The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the
general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to
inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will
integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world
of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfill this
role requires systematic propaganda.
In countries where the levers of power are in the hands
of a state bureaucracy, the monopolistic control over the media, often supplemented
by official censorship, makes it clear that the media serve the ends of a dominant
elite. It is much more difficult to see a propaganda system at work where the
media are private and formal censorship is absent. This is especially true where
the media actively compete, periodically attack and expose corporate and governmental
malfeasance, and aggressively portray themselves as spokesmen for free speech
and the general community interest. What is not evident (and remains undiscussed
in the media) is the limited nature of such critiques, as well as the huge inequality
in command of resources, and its effect both on access to a private media system
and on its behavior and performance.
A propaganda model focuses on this inequality of wealth and power and its multilevel
effects on mass-media interests and choices. It traces the routes by which money
and power are able to filter out the news fit to print, marginalize dissent,
and allow the government and dominant private interests to get their messages
across to the public. The essential ingredients of our propaganda model, or
set of news "filters," fall under the following headings:
(1) the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth, and
profit orientation of the dominant mass-media firms
(2) advertising as the primary income source of the mass
(3) the reliance of the media on information provided
by government, business, and "experts" funded and approved by
these primary sources and agents of power
(4) "flak" as a means of disciplining the media
(5) "anticommunism" as a national religion and
These elements interact with and reinforce one another. The raw material of
news must pass through successive filters, leaving only the cleansed residue
fit to print. They fix the premises of discourse and interpretation, and the
definition of what is newsworthy in the first place, and they explain the basis
and operations of what amount to propaganda campaigns.
The elite domination of the media and marginalization of dissidents that results
from the operation of these filters occurs so naturally that media news people,
frequently operating with complete integrity and goodwill, are able to convince
themselves that they choose and interpret the news "objectively" and
on the basis of professional news values. Within the limits of the filter constraints
they often are objective; the constraints are so powerful, and are built into
the system in such a fundamental way, that alternative bases of news choices
are hardly imaginable. In assessing the newsworthiness of the U.S. government's
urgent claims of a shipment of MIGs to Nicaragua on November 5, 1984, the media
do not stop to ponder the bias that is inherent in the priority assigned to
government-supplied raw material, or the possibility that the government might
be manipulating the news, imposing its own agenda, and deliberately diverting
attention from other material. It requires a macro, alongside a micro- (story-by-story),
view of media operations, to see the pattern of manipulation and systematic
SIZE, OWNERSHIP, AND PROFIT ORIENTATION OF THE MASS MEDIA: THE FIRST
In their analysis of the evolution of the media in Great Britain, James Curran
and Jean Seaton describe how, in the first half of the nineteenth century, 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, and because it "promoted a greater collective confidence by
repeatedly emphasizing the potential power of working people to effect social
change through the force of 'combination' and organized action." This was
deemed a major threat by the ruling elites. One MP asserted that the workingclass
newspapers "inflame passions and awaken their selfishness, contrasting
their current condition with what they contend to be their future condition-a
condition incompatible with human nature, and those immutable laws which Providence
has established for the regulation of civil society." The result was an
attempt to squelch the working-class media by 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. These coercive efforts were not effective, and by mid-century they had
been abandoned in favor of the liberal view that the market would enforce responsibility.
Curran and Seaton show that the market did successfully accomplish what state
intervention failed to do. Following the repeal of the punitive taxes on newspapers
between 1853 and 1869, a new daily local press came into existence, but not
one new local working-class daily was established through the rest of the nineteenth
century. Curran and Seaton note that
Indeed, the eclipse of the national radical press was so total that when the
Labour Party developed out of the working-class movement in the first decade
of the twentieth century, it did not obtain the exclusive backing of a single
national daily or Sunday paper.
One important reason for this was the rise in scale of newspaper enterprise
and the associated increase in capital costs from the mid-nineteenth century
onward, which was based on technological improvements along with the owners'
increased stress on reaching large audiences. The expansion of the free market
was accompanied by an "industrialization of the press." The total
cost of establishing a national weekly on a profitable basis in 1837 was under
a thousand pounds, with a break-even circulation of 6,200 copies. By 1867, the
estimated start-up cost of a new London daily was 50,000 pounds. The Sunday
Express, launched in 1918, spent over two million pounds before it broke even
with a circulation of over 200,000.
Similar processes were at work in the United States, where the start-up cost
of a new paper in New York City in 1851 was $69,000; the public sale of the
St. Louis Democrat in 1872 yielded $456,000; and city newspapers were selling
at from $6 to $18 million in the 1920s. The cost of machinery alone, of even
very small newspapers, has for many decades run into the hundreds of thousands
of dollars; in 1945 it could be said that "Even small-newspaper publishing
is big business . . . [and] is no longer a trade one takes up lightly even if
he has substantial cash-or takes up at all if he doesn't."
Thus the first filter-the limitation on ownership of media with any substantial
outreach by the requisite large size of investment-was applicable a century
or more ago, and it has become increasingly effective over time. In 1986 there
were some 1,500 daily newspapers, 11,000 magazines, 9,000 radio and 1,500 TV
stations, 2,400 book publishers, and seven movie studios in the United States-over
25,000 media entities in all. But a large proportion of those among this set
who were news dispensers were very small and local, dependent on the large national
companies and wire services for all but local news. Many more were subject to
common ownership, sometimes extending through virtually the entire set of media
Ben Bagdikian stresses the fact that despite the large media numbers, the twenty-nine
largest media systems account for over half of the output of newspapers, and
most of the sales and audiences in magazines, broadcasting, books, and movies.
He contends that these "constitute a new Private Ministry of Information
and Culture" that can set the national agenda.
Actually, while suggesting a media autonomy from corporate and government power
that we believe to be incompatible with structural facts (as we describe below),
Bagdikian also may be understating the degree of effective concentration in
news manufacture. It has long been noted that the media are tiered, with the
top tier-as measured by prestige, resources, and outreach-comprising somewhere
between ten and twenty-four systems. It is this top tier, along with the government
and wire services, that defines the news agenda and supplies much of the national
and international news to the lower tiers of the media, and thus for the general
public. Centralization within the top tier was substantially increased by the
post-World War II rise of television and the national networking of this important
medium. Pre-television news markets were local, even if heavily dependent on
the higher tiers and a narrow set of sources for national and international
news; the networks provide national and international news from three national
sources, and television is now the principal source of news for the public.
The maturing of cable, however, has resulted in a fragmentation of television
audiences and a slow erosion of the market share and power of the networks.
... the twenty-four media giants (or their controlling parent companies) that
make up the top tier of media companies in the United States. This compilation
includes: (1) the three television networks: ABC (through its parent, Capital
Cities), CBS, and NBC (through its ultimate parent, General Electric [GE]);
(2) the leading newspaper empires: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles
Times (Times-Mirror), Wall Street Journal (Dow Jones), Knight-Ridder, Gannett,
Hearst, Scripps-Howard, Newhouse (Advance Publications), and the Tribune Company;
(3) the major news and general-interest magazines: Time, Newsweek (subsumed
under Washington Post), Reader's Digest, TV Guide (Triangle), and U.S. News
~ World Report; (4) a major book publisher (McGraw-Hill); and (5) other cable-TV
systems of large and growing importance: those of Murdoch, Turner, Cox, General
Corp., Taft, Storer, and Group W (Westinghouse). Many of these systems are prominent
in more than one field and are only arbitrarily placed in a particular category
(Time, Inc., is very important in cable as well as magazines; McGraw-Hill is
a major publisher of magazines; the Tribune Company has become a large force
in television as well as newspapers; Hearst is important in magazines as well
as newspapers; and Murdoch has significant newspaper interests as well as television
and movie holdings).
These twenty-four companies are large, profit-seeking corporations, owned and
controlled by quite wealthy people. It can be seen in table I-I that all but
one of the top companies for whom data are available have assets in excess of
$1 billion, and the median size (middle item by size) is $2.6 billion. It can
also be seen in the table that approximately three-quarters of these media giants
had after-tax profits in excess of $100 million, with the median at $183 million.
Many of the large media companies are fully integrated into the market, and
for the others, too, the pressures of stockholders, directors, and bankers to
focus on the bottom line are powerful. These pressures have intensified in recent
years as media stocks have become market favorites, and actual or prospective
owners of newspapers and television properties have found it possible to capitalize
increased audience size and advertising revenues into multiplied values of the
media franchises-and great wealth. This has encouraged the entry of speculators
and increased the pressure and temptation to focus more intensively on profitability.
Family owners have been increasingly divided between those wanting to take advantage
of the new opportunities and those desiring a continuation of family control,
and their splits have often precipitated crises leading finally to the sale
of the family interest.
This trend toward greater integration of the media into the market system has
been accelerated by the loosening of rules limiting media concentration, cross-ownership,
and control by non-media companies. There has also been an abandonment of restrictions-previously
quite feeble anyway-on radio-TV commercials, entertainment mayhem programming,
and "fairness doctrine" threats, opening the door to the unrestrained
commercial use of the airwaves.
The greater profitability of the media in a deregulated environment has also
led to an increase in takeovers and takeover threats, with even giants like
CBS and Time, Inc., directly attacked or threatened. This has forced the managements
of the media giants to incur greater debt and to focus ever more aggressively
and unequivocally on profitability, in order to placate owners and reduce the
attractiveness of their properties to outsiders. They have lost some of their
limited autonomy to bankers, institutional investors, and large individual investors
whom they have had to solicit as potential "white knights."
While the stock of the great majority of large media firms is traded on the
securities markets, approximately two-thirds of these companies are either closely
held or still controlled by members of the originating family who retain large
blocks of stock. This situation is changing as family ownership becomes diffused
among larger numbers of heirs and the market opportunities for selling media
properties continue to improve, but the persistence of family control is evident
in the data shown in table I-Z. Also evident in the table is the enormous wealth
possessed by the controlling families of the top media firms. For seven of the
twenty-four, the market value of the media properties owned by the controlling
families in the mid-1980s exceeded a billion dollars, and the median value was
close to half a billion dollars. These control groups obviously have a special
stake in the status quo by virtue of their wealth and their strategic position
in one of the great institutions of society. And they exercise the power of
this strategic position, if only by establishing the general aims of the company
and choosing its top management.
The control groups of the media giants are also brought into close relationships
with the mainstream of the corporate community through boards of directors and
social links. In the cases of NBC and the Group W television and cable systems,
their respective parents, GE and Westinghouse, are themselves mainstream corporate
giants, with boards of directors that are dominated by corporate and banking
executives. Many of the other large media firms have boards made up predominantly
of insiders, a general characteristic of relatively small and owner-dominated
companies. The larger the firm and the more widely distributed the stock, the
larger the number and proportion of outside directors. The composition of the
outside directors of the media giants is very similar to that of large non-media
corporations. ... active corporate executives and bankers together account for
a little over half the total of the outside directors of ten media giants; and
the lawyers and corporate-banker retirees (who account for nine of the thirteen
under "Retired") push the corporate total to about two-thirds of the
outside-director aggregate. These 95 outside directors had directorships in
an additional 36 banks and 255 other companies (aside from the media company
and their own firm of primary affiliation).
In addition to these board linkages, the large media companies all do business
with commercial and investment bankers, obtaining lines of credit and loans,
and receiving advice and service in selling stock and bond issues and in dealing
with acquisition opportunities and takeover threats. Banks and other institutional
investors are also large owners of media stock. In the early 1980s, such institutions
held 44 percent of the stock of publicly owned newspapers and 35 percent of
the stock of publicly owned broadcasting companies. These investors are also
frequently among the largest stockholders of individual companies. For example,
in 1980-81, the Capital Group, an investment company system, held 7.1 percent
of the stock of ABC, 6.6 percent of KnightRidder, 6 percent of Time, Inc., and
2.8 percent of Westinghouse. These holdings, individually and collectively,
do not convey control, but these large investors can make themselves heard,
and their actions can affect the welfare of the companies and their managers.
If the managers fail to pursue actions that favor shareholder returns, institutional
investors will be inclined to sell the stock (depressing its price), or to listen
sympathetically to outsiders contemplating takeovers. These investors are a
force helping press media companies toward strictly market (profitability) objectives.
So is the diversification and geographic spread of the great media companies.
Many of them have diversified out of particular media fields into others that
seemed like growth areas. Many older newspaper-based media companies, fearful
of the power of television and its effects on advertising revenue, moved as
rapidly as they could into broadcasting and cable TV. Time, Inc., also, made
a major diversification move into cable TV, which now accounts for more than
half its profits. Only a small minority of the twenty-four largest media giants
remain in a single media sector.
The large media companies have also diversified beyond the media field, and
non-media companies have established a strong presence in the mass media. The
most important cases of the latter are GE, owning RCA, which owns the NBC network,
and Westinghouse, which owns major television-broadcasting stations, a cable
network, and a radio station network. GE and Westinghouse are both huge, diversified
multinational companies heavily involved in the controversial areas of weapons
production and nuclear power. It may be recalled that from 1965 to 1967, an
attempt by International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) to acquire ABC was frustrated
following a huge outcry that focused on the dangers of allowing a great multinational
corporation with extensive foreign investments and business activities to control
a major media outlet. The fear was that ITT control "could compromise the
independence of ABC's news coverage of political events in countries where ITT
has interests." The soundness of the decision disallowing the acquisition
seemed to have been vindicated by the later revelations of ITT's political bribery
and involvement in attempts to overthrow the government of Chile. RCA and Westinghouse,
however, had been permitted to control media companies long before the ITT case,
although some of the objections applicable to ITT would seem to apply to them
as well. GE is a more powerful company than ITT, with an extensive international
reach, deeply involved in the nuclear power business, and far more important
than ITT in the arms industry. It is a highly centralized and quite secretive
organization, but one with a vast stake in "political" decisions.
GE has contributed to the funding of the American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing
think tank that supports intellectuals who will get the business message across.
With the acquisition of ABC, GE should be in a far better position to assure
that sound views are given proper attention. The lack of outcry over its takeover
of RCA and NBC resulted in part from the fact that RCA control over NBC had
already breached the gate of separateness, but it also reflected the more pro-business
and laissez-faire environment of the Reagan era.
The non-media interests of most of the media giants are not large, and, excluding
the GE and Westinghouse systems, they account for only a small fraction of their
total revenue. Their multinational outreach, however, is more significant. The
television networks, television syndicators, major news magazines, and motion-picture
studios all do extensive business abroad, and they derive a substantial fraction
of their revenues from foreign sales and the operation of foreign affiliates.
