Annoying media trends explained by the propaganda model of Herman and Chompsky

July 20, 2020

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There are plenty of irritating media trends that dominate news feeds today. Herman and Chompsky's 'propaganda' model tells us that they are chosen for us, by design or by accident, because these irritating trends paralyse us. They don't threaten the powerful. And most importantly, they keep us in a 'buying mood'. Let's explore some.


Say what you will about Noam Chompsky, he had some bright ideas. He was one of the founders of modern cognitive theory, and has been influential in more academic fields than most people have time to google.

One important contribution he made was his work on the media with co-author Edward S. Herman: The Propaganda Model: Manufacturing Consent. In fact, after reading the book, it seems pretty obvious that it explains all the media trends that annoy me.

We talked about the model in detail in this article, but it essentially describes a process in which some news becomes newsworthy, and everything else is ignored. More importantly, it predicts that the news that becomes newsworthy is news which serves powerful interest groups and everything else is pushed to the background. This is the almost accidental product of five 'filters':

The cost of doing business

To own and run a media organisation requires an intimate relationship with the market. This has led to an extreme narrowing of the sources of information to mostly large companies with the most capital, as well as a market-friendly bias on the content of that information.

Sources of income

The sources of income determine the message for media outlets big and small. Audiences need to be attracted, and the best audiences have money. This encourages some news to be emphasised and some news to be ignored.

Sources of information

Information is costly to obtain. Smaller organisations rely on larger ones to produce content, and all rely on government sources and sources backed by powerful interests. This means that not only is information filtered according to the interests of large companies, it's also pre-filtered by governments and powerful interest groups.

Flak as 'discipline'

'Flak' is any negative response to media, from letters to legal action. Flak influences the media narrative, particularly when from well-resourced 'flak machines' backed by powerful interests whose motives are rarely questioned.

Fear of the 'enemy'

The media focuses on 'fear the enemy' narratives at the expense of less biased coverage. In part this is because the other filters permit this manipulation, but also because it generates income.

It's a compelling model, particularly in the age of the internet, and yet we hear very little about it, except in the context of how 'radical' Noam Chompsky is or from the mouths of bright-eyed undergraduates, freshly opposed to the 'system'. It's not hard to see why. It's academically written, and spends a lot of time shitting all over the media and the U.S. Government. Not the most appealing attributes. So in the last article, I thought we could strip the model down to it's roots, and in this article use it to analyse the more bizarre and annoying media trends today. It does a surprisingly good job. Or maybe not surprising. Depends how cynical you are.

Let's get stuck in.

"Right" vs "Left" polarisation

I've written about this before in great detail, so I won't spend much time on it here. Suffice to say that most people are not particularly left or right. People are, funnily enough, extremely complex and hold a huge variety of opinions that are not easily categorised into two camps. And yet, we have a media concentration on 'conservative' and 'liberal' outlets, that each portray the other as monolithic and toxic. If people have a range of opinions, and don't easily fall into one camp or the other, why do the media pretend like that's the case?

The cost of doing business

Interestingly, in Herman and Chompsky's book, they fixate on the "powerful and intimidating" rightwing media influence that can't be matched by "liberal or left institutions".

This is patently untrue today. I mean, that's the whole issue—two 'sides' of the media trying to convince me that the other side is awful. It probably wasn't even true at the time of the book's publication. Since at least the Clinton regime, the U.S. Democratic party has increasingly aligned itself to business interests, something the authors appear to be aware of (e.g. "inequality... increased fairly steadily... through both Democratic (Clinton) and Republican (Reagan, Bush I, Bush II) administrations"). But Chompsky's whole thing is 'radical new leftism'. So let's forgive him that, and look at things as they are.

What appears true today is that the U.S. Democratic and Republican parties are representing the interests of overlapping corporate and elite interest groups. Neither seem particularly interested in the actual people they are supposed to represent. This is something that's relatively true in many countries. Globalisation places pressure on economies to direct attention overseas where there's more money to be had, and cheaper labour. But overseas interests threaten those at home. Now we have two broad classes of market pressure.

The cost of doing business describes the market-orientation of the media. Since both the 'left' and the 'right' have been coopted by elites, the media are freed up to support either narrative: the left with free-market globalisation, and the right with protectionism. Both have become profitable.

Sources of income

Herman and Chompsky make it very clear that the working class are not the audience of the media. Rather, people with buying power are the intended audience. Since the elite comprise groups that identify as both left and right, the media have to adapt accordingly. So now we have media that are targeting the classic sort of right wing audience that Herman and Chompsky are upset about. But we also have a new group to market to: the 'champagne socialists', or the 'liberal elite'. These are those same bright eyed undergraduates from earlier, only now with money, and who dominate new media organisations like Facebook and Google.

