for a long time. If individual journalists were writing and saying things that they did not themselves believe in, it would soon become obvious and they would not be effective.

All large institutions have such filters that weed out people with ideas that oppose its basic interests. For example, the advertising industry is unlikely to be congenial to those who feel that telling the truth about products, both good and bad, is important in creating an informed consumer. Those people, even if for some reason they chose to enter that profession, are likely to be weeded out quite early. The people who remain and succeed are not necessarily intellectually dishonest. They are people who think that it is better to dwell on the positive rather than the negative, and that the marketplace as a whole will be the best judge of what is good and bad, not individuals, and that it is not their job to make such judgments on behalf of others. They see their job as to present their product in the best possible light.

Universities are also not immune from this kind of filtering. They tend to filter out those people who do not value knowledge, however esoteric, for its own sake. People who think that the only knowledge of any value is that which has a practical and immediate payoff are not likely to find universities to be congenial places for them, except in a few departments like engineering or business. The converse is true for manufacturing industries. Those places have little use for people who like to think about ideas in the abstract and are unable to translate those ideas into actual products.

The problem with the media is not that it has such filters in place that result in producing “news” that suits the needs of the pro-war/pro-business one party state. The problem is that the media is not perceived by the public as having any kind of bias at all. And it is this that makes it dangerous.

Most people are savvy enough to realize that the advertisements they see for products are not produced by impartial people. They are aware that consumers of print and video media are the targets of a careful campaign to persuade them to adopt a particular point of view, which is that the product being advertised is something they need (which may not be the case) and that it is the best among the options available to satisfy that manufactured need (which may not be true).

Despite this self-awareness, it is a dubious tribute to Madison Avenue that advertising is so successful in persuading people to purchase products. But even advertisers know that advertising is even more successful when people are not consciously aware that they are being marketed to. Hence we have the more recent innovations of product placement in films and TV shows, and having seemingly ordinary people in places like bars praise the virtues of products to other patrons, thus creating what seems to be a spontaneous “buzz” for a product. ‘Word of mouth’ praise from friends and acquaintances is more effective than being pitched something by people who are paid to do so.

The success of the propaganda media is likewise dependent on most people not realizing that they are being sold a product, in this case a particular slant on “the news.” For example, I was sitting in a restaurant one day and a person at another table was recommending The O’Reilly Factor to his companions as a show that “tells it like it is” with “no spin.” This person had clearly bought into the slogans that are carefully marketed by news organizations, that they are fair and balanced. Such people are for more susceptible to propaganda than those who understand the invisible drivers at work in creating the news.

Next in the series: How this knowledge can be used to build a better news system.

POST SCRIPT: Happy first birthday, Baxter!




  1. says

    Dear Mano,

    First, thank you for writing such an insightful set of analyses on modern media in the US.

    I have an observation about something you write towards the end of your most recent post. You write: “But even advertisers know that advertising is even more successful when people are not consciously aware that they are being marketed to.”

    I agree that this is true. And yet, one of the most commonly-observed phenomenon in advertising in the late 1980s was an awareness of the ironic stance younger persons were taking towards Madison Avenue’s efforts to woo them. Of course, advertising responded by coopting that same ironic stance (Nike: “Just Do It”), managing at once to parody itself, and to extend itself into still more areas of everyday life.

    With regard to news-product media, how do you feel it has responded to that ironic perspective? I find myself thinking of ABC’s remarkable, lamentable lack of real response the criticisms of their recent film on the WTC attacks. I almost had the feeling that Disney/ABC was chiding us outraged folk for our naive sense that perhaps the notion of verifiable fact should play a larger role in the creation of their latest product.

    There seems to be a tension between a view that says today the sheer power of media allows “it” to manipulate people’s sense of reality more than ever before; and one that says people are now radically suspicious of anything at *all* posing as truth.

    thanks again,

  2. says


    I wish I knew the answer to this question but I don’t. It is true that people simply get overwhelmed by the amount of media they consume and the fact that they all pretty much say the same thing may subvert people into either thinking they are all telling the truth or become excessively cynical and think they are all lying.

    What we need are kinds of connoisseurs of news, people who know the kinds of questions to ask, value what history has to say, do comparative analyses of events, and can distinguish between the facts of evennts and the subsequent conjectures.

    While I understant the point you are making about the ironic perspective, I am not sure what to make of it. Is it a superficial kind of irony or something deeper? I wonder about people paying a lot of money for clothes that advertise the brand. So instead of getting paid for advertising a product, they are paying for it. Is that irony? Or just being suckers?

    These are good questions but I really don’t know the answer.


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