on the Mass Media
A Summary of the Propaganda Model
THE 'ANTAGONISTIC' MEDIA
The Western mass media is seen, and sees
itself, as generally antagonistic to established power. In the
recent British election, there was a debate
over whether figures in the media were displaying the proper respect
for politicians in general, and political leaders in particular,
or whether the aggressive attitude of interviewers such as the
BBC’s Jeremy Paxman was going over the top.
A classic example of the supposedly “anti-establishment”
nature of the press was the “Pentagon Papers” case,
when the New York Times published
a top secret internal history of the Vietnam War compiled by the
US Judge Gurfein, deciding in favour of press freedom in the Pentagon
Papers case (when the US government attempted to suppress the
publication of the leaked documents), declared that the United
States had ‘a cantankerous press, an obstinate press, a
ubiquitous press’, which ‘must be suffered by those
in authority in order to preserve the even greater values of freedom
of expression and the right of the people to know.’
Supreme Court Judge Powell, in another case, argued that as ‘no
individual can obtain for himself [or herself] the information
needed for the intelligent discharge of his [or her] political
responsibilities. The press performs a crucial function in effecting
the societal purpose of the First Amendment’, by enabling
the public to exert control over the political process. (1)
THE SUBSERVIENT MEDIA
For Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, two US
academics who have written extensively on the functioning of the
mass media, the ‘Free Press’ serves a rather different
‘It is the societal purpose served by state education as
conceived by James Mill in the early days of the establishment
of this system: to “train the minds of the people to a virtuous
attachment to their government”, and to the arrangements
of the social, economic, and political order more generally’.
It is the societal purpose of ‘protecting privilege from
the threat of public understanding and participation’. (2)
This purpose is achieved, according to Chomsky and Herman, through
what they describe as ‘brainwashing under freedom’.
No central authority determines ‘the party line’ and
dictates to the organs of public expression what can and cannot
Intellectual conformity is not achieved through violence or the
threat of violence, as in the Stalinist system of propaganda.
A 'GUIDED' FREE MARKET OF IDEAS
The Chomsky/Herman ‘Propaganda Model’
of the US mass media is a ‘guided free market’ model,
in which thought is controlled by market forces operating in a
highly unequal society.
Media institutions are themselves large profit-seeking corporations,
‘which are closely interlocked, and have important common
interests, with other major corporations, banks and government.’
They are also dependent on advertising revenue from other businesses,
who gain a ‘de facto licensing authority’ (James Curran
and Jean Seaton) over the mass media. (4)
Complementing these and other institutional factors at the ‘macro’
level is the process of education, selection, and cooption, by
which individual reporters become attuned to the dominant ideology.
Recruitment to a mass media organisation is predicated on the
candidate possessing the ‘right’ attitudes.
For those few who, once recruited, display an unacceptable independence
of mind, pressures are soon brought to bear to help them develop
a politically correct set of ‘news values’.
Much the same is true in academia, Chomsky observes:
‘To put it in the simplest terms, a talented young journalist
or a student aiming for a scholarly career can choose to play
the game by the rules, with the prospect of advancement to a position
of prestige and privilege and sometimes even a degree of power;
or to choose an independent path, with the likelihood of a minor
post as a police reporter or in a community college, exclusion
from major journals, vilification and abuse, or driving a taxi
Given such choices, ‘the end result is not very surprising.’
Another, ‘supportive’, factor is ‘elemental
patriotism’ - ‘the overwhelming wish to think well
of ourselves, our institutions and our leaders’. (6)
BRAINWASHING UNDER FREEDOM
Chomsky argues that thought control in free
societies is most effectively achieved when, rather than setting
down a single party line to be followed, the institutions of indoctrination
set down the boundaries of acceptable opinion, and then allow
debate to flourish within these confines:
‘in a properly functioning system of propaganda... [debate
should not be stilled] because it has a system-reinforcing character
if constrained within proper bounds.’
What is essential is to set the bounds firmly. ‘Controversy
may rage as long as it adheres to the presuppositions that define
the consensus of elites, and it should furthermore be encouraged
within these bounds, thus helping to establish these doctrines
as the very condition of thinkable thought while reinforcing the
belief that freedom reigns.’ (7)
Thus, in the case of the Vietnam War, the
official version was that US intervention was needed to defend
the Republic of South Vietnam against its aggressive, Communist,
When the ‘Pentagon Papers’, the US government’s
own history of the Vietnam War, were leaked in 1972, those US
citizens who cared to know learned that when Washington determined
on its major escalation of the war in February 1965, US intelligence
know of no regular North Vietnamese units in South Vietnam; and
five months later, while implementing the plan to deploy 85,000
troops, there was only concern about the ‘increasing probability’
of such units in South Vietnam or Laos. (8)
‘In the light of these facts,’ Chomsky observes, ‘the
discussion of whether the US was defending South Vietnam from
an “armed attack” from the North - the official US
government position - is ludicrous.’ (9)
Nevertheless, this ‘ludicrous’ assertion, converted
into an unquestioned assumption, continues to govern discussion
of the Vietnam War in the United States and elsewhere in the West.
Mainstream debate turns on whether it was wise to attempt to defend
The notion that the United States did not defend the people of
South Vietnam, but rather attacked them, does not figure even
as a theoretical possibility.