Reader's Digest is printed in seventeen languages and is available in over 160
countries. The Murdoch empire was originally based in Australia, and the controlling
parent company is still an Australian corporation; its expansion in the United
States is funded by profits from Australian and British affiliates.
Another structural relationship of importance is the media companies' dependence
on and ties with government. The radio-TV companies and networks all require
government licenses and franchises and are thus potentially subject to government
control or harassment. This technical legal dependency has been used as a club
to discipline the media, and media policies that stray too often from an establishment
orientation could activate this threat. The media protect themselves from this
contingency by lobbying and other political expenditures, the cultivation of
political relationships, and care in policy. The political ties of the media
have been impressive. ... fifteen of ninety-five outside directors of ten of
the media giants are former government officials, and Peter Dreier gives a similar
proportion in his study of large newspapers. In television, the revolving-door
flow of personnel between regulators and the regulated firms was massive during
the years when the oligopolistic structure of the media and networks was being
The great media also depend on the government for more general policy support.
All business firms are interested in business taxes, interest rates, labor policies,
and enforcement and nonenforcement of the antitrust laws. GE and Westinghouse
depend on the government to subsidize their nuclear power and military research
and development, and to create a favorable climate for their overseas sales.
The Reader's Digest, Time, Newsweek, and movie- and television-syndication sellers
also depend on diplomatic support for their rights to penetrate foreign cultures
with U.S. commercial and value messages and interpretations of current affairs.
The media giants, advertising agencies, and great multinational corporations
have a joint and close interest in a favorable climate of investment in the
Third World, and their interconnections and relationships with the government
in these policies are symbiotic. In sum, the dominant media firms are quite
large businesses; they are controlled by very wealthy people or by managers
who are subject to sharp constraints by owners and other market-profit-oriented
forces; and they are closely interlocked, and have important common interests,
with other major corporations, banks, and government. This is the first powerful
filter that will affect news choices.
THE ADVERTISING LICENSE TO DO BUSINESS: THE SECOND FILTER
In arguing for the benefits of the free market as a means of controlling dissident
opinion in the mid-nineteenth century, the Liberal chancellor of the British
exchequer, Sir George Lewis, noted that the market would promote those papers
"enjoying the preference of the advertising public.'' Advertising did,
in fact, serve as a powerful mechanism weakening the working-class press. Curran
and Seaton give the growth of advertising a status comparable with the increase
in capital costs as a factor allowing the market to accomplish what state taxes
and harassment failed to do, noting that these "advertisers thus acquired
a de facto licensing authority since, without their support, newspapers ceased
to be economically viable."
Before advertising became prominent, the price of a newspaper had to cover the
costs of doing business. With the growth of advertising, papers that attracted
ads could afford a copy price well below production costs. This put papers lacking
in advertising at a serious disadvantage: their prices would tend to be higher,
curtailing sales, and they would have less surplus to invest in improving the
salability of the paper (features, attractive format, promotion, etc.). For
this reason, an advertising-based system will tend to drive out of existence
or into marginality the media companies and types that depend on revenue from
sales alone. With advertising, the free market does not yield a neutral system
in which final buyer choice decides. The advertisers' choices influence media
prosperity and survival The ad-based media receive an advertising subsidy that
gives them a price-marketing-quality edge, which allows them to encroach on
and further weaken their ad-free (or ad-disadvantaged) rivals. Even if ad-based
media cater to an affluent ("upscale") audience, they easily pick
up a large part of the "downscale" audience, and their rivals lose
market share and are eventually driven out or marginalized.
In fact, advertising has played a potent role in increasing concentration even
among rivals that focus with equal energy on seeking advertising revenue. A
market share and advertising edge on the part of one paper or television station
will give it additional revenue to compete more effectively-promote more aggressively,
buy more salable features and programs-and the disadvantaged rival must add
expenses it cannot afford to try to stem the cumulative process of dwindling
market (and revenue) share. The crunch is often fatal, and it helps explain
the death of many large-circulation papers and magazines and the attrition in
the number of newspapers.
From the time of the introduction of press advertising, therefore, working-class
and radical papers have been at a serious disadvantage. Their readers have tended
to be of modest means, a factor that has always affected advertiser interest.
One advertising executive stated in 1856 that some journals are poor vehicles
because "their readers are not purchasers, and any money thrown upon them
is so much thrown away." The same force took a heavy toll of the post-World
War II social-democratic press in Great Britain, with the Daily Herald, News
Chronicle, and Sunday Citizen failing or absorbed into establishment systems
between 1960 and 1967, despite a collective average daily readership of 9.3
million. As James Curran points out, with 4.7 million readers in its last year,
"the Daily Herald actually had almost double the readership of The Times,
the Financial Times and the Guardian combined." What is more, surveys showed
that its readers "thought more highly of their paper than the regular readers
of any other popular newspaper," and "they also read more in their
paper than the readers of other popular papers despite being overwhelmingly
working class...." The death of the Herald, as well as of the News Chronicle
and Sunday Citizen, was in large measure a result of progressive strangulation
by lack of advertising support. The Herald, with 8.1 percent of national daily
circulation, got 3.5 percent of net advertising revenue; the Sunday Citizen
got one-tenth of the net advertising revenue of the Sunday Times and one-seventh
that of the Observer (on a per-thousand-copies basis). Curran argues persuasively
that the loss of these three papers was an important contribution to the declining
fortunes of the Labor party, in the case of the Herald specifically removing
a mass-circulation institution that provided "an alternative framework
of analysis and understanding that contested the dominant systems of representation
in both broadcasting and the mainstream press." A mass movement without
any major media support, and subject to a great deal of active press hostility,
suffers a serious disability, and struggles against grave odds.
The successful media today are fully attuned to the crucial importance of audience
"quality": CBS proudly tells its shareholders that while it "continuously
seeks to maximize audience delivery," it has developed a new "sales
tool" with which it approaches advertisers: "Client Audience Profile,
or CAP, will help advertisers optimize the effectiveness of their network television
schedules by evaluating audience segments in proportion to usage levels of advertisers'
products and services." In short, the mass media are interested in attracting
audiences with buying power, not audiences per se; it is affluent audiences
that spark advertiser interest today, as in the nineteenth century. The idea
that the drive for large audiences makes the mass media "democratic"
thus suffers from the initial weakness that its political analogue is a voting
system weighted by income!
The power of advertisers over television programming stems from the simple fact
that they buy and pay for the programs-they are the "patrons" who
provide the media subsidy. As such, the media compete for their patronage, developing
specialized staff to solicit advertisers and necessarily having to explain how
their programs serve advertisers' needs. The choices of these patrons greatly
affect the welfare of the media, and the patrons become what William Evan calls
"normative reference organizations," whose requirements and demands
the media must accommodate if they are to succeed.
For a television network, an audience gain or loss of one percentage point in
the Nielsen ratings translates into a change in advertising revenue of from
$80 to $100 million a year, with some variation depending on measures of audience
"quality." The stakes in audience size and affluence are thus extremely
large, and in a market system there is a strong tendency for such considerations
to affect policy profoundly. This is partly a matter of institutional pressures
to focus on the bottom line, partly a matter of the continuous interaction of
the media organization with patrons who supply the revenue dollars. As Grant
Tinker, then head of NBC-TV, observed, television "is an advertising supported
medium, and to the extent that support falls out, programming will change."
