Have you ever wondered why there are oil commercials on TV? Do the oil companies really feel a need to remind us that we need to put petrol in our cars? What about military contractors? As if the person watching the TV gets a say in which contractor the government decides to fund. Same for prescription drugs and political parties. Has anybody ever been influenced by these commercials? Of course not. So why would these huge corporations, with all of their market research funding, spend so much money on them? Understanding the answer to that question will lead to an understanding of the real purpose of the mainstream media and of the propaganda apparatus.
One might think that the main product of the media is entertainment: television and radio shows, news, sport, etc. This is misleading; it would be like saying that the main product of a Venus fly trap is nectar. There are two main products of the media. The first are audiences, which they sell to advertisers. The second is propaganda, which is where the oil companies, defence contractors, etc come in. Those corporations are not interested in selling their products to audiences, but rather in preventing the media from revealing their activities to those audiences. Their commercial dollars guarantee that the media company never speaks poorly of them.
Here is how it works
Oil companies are in the practice of destroying homes, lives, the environment, and the future of humanity. The same goes for the military: the biggest polluter of them all. They’re not interested in spending money on safe practices or the health of the planet and its population, and so they want the governments of the world to keep their industries de-regulated and their military budgets swelling. Governments are more than happy to oblige because they receive extensive bribes from those industries. (Did I say “bribes”? I meant “political contributions”.) But what to do about the pesky public who doesn’t want its water and air polluted and its children dying or being deformed from diseases caused by their products? By paying hush money to the mainstream media they can ensure that issues such as climate change and peace are never discussed to any serious extent. The hush money is not paid in brown paper bags, but rather in the form of commercials.
So you see, those oil and military contractor commercials are not intended to sway the public in any direction. They are simply a means by which the media companies receive their hush money. Those companies, now heavily dependent on that advertising revenue, always oblige.
A good recent example is The Washington Post, which was acquired a few years ago by Jeff Bezos (one of the three richest men in America). It issued a policy last year preventing its employees from speaking in any way that “adversely affects The Post’s customers, advertisers, subscribers, vendors, suppliers or partners”. This extended to the social media accounts of the Post’s employees. The mighty newspaper that once took down Nixon is today little more than a lapdog to its paymasters.
The trajectory of the mass media in Australian is very similar to that of America, probably because much of it is run by the same people in both countries. The enemy is the consolidation of media ownership. In the US, just six corporations control 90% of the media. See this clip for an amusing example of what that looks like. Another example, which was called out earlier this month is here, from the Sinclair Media debacle.
It is not just in the media that the established political elite pushes its message. An average professional American football game lasts over three hours, out of which 75 minutes are spent watching players, coaches and referees doing very little, 17 minutes are spent on replays, and 60 minutes are spent on commercials. The ball is in play for only 11 minutes. Additionally, the practice of football teams being present for the national anthem before games is a recent addition enforced by the US military. Beforehand the players would remain in their change rooms until after the anthem. Then, in 2009. the military started paying the NFL millions for the players to do a little war parade to their fans; another destructive Obama-era practice. Keep in mind also that playing the national anthem before a sports game is an absurd practice , obviously designed to bolster the “love Big Brother” message.
The propaganda model
Propaganda is more sophisticated in the more free societies. The public relations and propaganda industries were developed in the UK and the US about a century ago. In David Hume’s study “Of the First Principles of Government“, he points out the amazing ease with which the many are willfully governed by the few. By the early 20th century it was understood by the ruling classes that the masses had won enough freedom for themselves that they could no longer be completely dominated by force alone. It therefore became necessary to shape beliefs and attitudes. This is the role of the establishment media. Very large industries were developed that were devoted to the engineering of consent (a term coined by Edward Barnays in 1947), and they make up the body of the mainstream media today. In his landmark book Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky laid out the following elements in what he called the Five Filters of the Propaganda Model.
