Thinking

The Public Sphere

My personal feeling is that citizens of the democratic societies should undertake a course of intellectual self-defense to protect themselves from manipulation and control, and to lay the basis for more meaningful democracy.

– Noam Chomsky, Necessary Illusions.

 by William Holland

In Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988), Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman lay out what they call the Propaganda Model. According to this model,1

the media serve the interests of state and corporate power, which are closely interlinked, framing their reporting and analysis in a manner supportive of established privilege and limiting debate and discussion accordingly.

Moreover, they do so not due to some conspiracy or grand design, but rather due to structural features that can be mapped and understood. The media rarely has to resort to outright censorship, rather the mechanism works through the weeding out of those who have the “wrong ideas,” similar to what happens in other corporations, wherein corporate managers who have the “wrong ideas” fail to reach positions where they might affect policy.

Journalists entering the system are unlikely to make their way unless they conform to these ideological pressures, generally by internalizing the values; it is not easy to say one thing and believe another, and those who fail to conform will tend to be weeded out by familiar mechanisms.

Their model captures these features in five filters that serve to constraint and shape the flow of news and reporting. The first and most important filter is advertising. Just like other firms, media firms sell a product to buyers for a price that is decided in the marketplace. In this market, the product is audiences, the buyers are generally other corporations, and the price is advertising dollars. Not only does advertising subsidize newspapers and television channels that cater to corporate interests and thereby undermine radical and working class newspapers by underselling them,2 they also shape and structure the framing, selection, and stance of the news stories of surviving outlets. Indeed, it would be surprising if the market did not reflect the interests of buyers and sellers.

The second filter is concentration of ownership. Like other industries, the mass media market is dominated by a small oligopoly of large profit-seeking corporations. The profit incentive severely influences news operations and overall content. For instance, in favor of entertainment programming that generates the bulk of their revenue, as opposed to programs highlighting public interest issues.  Third, sourcing of information. The principle of bureaucratic affinity states that the information needs of large bureaucracies like the dominant news organizations can only be met by other large bureaucracies, i.e., large corporations and governments. Furthermore, the media must be careful not to antagonize such important suppliers. Fourth, flak organizations, such as Accuracy in Media and Freedom House, harass the media and put pressure upon them to follow the corporate agenda. These were created quite deliberately in the 1970s to solve the “crisis of democracy”3  – extensive popular mobilization – that threatened elite control of policy.

Finally, during the cold war, anti-communism became an organizing political ideology that served to limit dissent and delegitimize challenges to the elite dominated agenda; invariably leading to a framing of issues, especially international ones, in terms of us (“Free World,” “liberal market democracies,” “the West”) vs. them (“communists,” “Third World dictators” who are “controlled by the Kremlin,” which is nothing short of a “ruthless global conspiracy bent on world domination”). The functional equivalent in the twenty-first century is the “global war on terror,” whereby opposition to the elite agenda – say the planned invasion of a defenseless country – may be silenced by exaggerating, or fabricating if necessary, the target’s links to, or support for, al Qaeda. Dissent that alleges that the US security state violates the constitutional rights of Americans – not to speak of non-US citizens who obviously don’t count – can be dismissed and placed beyond the bounds of the “reasonable spectrum of opinion,” and therefore irrelevant to policy formation.4

One prediction of the model is that the model, if accurate, will be excluded from discussion in the media. This has been largely borne out in the 25 years since its publication. Other predictions that can be easily verified include the differential treatment of “worthy victims” (those of official enemies) and “unworthy victims” (victims of US terror and aggression, as well as those of US clients), suppression of inconvenient information,5 and so on and so forth. An empirical testing of the data by Chomsky et al. yielded

a consistent pattern of radically dichotomous treatment, in the predicted direction. In the case of enemy crimes, we find outrage; allegations based on the flimsiest evidence, often simply invented, and uncorrectable, even when conceded to be fabrication; careful filtering of testimony to exclude contrary evidence while allowing what may be useful; reliance on official U.S. sources, unless they provide the wrong picture, in which case they are avoided (Cambodia under Pol Pot is a case in point); vivid detail; insistence that the crimes originate at the highest level of planning, even in the absence of evidence or credible argument; and so on. Where the locus of responsibility is at home, we find precisely the opposite: silence or apologetics; avoidance of personal testimony and specific detail; world-weary wisdom about the complexities of history and foreign cultures that we do not understand; narrowing of focus to the lowest level of planning or understandable error in confusing circumstances; and other forms of evasion.

