The Century of Propaganda
by Michael Barker
"When the twentieth century becomes history it will be seen as distinctive, I believe, for three developments in liberal Western societies: the growth of democracy; the rise of huge concentrations of economic power, known as corporations; and the professionalizing and institutionalizing of propaganda, especially as a means for safe-guarding the power of free-enterprise corporations against democracy. Perhaps our period will eventually be known as the Century of Propaganda."
—Alex Carey - 1987.
(Swans - March 23, 2009) For many on the Left, it is readily apparent that the American mass media manufactures public consent for elite interests. At a push, many of the citizens of the United States might also agree with this conclusion, although having been thoroughly misled by the media, half believe that the media manufactures consent for liberal, not conservative interests. (1) Either way it would not be surprising if the general public, let alone progressive activists, identified the media as having an influential antidemocratic role in shaping American culture and politics. So given the commonsensical notion that the corporate-dominated mass media serves their elitist owners' best interests, not those of progressives, I was surprised to read that Professor G. William Domhoff's advice to the Left was to "Stop Blaming the Media!" -- a name he used for an article that was based upon a chapter in his book Changing The Powers That Be: How The Left Can Stop Losing and Win (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003). (2) This news was all the more surprising to me because Professor Domhoff is an influential critical theorist, and a pioneer of power elite research, authoring many seminal texts, two of his earliest being Who Rules America? and The Higher Circles (first published in 1967 and 1970, respectively).
Being a supporter of both Domhoff's power elite work and Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky's classic book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (Parthenon, 1988), I was therefore interested in trying to comprehend why Domhoff would counsel the Left to stop blaming the media for their problems. While I agreed with many of the points Domhoff made in his article, I found myself in total disagreement with most of his conclusions, especially his final one that suggested that the mass media with due "cultivation" could "be used to good effect on many issues" by the Left. This article will therefore provide a critical analysis of Domhoff's views on the Left's future relations with the mainstream media. (3)
Domhoff starts off his essay by noting that "[a]s horrible as the media can be, they are not the problem." On this point I agree with Domhoff: capitalism is the root problem, not the media per se, but he then went on to add:
Blaming the media becomes an excuse for not considering the possibility that much of the leftist program is unappealing to most people -- third parties, calls for a planned non-market economy, the use of violent tactics by some groups, and a tendency to rely on charismatic leaders. None of these has any appeal to average Americans, and it is not the media that created this negative reaction.
He also suggests that the tendency amongst activists to blame the media "reinforces tendencies toward conspiratorial thinking," which undermines the type of "creative thinking" that is necessary to enable activists to think "about how to make use of the media as part of strategic nonviolent campaigns." On most of these points I found myself strongly disagreeing with Domhoff.
No doubt Domhoff is correct in maintaining that the Left's programs for egalitarian social change are unappealing to the majority of the public, but surely this is because many people have no idea what the Left's programs actually are -- this is in spite of the fact that they have been clearly articulated (for one obvious example see the Green Party of the United States policy platform). (4) Indeed, surely one cannot blame anarchist groups for their total misrepresentation in the mainstream media, which has seen anarchy falsely equated with chaos and violence. (5) I would assert that it is near on impossible to present (let alone consistently present) progressive leftist programs in an appealing way within any organ of capitalist hegemony. So while Domhoff locates the root problem in Leftist policies, not the media, I would suggest that both are equally important in comprehending the weaknesses of the Left.
Fundamental structural weaknesses of the Left, which include the ongoing co-option and channelling of dissent into harmless directions by liberal philanthropists (a topic covered within Domhoff's own research), help to explain why progressives have been unable to counter the tide of repressive and regressive neoliberal policies washing over the world. Yet the mainstream media, from both conservative (e.g., the neoconservative Weekly Standard) and so-called liberal outlets (e.g., the Public Broadcasting System), has also played a vital role in pacifying the Left.
