How to read a newspaper: Deconstructing the media machine

By Robert Jensen

Published in Texas Observer · December, 1999

[This article appeared in the Texas Observer, December, 24, 1999, pp. 27-28.]

review of
The Myth of the Liberal Media: An Edward Herman Reader
by Edward S. Herman
Peter Lang

Over coffee at a professional conference, I am yapping with a well-known professor of journalism and mass communication from an elite U.S. university. I make a reference to the propaganda model of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, indicating that I find it to be a compelling explanation of mainstream news media content.

“But that model is so inadequate,” he tells me. I ask him to explain. He cites a published critique that he says demonstrates the limits of the model. I remember that critique as one of many attempts to trash Herman and Chomsky rather than grapple with their arguments, and so I press on.

What specifically do you find wanting in the model? I ask. What features of it do you think are inadequate? He again cites the published critique, ignores my request for specifics, and repeats the vague criticisms — too reductive, too deterministic, unsophisticated — until he finally breezes past to a new subject.

That reaction is, unfortunately, not uncommon among the people who are allegedly educating the next generation of journalists. The model, developed by Herman more than a decade ago and defended gracefully in this new collection of essays, should be at the core of any journalist’s education, yet it remains largely untaught in journalism schools and almost completely ignored by journalists. I don’t expect this new book will change that.

That’s too bad, for The Myth of the Liberal Media is a lively book that offers important philosophical reflections on markets, media and democracy; a summary and spirited defense of the propaganda model; and case studies applying the model to recent news coverage. After reading it, I was even more convinced of the central importance of the work of Herman and Chomsky (the model was developed by Herman and fleshed out in work with Chomsky, most notably in their co-authored book Manufacturing Consent).

Herman argues that despite the formal guarantees of a free press, journalists end up serving a propaganda function for the powerful in society. He uses the metaphor of filters, through which prospective news must pass before it reaches the public. Those filtering features include: ownership that is commercial and increasingly concentrated; advertising as the primary source of revenue; heavy reliance on elite sources; flak aimed at those who step outside the dominant framework; and an unchallenged anti-communism and “free-market” ideology.

Herman does not argue that in such a system no dissent from the powerful ever reaches the news, only that the system will tend to filter out the most serious challenges to the powerful institutions. Nor does he argue that any of this takes place through a nefarious conspiracy; it is a “guided market system” in which forces push the news toward the desired ends.

Based on a decade of work in newsrooms and my own study of the media, the model has always seemed to me to be the best explanation yet offered to explain why the news looks the way it does in mainstream corporate media. So, why is the model so often ignored or trashed? Because it is too radical, too clear, and too accurate for most journalism professors and journalists to deal with.

Too radical: The propaganda model highlights the effects on journalism of the inequities of corporate capitalism, the dominance of elites, and journalists’ internalization of a powerful American ideology. For most folks who consider themselves part of mainstream academia and journalism, it’s difficult to challenge any one of those forces, let alone all three.

Too clear: Many academics in the social sciences build careers by constructing unnecessarily complex theories that promise more than they deliver. The propaganda model is sophisticated yet simple, conveyed in plain language that ordinary people can read and understand, and modest in its claims to prediction.

Too accurate: If the propaganda model is even a close approximation of how mainstream journalism works, then many of the principles taught in journalism schools and asserted by the industry are little more than obfuscation and denial. To take the propaganda model seriously is to break with the conventional wisdom, something few like to do.

So, instead of engaging the model, the vast majority of people in journalism, whether in the university or industry, simply ignore it or trash it, usually without even attempting to present evidence or an argument. Because the propaganda model is so radical, such trashing can go on without accountability.

Herman, on the other hand, offers the evidence to support his model and responds to critics. My favorite chapter in the book is “The Propaganda Model Revisted,” in which he takes on those critics in a manner that is fair but deliciously sharp-tongued. Where there are legitimate disagreements with the critics, Herman takes up the issues and makes his best case.

In some ways, the entire book is a response to those critics. The chapter on news coverage of Indonesia and its former dictator, Suharto, reminds us why so much of the international news we get should be presumed incomplete and misleading – if not out-and-out false – until it is proven otherwise. The U.S. press celebrated the mass slaughter that brought Suharto to power in1965 (as many as 1 million killed) and mostly ignored the decades-long Indonesian assault on East Timor (about 200,000 killed) until this year. The way in which ideology – together with an almost exclusive reliance on official sources – shaped the coverage makes it the paradigm case for the propaganda model, and a shameful episode for American journalism.

