A recent debate put forward this motion: “don’t trust the mainstream media.” Arguing for it were Douglas Murray and Matt Taibbi; arguing against it were Malcolm Gladwell and Michelle Goldberg. Messrs Murray and Taibbi made some strong points, but their case was greatly bolstered by the behaviour of their opponents. Mr Gladwell, someone I used to admire, substituted crass misrepresentations for arguments, and, while insisting on the integrity of the media organisations he works for, couldn’t even get Mr Murray’s first name right. Mrs Goldberg recounted her visit to the Ottawa truckers’ convoy, and unintentionally revealed to the audience that she missed the whole point of the protest. Team Gladwell-Goldberg fabricated strawmen and attacked them with mud.
It would be a mistake, however, to think that team Gladwell-Goldberg represent the best of the mainstream media, which still reveal and spread important information. What team Gladwell-Goldberg do so well, though, is instantiate the “Propaganda Model” of mass media made famous by Noam Chomsky and Edward S Herman’s book Manufacturing Consent.
Most notably a critic of U.S. foreign policy, Mr Chomsky made his first contribution to intellectual life in the field of linguistics, and also made some interesting arguments relating to what’s called the mind-body problem in philosophy. (More on that in future posts, dear reader.) Even if Mr Chomsky’s conclusions are no longer widely accepted, he should be praised for asking interesting questions and for being independent enough to annoy even his own supporters. At 94, he’s sharper than people a quarter his age. I don’t agree with much of his politics (I think he’s prone to wild exaggerations), but the “Propaganda Model” is a useful way of thinking about the mass media, especially if applied to what has happened over the past few years.
The “Propaganda Model” (influenced by the work of the Australian social psychologist Alex Carey) seeks to explain how mass media function in capitalist economies which are dominated by large private corporations. On this model, the mass media systematically convey information, frame debate, and formulate controversies in a way that supports the corporate worldview. All nonmarket systems are considered dubious (except when private firms need subsidies and bailouts.) The media exist to further global consumerism. This observation may seem trite, but it’s seldom made and rarely appreciated.
Messrs Chomsky and Herman argue that there are five “filters” which regulate what information is considered respectable and how this information should be presented.
In the English-speaking world, the main media outlets are owned by private corporations. (This might also be true of non-English speaking countries — reader, let me know!) Large media companies do business with commercial and investment bankers; banks and other investors are large owners of media stock. Consequently, the media have an interest in upholding the ideological assumptions of a corporate-led economic world. This turns a political sphere into a de-politicised market, destroying physical communities who share a social life and have common concerns. Smaller and more localised media companies exist, but they tend to draw on the content which larger companies can more easily create because of their resources and prestige.
Advertising is the main source of income for these larger media companies, which accordingly cater to the interests of advertisers, not readers or viewers. Advertisers themselves are not interested in appealing to every audience but to audiences with buying power. Media corporations, then, have a strong incentive not to upset the rich, and to frame things in a way that upholds the system keeping them rich. Stories that collide with advertisers’ interests are marginalised or excluded. The public has no control over the media; a newspaper or television station or YouTube channel will live or die depending on the choices of advertisers.
Even the largest corporations can’t afford to have reporters and cameras everywhere, so they rely on other sources for information — primarily government officials, business leaders, and experts (who are often funded by governments and businesses). The media draw on these “official” sources for a steady, reliable flow of news. Government and corporate sources are recognisable, seem credible, and tend to have first-hand knowledge of the events and policies being discussed. To consolidate their positions, government spin-doctors and business promoters make things easy for news organisations by hosting functions, organising conferences, and giving journalists advance copies of speeches and reports. Media corporations have an incentive to stay chummy with these sources because the large bureaucracies of business and government lower the cost of producing news. As a result, media, government, and business tend to agree on the information they present to the public — a fellowship of bureaucracies.
Universities also provide expert information, but they too are largely dependent on government and corporate funding. Hence, they tend not to challenge the assumptions of their benefactors. Often what makes someone an “expert” is their skill in carefully elaborating and defining commonly held opinions.
Just as smaller media companies follow bigger ones, smaller universities follow the more prestigious ones regarding which ideas are acceptable, which research should be funded, which people should be hired, and so on. Furthermore, the most prestigious universities are the ones whose graduates dominate the media, business, and government. (Don’t ask me which university I went to — besides, I don’t dominate the media, do I?)
“Flak” refers to the negative responses media companies receive. It can include angry letters to the editor, responses from other publications, and so on, but this sort of thing is like a loud neighbour: he’s annoying, but your house isn’t vulnerable.