The media defines which voices will be heard in the public sphere, and which will be marginalized -- but the media cannot fully silence anyone, as they are still "free" to converse with the population through other means. Thus radical voices proposing viable alternatives to capitalism are, as might be expected, filtered out from the mainstream media, while the voices of those groups and individuals speaking in tones that harmonise with corporate interests are transmitted via the media with varying degrees of success. This filtering process helps explain why the not-too-critical voice of Human Rights Watch -- whose numerous advisory boards are stocked with members of the power elite -- resonates so well with the corporate media. Furthermore, it is ironic that Domhoff draws his readers' attention to the problems of the use of violence and charismatic leaders by the Left, when both traits are regarded as must-haves by the ever-selective media outlets, even if they are not features that are highly regarded by many grassroots activists. (6)
Domhoff contends that "When activists complain about the nature of media coverage, they are actually demanding that the media abandon an independent journalistic stance and champion their cause by reporting what they want reported." Again I agree with this in part, but I do not think that many progressive activists would actually make a demand for the media to "abandon an independent journalistic stance." This is because there is also no such thing as truly independent journalism, and it is false to impute that the mainstream media outlets are independent in the first place (they are simply corporations that cater to other corporate political elite interests). Here it is worth briefly quoting British-based media watchdog group Media Lens on the issue of the myth of objective or value-free journalism:
We believe that media "neutrality" is a deception that often serves to hide systematic pro-corporate bias. "Neutrality" most often involves "impartially" reporting dominant establishment views, while ignoring all non-establishment views. In reality it is not possible for journalists to be neutral -- regardless of whether we do or do not overtly give our personal opinion, that opinion is always reflected in the facts we choose to highlight or ignore. While we seek to correct corporate distortions as honestly as possible, our concern is not to affect some spurious "objectivity" but to engage with the world to do whatever we can to reduce suffering and to resist the forces that seek to subordinate human well-being to profit. We do not believe that passively observing human misery without attempting to intervene constitutes "neutrality." We do not believe that "neutrality" can ever be deemed more important than doing all in our power to help others. (7)
That said, it would be desirable to promote a form of journalism that represents citizens' actual needs as opposed to a journalism dedicated to manufacturing their "needs" (as dictated by the advertising industry), and their consent (or quiescence) for elitist policies.
With regard to the "general leftist view of the media," which is perhaps best summarised by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky's propaganda model, Domhoff basically suggests that "[t]here is a little something to be said for each part of this overall analysis, but taken as a whole it greatly overstates the case." Yet surely part of the power of such explanatory media models lies in the additive function that results when the news that's fit to print (or screen) must pass through a number of ideological filters. Furthermore, Domhoff believes that the "general leftist view of the media" "ignores the many openings that are available to left activists when they learn how to use the media for their own purposes," and consequently overlooks such activists' ability to bypass the media on some occasions. But here he is overstating the predictive capabilities of media models like the propaganda model. Indeed, as Herman himself points out:
We never claimed that the propaganda model explained everything or that it shows media omnipotence and complete effectiveness in manufacturing consent. It is a model of media behavior and performance, not of media effects. We explicitly pointed to the existence of alternative media, grassroots information sources, and public scepticism about media truthfulness as important limits on media effectiveness in propaganda service, and we urged the support and more vigorous use of the existing alternatives. Both Chomsky and I have often pointed to the general public's persistent refusal to fall into line with the media and elite over the morality of the Vietnam War, the desirability of the assault on Nicaragua in the 1980s, and the merits of the North American Free Trade Agreement in the 1990s, among other matters. The power of the U.S. propaganda system lies in its ability to mobilize an elite consensus, to give the appearance of democratic consent, and to create enough confusion, misunderstanding and apathy in the general population to allow elite programs to go forward. We also emphasized the fact that there are often differences within the elite that open up space for some debate and even occasional (but very rare) attacks on the intent as well as the tactical means of achieving elite ends.
Few media critics would ever suggest that activists are unable to exploit the media under certain circumstances. Simply put, when progressive activists learn how to conform to conventional media news values they will almost always generate more positive media coverage, but the question remains: what overall effect does such "learning" cost to progressive activism more generally? Having written about liberal foundations, Domhoff himself should be fully conversant with the fact that the odds are stacked against progressive forces trying to beat capitalism at its own game, which is what makes his take on progressive media relations so hard to fathom. (8)
It is important to note that there is no reason why leftist media criticisms, most notably the propaganda model, should -- as Domhoff suggests -- encourage "conspiratorial thinking," because as Herman clearly restated in 2003, the "propaganda model describes a decentralized and nonconspiratorial market system of control and processing." (9) Consequently, it is ironic that Jeffrey Klaehn observes how:
Herman and Chomsky's (1988) view of media as an ideological apparatus for dominant elites mirrors the thesis put forth by William Domhoff (1979) in his book, The Powers That Be: Processes of Ruling Class Domination in America (published nine years before Manufacturing Consent). Domhoff contends that there are four basic processes through which the ruling capitalist class "rules": (1) the special interest process; (2) the policy formation process; (3) candidate selection; and (4) the ideological process. (10)
Returning to Domhoff's article, he observes that although media corporations are primarily profit-maximising machines (like all other corporations) "there are nonetheless differences on some issues between media executives and corporate leaders that can be exploited." Without citing evidence he then goes on to suggest that "leaders in the mass media tend to be more moderate on foreign policy and domestic issues than corporate executives," a point he follows by saying that with regard to environmental issues "media pros hold the same views as people from liberal organizations." This point is interesting as there may well be similarities in environmental thinking between some green groups and media corporate leaders -- although perhaps not for the same reason of which Domhoff is thinking. This is because many of the leading liberal US-based environmental organizations already work closely with the corporate world to campaign for free-market solutions to environmental problems. (11) However, even if Domhoff was referring to some of the more progressive environmental groups, there is still plenty of evidence -- which I have outlined elsewhere -- to demonstrate that mainstream media coverage of environmental issues fits closely with Herman and Chomsky's manufacturing consent thesis. Moreover, in his footnotes Domhoff provides "evidence on how useful the media have been in the anti-sweatshop movement" by citing the "first two chapters of Randy Shaw, Reclaiming America: Nike, clean air, and the new national activism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999." Yet the media coverage of sweatshop issues was not as positive as first meets the eye:
After a long history of labour abuse in sweatshops worldwide, it was only in the mid 1990s that the issue started receiving serious attention in the US mass media (coinciding with a couple of high profile sweatshop investigations). Contrary to "normal" social movement coverage, analysis of this coverage showed that sweatshop activists actually "achieved a position of definitional prominence" over corporate interests, a position typically reserved for powerful institutional actors. This was a remarkable achievement, however, this success was undermined by the media's dominant focus on micro-level issues, such as individual sweatshops, and their aversion to the discussion of the systemic structural inequalities supporting the use of sweatshops. Media coverage also located the root of the problem in western consumer shopping activities, not at the doorstep of the businesses profiting from the use of sweatshops, which served to cloud the issue of responsibility. Therefore, although the anti-sweatshop movement may have successfully campaigned for limited labour reforms (i.e., by Nike) -- some of which have now become institutionalised -- paradoxically, this success may render their long-term goal of eradicating sweatshops inoperable. Businesses successfully avoided regulation by promoting self-regulation, and even though the use of sweatshops is still common practice, media coverage of sweatshops has been far less visible since 2000, reducing the anti-sweatshop movement's ability to maintain public support and awareness for their campaigns. Furthermore, current estimates suggest that there are still about 250,000 sweatshop workers employed in the U.S. alone.
To highlight the fact that the corporate media don't always satisfy elite interests, Domhoff notes that "studies of media content find it is not all to corporate liking" as the focus on bad news (e.g., crime and disasters) upsets some corporate leaders, who, Domhoff reports, criticize such coverage "because it paints a negative picture of American society." He implies that they have a point, but this is to state the obvious: corporate leaders are humans after all, and few rational humans would publicly suggest that society could possibly benefit from an ideological saturation of negativity. However, as long as corporations are driven by insatiable growth imperatives, the media's ceaseless promotion of bad news does in fact serve a useful ideological purpose by helping sustain the media-military-industrial complex (pdf), and encouraging a philosophy of futility within the public. (12) Of course it is possible that another more peaceful world might be attainable in the near future if the mass media regaled us with positive stories of progressive individuals successfully cooperating to defeat powerful corporate interests, along with tales of altruism not greed. Unfortunately such reporting is unlikely to ever happen with any degree of regularity within corporate-owned media outlets.
Domhoff asserts that the media's fixation with bad news is just a fact of nature, or rather a fact of capitalism, a finding that "suggest[s] that the media's focus on any violence that occurs at protest demonstrations is not peculiar to the activities of leftists." This is strange because this conclusion fails to explain why under normal circumstances police violence directed towards protestors is rarely considered newsworthy, while that of citizens is, or why violence at public protests that support elite points-of-view tend to be overlooked.
For example, environmental protestors... occupied US Congressional Republican Representative Frank Riggs office in California October 1997 and were confronted by police who used pepper spray to restrain them. Throughout this confrontation - which was filmed - one of the protestors managed to calmly articulate her group's reasons for protesting; however, that segment was edited out from the television news report. As well as demonstrating how activists can be silenced in the media (or have their agendas distorted), this type of reporting serves to normalise police violence against protestors, which is dangerous for all involved in peaceful protest.
