PHL101: Critical Thinking, Reports
Reports: Herman and Chomsky's Theory
Herman and Chomsky's Model
1. Size, Ownership, and Profit Orientation of the Corporate/Mass
- Herman and Chomsky argue that media functions as a way
to integrate people into the institutions of their larger
society. Our society, they also claim, is one in which there
are vast concentrations of wealth. To get people who are
not benefitted, and who in fact are largely harmed, by this
system to support this system, the media must play a very
strong propoganda role.
- Here, "propoganda" means some kind of bias in the
way the media present information. H & C are arguing that
such a bias is necessary, since we would otherwise not
support many of the institutions of our society.
- In nations with dictatorships, propoganda is easily
organized through centralized state-controlled media. In
a private ownership model like our own, propoganda instead
is organized through the common interests of the owners of
- H & C will therefore present a "propoganda model."
We can think of this as a theory which can be evaluated
by the standards of scientific theory as we discussed in
our last section.
- The propoganda model aims to explain how in a culture
with vast wealth inequalities (a plutocracy), the media are
used to create support for the policies that benefit the
wealthy. We will call this the Herman and Chomsky Model,
or the Herman and Chomsky Theory.
- In what follows, I will describe the model in their
own terms. We must evaluate it as best we can using our
standards of what makes for good theory.
- This theory is built on the claim that there are five
filters or elements of privately owned concentrated media
that shape the information they portray in a way favorable
to the owners. These five filters are:
- Size, Ownership, and Profit Orientation of the
- Advertising as Primary Income Source.
- Reliance on Official and "Expert" Sources.
- Flak. This is constant complaining that
the media is not subservient enough.
- "Anticommunism" as a central rallying point.
Given the end of the cold war, this is obviously a dated
claim. H&C would argue instead that is required is some
enemy. The obvious alternative today is terrorism. So,
we can understand this claim to be more generally that there
is always one or more enemies that we are asked to rally
2. Advertising as Primary Income Source
- H&C claim that it has become more capital intensive
to own and produce mass media.
- Evidence of this includes the history of English printing,
where the cost of starting a newspaper and the subscription needs
to break even have steadily increased over time.
- Along with these costs, there has been a reduction in the
number of media companies from thousands to literally a handful
(things got much more concentrated after H&C wrote this book).
- Concentration alone does not express the effect of a small
group sufficiently, they argue, because it is also true that
most of the media outlets follow the lead of others, such as the
New York Times. Consolidation in the top tier media
is even more intense.
- The owners and leaders of these companies are few, very
wealthy, and highly integrated with other media and other
- These companies are very dependent upon the government
for their licenses.
3. Reliance on Official and "Expert" Sources
- Media that get no or little advertising cost
much more than those which have advertising, and so
they are at a great disadvantage in the marketplace.
- Advertising also favors media that targets
primarily people who buy as lot of things.
- Note example of English Daily Herald,
a working-class newspaper with circulation far
greater than the alternatives, but with little
advertising. It went out of business and the smaller
circulation papers survived on their advertising.
- Advertisers will also avoid media that do
not have values consistent with their own. For example,
they discourage and will punish shows that are critical
- News media rely on "official sources" becuase it
is cheaper and more practical to do so.
- Media also have an interest in supporting and
perpetuating the idea that official sources now best, in part
because they portray themselves as a kind of official source
and as a way to access official sources.
- The government and other "official" sources also
spend huge resources on creating material for the media.
- NOTE: a recent development has been the creation of
fake news by the Executive.
- Corporations also have vast resources to create and
disseminate favorable stories.
- Corporations and the Government thus subsidize
the media by providing them with free content. This content
is of course very favorable to the corporations or the government.
- The media also depends on a small number of "experts."
These are often the products of "think tanks," which are funded
by corporations. These think tanks have pro-Corporate agendas,
and provide "experts" who defend that agenda.
5. "Anticommunism" as a central rallying point.
- Flak is coordinated complaining about supposed bias
in the media.
- H&C claim that there is a great deal of flak generated
by the elite and corporate agenda meant to continually push
the media towards their view, and to punish the media for not
defending their view with sufficient vigor.
- The point about flak is that the producers of flak are
never satisfied. It is their goal to continually push
things ever more towards their view.
- As noted, this is obviously a very dated claim. However,
I think we can understand H&C as providing a more general
point which may still be true, even if anti-communism is
passe: some central and very demonized enemy
is extremely helpful in controlling discourse. In our day,
this is obviously terrorism.
- The benefit of a highly demonized enemy, that one can
exaggerate the threat of continuously, is that you can paint
any disagreements as being pro- or con- the enemy. That is,
those who disagree with some policy can be painted as pro-
or weak on communism. Even if ridiculous, this puts those
individuals on the defensive.