(1) the size, concentrated ownership, wealth, and profit orientation of the mass-media corporations
The first stage in this process is to price media ownership out of the market for all but the wealthy elites. Rupert Murdoch, for example, continues to fund his squalid rags in Australia despite their plummeting revenues because only the wealthy elite and large multinationals are capable of functioning with such losses. Murdoch understands that the purpose of his newspaper empire is to enforce the propaganda model, and in doing so he exercises influence over the ruling classes, controls the media cycles and enforces popular opinion. It is, of course, not beneath him to use his newspaper empire to talk up his other business interests as well.
The concentration of media ownership is a serious threat to what remains of democracy in both Australia and the US. Already in the US, just six corporations control 90% of the media, down from 50 in 1983. These corporations are General Electric (a war profiteer), News Corp (an extreme rightwing propaganda machine), Disney (crusher of unions, violator of civil rights), Viacom, Time Warner and CBS. In Australia, 86% of all newspaper sales are for papers owned by only two corporations (News Corp and Fairfax). The recent acquisition of Channel Ten by CBS added another foreign agent (along with News Corp) in control of a large component of Australian media.
(2) advertising as the primary income source of the mass media
The introduction of advertising as the primary source of revenue serves two purposes for the propaganda model. Firstly, it crushes the non-advertising competition which needs to cover production costs from media sales alone. Secondly, it beholds the media companies to those providing the advertising revenue, which implements a ready-made bias into the media agenda, as we have described above.
Naturally, the material is influenced by the advertisers as well. Advertisers do not want to attach their brand to programs that are complex, and especially not something that may not put the audience into a consumer-friendly mood. They prefer programs that provide light entertainment, do not heavily tax the brain, and never challenge the status quo. Do not expect any cutting investigative journalist pieces on the devastation of climate change or the destruction wrought by the US military or its allies on CNN, MSNBC, Fox, or any of the commercial Australian TV stations, any time soon.
(3) reliance of the media on information provided by government, business, and “experts”
The establishment media is obsessed with what it calls “access”. It is happy to give the microphone to lunatic politicians, corporate executives, war profiteers and religious fanatics, so long as they maintain the propaganda model. They call them “experts”. The goal here is to give an “official” stamp on the propaganda of the day by dressing it in a military uniform or business suit. It also saves the media corporation the time and trouble of having to investigate a story itself. These experts are funded and approved by the corporate elite and ruling classes.
Today, the line between the government and the mainstream media is not even blurred, with many media outlets outright recruiting government agents. CNN and NBC have several former high-ranking CIA and FBI operatives on their payroll, including Director of National Intelligence James Clapper (CNN), CIA Director Michael Hayden (CNN) and, most recently, CIA chief John Brennan (MSNBC/NBC). One FBI operative, Josh Campbell, published an op-ed in the New York Times explaining why he was leaving the FBI and two days later announced his new position as a “law enforcement analyst” on CNN. These operatives accompany the generals, many of whom are on the payroll of military contractors, who have been in the employ of the mass media since the Bush regime. Others include government officials from the State Department and Department of Homeland Security, judges, and politicians like disgraced ex-governor Chris Christie, who was hired by ABC News in January.
Not to be left out, the newspaper media is contaminated as well. Jeff Bezos, CEO of amazon.com, who bought the Washington Post in 2013, has a 600 million dollar contract with the CIA. This article from 2014 describes how an LA Times reporter cleared stories with the CIA prior to publication and implicated similar exchanges with reporters from the Associated Press, Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and other outlets.
The message put out by the establishment media is very simple:
The “good guys”: The establishment, the wealthy, the ruling classes, the advertisers, the military.
The “bad guys”: Those who challenge the “good guys”: socialists, pacifists, the working and poor classes, anti-consumerists, and media that do not follow the propaganda model.
The next time your favourite news show brings on an “expert”, spend a little time researching the political and financial interests of him/her. It may give you cause for hesitation in accepting the validity of their “expert” opinion.
