The Propaganda Model and Bias in the Media

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3rd Apr 2019 Media Reference this

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The “propaganda model” is essentially a theory that seeks to formulate the pattern of biases expressed by the media and predict what principles and agendas will be prioritized and advanced according to the what news is deemed “worthy” or “unworthy”. News worthiness is characterized by several factors including ownership and control, advertising, sourcing, flak and anticommunist ideology, all of which act as filters that news passes through and is eventually diluted by. This paper will present a detailed explanation of the mechanisms of the propaganda model and use the paired case study method to provide a look into how news becomes distorted, as evidenced in past New York Times articles on Venezuela and Kyrgyzstan of whom are foe and friend to the United States government, respectively.

Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman define the propaganda model as “an analytical framework that attempts to explain the importance of the U.S. media in terms of basic institutional structures and relationships within which they operate.”1 The model seeks to portray how and why U.S. mainstream media functions the way it does, functioning on the basis of several key factors at play that predict this behavior. First and foremost, to understand why a propaganda model even exists one must understand that the media is a business driven by profit. Whether it is just to remain competitive or to make a tidy profit, the prospect of financial gain inevitably grows to outweigh the ability or desire to produce quality, unbiased journalism. News firms require financial backing to compete among other news firms, and in order to gain such backing they must capitulate to the will of their ownership. What this means is that news companies cannot afford to make those who finance them look bad, and as result, journalism succumbs to the restrictions imposed by its ownership whether it wants to or not. Combine the regulations of ownership with the views and interests of powerful organizations such as the U.S. government and what you have as a result is a series of “filters” through which any and all news must pass before it is released to the public. Ownership, acting as a filter in itself, ties into a similar filter which is advertising and funding. Newspapers have to gather and maintain a significant degree of advertising in order to adequately cover production costs without increasing the price of the newspaper. Advertising creates competition among news media to attract advertisers, and as a result, news mediums such as newspapers attempt to get customers to pay attention to their ads more so than the news in order to please the companies who fund the paper. There is no doubt that media becomes distorted by this filter, as the newspaper companies have to please their advertisers in order to continue getting their support and finance. Further along the filter path is sourcing, which occurs when media outlets focus their resources on locations where they can count on major news stories to happen. This obviously demonstrates bias on part of the news company, but in a sense it is an unavoidable obstacle as even the largest news corporations could not possibly be everywhere that a news story might occur. Newsworthiness becomes a key player on this stage, in that news companies must carefully pick and choose which stories to investigate and where to be to get the facts they need. Corporate interests take control when journalists chose to obtain their information from these sources and, as a result, journalists typically avoid publishing stories which would damage the reputation of said sources and instead must publish the “facts” as given to them. When popular opinion comes into doubt or question, corporate interest make great attempts at countering any negative light shed upon them with the use of flak. Flak is basically any form of a targeted negative response to a damaging claim meant to discredit that claim and those who are behind it. Flak machines are often produced by corporations seeking to defend themselves, and media outlets can be targeted by these machines if their news is unfavorable. Media bias is strengthened by flak when news companies, who chose to avoid triggering it, produce stories with intentional distortions and omissions. Another filter powering the propaganda engine comes from the United States’ deep rooted hatred of all things communist. The U.S. government has a starring role in the manipulation of the media, often using its influence to sway public opinion towards a particular agenda. From this sprouts the concept of “worthy” and “unworthy” victims, where the government will chose which stories to publish and in what way such that it can garner the necessary emotion towards a specified cause. This is a critical component to the propaganda model and with it we can see media bias at work, as we investigate news reporting on two countries that are quite similar to one another in their relationship to the U.S. With the help of the propaganda model, we will examine Venezuela, which is a considered a foe to the U.S., and Kyrgyzstan, a friend to the U.S. The paired case study method takes these two countries, which have similar populations, possess important assets for the U.S., and have both endured social unrest against their respective government, and compares news reports from the past few months about each as published by the New York Times. This method makes it possible to observe the fairly strong media bias that goes largely unnoticed.

