Magazine article Monthly Review

The Political Economy of the Mass Media: An Interview with Edward S. Herman

Magazine article Monthly Review

The Political Economy of the Mass Media: An Interview with Edward S. Herman

Article excerpt

Over the past generation, it has become increasingly clear to those on the left that the U.S. mass media, far from performing an autonomous and adversarial role in U.S. society, actively frame issues and promote news stories that serve the needs and concerns of the elite. Moreover, the importance of the leading corporate mass media in contemporary politics radically transcends the role ofthe mass media in earlier times. Hence, the Left has begun to pay considerable attention to how the media are structured and controlled and how they operate. Nevertheless, the ideology of the "free press" has proven to be a difficult adversary for left critics; as the media's operations are central to the modern polity, their legitimacy is shielded by layers and layers of ideological obfuscation.

Recently, left analysis of the media has been enriched by the publication of Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (Pantheon, 1988), by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky. This book promises to be a seminal work in critical media analysis and to open a door through which future media analysis will follow. In Manufacturing Consent, Herman and Chomsky provide a systematic "propaganda model" to account for the behavior of the corporate news media in the United States. They preface their discussion of the propaganda model by noting their fundamental belief that the mass media "serve to mobilize support for the special interests that dominate the state and private support for the special interests that dominate the state and private activity." Although propaganda is not the sole function of the media, it is "a very important aspect of their overall service" (p. xi), especially "in a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest" (p.1).

Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky are certainly wellqualified to provide a simple yet powerful model that explains how the media function to serve the large propaganda requiremen ts ofthe elite. Together and individually, they have written numerous articles and books which have chronicled the ways in which the U.S. media have actively promoted the agenda ofthe elite, particularly in regard to U.S. activities in the Third World. Manufacturing Consent is a work of tremendous importance for scholars and activists alike.

Herman and Chomsky quickly dismiss the standard mainstream critique of radical media analysis that accuses it of offering some sort of "conspiracy" theory for media behavior; rather, they argue, media bias arises from "the preselection of right-thinking people, internalized preconceptions, and the adaptation of personnel to the constraints" of a series of objective filters they present in their propaganda model. Hence the bias occurs largely through self-censorship, which explains the superiority ofthe U.S. mass media as a propaganda system: it is far more credible than a system which relies on official state censorship, although in performance the dominant media serve the agenda of the elite every bit as much as state organs do on behalf of the ruling bureaucracies in Eastern Europe.

The credibility and legitimacy of the media system is also preserved by the media's lack of complete agreement on all issues. Indeed, there is vigorous debate and dispute over many issues, as Herman and Chomsky readily acknowledge. They contend, however, that debate within the dominant media is limited to "responsible "opinions acceptable to some segment of the elite. On issues where the elite are in general consensus, the media will always toe the line. No dissent will then be countenanced, let alone acknowledged, except, when necessary for ridicule or derision.

In their propaganda model, Herman and Chomsky present a series of fiv"filters" to account for why the dominant U.S. media invariably serve as propagandists for the interests of the elite. Only stories with a strong orientation to elite interests can pass through the five filters unobstructed and receive ample media attention. …

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