Herman and Chomsky’s Propaganda Model offers an explanation of the processes that are involved with the production of news media. In the essay, they describe the mechanism by which mass media messages pass through a successive series of filters before they ever reach the public. In other words, the content that audiences see on Television or in newspapers is not actually an accurate representation of the original news even, but instead is a specially curated version that has been filtered and processed; only a limited subset of all news events passes through these filters and reaches mass audiences. It is important to note that the Propaganda Model only describes the structures and processes, but does not necessarily predict media effects. Furthermore, “Intent is an unmeasurable red herring,” and is not meant to be included within the model (Herman 1996).
The Propaganda Model describes a series of five filters that news media passes through. These five filters are: ownership and size of mass media, influence of advertisers, sourcing of news, flak and negative responses, and the ideology of anti-communism. These five filters influence and shape what “raw material news” actually make it into mass media, and determines what “cleansed residue” is left to print (Herman and Chomsky 63). Via these filters, Herman and Chomsky’s model “traces the routes by which money and power are able to filter out the news fit to print, marginalize dissent, and allow the government and private interests to get their messages across to the public” (63). The model is build on the fundamental premise that media corporations are industries just like any other, and as such are beholden to the basics of economics and other market forces (Herman 1996).
The Propaganda Model was initially proposed in the 1988 book Manufacturing Consent, and since then there have been significant developments in mass media technology that have considerably changed the media industries. However, many of the ideas proposed by the Propaganda Model continue to ring true. In fact, many of the filters are even more prevalent in contemporary media. Specifically in terms of the World Wide Web and online communication technologies, the notion of online participatory culture and increased democratization of mass communication are false promises. The widespread use of the Internet, in many ways, actually strengthens the effect that the five filters of the Propaganda Model may have on mass media. Even Herman acknowledges this, and states that “[l]eft to the market there is little reason to expect the Internet to serve democratic ends” (Herman 1996).
The Internet has enabled greater levels of media synergy and has developed into the newest locus of corporate consolidation of the media. Since the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, giant media conglomerates have continued to shore up power, vertically and horizontally integrating their business models to run the gamut from production through distribution. Just six studios control virtually the entire US film industry: Warner Brothers, Walt Disney Pictures, Sony Pictures, Paramount Pictures, 20th Century Fox, and Universal Pictures (Balio 7). Most, if not all, of them are also connected to media conglomerates that also own media properties in broadcast, feature movies, TV news, Internet companies, music, books, and more. This act of media consolidation connects directly to the filter of media size and ownership, as well as the filter of advertiser influence. An episode of ABC’s Blackish that deals with NFL player protests can be pulled from broadcast, possibly connected to ABC’s parent company Disney, which also owns ESPN, and has a direct interest in the NFL player protests. Mass boycotts of advertisers is seen as a way to protest statements from Fox News political pundits. In these senses, the Propaganda Model is certainly alive and well in the 21st century. To be sure, there are some filters from the original model that don’t apply in 2018 to quite the same extent they did in 1988, but they still do have some relevance. For instance, the filter of anti-communism changed significantly after the collapse of the USSR. However, the ideology of US cultural imperialism, a key component of this filter, still persists in contemporary media.
One of the primary critiques that Herman and Chomsky’s Propaganda Model initially received was that there are in fact many alternatives to mass media that may not necessarily pass through the same filters. While this is certainly the case, it is important to note that these alternatives still must operate within the context of dominant US media structures, and simply don’t have the means to compete with that established hegemony. In some cases, the dominant US mass media co-opts and fully takes over these alternative forms of media.
One example of this is within the context of “crowd-sourced” news and “citizen journalism,” through platforms such as Twitter. The micro-blogging platform started as a means for any individual to share their thoughts with a wide audience, but has since become dominated by large corporate accounts or personalities associated with traditional forms of media. It is virtually impossible for the individual “little guy” to compete with the power that established corporations already hold.
Even newcomers to the game, such as Snap Inc. end up having to play by the same rules of the Propaganda Model. Yes, the Snapchat platform offers individuals the ability to “create news events” by sharing video and photos with the world, arguably a form of citizen journalism. However, the platform still relies upon advertising revenue to remain afloat, a direct influence of Herman and Chomsky’s second filter. Furthermore, all content for public audiences is specifically reviewed and curated, further limiting what content actually makes it to mass dissemination.
So while there certainly are some alternatives to the dominance of the US news media industries, they remain stuck within the confines of the model. There have yet to be any means to fully escape the grasps of the propaganda model, or as Herman describes, “we are still waiting for [their] critics to provide a better model” (Herman 1996).
Even though the original Propaganda Model was written specifically in the context of US news media, its description of the processes of mass media can still be applied to other forms of media, such as narrative film and television.
For filter #1, ownership and size, the fact remains that many of the same companies that dominate news media also dominant Hollywood and other media outlets. For instance, Amazon operates an online movie streaming service, owns Audible.com, an audiobook service, and twitch.tv, an online game streaming platform, and its owner Jeff Bezos also controls ownership in The Washington Post. This interconnectivity of media corporations represents the continued relevance of the filter of ownership and size.
Regarding filter #2, advertising, the potential to generate profits remains a key consideration in what films and tv shows actually get produced. A new production will only be greenlit if it will make money, and one major studio boss is quotes as saying “At the end of the day, Hollywood is all about making money” (Balio 25).
Filter #3 also has an influence in Hollywood, because certain movies rely on materials sourced from outside organizations. For instance, the US Military often provides script advisers to Hollywood productions; the military will loan their expertise, and some equipment for use in films, but in exchange for exercising control over the script.
Filter #4 is closely connected to the control of money and advertising. If a film or TV show receives significant flak, advertisers and other ancillary markets will avoid the product entirely, and likely result its eventual cancellation. Again, money continues to dominate US media.
Finally, the fifth filter of anti-communism, still has some relevance. The issues of labor relations are frequently swept entirely under the rug and ignored entirely. In Hollywood’s trend of making “movies about movies,” the very real problems of labor within in the movie industry are entirely ignored, even though these issues are baked into the very language of film production, through terms such as “above the line” and “below the line” crewmembers. Perhaps more related to the fifth filter though, is the constant embedding of democracy within US media products to continue the perpetuation of US cultural imperialism. The nation’s ideologies are supported and promoted through its media, and film and TV are no exception.
In all forms of contemporary US media, whether it is news, film, or television, the filters and processes described by the Propaganda Model continue to ring true. As Herman writes, it “still seems a very workable framework for analyzing and understanding the mainstream media” (Herman 1996). Much of my own research and writing on Internet communication and new media has returned to this one central point: that while these technologies may seem new and novel, the mechanisms behind how they actually work are not necessarily as new as people tend to think, and that many of the traditional models of mass media can continue to apply.
Balio, Tino. Hollywood in the New Millennium. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
Herman, Edward. “The Propaganda Model Revisited.” Monthly Review, 1 Jan. 2018, https://monthlyreview.org/2018/01/01/the-propaganda-model-revisited/.
Herman, Edward, and Noam Chomsky. “A Propaganda Model.” Media and Cultural Studies: Key WOrks, edited by Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas Kellner, Second Edition, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 1988, pp. 204–31.