(4) “flak” as a means of disciplining the media
A vital part of the implementation of the propaganda apparatus is the immunisation against dissenting viewpoints. Once one thread is exposed there is a greater chance that the entire tapestry could be undone. It is therefore critical for the establishment media to always stay on message. This is maintained within the media apparatus itself easily enough, through absolute dedication to the other four filters of the propaganda model, but the audience must also be discouraged from consuming information from sources outside of the establishment. Flak refers to attacking those outside sources. This can take many forms, from editorials in newspapers, letters, emails, tweets, phone calls, etc from “concerned citizens”, to speeches, petitions to congress, lawsuits, and direct rebuttal from the aforementioned “experts”. These are either directly from government or corporate mouthpieces, from corporate-funded astroturf groups, or from carefully selected “concerned citizens” who tout the establishment line. A more recent development in this area has been the deployment of paid online trolls such as those utilised by Hillary Clinton in the run up to the 2016 election; it is alleged that at least $1 million was paid by a Clinton super-PAC for this purpose.
The level of sophistication varies with the audience. Extreme right wing lunatic outlets, like Fox News or the Murdoch rags, tend to attract the more simple-minded audience, and so attacks against their critics are much more overt and on-the-nose. They are not beneath using terms like traitor, pinhead, moron, or limp dick, their talking heads often tell their critics to “shut up“, and they openly deploy racist and sexist terminology. Neoliberal outlets, like CNN and MSNBC, have a slightly more sophisticated audience, and so their methods of attack are slightly more covert. They like to use the line “conspiracy theorist” (a term coined by the CIA in the late 1960s to shut down questions about the Warren Commission) to describe those that question the establishment viewpoint. They pretend to take the “moral highground” and issue outrage over something not being polite or decent. They get into a hot bother over Trump’s daily offensive tweeting, while lambasting Rand Paul for wanting to restrict the US involvement in the Saudi-led genocide in Yemen because, quoting CNN talking head Wolf Blitzer: “there are a lot of jobs at stake“.
The standard tactic deployed by all the establishment media outlets, neoliberal and neo-fascist alike, is to avoid the facts of the issues and instead focus on the people who are discussing the issues. Fox News will never discuss the merits of gun control but will enthusiastically attack teenage shooting victims for speaking out in favour of it. MSNBC will never discuss the merits of avoiding a war with Russia and will instead cheerfully attack Trump for not being more aggressive towards the nuclear-powered country. CNN will never question the validity of claims over a suspicious chemical attack in Syria and will instead call those who do question it extremists and conspiracy theorists. Nobody will discuss the imminent threat to humanity posed by climate change but will instead attack progressives for trying to destroy the economy or Republicans for just being evil.
The goal, as the old saying goes, is to play the man. Not the ball.
Flak extends inwards to the employees of the establishment media outlets as well. Take the following MSNBC anchors, for example:
- Phil Donahue: Fired in 2003 for speaking out against the invasion of Iraq;
- Cenk Uygur: Fired in 2010 for speaking out against the Obama administration;
- Ed Schultz: Fired in 2015 for speaking out against the TPP and wanting to cover stories on the rise of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries;
- Melissa Harris-Perry: Fired in 2016 for wanting to present stories on institutionalised racism.
The next two are speculations on my part:
- Keith Olbermann: Fired in 2010 for speaking out against corruption within the Democratic Party.
- Krystal Ball: Fired in 2015 for speaking out against Hillary Clinton
(5) “anticommunism” as a national religion and control mechanism
More generally, this involves foisting a national enemy onto the audience to distract its attention and guide its anger away from the establishment. This was personified in George Owell’s 1984 as the “two minutes hate“. When Chomsky published Manufacturing Consent in the 1980s the public enemy was “Communism” as it had been for the preceding 30 years. After the Soviet bloc collapsed in the early 1990s the enemy was changed into “drugs” and then in the 2000s it was “terrorism”. Notice that these are all vague terms that are never given a firm description. This is by design; the more vague the enemy, the larger a percentage of your audience that can be manipulated into fearing it.