Given the large amount of anecdotal and academic evidence supporting leftist critiques of the mass media, it is fitting to examine the evidence Domhoff marshals to support his argument. Firstly he cites David Demers's book The Menace of the Corporate Newspaper: Fact or Fiction? (Iowa State University Press, 1996) to demonstrate that "large newspapers and newspaper chains are more likely than small local newspapers to publish editorials and letters that deal with local issues or are critical of mainstream groups and institutions." Domhoff adds that Demers "found that a wider range of opinions appears in the chain newspapers, including critical ones." He also noted that Demers obtained "survey responses from 409 journalists at 223 newspapers, [and] found that their reporters and editors report high levels of autonomy." Domhoff then writes that "[d]espite the generally conservative biases of newspaper owners, there are studies showing that the journalists who actually produce the news are by and large independent professionals who make use of the freedom of the press that was won for them by courageous journalists of the past, often in battles with the federal government." (13) Yet these findings prove nothing about the content of the journalists' reporting, as for any journalist to work effectively as defenders of the plutocratic status quo they must act autonomously (or at least give the appearance of doing so); it is just a matter of fact that autonomous journalists with critical tendencies will be less likely to retain journalism jobs with the corporate media. Michael Parenti suggests:
Most professionals are not repressed rebels, waiting only to be unleashed from the tyranny of their employers. As faithful products of their education and society, they define their own betterment in privatized ways, their intent being to avoid conflict and secure a place for themselves within the system, on the system's own terms. Their understanding is that the path to success lies in conforming to "the values, prejudices and modes of thought of the world to which entry is sought." (14)
Media Lens expands on this point:
We reject the idea that journalists are generally guilty of self-censorship and conscious lying; we believe that the all-too-human tendency to self-deception accounts for their conviction that they are honest purveyors of uncompromised truth. We all have a tendency to believe what best suits our purpose -- highly paid, highly privileged editors and journalists are no exception.
Domhoff cites the low readership levels of alternative media (like Mother Jones, The Nation, and The Progressive) compared to their mainstream counterparts (e.g., Time and Newsweek) as proof that "very few people are interested in what these magazines have to say." This statement is not true, as for a start this type of comparison would only be meaningful if the public had equal access to alternative and mainstream magazines -- or at the very least knew that alternative media existed, and was not full of dogmatic socialist propaganda, as opposed to the mainstream media that is full of corporate propaganda. In fact, rather than selling the public what it wants, it would be more accurate to say that the mainstream media sell the public to advertisers. Michael Parenti writes:
When deciding on which media to spend their billions, corporate advertisers are directed in part by ideological preferences. Deprived of advertisers, progressive publications like Mother Jones, The Nation, and The Progressive are always facing insolvency, never able to launch the kind of massive mailing and mainstream campaigns that might build up their circulations. Needless to say, it is the corporate system's journalist defenders and apologists, not its critics, who attract the moneyed advertisers. (15)
Under different, fairer, circumstances it is anyone's guess as to what percentage of Americans might rely upon alternative media, but it is safe to say it would be higher than it is at present. Furthermore, the historical record clearly demonstrates that the public, when given the chance, will support progressive media. Thus before the Black Panther party was physically liquidated by the American government in the early 1970s, their weekly newspaper The Black Panther had a peak circulation of some 100,000. Similarly, the British Labor newspaper The Daily Herald was forced to close its operations in 1964 not due to lack of public demand -- far from it, the paper had a circulation of over 1.2 million people -- but owing to ever-diminishing advertising revenues. (16)
Toward the end of his article Domhoff acknowledges the power of the media to influence social change when he notes that "[i]t even can be argued that one key to activist successes down through the decades has been the media coverage their efforts have received, which is often very positive." Yet as mentioned before, the activism that obtains positive media often works to promote moderate capitalist-sanctioned solutions to the harsh reality that capitalism often ravages. Domhoff agrees with leftist media critiques that "the media can magnify the message of the powerful and trivialize and marginalize the claims of the powerless," but he then adds that "the media don't cause some people to be powerful and some people to be powerless." This is correct in one sense, but in another way it is misguided, as groups that obtain positive media coverage do become more powerful. On a simplistic level this can be seen in how people donate their money to charitable causes, as the public can only give money to progressive groups that they have already heard of. Thus groups whose work is orientated to facilitating progressive social change remain under (or un) funded, while do-good-all groups and charities that ultimately sustain the status quo obtain widespread public (and corporate) support.
The conscious intent of ruling elites to manufacture public consent, while not monolithic in its effectiveness -- for the most part because of vigorous grassroots activism -- still exerts a massive influence on the way people think about domestic matters and especially foreign affairs. Indeed, with the massive amount of money, time, and technology poured into the dark art of engineering consent, it should not be the least bit surprising that corporate propaganda plays a central part in shaping our lives (and in destroying the lives of distant "others"). While elites cannot always simply manufacture public consent (as the public often holds vastly different opinions to those propagated by the media), (17) the mass media has been remarkably successful at manufacturing the general public's contentedness and/or resignation to the idea that there is no alternative to capitalism -- both of which do wonders to bolster the status quo. (At the same time the media have almost completely censored any critical discussion of their own antidemocratic influence on democracy, and have neglected to examine how the funding of liberal foundations works to undermine the Left -- neither of which is very surprising.)