Sources of information

Since the largest corporations are the ones that provide the information to the smaller outlets, and everyone relies on governmental and corporate interest group 'expertise', it makes sense that the narrative gets limited to whatever the big political camps are pushing at any given moment. The Sex Parties of the world, unlike the major conservative or liberal parties, don't have a lot of scope for information production, so it's not going to be contributing to the conversation.

This is why people like Bernie Sanders, or Jeremy Corbyn, get such a bad rap. At least in part. They put forward actual socialist-esque policies, which hardly serves the interests of the elites, so their narratives get marginalised as a result. We're treated to diatribes describing how 'unworkable' their policies would be. Because of course, Trump's wall was so promising. Biden is... doing nothing in particular, except maybe intervening on the racist criminal law reforms he introduced? Well I'm sure that will work out too. In the meantime, I'm super stoked about Brexit. I bet whoever handles that will keep the interests of people in mind, and not rush to profit off the new trade agreements that need to be written up, or make it possible to exploit migrant labour even more after they need to be 'sponsored' to work here. I also bet that the media narrative aligned against Brexit is worried especially about the people at home who are affected by globalisation and not the global business interests that are being curtailed.

Fear of the enemy

What better way to motivate your viewers to stay loyal, than to convince them that other media outlets are toxic trash? What better way to influence your voters than by feeding media outlets a narrative that details all the loony stuff the 'other side' is into? We should do journalists a favour here and point out that it's probably not even particularly intentional. Like many media narratives, they are the accidental result of the propaganda model's filters. This is made more stark by the fact that the internet serves us content in a way that is algorithmically determined. And algorithms infamously serve us content that's exciting. The modest social reforms of the centre left are not exciting, but the more sensational taxation plans are. Similarly, the family values of the centre right aren't worth many clicks, but homophobia sure makes us mad. So we spend our time at the fringes of these positions, instead of the averages.

And thus we're left with a 'left' and a 'right' that are representative of no one in particular, pushing a narrative that appeals to very small segments of the population, and reinforces a political divide that doesn't really exist. The saving grace is that you can, if you search really hard, find podcasts and websites that don't fit into the traditional narratives, easy as it is to create content these days. It's worth looking.

The Trump Obsession

I don't care about Donald Trump's moods. I don't care about his eating habits. I don't care about his hands, and I especially don't care about his bloody spray-tan. He certainly gives us many reasons to be dissatisfied, but I'm not from the U.S., I'm not in the U.S., so I don't need to hear about every detail of his life, in every news publication, every day. And yet, here we are.

Why is Donald Trump such a dominant presence in the media? His policy orientations, let's be honest, have not been particularly unusual for the most part. Neither is his racism or sexism. These things seem like a mainstay of the upper political strata. This is very clearly evident when we compare Donald Trump's character failings to the those of the enthusiastically supported alternative, Joe Biden. Joe Biden certainly has better handlers, but it's not clear that there is a tangible distinction in the actual difference a leadership swap would make. The fact that Trump's political positions (in action, not in Tweeting) are relatively unremarkable is also made clear by the fact that very few news articles denouncing Trump actually refer to his policy positions. Instead they focus, in overwhelming numbers, on his character.

His character is unusual. Trump has a blatent disregard for the typical 'statesman-like' role one expects at the top tier. He is an unrepentant populist. But this simply mirrors a relatively global trend towards the 'straight-talking', 'anti-establishment' leader. Populists are having a global moment. We might suggest that it's national outrage—the fact that the U.S. is susceptible to this is distressing to the people. But let's not forget that a large enough proportion of U.S. citizens politically engaged enough to vote put him in power. It's not like his character was an unknown quality. Even if we give weight to the electoral college challenge, one can't simply handwave all those supporters away. It's not even just U.S. media reporting on it. If that were the case I wouldn't be writing this. No, I don't think the media focus on Donald Trump has much to do with the people at all.

The cost of doing business

When we take into consideration our previous trend, the fake 'right' vs 'left' narrative, the market implications are fairly clear. Donald Trump is an outsider. He wasn't raised by the Republicans, and although he was a Democrat previously, I don't think they'd be too happy to have him back. This kind of outsider disruption isn't great for either party. He keeps firing his Republican handlers, and he constantly trains his guns on the Democratic party. There are powerful business interests that support him (because who has time for scruples when there are tax cuts to be had), so he isn't depicted as terrible in all media outlets. But since he doesn't represent the bipartisan status quo, it's safe to pile on. This is, of course, a global imperative. In a globalised world, the presence of populism can influence international conversations. Mobilising against populist sentiment, particularly in one of the most influential cultures in the world is urgent task. This urgency is made doubly imperative, since Donald Trump also spends a lot of his time attacking the media.

That said, there are some interests that are well-served by Donald Trump. Since he's such a target for resentment, these outlets are encouraged to spend equal effort defending him. But there's something interesting about where this Trumpian defence comes from...