It is important to note that, while “terrorism” is the establishment media’s favourite choice of boogeyman today, neither communism nor the war on drugs have gone away. We have already discussed in prior posts how the war on drugs is used today to oppress poor minorities at home, maintain the cycle of poverty, and justify the US’s military aggression in Latin America.
Likewise, anticommunism, despite being shunned by Obama as being obsolete during his presidential debate with Mitt Romney in 2012, has had a resurrection since the 2016 election. Today there are two major cable networks (CNN, MSNBC) and one mainstream online network (The Young Turks) that are pushing the Russia story so strongly that it resonates with McCarthyism. As one example, in six weeks of coverage in early 2017 the flagship show from MSNBC (the Rachel Maddow show) dedicated 53% of its runtime to Russia alone.
Why the return the McCarthyism? It began with the refusal of Hillary Clinton and her pundits to accept the real reason for why she lost the 2016 election, which, as we covered prior post, was because she was a terrible candidate who ran a terrible campaign and because the people hate her and the establishment that she represents. It has since been enthusiastically embraced by the neoliberal corporate media, partly because it gives them a means to attack Trump from the right, partly because they prefer their establishment candidate Clinton to be giving them all their perks and preferences (the Clinton campaign spent far more on TV advertising than the Trump campaign), and partly because it fits in well with the fifth filter of the propaganda model.
The goal here is to ensure that public anger, and especially public political action, is never directed towards the actual perpetrators of its neglect and suffering.
An infomercial-style summary of the five filters of the propaganda model can be found here.
The infiltration of online and social media
The return of McCarthyism has provided a convenient excuse for social media to escalate its cracking down on content that is undesirable to the established political elite and its paymasters. Popular social websites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are all taking aggressive action against what they are calling “fake news”, which can be translated to mean information that is against the profits of their advertisers. They are doing so with the support of the establishment media; CNN, in an obvious (and tone deaf) effort to silence the growing popularity of alternative media (and its advertising revenue), recently published an article chastising YouTube for allowing alternative media outlets to make money through advertising on their platform. Algorithms are being rewritten to favour the establishment media, and consequently progressive media has taken a massive hit while the establishment media is enjoying a spike in online media activity In the case of YouTube, for example, since it implemented a new corporate-friendly algorithm in early 2017, progressive sites such as Secular Talk and David Pakman have seen drops in revenue by over 90%. Meanwhile, YouTube is now also automatically unsubscribing members from progressive news channels without permission and removing content from the feeds of members so they do not know when a progressive channel has uploaded new content.
Alternatives to YouTube are desperately being sought, but none yet have been forthcoming.
Pitiful political coverage
In October 2016, Tyndall published a report on the network trends for coverage of political issues for each Presidential year since 1988 on ABC, CBS and NBC. They found a substantial decrease in the time spent by the networks discussing actual policy issues, from a high of 220 minutes in 2008 to just 32 in 2016. That’s just 32 minutes across all three networks that were spent discussing actual policy issues. Of those, 17 minutes (53%) were spent on terrorism and 7 minutes (22 minutes) on the Middle East. There was no mention of trade, healthcare, climate change, inequality, drugs, poverty, guns, infrastructure, or deficits.
A challenge to the reader
As a parting comment I offer a challenge to the reader. The next time you watch a news program from the mainstream media take some notes. Are any of the following topics discussed: wealth inequality, endless war, climate change? Are any of them portrayed in a bad light? How does the time spent discussing these issues compare with the discussion of trivial issues such as sport? Do they spend their time talking about policy, or about other people’s opinions on policy? For an example, consider the linked report by the burning platform on a single arbitrarily-selected day of CNN news coverage on 28 April 2014. It is not a pretty sight.