Why the media is biased - understanding the propaganda model


When the Watergate Scandal brought down the Nixon Government in the States in the mid-70s, it was heralded as one of the finest examples of media power in modern times. Nixon's fall from grace, along with the story of corruption in high places, was the stuff of drama. In no time, the journalists at the centre of the Watergate exposé - Bernstein and Woodward - became celebrities. They went on to win Pulitzer Prizes for their journalistic endeavours and even became the subject of a Hollywood touch-up in All The President's Men.

Ever since, Watergate has acted as a sort of beacon. No single news story did as much for the prestige of the media or the profession of journalism. No other single news-story seems to have offered such overwhelming evidence that under capitalism "the press is free". For a newspaper to be able to have the power and freedom to bring down a US President of Nixon's stature - well, what more can you say?

But even as the decade of Watergate (the 1970s) was drawing to a close, there were already rumblings of doubt. Painstaking research of a different variety, by two left-wing academics, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, laid the foundations for an entirely different view of the media and its role in our society. Rather than seeing the media as a "defender of freedom", Herman and Chomsky outlined example after example of where the media either lied about the truth or distorted the news beyond actual recognition.

Far from seeing this "lying" as isolated, or the work of "rogue" news- papers, the two academics advanced the view that the modern media operated in a manner more akin to a Propaganda Service. Rather than defending freedom and justice, they charged the major news and wire services (including the Washington Post, of Watergate fame) with subservience to the interests of the rich and powerful. More to the point, Herman and Chomsky produced the evidence to support this charge.


The idea that the media serves the interest of big business and the rich is not, in itself, a new idea - far from it. A lot of people harbour the suspicion in some form - if not from their own experience, then certainly from some sort of 'common-sense' knowledge about the world around them. But just because people suspect bias, is not in itself proof that bias exists. From school onwards (and throughout life) we're actually bombarded with the view that "this society is free".

A lot of what happens in this society - from punitive measures against the poor, to hospital closures - happens in our name. If you want to check that out, just look at the news for the next few weeks: there you will find plenty of examples which do seem to indicate that we go along with all sort of laws and decisions that just aren't in our own interest.

Herman and Chomsky arrived at a theory about the media that is called The Propaganda Model. This theory and the evidence to back it up  was first published in their book, Manufacturing Consent. According to Herman and Chomsky, manufacturing consent is precisely what the modern media does. Rather than providing us with all the information we need for making a particular decision, the media shapes and manages the news about the world in a definite and particular way. The modern media systematically under-reports or ignores some types of news so that the current division of society into rulers and ruled is preserved (or at the very least not challenged).

Chomsky and Herman point out that the shaping and managing of the news occurs in a more sophisticated way than is often imagined. An extremely biased and censored news product emerges from the manner in which the media is structured and organised. Censorship results not from one act by one particular person (the censor of old) but rather is built up piecemeal, over a long period of time. The important thing is not the fate of any one particular news story but rather the picture that emerges when all the individual news stories are placed alongside one another over a long period of time. According to Chomsky and Herman, the censorship that is part and parcel of today's media is all the more difficult to challenge precisely because it is so invisible.


Though we are limited by space in this article, it is worth looking at the basic way in which the Propaganda Model works. Chomsky and Herman argue that censorship in the modern media functions a lot like the way a filtration system works - news acceptable to the interests of big business passes through the filters, whereas news that challenges the establishment is filtered out. According to Chomsky and Herman there are five main filters, all of which target and work against the production of "anti-establishment news". News that passes through one filter can often be caught by other filters down the line. The five filters are as follows
1) the ownership profile of the mass media,
2)the effect of advertising,
3) the role of "news experts",
4) the idea of "balance" in reporting,
5) over-riding concerns. These are examined very briefly.

Introducing The Five Filters

There are five main influences on the news and views that are produced by TV, radio and newspapers. These influences act like filters, separating out acceptable news from 'unacceptable news'. Because of these 'filters' we end up with a sanitised news and information service which helps most modern governments to rule:

Ownership: Three-quarters of the Irish print media is owned by just one billionaire - Denis O'Brien (and before him another billonaire, Tony O'Reilly). But Ireland is not unusual in having a situation like this. Across the world, the major media services from Sky Channel (Rupert Murdoch) to Reuters are in private hands. The reason for this is simple: news makes money. Murdoch once described a newspaper he was trying to buy as "a river of gold". This ethos - making money out of news - in itself creates a certain way of looking at the world. This is the first filter.

Advertising: Leonard Mattews of the American Association of Advertising Agencies once put it succinctly: "To expect private companies to go on supporting a medium that is attacking them is like taking up a collection among the Christians for money to buy more lions". Advertisers often exert subtle but firm influence on the media

News Experts: There is an increasing reliance on the 'expert' within the news media. However the vast majority of the 'experts' tend to come from within the confines of the 'establishment' itself. These 'experts' often have a definite 'ideological bent' - a factor that may not often be clear to the viewer. Also in this area, Government and business often employ Public Relations consultants to prepare and present their views to the media. These 'media-friendly' mediators (spin-doctors) can often guarantee coverage.

Balance and 'Flak': No one realises that media coverage is important in popularising an issue as does the Government and the business community. They often monitor the news in order to ensure that there is 'balanced coverage' of an issue that is of interest to them. The Government and the employers federation IBEC often pay people to do this specific job for them. Again this effect can alter the tone and direction of the news that we hear.

Overriding Concerns: What does the Cold War and Terrorism have in common? Quite a lot when it comes to the media. In the USA, the Cold War was often used to bludgeon "unruly" journalists into submission, around particular certain subject matters. The equivalent to the Cold War in Ireland is Terrorism (or more specifically "paramilitary terrorism"). As is well know (from Section 31 and so forth) large elements of the Irish media accepted overt censorship within the media for much of the last decades. While Section 31 was supposedly directed at certain organisations, its ethos extended far wider.

Fair Coverage

Chomsky and Herman produced their proposals about the media so as to assist us in fighting back. As they have pointed out - awareness is half the battle. So long as people continue to believe that "the media is free under capitalism" they will be more inclined to accept the media's particular slant on news events. Disputing the media's impartiality may be difficult, but even so it is crucial that if we are to win people towards the idea of a revolutionary change. Here are some of the things that can be done:

It is important to popularise information about how bias in the media works. Look at the media in your own area - who owns it? What issues get covered and why? Work to produce factual evidence that points out the bias. Attempt to get publicity on this.

Monitor the media on different issues, particularly around issues you yourself are involved in. Are you getting fair coverage? Why not? Who is?

Assist alternative media whenever you can. When bias in the media is encountered, aim to work with those journalists and media workers who are in a union and likely to be on your side. Many journalists have no option but to go along with "news management". They also want to see change.

Based on an article by Kevin Doyle in Workers Solidarity No 54 published in June 1998 but edited here to remove dated examples in order to use it for the WSM's Introductions to Anarchism reading list