Propaganda model

The propaganda model is a theory advanced by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky that seeks to explain the supposed systemic 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 private media as businesses selling a product — readers and audiences rather than news — to other businesses (advertisers). The theory postulates five "filters" that sort out the type of news that finally gets published. These are: ownership, funding, sourcing, flak, and anti-communist ideology, with the first three being the most important.

Although the model was based mainly on United States media, Chomsky and Herman believe the theory applicable to any country that shares the basic economic structure which the model postulates as the cause of media biases.


The filters


Herman and Chomsky argue that since all mainstream media outlets are large corporations which are themselves part of bigger conglomerates, e.g. Westinghouse or General Electric, which extend beyond traditional media fields, these companies have powerful interests that may be affected when certain information is publicized. According to this reasoning, bias against that news which conflicts with the interests of those who own the media is to be expected.

The authors claim that the importance of ownership filter is the fact that corporations are subject to shareholder control in the context of a profit-oriented market economy. As Chomsky and Herman note:

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 then follows that if to maximize profit means sacrificing news objectivity, then the news sources that ultimately survive must be fundamentally biased, with regard to news in which they have a conflict of interest.

=== Funding ===

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

The authors suggest that this filter is best seen by adopting a traditional business framework. They argue that a newspaper, like any other company, has a product which it offers to its audience (or customer base). In this case, however, the product is composed of the affluent readers who buy the newspaper — who also comprise the educated decision-making sector of the population — while the audience includes the businesses that pay to advertise their goods. According to this "filter", the news itself is nothing more than "filler" to get privileged readers to see the advertisements which makes up the real content, and will thus take whatever form is most conducive to attracting educated decision-makers. Stories that conflict with their "buying mood", it is argued, will tend to be marginalized or excluded, as will information that presents a picture of the world that collides with advertisers' interests.

The theory argues that the people buying the newspaper are themselves the product which is sold to the businesses that buy advertising space; the newspaper itself has only a marginal role as the product.


The third filter argues that 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, they argue that this task can only be filled by the business and government sectors which have the necessary material resources. This includes mainly The Pentagon and other governmental bodies. Chomsky and Herman then argue that a "symbiotic relationship" arises between the media and parts of government which is 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

  • provide them with facilities in which to gather
  • give journalists advance copies of speeches and forthcoming reports
  • schedule press conferences at hours well-geared to news deadlines
  • write press releases in usable language
  • carefully organize their press conferences and "photo opportunity" sessions

On the other hand, the media becomes reluctant to run articles that will harm the corporate interests that provide them with the resources that the media depends upon. "It is very difficult to call authorities on whom one depends for daily news liars, even if they tell whoppers. (p. 22)"

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


The term "flak" has been used to describe what the authors describe as targeted efforts to discredit organizations or individuals who disagree with (or who cast doubt on) the prevailing assumptions favorable to established power. Unlike the first three "filtering" factors, which are derived from analysis of market mechanisms, flak is characterized by concerted and intentional efforts to manage public information. Flak from the powerful can be either direct or indirect. The direct would include letters or phone calls from the White House to Dan Rather or William Paley, or from the FCC to the television networks asking for documents used in putting together a program, or from irate officials of ad agencies or corporate sponsors to media officials asking for reply time or threatening retaliation. The powerful can also work on the media indirectly by complaining to their own constituencies (stockholders, employees) about the media, by generating institutional advertising that does the same, and by funding right-wing monitoring or think-tank operations designed to attack the media. They may also fund political campaigns and help put into power conservative politicians who will more directly serve the interests of private power in curbing any deviationism in the media.

Anti-Ideologies; substitutes for anti-communism

A final filter is anti-ideology. Anti-ideologies exploit public fear and hatred of detested groups that pose a threat (sometimes real, often imagined) to "our way of life." Communism once served as the ultimate evil; a specter haunting property owners that threatened the very root of their class position. In the past, anti-communism was often used as an excuse to silence voices critical of power. With the destruction of the Soviet Union, proponents of the propaganda model have argued that the main emphasis of anti-communism, has been lost. New anathemas soon appeared. Chomsky and Herman argue that a possible replacement for anti-communism seems to have emerged in the form of "anti-terrorism," where "terrorism" is roughly defined as any opponent of United States foreign policy. In the coverage of domestic affairs, anti-liberalism also seems to have a strong influence on the media's framing of issues.


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 hypotheses. If the propaganda model is right and the filters do influence media content, a particular form of bias would be expected — one that systematically favors corporate interests.

Noam Chomsky said, "the first way we tested the model in Manufacturing Consent was to submit it to what is really its harshest possible test: we let the opponents select their own ground. [...] [Y]ou 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, 18f; emphasis in the original) And so the book studies the examples regarded as paradigmatic examples of the independence of the press, such as the Vietnam war, Watergate, and the Iran-Contra Affair, and argues that these examples actually confirm the model.

They also looked at what they perceived as naturally-occurring "historical control groups" where two events, similar in their relevant properties but differing in the expected media attitude towards them, are contrasted using objective measures such as coverage of key events (measured in column inches) or editorials favoring a particular issue (measured in number).

Finally, the authors examine what points of view they believe are expressed in the media. In one case, the authors examined over fifty of Stephen Kinzer's articles about Nicaragua in the New York Times. They show that Kinzer fails to quote a single person in Nicaragua who is pro-Sandinista and contrast this with polls reporting a 9% support for all the opposition parties taken together. Based on this example and select others, the authors conclude that such a persistent bias can only be explained by a model like the one they advocate. ("[They're] only 9 percent of the population [but] they have 100 percent of Stephen Kinzer," Chomsky quips.)

Chomsky summarizes: "we've studied a great number of cases, from every methodological point of view that we've been able to think of, and they all support the Propaganda Model. And by now there are thousands of pages of similar material confirming the thesis in books and articles by other people too. In fact, I would hazard a guess that the Propaganda Model is one of the best-confirmed theses in the social sciences. There has been no serious counter-discussion of it at all, actually, that I'm aware of."


Since the publication of Manufacturing Consent, both Herman and Chomsky have adopted the theory and gave 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 (1990), the Panama invasion (1989), and the Iraq invasion (2003). Herman, seeking to establish an institutional framework to analyze media functioning, joined Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), which has criticized and attempted to document 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.

Testing applicability to other countries

Chomsky has this to say:

That's only rarely been done in any systematic way. There is work on the British media, by a good U[niversity] of Glasgow media group. And interesting work on British Central America coverage by Mark Curtis in his book Ambiguities of Power. There is work on France, done in Belgium mostly, also a recent book by Serge Halimi (editor of Le Monde diplomatique). There is one very careful study by a Dutch graduate student, applying the methods Ed Herman used in studying US media reaction to elections (El Salvador, Nicaragua) to 14 major European newspapers. [...] Interesting results. Discussed a bit (along with some others) in a footnote in chapter 5 of my book "Deterring Democracy[".] [1] (

Related organizations


  • Chomsky, Noam. Understanding Power: the Indispensable Chomsky. New York: the New Press, 2002.
  • Herman, Edward S. and Chomsky, Noam. Manufacturing Consent: the Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon Books, 1988.
  • Herman, Edward S. 'The Propaganda Model: A Retrospective (,' Against All Reason, December 9, 2003.
  • Klaehn, Jeffery (ed.) Filtering the News: Essays on Herman and Chomsky's Propaganda Model. Edinburgh: Black Rose, propagandy

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