Domhoff suggests that many researchers who talk about the media manufacturing consent or exerting a form of ideological domination over the mass population "end up explaining away Left failures by claiming that people are bamboozled." Yet I do not think one needs to choose one or the other. Of course, as Domhoff advises, progressive activists need to consider the "possibility that leftist programs and strategies have so far proven inadequate," and evaluate their work in this light, but this does not mean that the media does not exert a massive influence over the American population. Here it is fitting to acknowledge the late Alex Carey's seminal work on corporate propaganda. Carey suggested that corporate propaganda can be divided between two main approaches, one that utilises treetops propaganda and another that uses grassroots propaganda. The differences between the two forms of propaganda are evident in their target audiences; so while the former, treetops propaganda, serves to manufacture elite consent (e.g., that of business leaders, politicians, and academics), (18) the latter, grassroots form, serves to divert the general population minds from the political questions shaping their everyday lives by manufacturing the philosophy of futility. As Noam Chomsky observes:
A properly functioning system of indoctrination has a variety of tasks, some rather delicate. One of its targets is the stupid and ignorant masses. They must be kept that way, diverted with emotionally potent oversimplifications, marginalized, and isolated. Ideally, each person should be alone in front of the TV screen watching sports, soap operas, or comedies, deprived of organizational structures that permit individuals lacking resources to discover what they think and believe in interaction with others, to formulate their own concerns and programs, and to act to realize them. They can then be permitted, even encouraged, to ratify the decisions of their betters in periodic elections. The rascal multitude are the proper targets of the mass media and a public education system geared to obedience and training in needed skills, including the skill of repeating patriotic slogans on timely occasions.
For submissiveness to become a reliable trait, it must be entrenched in every realm. The public are to be observers, not participants, consumers of ideology as well as products. Eduardo Galeano writes that "the majority must resign itself to the consumption of fantasy. Illusions of wealth are sold to the poor, illusions of freedom to the oppressed, dreams of victory to the defeated and of power to the weak." Nothing less will do.
Returning to Domhoff's point about the many functional problems evident within the Left, I agree that this is a very important issue, and it is a problem that is amplified by the Left's collective unwillingness to critically examine the co-optive funding practises of liberal foundations (otherwise known as not-for-profit corporations). But as I said before I do not think that blaming the media further weakens the Left, instead it clearly strengthens it.
I believe that a movement for social change built around the mainstream and alternative media's democratic deficits can help reinvigorate the Left, encouraging coalition building between all manner of progressive groups. Ongoing analyses of the media's antidemocratic output -- which is transparent and easy to scrutinize, as opposed to secretive policy making processes -- may be used as a means by which to radicalise concerned citizens. Media Lens is one such group that might help catalyse such a radicalising process as their stated objective is to "draw public attention to the deep systemic problems of current media institutions" by encouraging the "general population to challenge media managers, editors, and journalists who set news agendas that traditionally reflect establishment/elite interests." Moreover, they realistically note that "[t]here may be some, short-term marginal benefits to be had from seeking out the more challenging journalists; but a more effective longer-term strategy, we think, is to boost public awareness of the reality of mainstream media deceptions and omissions." (19) In this case, challenging is empowering.
Citizens involved in challenging the legitimacy of the "mighty Wurlitzer" of propaganda that is the mainstream media will hopefully, in turn, recognise the importance of supporting independent progressive media outlets and allow alternative media to reach an increasing number of people. The importance of such ventures is worth recounting, because as Edward Herman suggests, without the "preservation and expansion of a left media" and the "alternative frameworks and contesting facts that they provide, even liberal and left veterans are easily swept into the establishment web or rendered inert." Furthermore, Z Magazine cofounder Lydia Sargent provides a useful antidote to Domhoff's concern that the Left is obsessed with the media. She writes:
Interestingly, given our [the Left's] analysis of how media exists to sell audience to advertisers for profit, how it replicates and incorporates the values and structures of corporate control in its own operations, and how it is owned by and serves the same elites that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, and Powell represent, our media activism has often been confined to critiquing the mainstream media, coupled with attempts to get our 20 second sound bytes on the networks, as if that will solve the problem.
Others have created "alternative" or "independent" media (not all of which is so radical) and they try desperately to distribute it with little money, in a society where methods of distribution are under the same control as the mainstream media itself. Many of these efforts have been incredibly successful (considering the odds), but many more have folded for lack of funds or from burn out. Those that have survived are kept small and can only be found by people who go looking for them, which, ironically most often happens during a crisis or a war.