Following the rise to power of President Hugo Chavez, U.S.-Venezuelan relations have dwindled amid rising tensions between the two countries, especially after a U.S. attempt to overthrow Chavez failed resulting in Venezuela cutting off all ties with the U.S. In this light, the U.S. considers Venezuela a foe, and the propaganda model would predict that past news stories would reflect the country in a mostly negative light with minimal coverage regarding victims or sympathy and primary focus on criticizing the country’s president and government. The following page portrays a compilation of news articles that have been written within the past 11 months covering different topics from both Venezuela and Kyrgyzstan. The table shows how the articles produced by the New York Times follow the propaganda model.

After examining several articles, this table clearly shows that a strong focus is placed on criticizing the Venezuelan government. The U.S. is attempting to sway public opinion against Venezuela, as most of the articles are targeted towards President Hugo Chavez’s rule and how his regime has negatively affected the country. In complete contrast to this trend can be observed in the New York Times’ reporting of events in Kyrgyzstan, who are considered friend to the U.S. With the many valuable resources offered by Kyrgyzstan, such as air space and fuel, the U.S. is on good terms with the country and provides humanitarian and military assistance to support political, educational, and economic reform. The table shows that a majority of the articles concentrate on support of the country, including several news stories about victims in the country in order to garner sympathy. Almost all of the articles examined shed Huge Chavez in a negative light; two articles discuss the arrest of an “opposition” figure by President Chavez, and several also talk about his control over newspapers and cable television as well as the government mandated black outs that occur daily in Venezuela. The articles written in Kyrgyzstan make a lot of mention to opposition and violence within the country, in an attempt to divert focus from the country’s government and convert them to victims. Examining the articles more in depth one finds several examples of “unsupport” for Venezuela, such as the case in one article about the critic of Chavez who was arrested, where the NY Times writes “The arrest of Mr. Zuloaga comes at a time when Mr. Chavez’s government is adopting an increasingly harsh approach to dealing with the president’s critics.” This displays a direct criticism of the Chavez government, and in that same article the NY Times further goes on to hurt the image of Venezuela when they say “Mr. Alvarez Paz also said that Venezuela had been transformed into a center for drug trafficking in South America. That assertion has also been made repeatedly by the United States government and in independent media investigations.”2 In following the propaganda model, the NY Times is highlighting the “bad” in the country, such as when they make several references to the fact that civil liberties are slowly being eroded in the country, as when they quote “A coalition of more than a dozen opposition parties said in a statement that Mr. Alvarez Paz had been arrested for a “crime of opinion” in an attempt to silence criticism and encourage a climate of self-censorship.”3 As the propaganda model would suggest, very little sympathy and support is reflected upon for Venezuela and from the news articles examined, only three make any reference to tragedy or hardship in the country. In one of the few articles regarding victims or sympathy for the country, one article that talks about 9 deaths in a Venezuelan cargo ship fire is only 97 words long, whereas an article discussing a government satire newspaper that has angered President Chavez and lead to his threatening of tighter Internet controls has 1,157 words. Compare this to the articles written about Kyrgyzstan, where one particular article discussing victims of violence in Bishkek has 1145 words describing the event in strong detail to convey sympathy. A glaring example of “worthy” and “unworthy” victims can be seen in a comparison between the two countries in reference to the articles of violence: in the story about the 9 deaths on the Venezuelan cargo ship, the NY Times writes “Six of the dead crew members were from the Philippines and three were Greek, the Venezuelan Navy said. One of the injured crew members was reported in “delicate condition.”5 However, in the article about the violent protests in Kyrgyzstan, the NY Times shows significantly more sympathy and detail when they go as far as to include an account of one victim; “Taland Borgulev, a 36-year-old mechanic, had a blood-soaked bandage wrapped around a bullet wound on his thigh. All had joined the crowds in capital for what they thought would be a peaceful protest against a corrupt and authoritarian government — only to be cut down in a hail of bullets.”5 There is a very apparent distinction in here in the level of detail that the NY Times gives when describing the violent stories from each country. The victims in Venezuela, being considered a foe to the U.S., have become an “unworthy”, and those in Kyrgyzstan, a friend to the U.S., are “worthy” victims so they sympathy can be evoked from their tragedy.