- Note this from the New York Times Book Review,
last week (October 30). It could be interpreted as a good example of
this phenomenon; speaking of the debate over the Iraq war,
James Traub wrote:
The debate inside the left is of course a very different
one, but also involves an absolutism that will not take
account of individual cases. The absolutism, in this
case, is an abhorrence of American power -- an abhorrence
greatly magnified by hatred of George W. Bush and all his
works. The journalist Ian Buruma, though not a supporter
war, has accused the fashioanble left of practicing a form
of moral racism, in which the brutalities of the West
provoke outrage but the far greater crimes of the third-world
monsters like Saddam Hussein are passed over in silence. (8)
Setting aside that this is a tu quoque fallacy, and the
problem that it is unclear what "the left" is, note that "the
left" is now put in the position by Traub of having to deny
that they were or are soft on Hussein. This is like being put
in the position that you must now explain whether or not you
are weak on crime -- the very discussion can serve to taint
someone in many people's minds.
It is worth noting that Chomsky, considered by many to be a
leading thinker on the left, always and consistently denounced
Saddam Hussein, and never once wrote a favorable word about
him, even when Hussein was an ally of the United States and
receiving favorable press in the U.S. and from the
U.S. government. That is, it is plausible (and my own limited
experience tells me that it is the case) that the situation is
exactly the opposite of what Traub here claims; if we could
agree on what "the left" is we could test this. But if H & C
are correct, this is not the point. Traub is not serving to
make testable claims, but merely put opposing views on the
Testing the Model
- H & C explicitly argue that they are not proposing
a conspiracy theory. There is nothing hidden about what
the media do, nor about why they do it.
- C has put it elsewhere like this: if someone said the
board of General Motors acts to further the ends of the owners
of General Motors, no one would call this a conspiracy. So,
why accuse the H&C model of being a conspiracy when they argue
that the corporate media will make decisions which will help
- How might we test the H & C model? H & C claim that
the propoganda model predicts that there will be highly
dichomotized coverage in the media, treating essentially
similar events differently when different descriptions
help the elites.
- For example, there will be some victims of state
power who's suffering, if we know about it, will further
elite ends. There will also be those who's suffering,
if we know about it, will harm elite ends. We can predict
that the former will receive much sympathetic attention,
and the latter will be ignored or downplayed.
- As another example: if there were two elections, one
which was helpful to the interests of the elite, and another
which was harmful to the elite, then we can expect the former
to be portrayed in a positive way, and the latter in a negative
- H & C test these two predictions in the chapters that
- Another prediction that we might make, which H & C do not
stress, is that individuals or policies that are beneficial to
the elite but which then become a problem will receive changing
media coverage. It would be interesting, for example, to look
at coverage of the crimes of Manuel Noriega or Saddam Hussein
when each was an ally of the United States, and then when they
were official enemies. H & C's model would predict that their
actions would be put in a favorable light or at least ignored
when they were allies, but then when they became enemies these
actions would be describe frequently in very negative terms.
Is this the case? Check and see.
I. Two Kinds of Political Killings
II. Third World Elections
- H & C contrast the murder of a Polish priest, during the
time when Poland was a Soviet Satellite, with 100 murders of
clergy and other religious figures in Latin America in roughly
the same period. These latter killings include the murder of
an archbishop in El Salvador, and the rape, torture, and murder
of four Catholic missionaries in El Salvador. According to
their hypothesis, the Catholic Priest in Poland will be a
worthy victim, and the victims of U.S. client states in Central
America will be unworthy victims; the coverage should show this.
- Qualitative Differences
- Popieluszko's murder and suffering are described
in great detail. There is no such description offered
for the death of the Latin American figures.
- Investigation into Popieluszko's murder is phrased
in terms of a need to show that responsibility goes
up to the highest levels of government. There is no
such call for such accountability in the Latin American
- In the case of Romero, much coverage describes
the government as trying to restrain death squads.
There are no articles describing the Polish government
as trying to restrain rogue Police.
- Romero blamed the violence in El Salvador on
the army and government. Press coverage describes
his as denouncing both the left and right.
- The truly incredible barbarism of the murder
of GAM activists is back-paged with few articles.
- Quantitative Differences
- H & C use the New York Times, Time,
Newsweek and CBS News as their reference
- Coverage in number of articles and
column inches is about 2:1 for Popieluszko
versus all 100 victims that they
identify in Central America. The ratio
of coverage of Popieluszko to Archbishop
Oscar Romero is more than 5:1 in terms of
both articles numbers and column inches.
The coverage of Popieluszko versus leaders
of the Guatemalan human rights movement
is at a rati of 16:1.
- There are no editorials in the NYT
denouncing the murder of any of the Latin
American religious figures, but three
denouncing the murder of Popieluszko.