So it is time to direct more of our protests toward the media. What we want is for mainstream media to include peace and justice programming, prepared by the peace and justice movement, in their daily reports. If they do not agree to this demand, we picket their offices, occupy them if necessary, and shut them down.
While I don't agree with Sargent's sentiment that all we need is for activist-prepared "peace and justice programming" to be embedded within the corporate media, I do think that her call to arms is an important one. Of course some media reforms may result from ongoing well-backed efforts to hold the media accountable to democratic principles -- which are most likely to be nothing more than a fig leaf that allows capitalism to keep (steam) rolling along -- but in all likelihood significant changes should not be expected within an ideological pillar of the capitalist system. Thus as long as media reform efforts are undertaken with this knowledge in mind, continuing evidence of the mainstream media's inability to accommodate the demands of its citizens will result in escalating popular support for alternative media, bringing the world another step closer to the social revolution that will replace elite domination and war with public participation, cooperation, and peace.
1. Although the mainstream mass media clearly caters to corporate interests, there is some truth in the claim that it is highly influenced by liberal elite agendas, see Michael Barker, "The Liberal Foundations of Media Reform? Creating Sustainable Funding Opportunities for Radical Media Reform," Global Media Journal, 1 (2), June 2008. (back)
2. William Domhoff's book was reviewed in the 2004 issue of the journal Critical Sociology by three separate authors (see Volume 30, Number 1, 2004, pp.109-38), which was followed by a response from Domhoff. Regarding Domhoff's discussion of activist media relations, the first reviewer, Robert Ross, wrote that, "provocatively Domhoff breaks with Left orthodoxy about the media. Basically he says quit blaming the mass media for your troubles and start using it for your own spin. However inadequate as grand theory of political culture this is probably good advice: whining about the media is repetitive and boring and leads absolutely nowhere in practical terms" (p.111). The second reviewer, Dan Clawson, doesn't discuss the media issue, but the final reviewer, Robert Newby, takes a more adversarial position than Ross. Newby writes that: "When Domhoff says "Stop Blaming the Media," he makes some valid points but critiques of mainstream media are essential. Since the mainstream media are not independent but controlled by major corporations, what the American people get as news is essentially a mouthpiece for the powerful in America, including what [Greg] Palast claims to be The Best Democracy Money Can Buy" (p.123). (back)
3. As I have already written elsewhere -- see "Conform or Reform? Social Movements and the Mass Media" -- my understanding of this matter is that the mainstream mass media plays a fundamental role in undermining efforts to promote progressive social change. Moreover, although I personally hold out little hope that such media systems can ever be adequately reformed, I do believe that the Left needs to acknowledge the power of the media to effect social change, and then support both criticisms of the mainstream media (which might include attempts to reform it), while simultaneously creating and strengthening alternative, progressive media outlets. Sadly few progressive readers appear willing to financially support independent media projects. For example earlier this month the British-based media watchdog Media Lens wrote that although they have sent out regular free media alerts for nearly eight years to thousands of interested readers, a total of only "122 currently donate money on a fixed monthly basis." This is despite the fact that John Pilger has described Media Lens' forthcoming book like this: "Not since Orwell and Chomsky has perceived reality been so skilfully revealed in the cause of truth." (back)
4. Referring to Ralph Nader's book on his 2000 presidential campaign, Domhoff points out that "building a strong anti-corporate, progressive social movement in the United States with the help of the electoral system" is not likely to garner much success given the rules of the electoral system. On this statement I am inclined to agree, but while Domhoff belittles the influence of the media on Nader's campaign by focusing on Nader's exclusion from the presidential debates (a point Nader himself dwells upon in his book on the 2000 campaign), a more important observation is that Nader, and the Green party more generally, are thoroughly demonized or excluded from the mainstream media nearly all the time, not just during presidential debates. For a useful discussion of influence of Nader's presidential campaigns see William Blum, An Unreasonable Man, The Anti-Empire Report, January 2008. (back)
5. Robert Barsky writes in his book The Chomsky Effect: A Radical Works Beyond the Ivory (MIT Press, 2007) that, "[t]here are historical reasons for the link frequently made between anarchy and violence, including the justifiable lack of an institutional basis for anarchism and a collective amnesia about the fact that many anarchist ideas grow out of actual examples from history, such as solid friendships or good marriages, or in the loose and free association of groups in ancient Greece (described by Rudolph Rocker in his masterpiece Nationalism and Culture) and, more recently, the workings of certain segments of Spanish society in the 1930s. Instead, the legacy that remains grows out of memories of its so-called terrorist phases, including one that lasted from March 1892 until June 1894, during which time nine people were killed and numerous others wounded in eleven separate detonations in France, all linked in some way to anarchists. As Mina Graur suggests in a recent biography of Rudolph Rocker, 'that was the time when the stereotype of the vile anarchist, a dagger in his hand and a fuming bomb in his pocket, was planted in the public's mind. The press and the police did their best to reinforce this image and frighten the public with the specter of the 'great international anarchist conspiracy'.' Examples like this could be multiplied with references to similar events in different periods throughout the world." (p.7) (back)