Sources of income

The crucial thing about audiences is that they need to have money: it's no good trying to sell ads to poor people, according to Herman and Chompsky. It should come as no surprise then, that most of the 'elite' publications regularly chastise Trump on his character traits, and the outlets that defend him are usually outlets that serve audiences with less buying power, like cable news networks, and smaller 'independent' organisations. They're trying to sweep up the (not insubstantial) market that's left.

Sources of information

Trump regularly talks for an hour or more, speaking to a variety of subjects, with a characteristic style that loops over and over his bugbears. The length of these speeches represents a challenge for some media organisations, and an opportunity for others. It's costly to curate information: costly to spend time watching and summarising, particularly when, as Herman and Chompsky notes, "the technical structure of the media" means the information has to be presented in short segments of "seven hundred words" or "between two advertisements". The same can be said of the short clips on social media feeds, and mini-quotes on Twitter.

On one hand, we have large, biased media organisations cutting the problematic statements out for consumption to demonise him. On the other hand, we have large, biased media organisations reporting on how biased the competition are. There's not a lot of capacity left to present Trump as a new representative form of a problematic status quo. He's either great, or he's horrible. Nevermind how his policy initiatives are disappointingly similar to those we could expect under any other regime.

Fear of the enemy

Donald Trump is, no doubt, an enemy. The usefulness of this narrative is quite obvious. The Democratic party in the U.S. is shooting for a 'we're better than Trump' campaign this year, just like it did in 2016. What better way to maintain political inaction than by highlighting the faults of the opposition? It also gives the Republican party a reprieve. Everything bad can be attributed to the outsider, and everything good can be claimed by the party.

It doesn't help, of course, that Trump attacks the media constantly. The media have their own vested interest in attacking the character of Donald Trump.

The upshot is that we will be served a constant platter of Donald Trump news, all day, all the time. At least until Kanye replaces him. It's very fatiguing. The worst part is that even the alternative news sources that help us escape from the artificial political divide feel obliged to point out how Donald Trump is being attacked. I mean, I myself just wrote about 400 words on it. It seems that there's no escape.

"Wokeness" and "anti-Wokeness"

This particular trend is the most insidious to me. Critical theory, and particularly critical race and gender theory, arising out of legal scholarship in the 70's and 80's, recognises how different groups are treated differently under the law and in institutional contexts. You would think this would be an extremely helpful lens to explore the way society marginalises different groups of people. And it has been. There's no doubt that our cultural consciousness about the different forms of oppression scattered through society has been raised.

The difficulty is that it's far easier to critique systems of oppression than to fix them. As grievance-oriented scholarship has grown, it has collided with postmodernism—a perspective that the truth, about anything, is a social construct—leading us to a society where any kind of knowledge production is simply a vestige of oppressive politics. We now live in a space where researchers can intermittantly submit complete nonsense to respected academic journals and have it published. Even win awards. These peer-reviewed academic journals are so inundated with critiques of the oppression at work in our society that they're willing to accept baffling examples.

This then spills into the non-academic sphere. The terminology is adopted, and directed against the insensitive and the 'unwoke'. But if the academics can't tell the nonsense from the substance, how can we expect non-academics to? And this is the insidious part. People with good intentions are confused by the complexity of oppression. So they jump on the back of Twitter takedowns, because it seems like a clear example of the enemy, even if that person's insensitive tweet is a decade old. They post black squares in support of black lives on their Instagram, wedged between a funny meme and a workout pose, because they want to support black lives but they don't know how.

And this has led to the rise of 'anti-wokeness'—people who feel that wokeness has gone too far. These are not the same people, often, that were mad about political correctness in the 90's. These are instead young, or otherwise liberally-leaning people who recognise that wokeness has become so difficult that it's toxic, full of good-intentioned people seeking an easy answer to systemic oppression.

And in the meanwhile, stuck in the middle of the 'woke' and the 'anti-woke', the systemic oppression never gets addressed. And according to the propaganda model, this is all by design.

The cost of doing business

Since the 'left' was adopted by the liberal elite, wokeness is a medium that can be explored by the media. I don't know if this was true of the context 30 years ago, when the authors of the propaganda model were complaining of rightwing dominance, but it is certainly true now. Particularly given the rise of new media outlets like Facebook and Google, dominated by ostensibly left-leaning oligarchs, political correctness can be explored, and even debated. But only within certain confines.

Remember that the cost of doing business means that news which does not serve a business interest will get filtered out. This means, only the wokeness which is not too threatening to the market will get filtered out. Consider that debates about the wokeness of various groups, individuals and organisations actually drive social media engagement. Wokeness is good for business. The same is true of 'anti-wokeness'. So long as commentators are building their Twitter following by saying "I'll get banned for this on Twitter one day", and not actually taking their Twitter following elsewhere or demanding change, they aren't filtered out. Wokeness and anti-wokeness, in the strange and neutered form they appear in on social media, and in the mainstream media, are perfectly acceptable topics of conversation.