Working-class and radical media also suffer from the political discrimination
of advertisers. Political discrimination is structured into advertising allocations
by the stress on people with money to buy. But many firms will always refuse
to patronize ideological enemies and those whom they perceive as damaging their
interests, and cases of overt discrimination add to the force of the voting
system weighted by income. Public-television station WNET lost its corporate
funding from Gulf + Western in 1985 after the station showed the documentary
"Hungry for Profit," which contains material critical of multinational
corporate activities in the Third World. Even before the program was shown,
in anticipation of negative corporate reaction, station officials "did
all we could to get the program sanitized" (according to one station source).
The chief executive of Gulf + Western complained to the station that the program
was "virulently anti-business if not anti-American," and that the
station's carrying the program was not the behavior "of a friend"
of the corporation. The London Economist says that "Most people believe
that WNET would not make the same mistake again."
In addition to discrimination against unfriendly media institutions, advertisers
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 criticisms 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. Erik Barnouw recounts the history
of a proposed documentary series on environmental problems by NBC at a time
of great interest in these issues. Barnouw notes that although at that time
a great many large companies were spending money on commercials and other publicity
regarding environmental problems, the documentary series failed for want of
sponsors. The problem was one of excessive objectivity in the series, which
included suggestions of corporate or systemic failure, whereas the corporate
message "was one of reassurance."
Television networks learn over time that such programs will not sell and would
have to be carried at a financial sacrifice, and that, in addition, they may
offend powerful advertisers.' With the rise in the price of advertising spots,
the forgone revenue increases; and with increasing market pressure for financial
performance and the diminishing constraints from regulation, an advertising-based
media system will gradually increase advertising time and marginalize or eliminate
altogether programming that has significant public-affairs content.
Advertisers will want, more generally, to avoid programs with serious complexities
and disturbing controversies that interfere with the "buying mood."
They seek programs that will lightly entertain and thus fit in with the spirit
of the primary purpose of program purchases-the dissemination of a selling message.
Thus over time, instead of programs like "The Selling of the Pentagon,"
it is a natural evolution of a market seeking sponsor dollars to offer programs
such as "A Bird's-Eye View of Scotland," "Barry Goldwater's Arizona,"
"An Essay on Hotels," and "Mr. Rooney Goes to Dinner"-a
CBS program on "how Americans eat when they dine out, where they go and
why." There are exceptional cases of companies willing to sponsor serious
programs, sometimes a result of recent embarrassments that call for a public-relations
offset. But even in these cases the companies will usually not want to sponsor
close examination of sensitive and divisive issues-they prefer programs on Greek
antiquities, the ballet, and items of cultural and national history and nostalgia.
Barnouw points out an interesting contrast: commercial-television drama "deals
almost wholly with the here and now, as processed via advertising budgets,"
but on public television, culture "has come to mean 'other cultures.' .
. . American civilization, here and now, is excluded from consideration.''
Television stations and networks are also concerned to maintain audience "flow"
levels, i.e., to keep people watching from program to program, in order to sustain
advertising ratings and revenue. Airing program interludes of documentary-cultural
matter that cause station switching is costly, and over time a "free"
(i.e., ad-based) commercial system will tend to excise it. Such documentary-cultural-critical
materials will be driven out of secondary media vehicles as well, as these companies
strive to qualify for advertiser interest, although there will always be some
cultural-political programming trying to come into being or surviving on the
periphery of the mainstream media.
SOURCING MASS-MEDIA NEWS: THE THIRD FILTER
The mass media are drawn into a symbiotic relationship with powerful sources
of information by economic necessity and reciprocity of interest. The media
need a steady, reliable flow of the raw material of news. They have daily news
demands and imperative news schedules that they must meet. They cannot afford
to have reporters and cameras at all places where important stories may break.
Economics dictates that they concentrate their resources where significant news
often occurs, where important rumors and leaks abound, and where regular press
conferences are held. The White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department,
in Washington, D.C., are central nodes of such news activity. On a local basis,
city hall and the police department are the subject of regular news "beats"
for reporters. Business corporations and trade groups are also regular and credible
purveyors of stories deemed newsworthy. These bureaucracies turn out a large
volume of material that meets the demands of news organizations for reliable,
scheduled flows. Mark Fishman calls this "the principle of bureaucratic
affinity: only other bureaucracies can satisfy the input needs of a news bureaucracy."
Government and corporate sources also have the great merit of being recognizable
and credible by their status and prestige. This is important to the mass media.
As Fishman notes,
Newsworkers are predisposed to treat bureaucratic accounts as factual because
news personnel participate in upholding a normative order of authorized knowers
in the society. Reporters operate with the attitude that officials ought to
know what it is their job to know.... In particular, a newsworker will recognize
an official's claim to knowledge not merely as a claim, but as a credible, competent
piece of knowledge. This amounts to a moral division of labor: officials have
and give the facts; reporters merely get them.
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 also to 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.
The magnitude of the public-information operations of large government and corporate
bureaucracies that constitute the primary news sources is vast and ensures special
access to the media. The Pentagon, for example, has a public-information service
that involves many thousands of employees, spending hundreds of millions of
dollars every year and dwarfing not only the public-information resources of
any dissenting individual or group but the aggregate of such groups. In I979
and 1980, during a brief interlude of relative openness (since closed down),
the U.S. Air Force revealed that its public-information outreach included the
40 newspapers, 690,000 copies per week Airman magazine, monthly circulation
125,000 34 radio and 17 TV stations, primarily overseas 45,000 headquarters
and unit news releases 615,000 hometown news releases 6,600 interviews with
news media 3,200 news conferences 500 news media orientation flights 50 meetings
with editorial boards 11,000 speeches
This excludes vast areas of the air force's public-information effort. Writing
back in 1970, Senator J. W. Fulbright had found that the air force public-relations
effort in 1968 involved 1,305 full-time employees, exclusive of additional thousands
that "have public functions collateral to other duties." The air force
at that time offered a weekly film-clip service for TV and a taped features
program for use three times a week, sent to 1,139 radio stations; it also produced
148 motion pictures, of which 24 were released for public consumption. There
is no reason to believe that the air force public-relations effort has diminished
since the 1960s.
Note that this is just the air force. There are three other branches with massive
programs, and there is a separate, overall public-information program under
an assistant secretary of defense for public affairs in the Pentagon. In 1971,
an Armed Forces Journal survey revealed that the Pentagon was publishing a total
of 371 magazines at an annual cost of some $57 million, an operation sixteen
times larger than the nation's biggest publisher. In an update in 1982, the
Air Force Journal International indicated that the Pentagon was publishing 1,203
periodicals. To put this into perspective, we may note the scope of public-information
operations of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) and the National
Council of the Churches of Christ (NCC), two of the largest of the nonprofit
organizations that offer a consistently challenging voice to the views of the
Pentagon. The AFSC's main office information-services budget in 1984-85 was
under $500,000, with eleven staff people. Its institution-wide press releases
run at about two hundred per year, its press conferences thirty a year, and
it produces about one film and two or three slide shows a year. It does not
offer film clips, photos, or taped radio programs to the media. The NCC Office
of Information has an annual budget of some $350,000, issues about a hundred
news releases per year, and holds four press conferences annually. The ratio
of air force news releases and press conferences to those of the AFSC and NCC
taken together are 150 to 1 (or 2,200 to 1, if we count hometown news releases
of the air force), and 94 to 1 respectively. Aggregating the other services
would increase the differential by a large factor.