Overwhelming evidence has been compiled in favor of the Propaganda Model by a number of other researchers. Suffice it to say that the model has yet to be superseded.

The Propaganda Model has, as its counterpart in the political system proper, Thomas Ferguson’s Investment Theory, which I laid out in an earlier piece titled “The Political Economy of the US State.” These models reinforce each other, are codependent, and, in fact, must be analyzed together to appreciate the stability of the US political system. In particular, significant reform of Washington politics is highly unlikely absent a significant enlargement of the public sphere. That is, as long as the Propaganda Model continues to hold, the policies of the US state will continue to emanate from tightly-knit sectors of wealth and power.

Personal and corporate interests reside in the private sphere which is sheltered from state power in a liberal polity. The public sphere is the imaginary arena in which the public interest is articulated and argued. It is the interface between civil society on the one hand, and the state on the other. It is the mechanism though which civil society exercises some sort of influence over the policies of the state. Mass politics requires the existence of a public sphere.6 In a meaningful democracy, the public sphere ought to be transparent, open to all, with reason as the only arbiter; a ‘virtual marketplace of ideas.’ Ideally, the policies of the state should be decided in the public sphere.

In the extant world, policy is decided in the ‘market for policy,’ in accordance with the Investment Theory. Public discussion is limited to a tiny subset of the policy spectrum. For instance, the monetary-financial, foreign, and security policies of the US state are almost strictly off-limits to the public. The reason why Edward Snowdon is a hero is because he dared to part the curtains; exposing the shadowy world in which the world’s most famous outlaw state operates. For part of the solution to the “crisis of democracy” that was pursued, was for the US state to go underground. Basically, the US security state went clandestine. For instance, Reagan’s contra wars in Central America were secret. By now, the use of force by the United States – the military use of the air-space over much of Africa, the Greater Middle East, and the global commons – is mostly classified and hidden from the public sphere; discussed by officials only “off the record.”

The Internet revolution is a mixed blessing for the public sphere. On the one hand, partly due to increased access to top quality journalism and partly due to the superstar effect, the Internet has increased the sway of major media firms, and annihilated a significant proportion of small and medium media firms. One the other, anyone with access to the Internet can make a public argument at virtually zero marginal cost; so that it is possible, perhaps for the first time, to cheaply create truly open forums for public discussions. Those of us who are privileged to have access and the time to inform ourselves could perhaps do no better than availing of the opportunities opened up by the Internet and contributing to informed discussion in the public interest.


1 All quotes are from Noam Chomsky’s Necessary Illusions. Chomsky has kindly made it available for free online.

2 In the UK, a thriving working-class press persisted into the 1960s, when it was finally undermined by the rise of advertising. For instance, when it closed in 1964, the Daily Herald  had almost double the readership of the Times, the Financial Times, and the Guardian combined.

3 Crozier, Michel, Samuel P. Huntington, and Jōji Watanuki. The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission. New York: New York UP, 1975. Print.

4 The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal bookend, from opposite ends, the “reasonable spectrum of opinion.” This is a good rule of thumb to navigate the policy-relevant US discourse.

5 Such as the fact that the “brutal dictator” (Saddam Hussein), who “gassed his own people,” was a US client when he was using chemical weapons against the Iranians and domestic opponents. Apart from being armed by the United States, Saddam was also receiving dual-use chemicals from the US and its Western allies. Saddam’s use of chemical weapons was known to administration officials, who, nonetheless, continued to approve the flow of dual-use chemicals and the supply of arms to the “brutal dictator” even as he continued to use them throughout the 1980s.

6 The public sphere only came into being with the emergence of periodicals in the eighteenth century. It was the press that was really the basis for mass politics.

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