In the Danger: Self Censorship, the Propaganda Model, and the Saving Grace

By Watson, David | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

In the Danger: Self Censorship, the Propaganda Model, and the Saving Grace


Watson, David, Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


Neil Postman, writing before the internet, described Americans as follows: "Americans are the best entertained and quite likely the least well-informed people in the Western world." (1) Postman's argument was that even ostensibly serious arenas, such as news media, have simply been turned into entertainment mediums. The result is a society that is sedated and uninformed. Postman is articulating one of the most pressing dangers of the modern technological movement: entertainment for entertainment's sake. This entertainment based on images, whether computer-based or television-based, is peculiar and new because it tends to be disengaged. Images wash over us placidly. Compare this idea to a group of children playing a game of baseball in a park. They are certainly attempting to be entertained, but their entertainment was active, engaged. It is quite a serious question why we have become so attuned to this disengaged mode of being. (2)

While the fact of disengagement is the most pressing danger, it is not the only concern. Suppose we wish to use the computer in an active manner. Suppose we wish to actively pursue truth or actively pursue engagement with other like-minded people. Will the internet then not be the saving grace that arises out of the danger? The answer, as is often the case, is both yes and no. In this paper, I wish to examine some of the new filters that arise due to the structure of the internet and how these filters effectively censor material. I also wish to show how the internet, if used effectively, can provide the best hope for subverting the traditional filters outlined in Chomsky and Herman's propaganda model.

Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman's Manufacturing Consent was one of the first serious works studying the political economy of mass media. In this work they outlined a propaganda model that would go a long way in explaining bias in news. They discovered 5 filters which are as follows: 1) size, ownership, and profit orientation of the mass media; 2) the advertising license to do business; 3) sourcing mass media news; 4) flak and the enforcers; 5) anticommunism as a control mechanism. Today number 5 has widened to include anti-Arab bias, but the point remains the same. These filters are constantly at work and keep news content critical of business interests in check. They also keep deep critiques of foreign policy in check. One is allowed to complain about minor atrocities, but one must always adhere to the doctrine of noble intentions. (3)

The question I wish to propose is this: does the internet have these filters? Or any filters for that matter? After all one would like to believe that any person who can access the internet immediately and by definition will have access to all of its content. I wish to suggest that this is a drastic oversimplification.

New Filters

Let's look at an example. Recent issues over Net-Neutrality are of paramount importance concerning the future of the internet. There have been considerable efforts by cable and phone companies to control content that is disseminated over the internet. Also, because of the profit-motive filter involved, this story has not been widely reported in the press. In the book Censored 2007: The Top 25 Censored Stories, the number one entry was "Future Of Internet Debate Ignored By Media." It should be noted that there has been substantial coverage on the internet concerning this issue, but you have to know where to look. On Freepress.net a search using the words "net neutrality" provides 2,217 entries. However, to find these articles you have to get to Freepress.net. Starting from msn.com or yahoo.com (places people have email accounts) and clicking on hyperlinks will not get you there.

What tends to happen with the following of hyperlinks actually provides an interesting new filter. It has been frequently pointed out that page 8A of the New York Times might have a story that is more important than what is above the fold on page one. …

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