6. The debate concerning the use of violence in progressive activism is considered by this author elsewhere -- see, "A Force More Powerful: Promoting 'Democracy' through Civil Disobedience." For a thought-provoking book on this subject, see Peter Gelderloos, How Nonviolence Protects the State (South End Press, 2007); to read an extract from this book, see his article "Arms and the Movement." (back)
8. Published in 1967, Domhoff's classic book Who Rules America? provided an early insight into the elite linkages of some of the largest liberal foundations: that said, his short section on liberal foundations is mostly descriptive and merely identifies foundations as important players in the shaping of the American polity. While Domhoff's later books (published in 1990 and 1996) continued to acknowledge the influence of liberal foundations on the formulation of social policy, his work, like that of much of the power structure researchers, does not emphasize the critical role played by liberal foundations in supporting all manner of progressive groups. (back)
9. Oliver Boyd-Barrett has suggested that a sixth "buying out" filter might be added to the propaganda model, he writes: "One area that Herman and Chomsky seemed purposely to eschew was the direct purchase of media influence by powerful sources, or the 'buying out' of individual journalists or their media by government agencies and authorities. Herman and Chomsky wanted to demonstrate that media complicity with propaganda did not require 'conspiracy theory' -- not quite the same thing as demonstrating that conspiracy does not happen." With regard to conspiracies, Michael Parenti argues:
"Unfortunately there are some individuals who believe that a structural analysis demands that we treat conspiracies as imaginary things and conscious human efforts as no great consequence. They go so far as to argue that we are all now divided into two camps, which they call 'structuralists' and 'conspiracists.' ... I consider conspiracies (by which most people seem to mean secret, consciously planned programs by persons in high places) to be a part of the arsenal of structural rule. ... Rather than seeing conspiracy and structure as mutually exclusive, we might consider how the former is one of the instruments of the latter. Some conspiracies are imagined, some are real. And some of the real ones are part of the existing political structure, not exceptions to it."
Oliver Boyd-Barrett, "Judith Miller, The New York Times, and the Propaganda Model," Journalism Studies, 5, 2004, p.426; Michael Parenti, Democracy for the Few (Wadsworth/Thomas Learning, 2002), viii-ix. (back)
10. Jeffery Klaehn, "A Critical Review and Assessment of Herman and Chomsky's 'Propaganda Model'," (pdf) European Journal of Communication, 17, 2002, p.155. (back)
11. For more on the cooption of the American environmental movement by liberal foundations, see Michael Barker, "The Liberal Foundations of Environmentalism: Revisiting the Rockefeller-Ford Connection", Capitalism Nature Socialism, 19 (2), 2008, pp. 15-42; Robert Brulle, Agency, Democracy, and Nature: The U.S. Environmental Movement from a Critical Theory Perspective (MIT Press, 2000); Robert Brulle and J. Craig Jenkins, "Foundations and the Environmental Movement: Priorities, Strategies, and Impact," (pdf) in Faber, D., and McCarthy, D. Foundations For Social Change: Critical Perspectives on Philanthropy and Popular Movements (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005); Mark Dowie, Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century (MIT Press, 1995); Brian Tokar, Earth for Sale: Reclaiming Ecology in the Age of Corporate Greenwash (South End Press, 1997). (back)
12. Here it is apt to cite Media Lens, which writes that our corporate dominated media systems promote "indifference, greed, selfishness, hatred of enemies, passivity, and so on." Yet, critically, with regard to belief in the mythical freedom of the press, Media Lens demonstrates that "[t]he key element responsible for convincing people of this mythical press freedom is not the right-wing press -- most caring, compassionate people are not fooled by that -- but the so-called 'liberal' press: the Guardian, the BBC, and so on." This explains why Media Lens works to "expose the role of the 'liberal' press in maintaining the illusion that it doesn't fulfil an establishment propaganda role when, in fact, it does." (back)