Only the corporate sector has the resources to produce public information and
propaganda on the scale of the Pentagon and other government bodies. The AFSC
and NCC cannot duplicate the Mobil Oil company's multimillion-dollar purchase
of newspaper space and other corporate investments to get its viewpoint across.
The number of individual corporations with budgets for public information and
lobbying in excess of those of the AFSC and NCC runs into the hundreds, perhaps
even the thousands. A corporate collective like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce
had a 1983 budget for research, communications, and political activities of
$65 million. By 1980, the chamber was publishing a business magazine (Nation's
Business) with a circulation of 1.3 million and a weekly newspaper with 740,000
subscribers, and it was producing a weekly panel show distributed to 400 radio
stations, as well as its own weekly panel-discussion programs carried by 128
commercial television stations.
Besides the U.S. Chamber, there are thousands of state and local chambers of
commerce and trade associations also engaged in public relations and lobbying
activities. The corporate and trade-association lobbying network community is
"a network of well over 150,000 professionals," and its resources
are related to corporate income, profits, and the protective value of public-relations
and lobbying outlays. Corporate profits before taxes in 1985 were $295.5 billion.
When the corporate community gets agitated about the political environment,
as it did in the 1970s, it obviously has the wherewithal to meet the perceived
threat. Corporate and trade-association image and issues advertising increased
from $305 million in 1975 to $650 million in 1980. So did direct-mail campaigns
through dividend and other mail stuffers, the distribution of educational films,
booklets and pamphlets, and outlays on initiatives and referendums, lobbying,
and political and think-tank contributions. Aggregate corporate and trade-association
political advertising and grass-roots outlays were estimated to have reached
the billion-dollar-a-year level by 1978, and to have grown to $1.6 billion by
To consolidate their preeminent position as sources, government and business-news
promoters go to great pains to make things easy for news organizations. They
provide the media organizations with facilities in which to gather; they give
journalists advance copies of speeches and forthcoming reports; they schedule
press conferences at hours well-geared to news deadlines; they write press releases
in usable language; and they carefully organize their press conferences and
"photo opportunity" sessions. It is the job of news officers "to
meet the journalist's scheduled needs with material that their beat agency has
generated at its own pace."
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. The large entities that
provide this subsidy become "routine" news sources and have privileged
access to the gates. Non-routine sources must struggle for access, and may be
ignored by the arbitrary decision of the gatekeepers. It should also be noted
that in the case of the largesse of the Pentagon and the State Department's
Office of Public Diplomacy, the subsidy is at the taxpayers' expense, so that,
in effect, the citizenry pays to be propagandized in the interest of powerful
groups such as military contractors and other sponsors of state terrorism.
Because of their services, continuous contact on the beat, and mutual dependency,
the powerful can use personal relationships, threats, and rewards to further
influence and coerce the media. The media may feel obligated to carry extremely
dubious stories and mute criticism in order not to offend their sources and
disturb a close relationship. It is very difficult to call authorities on whom
one depends for daily news liars, even if they tell whoppers. Critical sources
may be avoided not only because of their lesser availability and higher cost
of establishing credibility, but also because the primary sources may be offended
and may even threaten the media using them.
Powerful sources may also use their prestige and importance to the media as
a lever to deny critics access to the media: the Defense Department, for example,
refused to participate in National Public Radio discussions of defense issues
if experts from the Center for Defense Information were on the program; Elliott
Abrams refused to appear on a program on human rights in Central America at
the Kennedy School of Government, at Harvard University, unless the former ambassador,
Robert White, was excluded as a participant; Claire Sterling refused to participate
in television-network shows on the Bulgarian Connection where her critics would
appear. In the last two of these cases, the authorities and brand-name experts
were successful in monopolizing access by coercive threats.
Perhaps more important, powerful sources regularly take advantage of media
routines and dependency to "manage" the media, to manipulate them
into following a special agenda and framework (as we will show in detail in
the chapters that follow). Part of this management process consists of inundating
the media with stories, which serve sometimes to foist a particular line and
frame on the media (e.g., Nicaragua as illicitly supplying arms to the Salvadoran
rebels), and at other times to help chase unwanted stories off the front page
or out of the media altogether (the alleged delivery of MIGs to Nicaragua during
the week of the 1984 Nicaraguan election). This strategy can be traced back
at least as far as the Committee on Public Information, established to coordinate
propaganda during World War I, which "discovered in 1917-18 that one of
the best means of controlling news was flooding news channels with 'facts,'
or what amounted to official information."
The relation between power and sourcing extends beyond official and corporate
provision of day-to-day news to shaping the supply of "experts." The
dominance of official sources is weakened by the existence of highly respectable
unofficial sources that give dissident views with great authority. This problem
is alleviated by "co-opting the experts"-i.e., putting them on the
payroll as consultants, funding their research, and organizing think tanks that
will hire them directly and help disseminate their messages. In this way bias
may be structured, and the supply of experts may be skewed in the direction
desired by the government and "the market." As Henry Kissinger has
pointed out, in this "age of the expert," the "constituency"
of the expert is "those who have a vested interest in commonly held opinions;
elaborating and defining its consensus at a high level has, after all, made
him an expert." It is therefore appropriate that this restructuring has
taken place to allow the commonly held opinions (meaning those that are functional
for elite interests) to continue to prevail.
This process of creating the needed body of experts has been carried out on
a deliberate basis and a massive scale. Back in 1972, Judge Lewis Powell (later
elevated to the Supreme Court) wrote a memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce
urging business "to buy the top academic reputations in the country to
add credibility to corporate studies and give business a stronger voice on the
campuses." One buys them, and assures that-in the words of Dr. Edwin Feulner,
of the Heritage Foundation-the public-policy area "is awash with in-depth
academic studies" that have the proper conclusions. Using the analogy of
Procter & Gamble selling toothpaste, Feulner explained that "They sell
it and resell it every day by keeping the product fresh in the consumer's mind."
By the sales effort, including the dissemination of the correct ideas to "thousands
of newspapers," it is possible to keep debate "within its proper perspective.''
In accordance with this formula, during the 1970s and early 1980s a string
of institutions was created and old ones were activated to the end of propagandizing
the corporate viewpoint. Many hundreds of intellectuals were brought to these
institutions, where their work was funded and their outputs were disseminated
to the media by a sophisticated propaganda effort. The corporate funding and
clear ideological purpose in the overall effort had no discernible effect on
the credibility of the intellectuals so mobilized; on the contrary, the funding
and pushing of their ideas catapulted them into the press.
As an illustration of how the funded experts preempt space in the media, table
I-4 describes the "experts" on terrorism and defense issues who appeared
on the "McNeil-Lehrer News Hour" in the course of a year in the mid-1980s.
We can see that, excluding journalists, a majority of the participants (54 percent)
were present or former government officials, and that the next highest category
(15.7 percent) was drawn from conservative think tanks. The largest number of
appearances in the latter category was supplied by the Georgetown Center for
Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), an organization funded by conservative
foundations and corporations, and providing a revolving door between the State
Department and CIA and a nominally private organization. On such issues as terrorism
and the Bulgarian Connection, the CSIS has occupied space in the media that
otherwise might have been filled by independent voices.
The mass media themselves also provide "experts" who regularly echo
the official view. John Barron and Claire Sterling are household names as authorities
on the KGB and terrorism because the Reader's Digest has funded, published,
and publicized their work; the Soviet defector Arkady Shevchenko became an expert
on Soviet arms and intelligence because Time, ABC-TV, and the New York Times
chose to feature him (despite his badly tarnished credentials). By giving these
purveyors of the preferred view a great deal of exposure, the media confer status
and make them the obvious candidates for opinion and analysis.
Another class of experts whose prominence is largely a function of serviceability
to power is former radicals who have come to "see the light." The
motives that cause these individuals to switch gods, from Stalin (or Mao) to
Reagan and free enterprise, is varied, but for the establishment media the reason
for the change is simply that the ex-radicals have finally seen the error of
their ways. In a country whose citizenry values acknowledgement of sin and repentance,
the turncoats are an important class of repentant sinners. It is interesting
to observe how the former sinners, whose previous work was of little interest
or an object of ridicule to the mass media, are suddenly elevated to prominence
and become authentic experts. We may recall how, during the McCarthy era, defectors
and ex-Communists vied with one another in tales of the imminence of a Soviet
invasion and other lurid stories. They found that news coverage was a function
of their trimming their accounts to the prevailing demand. The steady flow of
ex-radicals from marginality to media attention shows that we are witnessing
a durable method of providing experts who will say what the establishment wants
FLAK AND THE ENFORCERS: THE FOURTH FILTER
"Flak" refers to negative responses to a media statement or program.
It may take the form of letters, telegrams, phone calls, petitions, lawsuits,
speeches and bills before Congress, and other modes of complaint, threat, and
punitive action. It may be organized centrally or locally, or it may consist
of the entirely independent actions of individuals.
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 in courts. Advertisers may withdraw patronage. Television
advertising is mainly of consumer goods that are readily subject to organized
boycott. During the McCarthy years, many advertisers and radio and television
stations were effectively coerced into quiescence and blacklisting of employees
by the threats of determined Red hunters to boycott products. Advertisers are
still concerned to avoid offending constituencies that might produce flak, and
their demand for suitable programming is a continuing feature of the media environment.
If certain kinds of fact, position, or program are thought likely to elicit
flak, this prospect can be a deterrent.
The ability to produce flak, and especially flak that is costly and threatening,
is related to power. Serious flak has increased in close parallel with business's
growing resentment of media criticism and the corporate offensive of the 1970s
and 1980s. Flak from the powerful can be either direct or indirect. The direct
would include letters or phone calls from the White House to Dan Rather or William
Paley, or from the FCC to the television networks asking for documents used
in putting together a program, or from irate officials of ad agencies or corporate
sponsors to media officials asking for reply time or threatening retaliation.
The powerful can also work on the media indirectly by complaining to their own
constituencies (stockholders, employees) about the media, by generating institutional
advertising that does the same, and by funding right-wing monitoring or think-tank
operations designed to attack the media. They may also fund political campaigns
and help put into power conservative politicians who will more directly serve
the interests of private power in curbing any deviationism in the media.
Along with its other political investments of the 1970s and 1980s, the corporate
community sponsored the growth of institutions such as the American Legal Foundation,
the Capital Legal Foundation, the Media Institute, the Center for Media and
Public Affairs, and Accuracy in Media (AIM). These may be regarded as institutions
organized for the specific purpose of producing flak. Another and older flak-producing
machine with a broader design is Freedom House. The American Legal Foundation,
organized in I980, has specialized in Fairness Doctrine complaints and libel
suits to aid "media victims." The Capital Legal Foundation, incorporated
in 1977, was the Scaife vehicle for Westmoreland's $120-million libel suit against
The Media Institute, organized in 1972 and funded by corporate-wealthy patrons,
sponsors monitoring projects, conferences, and studies of the media. It has
focused less heavily on media failings in foreign policy, concentrating more
on media portrayals of economic issues and the business community, but its range
of interests is broad. The main theme of its sponsored studies and conferences
has been the failure of the media to portray business accurately and to give
adequate weight to the business point of view, but it underwrites works such
as John Corry's expose of the alleged left-wing bias of the mass media. The
chairman of the board of trustees of the institute in 1985 was Steven V. Seekins,
the top public-relations officer of the American Medical Association; chairman
of the National Advisory Council was Herbert Schmertz, of the Mobil Oil Corporation.
The Center for Media and Public Affairs, run by Linda and Robert Lichter, came
into existence in the mid-1980s as a "non-profit, nonpartisan" research
institute, with warm accolades from Patrick Buchanan, Faith Whittlesey, and
Ronald Reagan himself, who recognized the need for an objective and fair press.
Their Media Monitor and research studies continue their earlier efforts to demonstrate
the liberal bias and anti-business propensities of the mass media.
AIM was formed in 1969, and it grew spectacularly in the 1970s. Its annual
income rose from $5,000 in 1971 to $1.5 million in the early 1980s, with funding
mainly from large corporations and the wealthy heirs and foundations of the
corporate system. At least eight separate oil companies were contributors to
AIM in the early 1980s, but the wide representation in sponsors from the corporate
community is impressive. The function of AIM is to harass the media and put
pressure on them to follow the corporate agenda and a hard-line, right-wing
foreign policy. It presses the media to join more enthusiastically in Red-scare
bandwagons, and attacks them for alleged deficiencies whenever they fail to
toe the line on foreign policy. It conditions the media to expect trouble (and
cost increases) for violating right-wing standards of bias.
Freedom House, which dates back to the early 1940s, has had interlocks with
AIM, the World Anticommunist League, Resistance International, and U.S. government
bodies such as Radio Free Europe and the CIA, and has long served as a virtual
propaganda arm of the government and international right wing. It sent election
monitors to the Rhodesian elections staged by Ian Smith in 1979 and found them
"fair," whereas the 1980 elections won by Mugabe under British supervision
it found dubious. Its election monitors also found the Salvadoran elections
of 1982 admirable. It has expended substantial resources in criticizing the
media for insufficient sympathy with U.S. foreign-policy ventures and excessively
harsh criticism of U.S. client states. Its most notable publication of this
genre was Peter Braestrup's Big Story, which contended that the media's negative
portrayal of the Tet offensive helped lose the war. The work is a travesty of
scholarship, but more interesting is its premise: that the mass media not only
should support any national venture abroad, but should do so with enthusiasm,
such enterprises being by definition noble. In 1982, when the Reagan administration
was having trouble containing media reporting of the systematic killing of civilians
by the Salvadoran army, Freedom House came through with a denunciation of the
"imbalance" in media reporting from El Salvador.
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. AIM head, Reed
Irvine's diatribes are frequently published, and right-wing network flacks who
regularly assail the "liberal media," such as Michael Ledeen, are
given Op-Ed column space, sympathetic reviewers, and a regular place on talk
shows as experts. This reflects the power of the sponsors, including the well-entrenched
position of the right wing in the mass media themselves.