The flak that is intimidating comes from powerful people and institutions: corporations who threaten lawsuits, or to pull their funding; sources who might stop giving information; expert criticism that might discredit an organisation, and so on. The government itself produces flak, regularly threatening and “correcting” the media to prevent any deviations from the established message.
The last filter is “fear” (it was “anticommunism” in the original edition). The argument here is that the mass media have an interest in presenting and framing information in a way that encourages fear and hatred towards those who challenge the worldview of the government-corporate-media nexus. News stories and popular entertainment tend to characterise these people as dumb, irrational, and dangerous.
Wait a minute…
“But William, you clever and handsome man,” I hear you ask, “this sounds like a conspiracy theory!” The model is not a conspiracy theory. Mr Chomsky (much to the annoyance of some of his followers) has dismissed the most common conspiracy theories, including the complaints (repeated endlessly by the mass media) of “collusion” between Mr Donald Trump and Russia during the 2016 presidential election.
A dark room, jazz in the background, cigar smoke, envelopes full of cash, suited grins approving a deal — this is not what Messrs Herman and Chomsky are suggesting. Rather, they are describing economic incentives and cultural attitudes which influence the opinions of most people without them realising it. The “Propaganda Model” doesn’t suggest that journalists are lying or that they have bad intentions. The trouble is, like team Gladwell-Goldberg, most journalists are led by unconscious assumptions they’ve never questioned — those of the corporate-government order. Thus, they never consider that there might be something wrong with this order, and that people might have good reasons for criticising it.
“But William, you Australian hunk,” I hear you cry, “does this mean that we can never know the truth?”
Mr Chomsky believes we can find the truth, and that sometimes important information is available in media reports and even in government documents. The problem is that most journalists don’t look for it or don’t understand its significance. Their decisions regarding what to seek, where to find it, which questions to ask, which facts are relevant, how to interpret information, and so on, are formed by a worldview that supports the corporate-government-media disposition.
“But William, you dapper and discerning gentleman,” I hear you observe, “there is so much debate and acrimony. We’re more polarised than ever!” Messrs Herman and Chomsky acknowledge that there are dissident voices, and that the media are not monolithic. Their point is that people who challenge corporate-government preferences are at a major disadvantage.
Furthermore, the authors argue that most debate is kept within certain boundaries. (Policy wonks call this the Overton window.) Debates occur when they are consistent with the reigning assumptions — what does not occur is debate about these assumptions themselves.
The main political parties in Washington, London, and Canberra may disagree about certain policies, but they all uphold an economic system dominated by large corporations. In Mr Chomsky’s view, that makes them all “right-wing,” even if some parties favour more regulation and government spending than others.
Manufacturing Consent doesn’t explain every aspect of the mass media, nor does it try to. It applies the model to various aspects of U.S. foreign policy, but the “Propaganda Model” is a helpful tool in analysing and criticising a more recent set of events.
Applying the model - The Covid-19 Response
First, some celebrations are in order. I must congratulate the international left, which, for the first time in history, agreed on a range of policies which resulted in a huge redistribution of wealth. I am, of course, talking about the Covid-19 lockdowns.
Reader, please don’t spoil the party by pointing out that the wealth was transferred from the poor to the rich. (“2020 marked the steepest increase in
global billionaires’ share of wealth on record.”)
Large corporations, especially the media and tech companies, made a motza during the lockdowns. The wealthy and educated — whom I once called “the zoomocracy” — were able to work online in economic and psychological comfort. Big businesses had the space, lawyers, and consultants to make sure they stayed profitable during the lockdowns and erratic rule-changes — luxuries that no small business can afford. By contrast, the working class, if they kept their jobs at all, were expected to risk getting the virus so the wealthy could keep getting Uber Eats. The affluent set up multiple computers in their homes so that their children learned online, whereas poorer parents had to go out for work or couldn’t provide their children with reliable internet access and a quiet place to study. McDonald’s stayed open while the churches were forced shut. (Nobody buys anything at church.) When Melbournians protested against the lockdowns in 2021, they were pepper-sprayed by police. (Remember, we were all in this together, and nothing says “public safety” like pepper-spraying the people you’re meant to protect.) Not only did the mass media outlets support these noxious policies, but they also brazenly demonised critics as “anti-science,” “anti-vax,” “plague rats.”
Apart from some honourable exceptions, the left has said nothing about the corporate-government-media worldview that has boosted corporate profits by billions.
Rule by Secrecy - cui bono?
As Aldous Huxley once noted, not mentioning things can also be an incredibly effective propaganda tool.
Here are some things I did not hear from the mass media. Did you?
Did you know that Reuters gives out awards to pharmaceutical companies?
Did you know that in September 2020 The Guardian received almost $3.5m from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation?