13. Domhoff points out that journalist "independence is first of all seen in the many stories on corporate and government wrongdoing developed in the long tradition of investigative journalism, which always has been strongly resisted by corporate and political leaders alike. Thanks to their large resources, the major newspapers do as many critical studies of corporate malfeasance and government favoritism to big business as activists and scholars." In support of this point, a study published by David Protess in 1991 (titled The Journalism of Outrage) determined that the amount of time being spent by journalists on investigative reporting was increasing. However, as I have summarised in an earlier article, the study also "reported a trend towards shorter investigations which, taken together with cuts in funding for longer term investigative reporting, is placing increasing pressure on journalists to replace adversarial journalism with coalition journalism. Investigative journalism is becoming less visible in the public sphere, as its work becomes more widely dispersed, conventional and less adversarial -- staying closer to the borders of the dominant policy discourses. A further outcome of these changes is that as shorter investigative pieces are cheaper to produce, media outlets have less incentive to actively pursue policy stories for the duration of policy processes. Dominant news values, such as 'timeliness' further strengthen such practises by working to constantly change those issues on the public agenda, preventing any form of sustained media attention to most issues." Thus although mainstream journalists may still undertake some investigative reports which are in turn drawn upon by critical scholars, when read alone with limited contextual detail they do not serve as useful "indictment[s] of the American power structure" as Domhoff's suggests they might. (back)
14. Michael Parenti, Power and the Powerless (Palgrave Macmillan, 1978), p.120. Parenti adds: "The erstwhile rebels come to consider themselves not conservatives but 'realists,' insisting they are more effective when operating in a spirit of accommodation than in a spirit of confrontation. They 'understand how things work' and know that the wisest course is to learn the ropes and 'make the system work for you.' In time they learn to say, 'How much will it cost?', 'Who supports it?', and 'Let's avoid unnecessary headaches,' rather than 'Is it fair?', 'Is it just?', 'Will it help those less fortunate than me?' They become adept at seeing all sorts of difficulties and impracticalities in dissenting approaches. While they give assurances that they are 'not against change as such,' they show hostility toward specific progressive transformations that might directly affect the ongoing arrangements to which they have so successfully accommodated themselves. Without realizing it they become the thing they say they oppose. More important to them than the fulfillment of their liberal principles is their survival and professional advancement." (p.121) (back)
16. Domhoff correctly notes that alternative media has "often...had substantial funding from millionaire liberals and leftists" so should have been able to reach more people. Again in some ways I agree with this comment, as some progressive media enterprises have been well funded by wealthy individuals or liberal foundations. But perhaps the problems encountered by such well supported media outlets is a problem stemming from the Left's reliance upon antidemocratic liberal philanthropy instead of promoting greater reliance of their media on grassroots funding. See "Who Funds the Progressive Media?": this article was initially published by the Center for Research on Globalization on July 7, 2008, but was removed from their Web site the same day. No reason was ever given to me as to why my article was censored. (back)
17. Referring to the contempt that ruling elites have for the ignorant masses, that is, the general population, Noam Chomsky writes: "For the home front, a variety of techniques of manufacture of consent are required, geared to the intended audience and its ranking on the scale of significance. For those at the lowest rank, and for the insignificant peoples abroad, another device is available, what a leading turn-of-the-century American sociologist, Franklin Henry Giddings, called 'consent without consent': 'if in later years, [the colonized] see and admit that the disputed relation was for the highest interest, it may be reasonably held that authority has been imposed with the consent of the governed,' as when a parent disciplines an uncomprehending child. Giddings was referring to the 'misguided creatures' that we were reluctantly slaughtering in the Philippines, for their own good." (back)
18. Edward Herman points out that "[t]he power of the U.S. propaganda system lies in its ability to mobilize an elite consensus, to give the appearance of democratic consent, and to create enough confusion, misunderstanding and apathy in the general population to allow elite programs to go forward." (back)
19. Media Lens are well aware of the extreme limitations imposed on critical reporting in the mainstream media; thus their "view is that in a free society, given the costs of press corruption in terms of suffering and human lives, journalists should consider refusing to work for a corporate media institution unless it is on the understanding that they are free to criticise both the media generally, and that media entity specifically." A situation that they think "is outrageous from the point of view of the corporate mindset; no-one in business is allowed to criticise the product in front of customers." However, they hold out some hope and note that key to having a positive impact on mainstream media coverage is for "journalists, or would-be journalists, to be willing to abandon all hope of a career in the mainstream and instead try to be very honest and challenge the media and pressure it to change. If these efforts are backed up by massive democratic participation, with hundreds and thousands of people writing letters, campaigning, protesting, and so on, a lot of good could be done." (back)
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About the Author
Michael Barker has recently handed in his PhD thesis at Griffith University in Australia. His other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com.
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