- Herman and Chomsky claim that their model predicts
that elections which are held in nations favored by
the United States will receive favorable press, and
those held by nations opposed by the United States
will receive negative press, regardless of the conditions.
- They use as their test case El Salvador 1982 and
Guatemala in 1984-85 as elections in regimes supported
by the U.S., and Nicaragua 1984 as elections opposed
by the U.S.
- They do three things: describe the narrative or
explanation the government gave the media and which the
media adopted; describe the relative conditions in
El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua in the 1980s; and
examine relative U.S. media treatment.
- The Official Story
- In favored states elections are described
in the following way:
- The fact that there is any election
under conditions of adversity
is an impressive steps towards democracy
- Opposition to the election or the
election parties is opposition to democracy
- Voter turnout becomes the grand measure
of the success of democracy, even if voting
- There is no discussion of necessary
conditions for free elections: freedom of
speech, freedom to assemble, freedom of press,
freedom to organize, absence of terror.
- There is no clear discussion of the
purpose of the elections
- In opposed states elections are described
in the following way:
- The first three conditions above no longer
apply: it is not impressive that there is an
election, opposition is not portrayed as disruptive,
and voter turnout is treated as insignificant.
- Opposition groups must be given free and
full access to the political process, regardless
of the policies of those groups (a standard not
used in the case of favored states).
- Herman and Chomsky argue that the media freely and fully
adopt and endorse and report from the perspective of these two
- Free Speech.
- El Salvador: right to free speech was officially suspended in a state of war. Many thousands of
civilians were seized, tortured, mutilated, murdered and then their bodies put on display for exercising free
speech if they disagreed with the government policies.
- Guatemala: Many thousands of civilians were seized, tortured, mutilated, murdered and then their
bodies put on display for exercising free speech if they disagreed with the government policies. Many villages
were destroyed and then "resettled" into controlled "strategic" villages where speech was closely monitored.
- Nicaragua: there is no evidence of official state suppression of free speech, though there was
some public suppression of free speech. There were no state murders of civilians.
- Freedom of the Press.
- El Salvador: leading opposition newspaper was closed when editor and two employees were
seized, tortured, mutilated, and murdered. Second opposition newspaper was closed when army destroyed
its plant. Catholic Church radio was frequently bombed. Thirty journalists were murdered.
- Guatemala: fourty eight journalists were murdered in seven years before the election.
- Nicaragua: no reported killings of journalists. Several opposition newspapers existed.
- Freedom to Organize
- El Salvador: all opposition unions and student organizations were destroyed. The popular
desire is for a peace movement, and none of the official candidates endorse this position.
- Guatemala: all opposition unions and student organizations were destroyed. The popular
desire is for a peace movement, and none of the official candidates endorse this position.
- Nicaragua: there was a growth in union and peasant organizations.
- Freedom from Fear
- El Salvador: death squads operated with impunity. Seven hundred civilians a month
were killed by death squads in the 30 months leading up to the election.
- Guatemala: tens of thousands of Mayan peasants were murdered in the years before
the election. Tens of thousands were resettled in "strategic villages" controlled by militia.
- Nicaragua: there are no reports of terror as a control tactic prior to the election.
- Voting was required in El Salvador and Guatemala, making turn-out measures irrelevant. Voting
was not required in Nicaragua.
- Qualitative Differences
- El Salvadoran election coverage describes leftist disruption but does
not cite any rebel source to confirm that this is their avowed goal.
No polling places are bombed or attacked. Voter turnout is called a
"triumph" by CBS, even though it is required by law (a fact not mentioned).
- Election coverage of Guatemalan election calls victor a civilian leader.
All the violence prior to the election is not described as coercion.
- Election coverage of Nicaragua does not mention that although voting
was not mandatory, the turnout was higher per capita than in El Salvador
where voting was required. Negative language is adopted (Time: "Something
of an anticlimax"). The coverage of the opposition rebels (the Contra)
was the opposite of the coverage in El Salvador and Guatemala: the Contra
urged that people not vote, and this was not described as a disruption of
- Quantitative Differences
- H&C examine the coverage in the New York Times, counting articles and
percentages that cover positions compatible and incompatible with the H&C model
regarding the Nicaraguan and El Salvador elections.
Example findings include:
- There were 0 articles describing rebel disruption of Nicaraguan
election, but 15 (53.6%) on rebel disruption of El Salvadoran.
- There were 0 articles describing limits on ability to become a
candidate in El Salvador election, and 11 (52.4%) describing such
impediments for Nicaragua.
- There were 0 articles describing limits on free press in El
Salvador election, and 6 (28.6%) describing such impediments for
- H&C believe that these kinds of quantitative factors would be found over
all the major media.
- A Question: if H&C's theory does have predictive power, then we could consider
if it predicts coverage of other elections. For example, was coverage of the election
in Iraq different than the coverage of the election and
referendum in Venezuala?