The producers of flak add to one another's strength and reinforce the command
of political authority in its news-management activities. The government is
a major producer of flak, regularly assailing, threatening, and "correcting"
the media, trying to contain any deviations from the established line. News
management itself is designed to produce flak. In the Reagan years, Mr. Reagan
was put on television to exude charm to millions, many of whom berated the media
when they dared to criticize the "Great Communicator.''
ANTICOMMUNISM AS A CONTROL MECHANISM
A final filter is the ideology of anticommunism. Communism as the ultimate
evil has always been the specter haunting property owners, as it threatens the
very root of their class position and superior status. The Soviet, Chinese,
and Cuban revolutions were traumas to Western elites, and the ongoing conflicts
and the well-publicized abuses of Communist states have contributed to elevating
opposition to communism to a first principle of Western ideology and politics.
This ideology helps mobilize the populace against an enemy, and because the
concept is fuzzy it can be used against anybody advocating policies that threaten
property interests or support accommodation with Communist states and radicalism.
It therefore helps fragment the left and labor movements and serves as a political-control
mechanism. If the triumph of communism is the worst imaginable result, the support
of fascism abroad is justified as a lesser evil. Opposition to social democrats
who are too soft on Communists and "play into their hands" is rationalized
in similar terms.
Liberals at home, often accused of being pro-Communist or insufficiently anti-Communist,
are kept continuously on the defensive in a cultural milieu in which anticommunism
is the dominant religion. If they allow communism, or something that can be
labeled communism, to triumph in the provinces while they are in office, the
political costs are heavy. Most of them have fully 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. Their
occasional support of social democrats often breaks down where the latter are
insufficiently harsh on their own indigenous radicals or on popular groups that
are organizing among generally marginalized sectors. In his brief tenure in
the Dominican Republic, Juan Bosch attacked corruption in the armed forces and
government, began a land-reform program, undertook a major project for mass
education of the populace, and maintained a remarkably open government and system
of effective civil liberties. These policies threatened powerful internal vested
interests, and the United States resented his independence and the extension
of civil liberties to Communists and radicals. This was carrying democracy and
pluralism too far. Kennedy was "extremely disappointed" in Bosch's
rule, and the State Department "quickly soured on the first democratically
elected Dominican President in over thirty years." Bosch's overthrow by
the military after nine months in office had at least the tacit support of the
United States. Two years later, by contrast, the Johnson administration invaded
the Dominican Republic to make sure that Bosch did not resume power. The Kennedy
liberals were enthusiastic about the military coup and displacement of a populist
government in Brazil in 1964. A major spurt in the growth of neo-Fascist national-security
states took place under Kennedy and Johnson. In the cases of the U.S. subversion
of Guatemala, 1947-54, and the military attacks on Nicaragua, 1981-87, allegations
of Communist links and a Communist threat caused many liberals to support counterrevolutionary
intervention, while others lapsed into silence, paralyzed by the fear of being
tarred with charges of infidelity to the national religion.
It should be noted that when anti-Communist fervor is aroused, the demand for
serious evidence in support of claims of "communist" abuses is suspended,
and charlatans can thrive as evidential sources. Defectors, informers, and assorted
other opportunists move to center stage as "experts," and they remain
there even after exposure as highly unreliable, if not downright liars. Pascal
Delwit and Jean-Michel Dewaele point out that in France, too, the ideologues
of anticommunism "can do and say anything.'' Analyzing the new status of
Annie Kriegel and Pierre Daix, two former passionate Stalinists now possessed
of a large and uncritical audience in France, Delwit and Dewaele note: If we
analyze their writings, we find all the classic reactions of people who have
been disappointed in love. But no one dreams of criticizing them for their past,
even though it has marked them forever. They may well have been converted, but
they have not changed.... no one notices the constants, even though they are
glaringly obvious. Their best sellers prove, thanks to the support of the most
indulgent and slothful critics anyone could hope for, that the public can be
fooled. No one denounces or even notices the arrogance of both yesterday's eulogies
and today's diatribes; no one cares that there is never any proof and that invective
is used in place of analysis. Their inverted hyper-Stalinism-which takes the
usual form of total manicheanism-is whitewashed simply because it is directed
against Communism. The hysteria has not changed, but it gets a better welcome
in its present guise.
The anti-Communist control mechanism reaches through the system to exercise
a profound influence on the mass media. In normal times as well as in periods
of Red scares, issues tend to be framed in terms of a dichotomized world of
Communist and anti-Communist powers, with gains and losses allocated to contesting
sides, and rooting for "our side" considered an entirely legitimate
news practice. It is the mass media that identify, create, and push into the
limelight a Joe McCarthy, Arkady Shevchenko, and Claire Sterling and Robert
Leiken, or an Annie Kriegel and Pierre Daix. The ideology and religion of anticommunism
is a potent filter.
DICHOTOMIZATION AND PROPAGANDA CAMPAIGNS
The five filters narrow the range of news that passes through the gates, and
even more sharply limit what can become "big news," subject to sustained
news campaigns. By definition, news from primary establishment sources meets
one major filter requirement and is readily accommodated by the mass media.
Messages from and about dissidents and weak, unorganized individuals and groups,
domestic and foreign, are at an initial disadvantage in sourcing costs and credibility,
and they often do not comport with the ideology or interests of the gatekeepers
and other powerful parties that influence the filtering process.
Thus, for example, the torture of political prisoners and the attack on trade
unions in Turkey will be pressed on the media only by human rights activists
and groups that have little political leverage. The U.S. government supported
the Turkish martial-law government from its inception in 1980, and the U.S.
business community has been warm toward regimes that profess fervent anticommunism,
encourage foreign investment, repress unions, and loyally support U.S. foreign
policy (a set of virtues that are frequently closely linked). Media that chose
to feature Turkish violence against their own citizenry would have had to go
to extra expense to find and check out information sources; they would elicit
flak from government, business, and organized right-wing flak machines, and
they might be looked upon with disfavor by the corporate community (including
advertisers) for indulging in such a quixotic interest and crusade. They would
tend to stand alone in focusing on victims that from the standpoint of dominant
American interests were unworthy.
In marked contrast, protest over political prisoners and the violation of the
rights of trade unions in Poland was seen by the Reagan administration and business
elites in 1981 as a noble cause, and, not coincidentally, as an opportunity
to score political points. Many media leaders and syndicated columnists felt
the same way. Thus information and strong opinions on human-rights violations
in Poland could be obtained from official sources in Washington, and reliance
on Polish dissidents would not elicit flak from the U.S. government or the flak
machines. These victims would be generally acknowledged by the managers of the
filters to be worthy. The mass media never explain why Andrei Sakharov is worthy
and Jose Luis Massera, in Uruguay, is unworthy-the attention and general dichotomization
occur "naturally" as a result of the working of the filters, but the
result is the same as if a commissar had instructed the media: "Concentrate
on the victims of enemy powers and forget about the victims of friends.''
Reports of the abuses of worthy victims not only pass through the filters;
they may also become the basis of sustained propaganda campaigns. If the government
or corporate community and the media feel that a story is useful as well as
dramatic, they focus on it intensively and use it to enlighten the public. This
was true, for example, of the shooting down by the Soviets of the Korean airliner
KAL 007 in early September 1983, which permitted an extended campaign of denigration
of an official enemy and greatly advanced Reagan administration arms plans.
