This is part of an old essay I wrote, spruiked up slightly for Medium.
The Propaganda Model
Developed by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman in the 1980s, the Propaganda Model is a conceptual model to explain how propaganda and systemic biases function in corporate mass media. In short, it posits that raw information is processed through five filters before being transmitted as news.
- Ownership: corporate owners of media will not be inclined to report news that is counter to their own interests. This could be wealthy individuals, such as Rupert Murdoch, using their position to direct content, or the corporate structure incentivising profit-maximisation over factual reporting. For example, reporting of the 1996 Telecommunications Act was significantly affected by the financial interests of corporate owners of media.
- Advertising: a large bulk of news media revenue comes from selling advertising space. With a focus on advertising, the reader or watcher of the news becomes the product being sold by the news media to advertising corporate interests. Because of this filter, news media will be less inclined to report against the interests of their corporate advertisers — their main source of revenue. Unsurprisingly, for example, car magazines provide better reviews to their advertisers.
- Sourcing: media and government (or other powerful groups) exist in a symbiotic relationship. Governments rely on the news media to spread their narrative, and news media corporations rely on access to government sources in order to develop news and stay relevant. If this relationship turns antagonistic, it may threaten the media’s access to vital news sources. Therefore, the media is incentivised to “play nice” with the government.
- Flak: reporting against a powerful interest group may result in “flak” — punitive actions from letter writing campaigns to congressional hearings, aimed at discrediting or otherwise undermining the news media or independent sources. An example of this is the campaign by the fossil fuel industry to try and drown out and discredit the voices of climate scientists.
- Fear: originally “anti-communism”, given the context of 1980s America, fear refers to the creation of an anti-ideology to exploit the fear or hatred of a public enemy. This filter mobilizes the population against a common enemy while demonizing opponents of state policy as insufficiently patriotic or in league with the enemy.
I personally am a fan of the Propaganda Model, and believe it helps create a nuanced and complex understanding of how news is filtered. The idea of self-censoring as to not antagonise important relationships or “the boss” is something I have readily experienced in my own life. The model provides an organic and dynamic method of how powerful people can protect their own interests, and it does not surprise me that the model remains in use by critical media studies to this day.
The Limitations of the Model in Pluralistic Societies
While I do think the Propaganda Model is useful, it is of course reductionist, like all models inherently are. In real life, there is rarely a single hegemonic “owner”, “advertiser” or “source”. In a pluralistic society it becomes evident that rather than re-enforcing one hegemonic ideology, the filters are often in tension.
Antagonism between media elites and government elites is clear in the fact that media outlets such as The New York Times, Huffington Post and CNN have been barred from some briefings at the White House, and yet continue antagonistic reporting. There is money to be made in being anti-Trump. A topical example of this tension can be seen in the feud between the Trump administration and Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post. Following the particularly divisive election of 2016, the Post clearly marketed itself in opposition to the Trump administration, resurrecting the old slogan of “Democracy Dies in Darkness”. In pursuit of profit, it carved out a niche where it would hold the government to account, regardless of potential threats to access to “sources”. This threat was quite real, as Post reporters were banned from Trump events during the 2016 campaign.
Advertising as a filter is also more complicated than posited by the Propaganda Model. For starters, the revenue generated by subscriptions should not be understated. Driven by a ‘Trump Bump’, the New York Times’ digital subscriptions brought in $400 million in revenue in 2018, while digital advertising only brought in $259 million.
Furthermore, there is a growing body of literature that suggests a large advertising market is beneficial to the objectivity of news.
Advertising can actually raise accuracy by increasing the intensity of competition for readers. Concretely, our first main result is that, when advertising is sufficiently large, competing papers set maximal accuracy, even on topics sensitive to advertisers. So, paradoxically, advertisers have no influence precisely when their economic importance is greatest.
A model which locates the source of bias on the supply-side seems most consistent with the central empirical fact we document below: that the drop in bias in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries coincided with falling costs and increasing advertising revenue.
Data on American newspapers from 1880 to 1885 to show that the growth of an advertising market promotes media independence from political influence groups, even taking population growth into account… If the profitability of advertising is high, then it is costly for media outlets to distort their news coverage in the direction desired by a subsidizing group… market expansion increases variety, and independent media can fill a gap that had not been served by sponsored… the growth of advertising allows media outlets to choose the same politically neutral reporting be cause incentives to compete by product differentiation become weak.
