Saturday, August 13, 2011

Why Is The Propaganda Model Controversial

How should the media function in our society and how does it function? There are two views typically expressed within the media. One is that the media is adversarial and iconoclastic and that this is how it should be. It's fulfilling it's traditional Jeffersonian role. That is it serves as a check on power. It exposes corruption and evil. It's true that this can sometimes weaken power and weaken American interests in the short term, but it's necessary to have that exposure in an open democratic society.

The other view is that yes, the media is adversarial and iconoclastic, but this is a bad thing. Or at least they go too far. They shouldn't bash America, criticize our behavior, expose our weaknesses, etc because America is really the beacon of light in the world. This kind of criticism undermines our prestige and diminishes our ability to act for the good of the world.

The former view is regarded as the left/liberal view within the media and the latter view is more the right/conservative view. So take an issue like Vietnam. Sure the media was critical. But that's what we need, says the left. Questioning power and criticizing America was what we should have been doing. No, says the right. They were very critical. But this harmed American interests. Perhaps we would have succeeded in Vietnam if the press weren't so adversarial.

These two views start from the same assumption. The media in fact is adversarial and contrary to power. Both sides recognize that they act this way for what they perceive to be the good of democracy.

What's not discussed is the fact that there is a third view. A view that doesn't share the assumption. This view is that in fact the media are not adversarial. In fact they are subservient to power. And in fact they function to serve the interests of power and wealth at the expense of democracy. This view is known as the Propaganda Model.

If you really want to know which view is right you have to look at the actual media product. Chomsky, Herman, and others have done a lot of that. It's a lot of work and it's subject to an important criticism. When you are looking at these kinds of questions in the social sciences anyone can charge you with picking examples that support your point while excluding others that undermine your point. So what Chomsky and Herman do is they do their best to allow their critics to choose the examples. Supposedly Vietnam and Watergate show that the media is adversarial, so Chomsky and Herman focus on these. In my view their case is convincing. Even these examples adhere very well to the propaganda model and do not at all conform to the typically expressed view that the media is adversarial.

But I don't want to focus on the evidence here. I want to just articulate a view expressed by Chomsky in a lecture he offered years ago called Thought Control in a Democratic Society (which also makes the same points I make above). When I explain these views, some critics react as if this is very bizarre, like it's a conspiracy theory. It obviously sounds very foreign to them. Why is that? I would think that people would regard it as plausible, or even likely just based on background knowledge. Consider the following three points.

Number one, political elites openly advocate on behalf of a media that functions precisely as the PM describes it. Some good examples of this advocacy can be viewed at the chapter 1 notes on Understanding Power starting at 38. Let me offer a couple of excerpts from Edward Bernays, the founder of Public Relations (and person responsible for pioneering the idea of invoking the Communist menace as a means of rallying public opinion behind the violent overthrow of unfavored governments).
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.

More from Bernays:
[R]egard for men in the mass rests upon no democratic dogmatisms about men being the best judges of their own interests.

[The spread of schooling] did not release the masses from ignorance and superstition but altered the nature of both and compelled the development of a whole new technique of control, largely through propaganda . . . [which] attains eminence as the one means of mass mobilization which is cheaper than violence, bribery or other possible control techniques . . . [and] is no more moral or immoral than a pump handle. . . . [It is] certain that propaganda will in time be viewed with fewer misgivings.

So that's the first point. Political elites openly advocate that the media function as the Propaganda Model suggests. The second point is that this is that this is precisely what you would expect based merely on recognition of who the media is and who they serve.

So what is the media? That is, what is the major, agenda setting media, like the NY Times or the network news? These are major corporations. Some are subsidiaries of even larger mega corporations. And who are their customers? It's not the viewers or readers. That's not the customer. That's the product. That's what's being sold. The customers are the advertisers. Who are they? Once again major corporations. This is a tiny, extremely wealthy sector of our society. So without even looking at the media product, what kind of a picture of the world would we expect to emerge from an institution that is itself major corporations and has major corporations as a customer base? Would we expect a cantankerous, obstinate, Jeffersonian institution seeking to undermine power and serve democratic interests? No. We'd expect a product that serves the interests of the tiny number of wealthy owners and advertisers. That expectation is based on basic free market assumptions just from looking at incentives.

Thirdly, and perhaps more tentatively, we might ask what the public thinks. Does the public view the media as adversarial or subservient to power? Some polls show that large majorities in fact think the media is too too subservient to power.

You wouldn't conclude that the propaganda model is true based on these three points. But what you would expect is that it would at least be part of the discussion. And yet it's not. The views expressed range from the media is adversarial and we need it to be such to the view that it's too adversarial. This in fact is even more reason to conclude that the PM is correct even before looking to the evidence. Why is that?

Because the PM actually predicts that the model would not be part of the mainstream discussion. The reason is because it's dysfunctional. On the PM the role of the media is to undermine democracy and serve power. To expose that would be to undermine the ability of the media to fulfill it's role. The system filters out dysfunctional elements. So if the model is true it will be expelled. If it's false you wouldn't expect it to be discussed. So it's not going to be discussed.

The mark of a good model is that it can predict behavior that would otherwise be unexpected on an alternative model. That's what the PM does. And yet many people that I know react to the PM like it's some sort of bizarre conspiracy theory. Why?

Is it the power of the echo chamber? Since you never hear discussion of the PM in mainstream sources, but only hear the other views, the PM sounds implausible. I wonder if people don't trust themselves to think things through, so they just repeat what they always hear.

Or maybe it's just the fact that I know a lot of right wingers, and this is too threatening to their worldview. Or maybe my contacts in the debating world are adversarial people and they react negatively instinctively. Maybe if I broadened my circle of contacts I'd see other reactions. Perhaps I'll experiment with that.

No comments: