MODERN PROPAGANDA THEORY

MODERN PROPAGANDA THEORY

Consider the Hippler and Sproule characterizations of propaganda from earlier in this chapter: simplify a complex issue and repeat that simplification; use covert, massively orchestrated communication; and use tricky language to discourage reflective thought. Some contemporary critical theorists argue that propaganda conforming to these rules is alive and well today and that it is practiced with a stealth, sophistication, and effectiveness unparalleled in history. They point to a number of “natural beliefs” that have been so well propagandized that meaningful public discourse about them has become difficult if not impossible. Political discourse and advertising are frequent areas of modern propaganda study, and the central argument of this modern propaganda theory is that powerful elites so thoroughly control the mass media and their content that they have little trouble imposing their Truth on the culture.

Close your eyes and think welfare. Did you envision large corporations accepting government handouts, special tax breaks for businesses, companies building ships and planes that the military does not want? Or did you picture a single mother, a woman of color, cheating the taxpayers so she can stay home and watch Jerry Springer? This narrowing of public discourse and debate is examined in works such as historian Herb Schiller’s Culture, Inc.: The Corporate Takeover of Public Expression (1989); communication theorist Robert McChesney’s Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy (1997) and The Problem of the Media (2004); mass communication researchers Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Paul Waldman’s The Press Effect (2003); and linguist Noam Chomsky’s American Power and the New Mandarins (1969), Deterring Democracy (1991), and with Edward S. Herman, Manufacturing Consent (Herman and Chomsky, 1988). All offer a common perspective. In Jamieson and Waldman’s words, it is, “‘Facts’ can be difficult to discern and relate to the public, particularly in a context in which the news is driven by politicians and other interested parties who selectively offer some pieces of information while suppressing others” (xiii).

Take one such “interested party,” advertisers and their advertising, as an example. Different ads may tout one product over another, but all presume the logic and rightness of consumption and capitalism. Our need for “more stuff” is rarely questioned: the connection between wealth/consumption and success/acceptance is never challenged; and concern about damage to the environment caused by, first, the manufacture of products and second, their disposal, is excluded from the debate. The point is not that consumption and capitalism are innately bad, but that as in all successful propaganda efforts, the alternatives are rarely considered. When alternatives are considered, those who raise them are viewed as out of the mainstream or peculiar. By extension, this failure to consider alternatives benefits those same economic elites most responsible for limiting that consideration and reflection. Sproule has written thoughtfully and persuasively on advertising as propaganda in Channels of Propaganda (1994) and Propaganda and Democracy: The American Experience of Media and Mass Persuasion (1997).

This current reconsideration of propaganda theory comes primarily from critical theorists and, as a result, its orientation tends to be from the political Left (Chapter 2). For example, economist and media analyst Edward S. Herman identified five filters that ensure the “multi-leveled capability of powerful business and government entities and collectives (for example, the Business Roundtable; U.S. Chamber of Commerce; industry lobbies and front groups) to exert power over the flow of information” (1996, p. 117). These filters enable powerful business and government elites “to mobilize an elite consensus, to give the appearance of democratic consent, and to create enough confusion, misunderstanding, and apathy in the general population to allow elite programs to go forward” (p. 118). The first two of Herman’s elite-supporting filters are ownership and advertising, which “have made bottom line considerations more controlling. . . . The professional autonomy of journalists has been reduced” (p. 124). The next two are sourcing and flack, increasingly effective because “a reduction in the resources devoted to journalism means that those who subsidize the media by providing sources for copy gain greater leverage” (p. 125). Here he is specifically speaking of the power of corporate and government public relations. Finally, the fifth filter motivating media toward propagandists’ support of the status quo is the media’s “belief in the ‘miracle of the market.’ There is now an almost religious faith in the market, at least among the elite, so that regardless of the evidence, markets are assumed benevolent and non-market mechanisms are suspect” (p. 125). These themes, as you will see in Chapters 8 and 11, accurately mirror many of the core assumptions of critical cultural theory.

Behaviorists Richard Laitinen and Richard Rakos (1997) offer another critical view of contemporary propaganda. They argue that modern propaganda—in their definition, “the control of behavior by media manipulation” (p. 237)—is facilitated by three factors: an audience “that is enmeshed and engulfed in a harried lifestyle, less well-informed, and less politically involved, . . . the use of sophisticated polling and survey procedures, whose results are used by the propagandists to increase their influence, . . . [and] the incorporation of media companies into megaconglomerates” (pp. 238–239). These factors combine to put untold influence in the hands of powerful business and governmental elites without the public’s awareness. Laitinen and Rakos wrote:

In contemporary democracies, the absence of oppressive government control of information is typically considered a fundamental characteristic of a “free society.” However, the lack of aversive control does not mean that information is “free” of controlling functions. On the contrary, current mechanisms of influence, through direct economic and indirect political contingencies, pose an even greater threat to behavioral diversity than do historically tyrannical forms. Information today is more systematic, continuous, consistent, unobtrusive, and ultimately powerful. (1997, p. 237)

There is also renewed interest in propaganda theory from the political Right. This conservative interest in propaganda takes the form of a critique of liberal media bias (see, for example, Coulter, 2002, 2006; Goldberg, 2002, 2003, 2009; Morris and McGann, 2008). Other than surveys indicating that a majority of journalists vote Democratic, there is little serious scholarship behind this assertion. In fact, what research there is tends to negate the liberal media bias thesis, as the large majority of media outlet managers and owners tend to vote Republican, the majority of the country’s syndicated newspaper columnists write with a conservative bent, and the majority of “newsmakers” on network and cable public affairs talk shows are politically right-of-center (Alterman, 2003). McChesney commented:

The fundamental error in the conservative notion of the “liberal” media [is] it posits that editors and journalists have almost complete control over what goes into news. . . . In conservative “analysis,” the institutional factors of corporate ownership, profit-motivation, and advertising support have no effect on media content. . . . The notion that journalism can regularly produce a product that violates the fundamental interests of media owners and advertisers and do so with impunity simply has no evidence behind it. (1997, p. 60)

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