A Pentagon analyst, writing in the Pentagon Papers, noted that
South Vietnam was ‘essentially the creation of the United
States’. (10) This ‘creation’ of the United
States was the allegedly ‘legitimate local authority’
which invited US military intervention.
Chomsky cites the observation of the London Economist
in connection with Afghanistan, ‘an invader is an invader
unless invited in by a government with a claim to legitimacy’.
He comments, ‘outside the world of Newspeak, the client
regime established by the United States had no more legitimacy
than the Afghan regime established by the USSR.’ (11)
The power of the US propaganda system is demonstrated by the extraordinary
uniformity of articulate US opinion with regard to Vietnam.
This is another example of what Chomsky has termed ‘Orwell’s
Problem’. In philosophy, ‘Plato’s Problem’
is how, given so little evidence of the world as we grow up, we
end up knowing so much about it.
What Chomsky calls ‘Orwell’s
Problem’ is ‘the problem of explaining how we can
know so little, given that we have so much evidence.’
George Orwell was concerned with the power of totalitarian systems
to instill beliefs that were firmly held and widely accepted despite
being without foundation, ‘and often plainly at variance
with obvious facts about the world around us.’
Herman and Chomsky comment:
‘That the media provide some information
about an issue... proves absolutely nothing about the adequacy
or accuracy of media coverage. The media do in fact suppress a
great deal of information, but even more important is the way
they present a particular fact - its placement, tone, and frequency
of repetition - and the framework of analysis in which it is placed.’
They explain that, ‘the enormous amount
of material that is produced in the media and books makes it possible
for a really assiduous and committed researcher to gain a fair
picture of the real world by cutting through the mass of misrepresentation
and fraud to the nuggets hidden within.’ (13)
‘That a careful reader, looking for
a fact can sometimes find it, with diligence and a skeptical eye,
tells us nothing about whether that fact received the attention
and context it deserved, whether it was intelligible to most readers,
or whether it was effectively distorted or suppressed.’
Chomsky sums up many years of work, with
collaborators and associates, by suggesting that ‘thousands
of pages of detailed documentation’ have demonstrated ‘beyond
any reasonable doubt’ that in democratic societies too,
‘the doctrines of the state religion are firmly implanted
and widely believed, in utter defiance of plain fact, particularly
by the intelligentsia who construct and propagate these doctrines.’(15)
Throughout his career, Chomsky has insisted
that ‘the level of culture that can be achieved in the United
States is a life-and-death matter for large masses of suffering
The level of honesty and decency in US society
- the commitment of the general public to the weak form of Enlightenment
values - can restrain US interventionism.
The more that the general public pierces
the fog of propaganda and comes to understand the realities of
US foreign policy, the more vocal and widespread is the dissent,
and the more constrained US policy makers become, sometimes with
enormous benefits for potential victims in far-off lands.
Furthermore, unless and until the general
public is able to break free from ‘brainwashing under freedom’,
hopes for a revitalised left-wing movement able to replace present
institutions with more humane alternatives must be rather dim.
Therefore, Chomsky urges, ‘For
those who stubbornly seek freedom, there can be no more urgent
task than to come to understand the mechanisms and practices of
What is needed is what Chomsky calls ‘intellectual
self-defence’ by the general public against the media
and the state.
For more material by Noam Chomsky, visit
his official website.
To order Milan Rai’s Chomsky’s
Politics, if you are in the UK, send an SAE and a cheque for £12
to ‘JNV’, 29 Gensing Road, St Leonards on Sea, East
Sussex, TN38 0HE.
1. Cited in Anthony Lewis, ‘Freedom of the Press - Anthony
Lewis distinguishes between Britain and America’, London
Review of Books, 26 November 1987, cited in Noam Chomsky, Necessary
Illusions (London, Pluto Press, 1989, also available online <http://www.zmag.org/chomsky/ni/ni-contents.html>),
2. Necessary Illusions, pp. 13, 14.
3. Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The
Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York, Pantheon, 1988),
4. James Curran and Jean Seaton, Power without Responsibility:
The Press and Broadcasting in Britain (London, Methuen, 1985,
2nd ed.), p. 31.
5. Noam Chomsky, Towards a New Cold War, p. 14.
6. Manufacturing Consent, p. 305.
7. Necessary Illusions, p. 48.
8. Noam Chomsky, ‘The Pentagon Papers as propaganda and
as history’, in Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, eds., The
Pentagon Papers: The Senator Gravel Edition, vol. V: Critical
Essays (Boston, Beacon Press, 1972), p. 195.
9. Chomsky, ‘The Pentagon Papers as propaganda and as history’,
10. Cited in Towards a New Cold War, p. 376 n. 27.
11.The Chomsky Reader, p. 225.
12 Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, ‘Propaganda Mill: The
Media Churn Out the “Official Line” ’, The Progressive,
June 1988, p. 15. This article was a summary of their book Manufacturing
13 Towards a New Cold War, p. 14.
14 Herman and Chomsky, ‘Propaganda Mill’, p. 15.
15. Noam Chomsky, Knowledge of Language: Its nature, origin, and
use (Praeger, 1986), pp. xxv, xxvi.
16. Noam Chomsky, American Power and the New Mandarins (London,
Penguin/Pelican, 1971), p. 249.
17. The Chomsky Reader, p. 136.
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