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Following Smythe’s exposition of the audience and Jurgen Habermas’s (1991) elucidation of mass media as providing an apparatus whereby elite sectors of society can transform the democratising potential of the public sphere, a series of leftist academic media scholars have attempted to delineate the precise methods by which the mass media operates as a distorting lens which represents the vested interests of economic elites.

Most prominent within this PE-centred approach has been the ‘propaganda model’ (PM) of mass media presented by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of Mass Media (1988). Chomsky and Herman begin by proclaiming that

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 behaviour 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 fulfil this role requires systematic propaganda.

Chomsky and Herman 1988:1

As such Chomsky and Herman operate within the tradition of Marxist critique of mass media as ideological propaganda whose purpose is not to inform rational critical societal debate, but to naturalise the ideology of the ruling classes. Chomsky and Herman go beyond Habermas, Adorno and Horkheimer, however, in delineating what they see as a series of structural filters through which ‘the powerful are able to fix the premise of discourse, to decide what the general populace is allowed to see hear and think about.’ (1988:1)

The five filters proposed by Chomsky and Herman are: 1. The size and ownership of mass media corporations; 2. The economic model predicated on generating revenue via corporate advertising; 3. The reliance on ‘trusted sources’ which frequently means using government or corporate spokespeople who spend vast sums on public relations and lobbying; 4. The ability of financially or politically privileged actors to provide flak, negative responses to critical media coverage; and 5. An ideological filter described as anticommunism (due to Manufacturing Consent being published during the final years of the Cold war). Subsequent writings on the PM such as Boyd-Barrett (2004) suggest that there still exists an ideological filter in the mass media, with the war on terror having largely taken the place of anticommunism and Klaehn (2009) suggesting that this filter can be rebranded as ‘the dominant ideology’. While the PM was designed with specific reference to media in the USA, subsequent studies such as Sparks (2007) suggest that with minor modifications the PM can be adapted for use with European style mass media systems which include a public service broadcaster element alongside a commercial media.

Public Domain image from CartoonDiablo

The series of filters provided in the PM continue the tradition of leftist critique of mass media following the likes of Adorno and Habermas, but significantly extend the form of critique by presenting concrete factors which, it is proposed, serve to structurally produce a system which is economically and ideologically bound to support positions of privileged and powerful elites within contemporary social formations. While critiques of the PM such as Schlesinger (1992) contend that the PM presents an overly determinate account of media systems allied with a functionalist concept of ideology, Chomsky and Herman do not claim that the PM captures all factors which influence mass media coverage of news stories, or that the filters preclude significant differentiations within and between media conglomerates, particularly noting that there are short periods where specific historic and/or  social circumstances open limited windows of opportunity for journalists to engage in less constrained critiques of powerful actors. As such the PM presents media as a dynamic system dependent on a vast number of variables which constantly works to reassert hegemony, a point emphasised in Herman (1996). However, the PM does argue that while dissent is not completely suppressed, the effect of the mass media is broadly to frame events from the perspective of powerful economic and political actors. As Klaehn (2009:46) contends, the strength of the PM is the way in which it ‘highlights how ideology, communicative power and media texts link to social organization, cultural education and pervasive social, political and economic inequalities.’

Unlike the approaches of the Frankfurt School and Habermas, the progenitors of the PM do not contend that the consequences of mediated communication are inherently antidemocratic or anti-enlightenment, merely that the  currently existing mass media are predicated on infrastructure which tends to produce systematic bias in favour of powerful political and economic actors. Chomsky and Herman consequently argue, both in Manufacturing Consent and elsewhere (eg Chomsky 1989, 1997) that alternative modes of media provide the potential for enhancing social awareness and social justice, albeit alongside the caveat that ‘Although the new technologies have great potential for democratic communication, there is little reason to expect the Internet to serve democratic ends if it is left to the market.’ (Herman 2000)

Where the PM, and indeed political economy centred approaches in general are more broadly criticised, is that their structural approaches to the ways in which mass media is produced, or by which dominant discourses are encoded into these texts, the focus on production tends to obscure the diverse range of responses to these texts, the way that audiences decode the information. Alternative approaches, which concentrate on the processes by which audiences create meaning from media texts can be found in reception studies, audience studies and strands of cultural studies. It should, however, be noted that rather than being portrayed as oppositional approaches which take a mutually exclusive top down/bottom up or production/consumption centric ways of exploring media, PE and audience research can more productively be understood as complimentary modes of exploring media systems, which provide different modes of insight which are best understood alongside rather than in competition with one another.

Discussion:

  • Do you agree with the notion that mass media is a form of propaganda?
  • What kinds of NZ-specific examples can you think of that would either support or contest this model for understanding the media?
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