Did you know that pharmaceutical companies donate millions of dollars to both of Australia’s political parties?
Did you know that the Australian government keeps much of its Covid-19 research and modelling secret? Professor James McCaw, head of the Infectious Dynamics Unit at the University of Melbourne, said that data were kept secret during the Delta outbreak because they didn’t support the narrative that people weren’t taking the pandemic orders seriously.
Did you know that Professor Rob Hyndman from Monash University recently wrote that “in June 2020, nearly six months after the start of COVID-19, the most recent available mortality data in Australia was from 2018. Eighteen months out of date! Think about that. For the first six months of the biggest public health event in 100 years, we had no official data on the effect of COVID-19 on Australian mortality”? He went on to say that “our forecasts were kept secret even though they were being used to make policy decisions.” Why, then, did journalists repeat the government line of “following the science” when “the science” was out of date and not open to scrutiny?
Did you know that back in 2004, Richard Horton, Editor-in-Chief of Lancet, wrote that “Journals have devolved into information-laundering operations for the pharmaceutical industry”?
Did you know that in 2009, Pfizer was forced to pay $2.3b for fraudulently marketing several drugs?
Did you know that in 2021 a Pfizer board member urged Twitter to hide the posts of Alex Berenson ofbecause they were critical of Pfizer's mRNA vaccine? Twitter suspended Mr Berenson's account.
Did you know that in 2006, Pfizer was forced to pay compensation after 11 Nigerian children died in one of its clinical trials? The company also hired private investigators, hoping to find dirt on the Nigerian attorney general Michael Aondoakaa and pressure him to drop the charges against it.
Did you know that PayPal cancelled its service to websites critical of lockdowns: Left Lockdown Sceptics and The Daily Sceptic? (It eventually restored the account for The Daily Sceptic.)
Did you know that Dr Jay Bhattacharya, a professor at Stanford University Medical School was put on a Twitter “trends blacklist” to limit the popularity of his tweets because, like his co-authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, he criticised lockdown policies?
Did you know that the journalist Peter Hitchens suspects that YouTube shadow-banned him because of his arguments against lockdowns? It turns out the “information warfare” unit of the British Army was spying on him and other lockdown sceptics.
Did you know that deaths in Australia up to September 2022 were 16% higher than the historical average? I’ve heard nothing about this from the Prime Minister, the Opposition, the state Premiers, the Chief Health Officers, the corporate media, the people who called me a “granny-killer,” and the thousands of sycophantic commentators who assured everyone they were concerned about keeping us safe. For two years our politicians and mass media reported nothing except death tolls. Why have they stopped? Is it because doing so no longer furthers political and corporate interests?
Finally, some new research suggests that Vitamin D provides very good protection against infections, including influenza and Covid-19. If true, this is great news: Vitamin D is free in sunny countries and available very cheaply elsewhere as a supplement. So why isn’t everyone talking about it? Why are Australian federal authorities preparing to recommend a fifth dose of the Covid-19 vaccine?
Is it because pharmaceutical companies can’t make huge profits from Vitamin D, and that the regulatory agencies are funded by the companies they are meant to regulate?
“Of the six regulators, Australia had the highest proportion of budget from industry fees (96%) and in 2020-2021 approved more than nine of every 10 drug company applications. Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) firmly denies that its almost exclusive reliance on pharmaceutical industry funding is a conflict of interest (COI).”
Oh, Australia’s TGA firmly denies a conflict of interest. Nothing to see here. The TGA’s Advisory Committee on Vaccines does not publish any information about the financial interests of its members. Why? That is “personal information” and therefore exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests.
Our political parties and regulatory authorities are funded by companies that are happy to corrupt public health systems while making a buck.
In sum, the ruin and chaos of the last three years have swollen corporate profits, government power, foul cronyism, media control, and ideological consensus, while demeaning anyone who expressed a hint of scepticism. With few exceptions, the left has been silent or supportive, and it’s largely been right-of-centre critics who have publicised these obscene injustices. Messrs Chomsky and Herman’s “Propaganda Model” makes good sense of all this: those with common interests and assumptions naturally agreed on a set of policies that would serve them. That these policies would inflict economic, psychological, and physical harm on others didn’t seem to matter.
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It’s also okay to agree to disagree.
With the greatest respect, this model is outdated by about 20 years. Most regime media outlets are struggling to survive. Their revenue pales in comparison to what it was before the introduction of social media. What little ad revenue that remains has been diluted by subscriber revenue and even govt subsidies. And many of the biggest news outlets are no longer owned by successful corporate media empires, with some exceptions. Many of them are owned by billionaires who regard their acquisitions as nostalgic play things.