Wokeness and anti-wokeness are perfectly safe you see, so long as they are directed at 'systemic oppression', or at each other. Systemic oppression, and institutional oppression, are of course completely intangible things. Difficult to define, target, or change. When an item of systemic oppression is identified, the media narrative swiftly changes the subject. Consider the recent Black Lives Matter protests. Weeks of sustained global unrest, coalescing eventually around the idea of 'defunding the police'—a message that broke through even the coronavirus panic. As this inconvenient pressure was finally turning toward action, the media narrative suddenly changed focus. First, helpful explainers were provided to tell us that 'defunding the police' didn't really mean 'defunding the police', contrary to the explicit definition in the term (and that's the Guardian, no less). This was followed by a swift pivot to the plight of black trans lives. There's no doubt in my mind that black trans individuals are oppressed and mistreated, but the timing of the media pivot was telling. And now, neither black lives, nor black trans lives appear to be a concern to anyone. Action successfully nullified by dilution, on the back of the intentions of the good.

Sources of income

The insidious nature of this trend lies in the fact that it hijacks the intentions of good people. Good people want to make change to oppressive structures. So these debates are allowed to rage on across social media platforms, because good people will engage with it. Advertisers can back this messaging, because it's oriented ostensibly toward social justice. And traditional media coverage covers the social media wars so as not to be left out.

The fact that this happens at the often very costly expense of other individuals, some who are legitimately racist or sexist, but more frequently who merely made an off-hand mistake, is of no particular consequence, because it generates so much engagement from the others. Not to mention that it rarely takes down the politically powerful. Instead, young, early-career researchers, or mid-level software engineers, or cashiers, or paper-pushers. These are the lives we ruin, and all the better, because then no one in charge is required to address the 'systematic oppression' that is the source of the discontent.

A short note for the interested, that this dynamic is not a product of the internet age. The internet may have changed the shape of it, but Malcolm X describes a dynamic that looks very similar in 1963:

They [conservatives and liberals] are fighting each other for power and prestige, and the one that is the football in the game is the Negro, 20 million black people. A political football, a political pawn, an economic football, and economic pawn. A social football, a social pawn. The liberal elements of whites are those who have perfected the art of selling themselves to the Negro as a friend of the Negro. Getting sympathy of the Negro, getting the allegiance of the Negro... the white liberal uses the Negro against the white conservative.

Which brings us to our next two points...

Flak

Wokeness serves as particularly useful fodder for liberal flak machines, as described by Herman and Chompsky in the propaganda model. Flak machines are organisations that conduct campaigns against certain media narratives as a form of discipline. These are often backed by powerful interest groups, and yet their motives are rarely questioned. Take, for example, the Southern Poverty Law Center. An easy enough target, given the controversy that has roiled over it's head since it's inception. Reporters often share stories like that linked, of an organisation oriented towards donors, and emphasising splashy cases that influence the media narrative, rather than seriously pursuing change. And yet, to this day, the work of the SLPC is reported, as predicted by the propaganda model, without reflection on its questionable practices.

Wokeness is a fabulous tool to organise against conservative agendas, as Malcom X noted fifty years ago. That the anti-conservative wokeness doesn't necessarily help the oppressed is beside the point.

Fear of the enemy

Systems of oppression are an excellent candidate for one of Herman and Chompky's 'anti-ideologies', or enemies. In it's current form, it demands no fundamental change to the system, because the system is indefinable. When an aspect is defined, the media narrative can quickly be configured to emphasise a different victim of the system.

Now that 'anti-wokeness' is on the rise, I expect we'll see the same thing happen in reverse.

In both cases, nothing will change, but of course you'll hear all about it.

Outro

Herman and Chompsky's propaganda model, born thirty years ago, is still well worth our time today. The five filters are increasingly appropriate since the advent of the internet, and we can use them. If not to get closer to the truth, at least to figure out how the media portrayal of information doesn't really benefit us (unless incidentally).

I'll leave you with a quote from the book. It really sums things up quite nicely:

In essence, the private media are major corporations selling a product (readers and audiences) to other businesses (advertisers). The national media typically target and serve elite opinion, groups that, on the one hand, provide an optimal “profile” for advertising purposes, and, on the other, play a role in decision-making in the private and public spheres. The national media would be failing to meet their elite audience’s needs if they did not present a tolerably realistic portrayal of the world. But their “societal purpose” also requires that the media’s interpretation of the world reflect the interests and concerns of the sellers, the buyers, and the governmental and private institutions dominated by these groups... These matters are of some importance.

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