The media & the Propaganda Model


When the Watergate Scandal brought down the Nixon Government in the States in the mid-70s, it was heralded as one of the finest examples of media power in modern times. Nixon's fall from grace, along with the story of corruption in high places, was the stuff of drama. In no time, the journalists at the centre of the Watergate exposé - Bernstein and Woodward - became celebrities. They went on to win Pulitzer Prizes for their journalistic endeavours and even became the subject of a Hollywood touch-up in All The President's Men.

Ever since, Watergate has acted as a sort of beacon. No single news story did as much for the prestige of the media or the profession of journalism. No other single news-story seems to have offered such overwhelming evidence that under capitalism "the press is free". For a newspaper to be able to have the power and freedom to bring down a US President of Nixon's stature - well, what more can you say?

But even as the decade of Watergate (the 1970s) was drawing to a close, there were already rumblings of doubt. Painstaking research of a different variety, by two left-wing academics, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, laid the foundations for an entirely different view of the media and its role in our society. Rather than seeing the media as a "defender of freedom", Herman and Chomsky outlined example after example of where the media either lied about the truth or distorted the news beyond actual recognition.

Far from seeing this "lying" as isolated, or the work of "rogue" news- papers, the two academics advanced the view that the modern media operated in a manner more akin to a Propaganda Service. Rather than defending freedom and justice, they charged the major news and wire services (including the Washington Post, of Watergate fame) with subservience to the interests of the rich and powerful. More to the point, Herman and Chomsky produced the evidence to support this charge.


The idea that the media serves the interest of big business and the rich is not, in itself, a new idea - far from it. A lot of people harbour the suspicion in some form - if not from their own experience, then certainly from some sort of 'common-sense' knowledge about the world around them. But just because people suspect bias, is not in itself proof that bias exists. From school onwards (and throughout life) we're actually bombarded with the view that "this society is free".

A lot of what happens in this society - from punitive measures against the poor, to hospital closures - happens in our name. If you want to check that out, just look at the news for the next few weeks: there you will find plenty of examples which do seem to indicate that we go along with all sort of laws and decisions that just aren't in our own interest.

Herman and Chomsky arrived at a theory about the media that is called The Propaganda Model. This theory and the evidence to back it up (see box 1) was first published in their book, Manufacturing Consent. According to Herman and Chomsky, manufacturing consent is precisely what the modern media does. Rather than providing us with all the information we need for making a particular decision, the media shapes and manages the news about the world in a definite and particular way. The modern media systematically under-reports or ignores some types of news so that the current division of society into rulers and ruled is preserved (or at the very least not challenged).

Chomsky and Herman point out that the shaping and managing of the news occurs in a more sophisticated way than is often imagined. An extremely biased and censored news product emerges from the manner in which the media is structured and organised. Censorship results not from one act by one particular person (the censor of old) but rather is built up piecemeal, over a long period of time. The important thing is not the fate of any one particular news story but rather the picture that emerges when all the individual news stories are placed alongside one another over a long period of time. According to Chomsky and Herman, the censorship that is part and parcel of today's media is all the more difficult to challenge precisely because it is so invisible.


Though we are limited by space in this article, it is worth looking at the basic way in which the Propaganda Model works. Chomsky and Herman argue that censorship in the modern media functions a lot like the way a filtration system works - news acceptable to the interests of big business passes through the filters, whereas news that challenges the establishment is filtered out. According to Chomsky and Herman there are five main filters, all of which target and work against the production of "anti-establishment news". News that passes through one filter can often be caught by other filters down the line. The five filters are as follows
1) the ownership profile of the mass media,
2)the effect of advertising,
3) the role of "news experts",
4) the idea of "balance" in reporting,
5) over-riding concerns. These are examined very briefly.

Introducing The Five Filters

There are five main influences on the news and views that are produced by TV, radio and newspapers. These influences act like filters, separating out acceptable news from 'unacceptable news'. Because of these 'filters' we end up with a sanitised news and information service which helps most modern governments to rule:

Ownership: Three-quarters of the Irish print media is owned by just one billionaire - Tony O'Reilly. But Ireland is not unusual in having a situation like this. Across the world, the major media services from Sky Channel (Rupert Murdoch) to Reuters are in private hands. The reason for this is simple: news makes money. Murdoch once described a newspaper he was trying to buy as "a river of gold". This ethos - making money out of news - in itself creates a certain way of looking at the world. This is the first filter.

Advertising: Leonard Mattews of the American Association of Advertising Agencies once put it succinctly: "To expect private companies to go on supporting a medium that is attacking them is like taking up a collection among the Christians for money to buy more lions". Advertisers often exert subtle but firm influence on the media

News Experts: There is an increasing reliance on the 'expert' within the news media. However the vast majority of the 'experts' tend to come from within the confines of the 'establishment' itself. These 'experts' often have a definite 'ideological bent' - a factor that may not often be clear to the viewer. Also in this area, Government and business often employ Public Relations consultants to prepare and present their views to the media. These 'media-friendly' mediators (spin-doctors) can often guarantee coverage.

Balance and 'Flak': No one realises that media coverage is important in popularising an issue as does the Government and the business community. They often monitor the news in order to ensure that there is 'balanced coverage' of an issue that is of interest to them. The Government and the employers federation IBEC often pay people to do this specific job for them. Again this effect can alter the tone and direction of the news that we hear.