The heterogeneity of advertiser interests must also be taken into account. During the Volkswagen Emissions Scandal, for example, the Propaganda Model would suggest Volkswagen would try to use its influence as an advertiser to minimise or mitigate negative coverage. However, for Volkswagen competitors — the likes of Ford and General Motors — the scandal was considered a “godsend” and “the gift that kept on giving.” It is in their economic interest for reporting to continue. Outside of the immediately relevant industry, every other advertiser on the platform has economic interest in the news media reporting breaking news that will hold consumers’ attention.
The ability of lobby groups to assert influence is also not homogeneous, and separate lobby groups may have entirely different agendas. During the Same Sex Marriage (SSM) plebiscite in Australia, for example, the Coalition for Marriage (anti-SSM) spent approximately $994,000 on advertising, whereas The Equality Campaign and Australian Marriage Equality (pro-SSM) groups collectively spent $851,000. Groups receiving ‘flak’ from one side of the debate would find support from the other.
Additionally, rather than simply receiving “flak”, media are the carriers and conduits of it. Rival newspapers will often report flak against each other — the Herald Sun is happy to report accusations of bias against the ABC, and the Sydney Morning Herald is happy to report boycotts of Sky News. The point here is not that media are not concerned about flak, but that in a pluralistic society flak is heterogeneous, and what is harmful to one is revenue-generating news to another.
On the matter of flak and lobby groups — media can help promote flak by the disempowered against the powerful. Savvy media strategies can allow groups to be more effective than there wealth or size would suggest. An example of this is the Landless Peasants’ Movement in Brazil, by no means a rich or politically connected group, which has had remarkable success in promoting its policy agenda. Flak, then, is not a one way street of the powerful punishing the media for supporting the disenfranchised, but a tool used by all groups, both through and against the media, to pursue competing agendas.
Fear or anti-communism is, in my opinion, the weakest aspect of Chomsky and Herman’s model. While the above four filters explain why and how a particular ideological lens shapes news in the favour of elites, this fifth filter is simply an (anti-)ideology existing in society. I agree that, yes, the norms of a society shape its perceptions, but that does very little to help us understand how elites shape or use these norms in the first place — which are the other four filters.
It does, however, raise the question about ideology and news in general. Unsurprisingly, people have a preference for news that matches their ideological slant. Rather than news media being the sole driver of ideology, we see that consumers drive the media’s ideology, in their pursuit of profits. What Drives Media Slant? Evidence from U.S. Daily Newspapers finds that
Readers have an economically significant preference for like-minded news. Firms respond strongly to consumer preferences, which account for roughly 20 percent of the variation in measured slant in our sample. By contrast, the identity of a newspaper’s owner explains far less of the variation in slant.
The formation of ideology therefore is two-way, with consumers driving a newspaper’s ideology and the consumers being informed by the newspaper. A competitive media industry sees newspapers seeking out niche audiences, and competition enhances ideological diversity.
The conclusion here is that while the Propaganda Model has merit, perhaps filters is the incorrect metaphor for use. Rather than filtering news, media organisation all have a series of different lens which they use to magnify, minimise, reflect or refract information. Importantly, in a pluralistic society these lens are neither in alignment nor scarce. Attempts by one actor to minimise news may lead to the magnification of news by another (for example, Fox and the Trump campaigns attempt to squash the Stormy Daniel’s saga was picked up by many other mainstream news networks).
The Model in Russia
In a less pluralistic society, however, things are rather different. In Russia, the United Russia party has unilaterally dominated the political space for two decades. Putin has similarly been effective leader for two decades. RT was founded by the state-owned news agency, and the vast bulk of its funds come from the state. In this financial statement from RT, we see that it received 17.6 billion roubles from the state, and only 42.3 million roubles from selling goods and services in 2016. That’s roughly US$250,000,000 to US$650,000. In terms of money, the state holds roughly 380x the influence over RT than other revenue sources (such as advertisers).
Despite the lack of old-fashioned pre-emptive censorship, the Russian media are gravely hindered in other ways. All national broadcasters are now owned by state-controlled companies. Most national newspapers are in the hands of a small number of wealthy individuals who are vulnerable to political pressure. It is no surprise that the Russian media provide a sympathetic and sometimes incomplete account of government behaviour.
Although the number of television channels in Russia has exploded in recent years, news broadcasts are today largely the preserve of three national networks under direct government control.
