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Propaganda model
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Propaganda model

The propaganda model is a theory advanced by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky that seeks to explain systematic biases of the mass media in terms of structural economic causes.

First presented in the book Manufacturing Consent: the Political Economy of the Mass Media, the theory views the private media as businesses selling a product - readers and audiences rather than news - to other businesses (advertisers). It postulates five "filters" that sort out the type of news that finally gets published. These are: ownership, funding, sourcing, flak, and anti-communist ideology the first three being the most important.

Table of contents
1 The Filters
2 Empirical support
3 Applications of the theory
4 References and further reading
5 External links

The Filters


Herman and Chomsky note that all the mainstream media are large corporations which are themselves part of bigger conglomerates (like Westinghouse or General Electric) which extend beyond traditional media fields. Due to their size, these companies have powerful interests that may be affected when certain information is publicized. Thus, a bias against news that conflicts with the interests of those who own the media is to be expected.

The fact that corporations are subject to shareholder control in the context of a profit-oriented market economy increases the influence of this filter. As the authors observe,

If the managers fail to pursue actions that favor shareholder returns, institutional investors will be inclined to sell the stock (depressing its price), or to listen sympathetically to outsiders contemplating takeovers (p. 11).

It follows that if maximizing profit means sacrificing news objectivity, then the news sources that ultimately survive cannot but be fundamentally biased.


The authors also note that mainstream media depend heavily on advertising to survive. A newspaper like the New York Times, for example, derives 75% of its profits from advertisements.

The role played by this filter is best seen, the authors suggest, by adopting a traditional business framework. Like every other company, a newspaper has a product and an audience. However, in this case, the product is composed by the affluent readers who buy the newspaper –who are also the educated decision-making sector of the population-, while the audience includes the businesses who pay to have them buy their advertised goods. Seen in this light, news are nothing more than a "filling" to get privileged readers to see the advertisements that compose the real content, and will thus take whatever form is best conducive to achieve that end. Stories that conflict with the "buying mood" will tend to be marginalized, as will information that presents a picture of the world that collides with advertisers' interest.

To some extent, the people buying the newspaper are themselves the product which is sold to the businesses buying advertising space; the newspaper itself has only a marginal role as the product.

The president of the French television station TF1 stated this clearly in an interview in 2004:

"The job of TF1 is to help Coca-Cola, for example, to sell its product. (...) In order that an advertising message is perceived, the brain of the television viewer must be available. Our broadcasts are aimed at making that brain available: i.e. by distracting it, by relaxing it and preparing between two messages. What we sell to Coca-Cola is time with this available brain." [1]


The mass media need a constant flow of information to supply their daily news demands. In an industrialized economy where consumers demand information about multiple global events, this task can only be filled by the corporate sector, which has the necessary material resources. This includes mainly The Pentagon and other governmental bodies. A "symbiotic relationship" thus arises between the media and parts of government, sustained by economic necessity and reciprocity of interest. On the one hand, government and news-promoters strive to make it easier for news organizations to buy their services; according to the authors (p. 22), they

On the other hand, the media itself becomes reluctant to run articles that harm the bodies which provide them with the material they depend on. "It is very difficult to call authorities on whom one depends for daily news liars, even if they tell whoppers. (ibid.)"

The complexity of the relationship also gives rise to a "moral division of labor", in which "officials have and give the facts," and "reporters merely get them." Journalists therefore adopt an uncritical attitude that makes it possible for them to accept corporate values without experiencing cognitive dissonance.

The authors summarize their theory thus:

A propaganda model has a certain initial plausibility on guided free-market assumptions that are not particularly controversial. In essence, the private media are major corporations selling a product (readers and audiences) to other businesses (advertisers). The national media typically target and serve elite opinion, groups that, on the one hand provide an optimal "profile" for advertising purposes, and, on the other, play a role in decision-making in the private and public spheres. The national media would be failing to meet their elite audience’s needs if they did not present a tolerably realistic portrayal of the world. But their "societal purpose" also requires that the media’s interpretation of the world reflect the interests and concerns of the sellers, the buyers, and the governmental and private institutions dominated by these groups (p. 303).

Empirical support

Following the theoretical exposition of the propaganda model, Manufacturing Consent contains a large section where the authors seek to test their hypothesis. If the propaganda model is right and the filters do influence media content, a particular form of bias would be expected—one that systematically favored corporate interests. The model then becomes amenable to scientific treatment: for it has empirical consequences that can be falsified. Further, the authors adopted a methodology usual in experimental practice, confronting their examined cases with naturally-occurring "historical control groups". That is, pairs of events similar in their relevant properties but differing in the expected media attitude towards them were contrasted in objective measures such as coverage of key events (measured in column inches) or editorials favoring a particular issue (measured in number). Finally, Herman and Chomsky chose those events that were actually regarded as paradigmatic examples of the independence of the press, such as the Vietnam war, Watergate and the Iran-Contra Affair: "you take the examples they select to prove their position [...] and you look at those examples to see whether they follow the "Propaganda Model" (Understanding Power, p. 18).

In one case, they went over fifty articles written by Stephen Kinzer of the New York Times and discovered that in not a single one of them had the journalist actually talked to a person in Nicaragua who was pro-Sandinista. They contrast this with polls reporting a 9% support for all the opposition parties taken together, and conclude that such a persistent bias can only be explained by a model like the one they advocate.

According to the authors, the results completely verified their predictions –to the point that, in the words of Chomsky, "the "Propaganda Model" is [probably] one of the best-confirmed theses in the social sciences" (ibid.).

Applications of the theory

Since the publication of Manufacturing Consent, both Herman and Chomsky have adopted the theory and given it a prominent role in their writings. Chomsky, in particular, has made extensive use of it to account for media attitudes towards a wide array of events, such as the Gulf War (19901991), the Panama invasion (1989), and the Invasion of Iraq (2003). Seeking to establish an institutional framework to analyze media functioning, Herman joined Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), which has been purportedly offering well-documented criticism of media bias and censorship since 1986.

With the emergence of the World Wide Web as a cheap but potentially wide-ranging means of communication, a number of independent websites have surfaced which adopt the propaganda model to subject media to close scrutiny. Probably the most consistent and serious of these efforts is MediaLens, a British-based site authored by David Edwards and David Cromwell.

References and further reading

External links