In domestic coverage, Herman’s look at the uses and abuses of science by corporations that want to dodge responsibility for damage to human health and the environment leaves us a similar judgment on media performance.

These case studies leave me with only one nagging concern about Herman’s presentation. He sometimes uses the term “bias” in critiquing journalists, which I think is a mistake, for strategic and theoretical reasons. Strategically, it is too easy for journalists to respond by saying, “Hey, the right-wingers think we are biased and the left-wingers think we are biased; we must be doing our job.” Instead of engaging the critique, journalists claim victory by taking refuge in the middle.

What that reflexive defense mechanism misses, of course, is that the right-wing’s argument that the news media are liberal is (1) unsupported by any systematic inquiry; (2) dependent on the view that the personal biases of individual working journalists are more important rather than the structural factors outlined in the propaganda model; and (3) based on definitions of liberal and conservative in which a sell-out centrist such as Bill Clinton is seen as left-wing.

Left/progressive media criticism, on the other hand, is grounded in a significant body of research on how the news is routinely framed, understands the structure of institutions as more important in shaping the news than individual preferences of relatively powerless journalists, and points out that on most issues involving foreign policy and the economy, Republicans and Democrats — liberals and conservatives — are in general agreement. Using the term “bias” to describe this, however, too often leads people to ignore the structural critique and return to the focus on individual biases.

But discussing the problems of journalism in terms of “bias” also is troubling in the way in which it reinforces the notion that neutrality and mythical notions of objectivity are possible. As I tell my journalism students, there is no neutral ground on which to stand in the world. Every position from which we might examine the world is a position, hence every assertion about the world is biased in some sense.

The goal, therefore, is not neutrality but accountability. Instead of striving for an unattainable neutrality that can shield one from criticism, journalists should provide detailed evidence and a full account of the unstated assumptions and moral judgments on which their reporting is based. We all should strive for that standard, and that is, in fact, the kind of work Herman offers. But I think talking about it in terms of bias undercuts his case.

Finally, a word about one of the honest concerns that I hear from professors who hesitate to make the propaganda model central in their teaching. Many students, already prone to cynicism and a belief that nothing can be done to improve the world, are quick to take the model as evidence that the news media are hopeless and that there’s no reason to read the news or struggle to make it better.

Herman and Chomsky have always said that they believe that resistance to the system, both from within the news media and from the outside, is crucial, and their work is testament to their convictions. But we should remember that it’s easy, especially for young people, to be jaded or depressed when they figure out just how powerful the forces against social justice are.

When I teach the propaganda model to journalism students, a number of them always come to me in private to seek advice. “I wanted to become a journalist to right the wrongs, to work for justice,” they say. “Now you tell me that journalism isn’t about that. Now what am I supposed to do?”

I tell them that just because corporate journalism is not about social justice doesn’t mean that individual journalists can’t work for social justice in their jobs. I explain to them that people of conscience face similar choices no matter what the profession. They can go to work in mainstream institutions and try to bore from within, or they can break from that path and work to create alternatives. It’s not so simple as choosing between reform and revolution; it’s about seeing the openings the society offers and taking them, with one’s eyes wide open about the limits of the system.

While I think we need to build strong alternative media outlets, I never discourage young people from going to work for corporate media, for two reasons. First, the skills one learns on the job can be taken elsewhere when one gets fed up with the corporate system, so long as one doesn’t become complacent. And second, it is important to have journalists of conscience working on the inside. The system can be frustrating, but it does on occasion provide openings that can be exploited. As Herman points out, there is no monolithic evil force directing the news media, and creative journalists can find ways to do good work.

As someone who continues to work for a powerful institution that is hardly committed to social justice (the University of Texas), I face the same choices. If I were to leave my faculty position, I give up the platform from which I can speak. Yet by not leaving, I reduce the amount of time and energy I have for building alternative institutions, and I help to legitimate the institution. It’s a tough call, one for which there are no easy answers. People of conscience should fret a bit about the choices, but not be afraid to choose.

Herman’s life as an economics professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, media critic, alternative journalist and radical political activist is a fine example of how those choices can be made with integrity and commitment.