Overriding Concerns: What does the Cold War and Terrorism have in common? Quite a lot when it comes to the media. In the USA, the Cold War was often used to bludgeon "unruly" journalists into submission, around particular certain subject matters. The equivalent to the Cold War in Ireland is Terrorism (or more specifically "paramilitary terrorism"). As is well know (from Section 31 and so forth) large elements of the Irish media accepted overt censorship within the media for much of the last 30 years. While Section 31 was supposedly directed at certain organisations, its ethos extended far wider.

It is relatively easy to see the Propaganda Model in operation in Ireland today. It is also easy to see how effective it has been. One example (among the many that stand out) is on the issue of the "National Debt" - do you remember? In the early 1980s, the National Debt hit the Irish headlines in a big way. According to some reports, the Debt was so large and so out of control that the Irish Republic was in danger of going out of business altogether.

Newspapers as well as TV and radio reports were never slow with the latest on the bad news - how large the Debt actually was (per head of population!), how fast it was rising, etc. The National Debt is still there (and is just as large) but nowadays (in the late 1990s) we hear very little about it. Why is this?

The National Debt was one of those subjects that very few us ever knew a lot about. After all who feels confident enough to take on an expert economist about "Current Account Deficits" and the like? So in effect when the National Debt 'crisis' emerged in the early 1980s, we (the general public) were very reliant on the media to provide us with up to date and accurate information on what the 'crisis' was actually about.

This was all the more important given what we were eventually asked to do. Here again it is worth remembering what happened as a result to the National Debt 'crisis'. More than anything this gives us a clue as to what was really going on.


Throughout the 1980s, the National Debt 'crisis' (and the idea that it was "out of control") became a very useful stick for pushing through wage restraint and social partnership. Around the same time as the 'crisis' emerged, the Government was full of talk about us all being "in the one boat together". As workers we were asked to be moderate in our demands. Cutbacks occurred right across the board - hospital wards were closed, positions in public service were left empty, the local authority house building programme came to a virtual end.

All these sacrifices were justified to Irish workers against the back drop of the National Debt 'crisis'. But, as we know now, the rewards from social partnership went almost exclusively to Irish and multinational bosses. For them, the 'crisis' over the National Debt was a convenient opportunity to impose their interests on us - and they did.

So what role did the Irish media play in the National Debt 'crisis' and its consequences? Firstly it should be accepted that this is an area in need of proper evaluation. But this said, it does seem to be overwhelmingly the case that only one view dominated the newspapers, radio and TV during the period of the 'crisis'. This view (aggressively argued for by the Irish Government) was often presented to us as fact rather than opinion. Some of these 'views' are worth remembering:

Ireland was no longer part of 'industrial' Europe - its economy was now more like that of a banana republic.

The Public Service was booming out of control - it was soaking up "our taxes" and giving nothing back in return.

Workers in the Public Service had easy jobs for life (and the Public Service was completely over-staffed).

This is only a sample of what was said at the time, but it is indicative of the tune that the media played. And we are not just talking about the newspapers here. RTE was also a major culprit, parroting the Government's line at every opportunity. Because, as was said above, economics is an area few of us feel comfortable in, this was all the more an abuse of power. Moreover, given that the Debt still exists today, isn't it fair to conclude that much of what was said at the time was a gross exaggeration in terms of its likely impact? In a sentence: were we conned?

March against racism? What march?

The recent Day Of Action against Racism and Deportations was a perfect example of how the media can operate and shape the news. The demonstrations in Cork, Dublin, Belfast and Limerick received absolutely no coverage in any of Ireland's Sunday newspapers (which appeared on the day immediately after the Day of Action).

However, a slightly related subject did. The Sunday Tribune carried a reasonably prominent article entitled "Asylum Seekers To Cost State Over £36 million".

What was notable about this article was that it seemed to be an almost verbatim rendition of a Goverment Press Release. Even more notable was that the article sought no dissenting opinions on the Government's point of view - even though such voices are there and have been seeking out media coverage for weeks! Given its timing, was this just sheer coincidence or was it the Propaganda Model in operation?

Fair Coverage

Chomsky and Herman produced their proposals about the media so as to assist us in fighting back. As they have pointed out - awareness is half the battle. So long as people continue to believe that "the media is free under capitalism" they will be more inclined to accept the media's particular slant on news events. Disputing the media's impartiality may be difficult, but even so it is crucial that if we are to win people towards the idea of a revolutionary change. Here are some of the things that can be done:

It is important to popularise information about how bias in the media works. Look at the media in your own area - who owns it? What issues get covered and why? Work to produce factual evidence that points out the bias. Attempt to get publicity on this.

Monitor the media on different issues, particularly around issues you yourself are involved in. Are you getting fair coverage? Why not? Who is?

Assist alternative media whenever you can. So-called 'Pirate Radio' is undoubtedly the freest type of media around - apart from anything else it spurns any direct government control. Get involved and help build an alternative news network. In Cork there is the K2 radio station. During April's Day of Action against racism and deportations, K2 gave over a whole day's coverage to the issue.

When bias in the media is encountered, aim to work with those journalists and media workers who are in a union and likely to be on your side. Many journalists have no option but to go along with "news management". They also want to see change.

Kevin Doyle

This article is from Workers Solidarity No 54 published in June 1998