Saturday, September 17, 2011

A Defense of the Propaganda Model

As an elementary school student in the United States, my social studies classes focused on government. Not government in general, really, but the American form of government. It's clearly the most desirable and most effective system in existence, the textbooks proclaimed, so why bother learning about dictatorships? The same was true for studying the economy. The capitalist model was the only one presented. Alternative economic or governmental systems were only discussed in high school and in reference to some conflict. World War II was an example of how dictatorships lead populations astray, and communism was never discussed much outside of the Cold War.

Throw the daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance into the mix, and it was hard for a kid not to grow up thinking the U.S. is No. 1 in all things. At least that was my experience. So it came as somewhat of a surprise when we mentioned in our International Communication class that the U.S. was initially reluctant to produce propaganda for what it considered irrefutable merits. Growing up an American, it seemed like propaganda was an inherent part of the culture. In this country freedom of expression is considered an obviously positive value, so much so that the opposite becomes difficult to imagine. Even at the university level, American students may scratch their heads when asked to contemplate a society in which freedom of expression is not the norm. "But how could democracy function without it?" we ask ourselves. And we find ourselves back in the same ethnocentrism we’ve been fed since elementary school.

It’s interesting that the U.S. has made a dramatic turnaround since those early reservations. Since realizing that the rest of the world was not as accepting of American values, things have changed. Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman have gone so far as to describe the American mainstream media in their "propaganda model." In “Approaches to theorizing international communication,” Daya Thussu defines the theory. The propaganda model claims that because mainstream media news must go through several filters, such as ownership and advertising, before reaching the public, the news usually comes out supporting the status quo. Since the mass media operate like a business, it makes sense that news outlets would be reluctant to antagonize their sources of funding by questioning or undermining their values. Thussu acknowledges that the propaganda model has received a great deal of criticism.

In the essay “The Propaganda Model: A Retrospective,” Herman defends the model. He illustrates his point with an interesting contrast.  In the early 1980s, there were two parallel crackdowns by foreign governments. The Polish and Turkish governments both took severe action against unions. The crackdown in Poland received significant coverage in the American news media because the workers were so-called victims of a Soviet state. On the other hand, the American media looked favorably upon Turkey and did not condemn its government’s actions in the media. It’s hard to justify this type of dichotomy from a journalistic standpoint, since the press professes to provide fair and balanced coverage.

What’s notable about Herman and Chomsky’s theory is that it doesn’t claim that the propaganda is always successful at swaying the audience. Herman lists several examples, including the Vietnam War, as cases of when the public didn’t buy into what the media and the ruling class proposed. The propaganda model gives more credit to the discerning capabilities of the audience, as opposed to the critical theory, which presents the audience as unquestioning of what the mass media produce. Some of the public may take news at face value. But Herman’s examples of how the media spin certain issues should be proof enough for the rest of us that even the media have an agenda. 

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