As Bernard Gwertzman noted complacently in the New York Times of August 31,
1984, U.S. officials "assert that worldwide criticism of the Soviet handling
of the crisis has strengthened the United States in its relations with Moscow."
In sharp contrast, the shooting down by Israel of a Libyan civilian airliner
in February 1973 led to no outcry in the West, no denunciations for "cold-blooded
murder,'' and no boycott. This difference in treatment was explained by the
New York Times precisely on the grounds of utility: "No useful purpose
is served by an acrimonious debate over the assignment of blame for the downing
of a Libyan airliner in the Sinai peninsula last week.'' There was a very "useful
purpose" served by focusing on the Soviet act, and a massive propaganda
Propaganda campaigns in general have been closely attuned to elite interests.
The Red scare of 1919-20 served well to abort the union organizing drive that
followed World War I in the steel and other industries. The Truman-McCarthy
Red scare helped inaugurate the Cold War and the permanent war economy, and
it also served to weaken the progressive coalition of the New Deal years. The
chronic focus on the plight of Soviet dissidents, on enemy killings in Cambodia,
and on the Bulgarian Connection helped weaken the Vietnam syndrome, justify
a huge arms buildup and a more aggressive foreign policy, and divert attention
from the upward redistribution of income that was the heart of Reagan's domestic
economic program. The recent propaganda-disinformation attacks on Nicaragua
have been needed to avert eyes from the savagery of the war in E1 Salvador and
to justify the escalating U.S. investment in counterrevolution in Central America.
Conversely, propaganda campaigns will not be mobilized where victimization,
even though massive, sustained, and dramatic, fails to meet the test of utility
to elite interests. Thus, while the focus on Cambodia in the Pol Pot era (and
thereafter) was exceedingly serviceable, as Cambodia had fallen to the Communists
and useful lessons could be drawn by attention to their victims, the numerous
victims of the U.S. bombing before the Communist takeover were scrupulously
ignored by the U.S. elite press. After Pol Pot's ouster by the Vietnamese, the
United States quietly shifted support to this "worse than Hitler"
villain, with little notice in the press, which adjusted once again to the national
political agenda. Attention to the Indonesian massacres of 1965-66, or the victims
of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor from 1975 onward, would also be distinctly
unhelpful as bases of media campaigns, because Indonesia is a U.S. ally and
client that maintains an open door to Western investment, and because, in the
case of East Timor, the United States bears major responsibility for the slaughter.
The same is true of the victims of state terror in Chile and Guatemala, U.S.
clients whose basic institutional structures, including the state terror system,
were put in place and maintained by, or with crucial assistance from, U.S. power,
and who remain U.S. client states. Propaganda campaigns on behalf of these victims
would conflict with government-business-military interests and, in our model,
would not be able to pass through the filtering system.
Propaganda campaigns may be instituted either by the government or by one or
more of the top media firms. The campaigns to discredit the government of Nicaragua,
to support the Salvadoran elections as an exercise in legitimizing democracy,
and to use the Soviet shooting down of the Korean airliner KAL 007 as a means
of mobilizing public support for the arms buildup, were instituted and propelled
by the government. The campaigns to publicize the crimes of Pol Pot and the
alleged KGB plot to assassinate the pope were initiated by the Reader's Digest,
with strong follow-up support from NBC-TV, the New York Times, and other major
media companies. Some propaganda campaigns are jointly initiated by government
and media; all of them require the collaboration of the mass media. The secret
of the unidirectionality of the politics of media propaganda campaigns is the
multiple filter system discussed above: the mass media will allow any stories
that are hurtful to large interests to peter out quickly, if they surface at
For stories that are useful, the process will get under way with a series of
government leaks, press conferences, white papers, etc., or with one or more
of the mass media starting the ball rolling with such articles as Barron and
Paul's "Murder of a Gentle Land" (Cambodia), or Claire Sterling's
"The Plot to Kill the Pope," both in the Reader's Digest. If the other
major media like the story, they will follow it up with their own versions,
and the matter quickly becomes newsworthy by familiarity. If the articles are
written in an assured and convincing style, are subject to no criticisms or
alternative interpretations in the mass media, and command support by authority
figures, the propaganda themes quickly become established as true even without
real evidence. This tends to close out dissenting views even more comprehensively,
as they would now conflict with an already established popular belief. This
in turn opens up further opportunities for still more inflated claims, as these
can be made without fear of serious repercussions. Similar wild assertions made
in contradiction of official views would elicit powerful flak, so that such
an inflation process would be controlled by the government and the market. No
such protections exist with system-supportive claims; there, flak will tend
to press the media to greater hysteria in the face of enemy evil. The media
not only suspend critical judgment and investigative zeal, they compete to find
ways of putting the newly established truth in a supportive light. Themes and
facts-even careful and well-documented analyses-that are incompatible with the
now institutionalized theme are suppressed or ignored. If the theme collapses
of its own burden of fabrications, the mass media will quietly fold their tents
and move on to another topic.
Using a propaganda model, we would not only anticipate definitions of worth
based on utility, and dichotomous attention based on the same criterion, we
would also expect the news stories about worthy and unworthy victims (or enemy
and friendly states) to differ in quality. That is, we would expect official
sources of the United States and its client regimes to be used heavily-and uncritically-in
connection with one's own abuses and those of friendly governments, while refugees
and other dissident sources will be used in dealing with enemies. We would anticipate
the uncritical acceptance of certain premises in dealing with self and friends-such
as that one's own state and leaders seek peace and democracy, oppose terrorism,
and tell the truth-premises which will not be applied in treating enemy states.
We would expect different criteria of evaluation to be employed, so that what
is villainy in enemy states will be presented as an incidental background fact
in the case of oneself and friends. What is on the agenda in treating one case
will be off the agenda in discussing the other. We would also expect great investigatory
zeal in the search for enemy villainy and the responsibility of high officials
for abuses in enemy states, but diminished enterprise in examining such matters
in connection with one's own and friendly states.
The quality of coverage should also be displayed more directly and crudely in
placement, headlining, word usage, and other modes of mobilizing interest and
outrage. In the opinion columns, we would anticipate sharp restraints on the
range of opinion allowed expression. Our hypothesis is that worthy victims will
be featured prominently and dramatically, that they will be humanized, and that
their victimization will receive the detail and context in story construction
that will generate reader interest and sympathetic emotion. In contrast, unworthy
victims will merit only slight detail, minimal humanization, and little context
that will excite and enrage.
Meanwhile, because of the power of establishment sources, the flak machines,
and anti-Communist ideology, we would anticipate outcries that the worthy victims
are being sorely neglected, that the unworthy are treated with excessive and
uncritical generosity, that the media's liberal, adversarial (if not subversive)
hostility to government explains our difficulties in mustering support for the
latest national venture in counterrevolutionary intervention.
In sum, a propaganda approach to media coverage suggests a systematic and highly
political dichotomization in news coverage based on serviceability to important
domestic power interests. This should be observable in dichotomized choices
of story and in the volume and quality of coverage... such dichotomization in
the mass media is massive and systematic: not only are choices for publicity
and suppression comprehensible in terms of system advantage, but the modes of
handling favored and inconvenient materials (placement, tone, context, fullness
of treatment) differ in ways that serve political ends.
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