Four criticisms of the propaganda model

The propaganda model was attacked for being:

1. A conspiracy theory.

The model was dubbed a conspiracy theory by critics on left and right although Herman says he and Chomsky had looked for structural factors as the only possible root of systematic behaviour and performance patterns.52 The criticism boils down to a misrepresentation of the propaganda model as an intentionally centralised plan akin to Oliver Stone's representation of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.53

In a paper defending Manufacturing Consent: Political Economy of the Mass Media, Noam Chomsky's collaborator Edward Herman says "the propaganda model describes a decentralized and non-conspiratorial market system of control and processing, although at times the government or one or more private actors may take initiatives and mobilize co-ordinated elite handling of an issue."54

Intention remains an unmeasurable red herring and Herman says: "The model is best described as a guided market system explicitly rejecting conspiracy." And yet, "All we know is that the media and journalists mislead in tandem--some no doubt internalize a propaganda line as true, some may know it is false, but the point is unknowable and irrelevant."55

2. Failure to take account of media professionalism and objectivity.

Professor Dan Hallin56 argues that Chomsky and Herman failed to take account of the maturing of journalist professionalism, which Hallin claims to be "central to understanding how the media operate."57 But Hallin concedes that in protecting and rehabilitating the public sphere "professionalism is surely part of the answer."

To this Herman replies: "Professionalism and objectivity rules are fuzzy, flexible, and superficial manifestations of deeper power and control relationships. Professionalism arose in journalism in the years when the newspaper business was becoming less competitive and more dependent on advertising." Herman cites Ben Bagdikian, who said professionalism has made journalists oblivious to the compromises with authority they are constantly making. "Even Hallin acknowledges that professional journalism can allow something close to complete government control via sourcing domination."

Whereas Hallin points to US military invention in central America in the 1980s as disproof of the propaganda model, Herman sees the theory borne out by "the failure of the media to report even a tiny fraction of the crimes of the Contras in Nicaragua and the death machines of El Salvador and Guatemala, in contrast with their inflation of Sandinista misdeeds and double standard in reporting on the Nicaraguan election of 1984."

Of the model's left wing critics Herman says: "Some of them found repugnant a wholesale condemnation of a system in which they played a respected role; for them it is a basically sound system, its inequalities of access regrettable but tolerable, its pluralism and competition effectively responding to consumer demands."

3. Failure to explain continued opposition and resistance.

These critics failed to comprehend that the propaganda model is about how the media work, not how effective they are. The objectives of the medical profession are not called into question by the persistence of disease in the world. Herman says: "By the logic of this form of criticism many Soviet citizens did not swallow the lines put forward by Pravda. This demonstrates that Pravda was not serving a state propaganda function."58

4. The propaganda model is too mechanical or functionalist and ignores the existence of space, contestation, and interaction.

These critics would reject any attempt at a model because they prefer to focus on the micro level of how sources organise media strategies to achieve their ends as if this were more legitimate than to study how global corporate efforts influence the media along with the complementary effects of thousands of local strategies. But the propaganda model is only a model, and any model involves deterministic elements, so this is a straw person unless the critics also show that the system is not logically consistent, operates on false premises, or that the predictive power of the determining variables is poor.59 60"

52 Herman, The propaganda model revisited
53 Dir. Oliver Stone, JFK (Warner Bros,1991)
54 Herman, The propaganda model revisited
55 Herman, The propaganda model revisited
56 Chairman of the Communications Department at University of California at San Diego
57 Dan Hallin, Keep America on Top of the World: Television Journalism and the Public Sphere (London: Routledge, 1994). p. 13
58 Herman, The propaganda model revisited
59 For an analysis of this see Noam Chomsky Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies, (Boston: South End Press 1989) pp 145-148.
60 In a footnote Herman adds: "The only attempt to offer an alternative model was by Nicholas Lemann in the New Republic