Andrei N. Illarionov, a former adviser to Putin called the channel Russia’s “best propaganda machine for the outside world” way back in 2007. Many journalists formerly working for RT have voiced their dissatisfaction with the channel. James Freemantle has said:
Within a week of arriving, I learned that although we covered many big stories in the region and around the world, when it came to politics, conflict and international relations, Russia Today was little more than a conduit for Kremlin propaganda. If something went to air that seemed likely to offend the sensibilities of Messrs Putin or Medvedev it was immediately pulled and Simonyan would throw a tantrum. Those responsible could be officially reprimanded. Russian journalists would be fined for ‘errors’. While it is debatable whether anyone senior in the Kremlin watches RT, the Russian obsession with trying to please those above while not always knowing what those above want, perpetuates the political bias and adds to a general sense of confusion.
William Dunbar stated that RT “forced [him] out for telling the truth about Georgia” and that:
When I took the job as RT’s Georgia correspondent, I was under no illusions. I knew the channel was financed by the state, and that its editorial policy was bound to reflect that… on any issue where there is a Kremlin line, RT is sure to toe it.
Liz Wahl, who famously quit live on air, has bluntly stated they were “Putin’s pawn” and that:
I’d been a correspondent for RT — the English-language international cable network funded by the Russian government — for about two and a half years. I’d looked the other way as the network smeared America for the sake of making the Kremlin look better by comparison, while it sugarcoated atrocities by one brutal dictator after another… I came to see just how dangerous a propaganda tool the network was. I couldn’t be a part of it any longer.
Crucial information is regularly omitted from stories, and often because those in charge are not capable of identifying what makes a strong news story. They’re not interested in fact checking and creating valuable, balanced journalism. Their main agenda is that it fits the narrative. You are actively discouraged from questioning — that isn’t appreciated at all. And of course that goes on and is a million times worse in the domestic Russian media.
If you do not want to take the words of potentially disgruntled former journalists, Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of RT straightforwardly outlined how she views the purpose of the network in an interview in 2012:
Interviewer: Why does the country need all of this?
Simonyan: Well, similarly to why the country needs the Ministry of Defence. That is why you need it as a tax payer.
Interviewer: Are we fighting with someone now?
Simonyan: We are not with war with anyone now. But in 2008 we were fighting. The Ministry of Defense fought with Georgia, and we fought the information war, and against the whole Western world. It’s impossible to just start making weapons when the war has already begun! Therefore, the Ministry of Defense is not at war with anyone now, but it is ready for defense. So are we…
Interviewer: How do your state tasks combine with journalistic objectivity?
Simonyan: Yes, they are combined, like all other channels. There is no objectivity. CNN just arranges grandiose tantrums when 20 American soldiers die, rest in peace. And the fact that there were 2,000 more civilians killed was not even mentioned. What objectivity, where is it? So, when Russia is at war, we, of course, are on the side of Russia.
It is of little surprise that Britain’s communications regulator Ofcom has repeatedly found RT in breach of journalistic integrity standards, and that RT’s “conspiratorial ethos” is used as part of a state strategy.
The Model Recapped
To examine our five points from the Propaganda Model in Russia:
- Ownership: Almost all media is consolidated underneath State control
- Advertising: Is not as significant within Russia (particularly the flagship RT), and significant funds are directly received from the State. This creates a lack of diversity in accountabilities and thus viewpoints.
- Sourcing: going beyond a symbiotic relationship with the state, RT views itself as intrinsically and strategically linked with the State.
- Flak: The above three points make RT and other government controlled sources virtually immune from Flak.
- Fear: Rather than an ideology of anti-communism or anti-terrorism, Russian media (again, particularly RT) channel the ethos of a revisionist state, looking to upset and unbalance the established order: one of conspiracy and cynicism. (This itself would be an interesting article to write)
None of this is particularly novel or surprising (part of why I have not published this here before). However, I do believe it shows the value in re-conceptualising the propaganda model. The heterogeneity of media, advertisers, political organisations and civil society groups in the West does not result in additional filters of information, layering on top of each other. Rather, you have information being shaped, bent, minimised and magnified in all manner of directions and colours. As the media consolidates (a troubling development in the West) towards something more homogenous, like the Russian media landscape, the end result becomes more uniform, less diverse, and more straightforwardly propaganda where the filter metaphor is more applicable.
A shift to the lens metaphor helps suggest a solution to the issue of propaganda-generation. News will always have “ownership”, there will always be contentious relationships between journalists and their sources, it is not possible to simply remove filters. But it is possible to ensure a diversity and plurality of viewpoints, i.e. lens, to ensure that accountability and ‘truth’ can be sought.
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