Chomsky's propaganda model of media has been as controversial as McLuhan's ideas ever were, and although they share some common ground McLuhan seems to accept the status quo more than Chomsky who takes something of an activist stance.
In their book33 Herman and Chomsky cite five filters through which information must pass, and they observe that jointly and severally these filters help shape media choices without any conscious conspiracy required.
The dominant media are firmly embedded in the market system. They are profit-seeking businesses, owned by very wealthy people or other companies. Alternatives such as co-operative ownership tend to fare badly. Any notion that free market competition supports free-ranging pluralism of interests is confounded by the available statistics. There tends to be an inexorable trend towards monopoly. At the end of World War II, 80 per cent of all US newspapers were privately owned. Within 40 years that figure was its exact opposite with 80 per cent of all newspapers owned by corporate chains. From 1960 to 1984, the number of corporations which owned US newspapers fell from 27 to 14.34 In 1992, 90 per cent of the UK press was controlled by Conrad Black, Rupert Murdoch, Lord Rothermere, Lord Stevens, and Mirror Group Newspapers.35
Analysts prior to Chomsky and Herman had relied upon the free market system to provide a pluralist media but Herman regards this as naive given the close-knit composition of media ownership in the USA. Moreover, he observes that the same analysts had taken an opposite view when regarding media in authoritarian or totalitarian regimes. "The idea that journalists or public opinion can override the power of those who own and control the media is dismissed as nonsense and even considered an apology for tyranny."36
Marshall McLuhan writes of a friend who, when trying to teach media in secondary school was struck by the unanimous response that the students could not for a moment accept the suggestion that the press or any other public means of communication could be used with base intent. "They felt that this would be akin to polluting the air or the water supply, and they didn't feel that their friends and relatives employed in these media would sink to such corruption."37
When he was a columnist with the UK Daily Mirror, the journalist Paul Foot showed a similar naiveté at an NUJ day of action in 1988 when he called upon journalists to "Go over your editors' heads!" by breaking the government ban on reporting Sinn Fein. While Foot is a self-confessed socialist, media analysts in the USA can be forgiven for not addressing the fundamental question of media ownership given the revolutionary implications of doing something about it.
The media are funded largely by advertisers who are also profit-seeking entities, and who want their ads to appear in a supportive selling environment.38 As McLuhan says: "The ads are always good news."39 In order to balance the ads, the hot medium needs to carry a lot of bad news. This analysis goes some way to explaining the difficulties of politicians trying to peddle a positive message, and the rise of the spin-doctor.
The hot media are very dependent on government and major business firms as information sources. In The News as Myth,40 Tom Koch appears to agree: "As Chomsky has shown,41 the result, at least in terms of United States reportage of foreign affairs leads to a consistent exclusion of facts unacceptable to US officials and a consistent bias supporting official US positions."42
Koch says a high percentage of US copy originates from official sources. "One survey of 2,850 stories in the N.Y. Times and Washington Post found that almost 80 per cent of the stories in both publications were based on the official pronouncements of public officials."43
Koch gives the 1981 case of Judge Shinktaku in Hawaii in which this tendency was massively distorting. The judge found himself regaining consciousness in hospital after a household accident, only to discover that the newspapers were running a story that he had attempted suicide. Koch says that independent experts, and Shinktaku himself, all say that the story defied all rational interpretations of the physical evidence. However, the police spokesman had initially taken the suicide line, and the newspapers routinely put that at the top of the copy and rejected any other sources that failed to support the official view. The event remains on the record as actuality because of the status of a police spokesperson.44 As Tuchman puts it, "the act of making news is the act of constructing reality itself rather than a picture of reality."45
Koch cites en passant that a 1988 report in the newspaper trade magazine Editor and Publisher revealed that 79 per cent of the content in the former Soviet Union's official newspaper Pravda originated not from press conferences nor official statements but from "citizens' complaints, queries, revelations and observations."46 This revelation may be startling even to unreconstructed socialists that withstood the collapse of the Soviet Union and tends to support Karl Marx's prescription that: "The first freedom of the press consists in its not being a trade."47
This filter is little more than the negative face of the three filters listed above. "Government and large non-media business firms are also best positioned (and sufficiently wealthy) to be able to pressure the media with threats of withdrawal of advertising or TV licenses, libel suits, and other direct and indirect modes of attack." As the director of journalism studies at London College of Printing likes to put it: "No newsdesk would dare run a story that 'Coca-Cola gives you cancer' - because none could withstand the withdrawal of the Coca-Cola company's advertising."48
The media are constrained by the dominant ideology, which heavily featured anti-Communism before and during the Cold War era, and was mobilised often to prevent the media from criticising attacks on small states labelled communist. 49 Herman allows that this filter is possibly weakened by the collapse of the Soviet Union and global socialism, but this is easily offset by the greater ideological force of the belief in the "miracle of the market."50
The thrust of Chomsky and Herman's thesis is that propaganda campaigns can occur only when consistent with the interests of those controlling and managing these five filters. For example, it was a generally accepted view that the Polish government's crackdown on the Solidarity union in 1980-81 was extremely newsworthy and deserved severe condemnation whereas in the same period the hot media did not find the Turkish military government's equally brutal crackdown on trade unions in Turkey to be newsworthy or reprehensible.51
In the latter case the US government and business community liked the military government's anti-Communist stance and open door economic policy and the crackdown on Turkish unions had the merit of weakening the left and keeping wages down. In the Polish case, propaganda points could be scored against a Soviet-supported government, and concern could be expressed for workers whose wages were not paid by free-world employers. The fit of this dichotomisation to corporate interests and anti-Communist ideology is obvious.
Chomsky and Herman used the concepts of worthy and unworthy victims to describe this dichotomy. The US backed the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975. This crushed the popular left-Catholic government that had been established there by the Freitilin party in 1974 after the former colony had freed itself from Portuguese fascism. Chomsky considers the invasion the worst case of genocide since the Nazi holocaust, with atrocity stories and numbers that are easily comparable to those attributed to the late Pol Pot in Cambodia.
In his study of how the media serves as the lapdog of corporations who profit from their influence over US foreign policy, Chomsky compares the New York Times's coverage of East Timor with its coverage of the Khmer Rouge. The qualitative and empirical evidence is clear: the United States backed the invasion of East Timor, and the New York Times failed to cover it adequately, basically presenting a whitewash. During approximately the same period, Washington opposed the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. "After the first two hundred deaths," Chomsky points out, "they [the New York Times] were already calling it genocide."