The propaganda model, while quite accurate, is not always perfect at predicting the trend of news stories about a particular country. One article discusses a rather lengthy news story discussing grave robbing in Venezuela. A lot of attention is also given to Venezuela’s budget and energy crisis including several quotes from people who are angry at President Chavez, such as, “We’re paying for the mistakes of this president and his incompetent managers, “said Aixa Lopez, 39, president of the Committee of Blackout Victims, which has organized protests in several cities.6 The propaganda model, accurate as it may be, is not always correct, whereby the model would predict that only minimal coverage would be granted to news involving tragedy, however, over 1000 words are written in this particular article entitled “Cemetery Plunder Shows That in Venezuela, Even Death May Not Bring Peace.” This is the only article of its kind in the series of Venezuelan news stories examined as shown by the ratio of support to criticism of 1:6.3. Similarly, the propaganda model is not followed in an article entitled “Jet Fuel Sales to U.S. Are an Issue in Kyrgyzstan” because it discusses Kyrgyzstan accusing the U.S. of allowing family members of the exiled president to obtain significant contracts in supplying jet fuel to a base outside of Bishkek. With the propaganda model in place, it seems quite apparent that the NY Times does in fact pick sides, and object journalism seems to be a near impossibility. Further proof of this media bias comes from back in 2003, where a man named Francisco Toro was hired by the NY Times as an editor even when it was well known that he was a very strong anti-Chavez activist. A news article from that period talks about how that very reporter quit his job as a NY Times editor over conflict of interest, and it was further mentioned that hiring a biased news reporter to cover Venezuelan news was not the first time the company was in violation of their “standards of objective and disinterested reporting.”7 Toro was well known as an opposition activist, and his participation in numerous protests and organizations against Hugo Chavez was not only known by the NY Times prior to his hiring, but they tried to hide this information as well.7 With so much energy spent criticizing the policies and cabinet of President Chavez, several reports are laden with distortions and misconceptions on policies being implemented in the country. Take for example a NY Times editorial from Venezuela which criticizes a statement regarding the nationalization of an electric company and the telephone company CANTV. The NY Times fails to mention that CANTV has a monopoly on telecommunications, as it is the only non-cellular telephone company in the country, and it was privatized during the term of impeached former President Carlos Andres Perez resulting in massive protest and violence.8 The NY Times is quick to condemn the policies of a “foe” country, and in doing so fail to understand why the country implements such policies, where in the aforementioned example, a nationalized phone company would prevent monopoly and ensure Venezuelans have access to telecommunication services.8 The distortions made by the NY Times very much supports the propaganda model, and with Kyrgyzstan as a “friend” country, the model would predict little to no distortions or omissions, as news sources generally try to tell few lies if possible.

So can we ever hope to have unbiased media? With so much dependence on advertising, the constraints of ownership and the multitude of other filters that “clean up” our news, it is likely that the answer to that question will remain an indefinite no. How does this reflect upon our society? The beauty of enlightenment is that it is there when we finally realize and chose to accept it, but it seems that we may be unable to grasp onto enlightenment in the media even when we are ready and willing to receive it. This paper has shown that bias in the media simply cannot be avoided; a journalist who wishes to remain purely objective and unbiased will always be chained to his “cave” no matter how close he gets to the exit. As long as there is bias in the media, we will be continuously subject to an illusion that manufactures false consciousness, with “tuning out” as our only hope of avoiding it.

Sources

  1. Chomsky, Noam, and Edward Herman. Manufacturing Consent. 2nd. New York: Pantheon Books, 1988. xi. Print
  2. Chavez Critic Is Arrested, Then Freed, In Venezuela: [Foreign Desk] Simon Romero.  New York Times.  (Late Edition (east Coast)). New York, N.Y.: Mar 26, 2010.  p. A.4
  3. Venezuela: Arrest of Opposition Figure Is Criticized: [Brief] The Associated Press.  New York Times.  (Late Edition (east Coast)). New York, N.Y.: Mar 24, 2010.  p. A.8
  4. Venezuela: 9 Die In Cargo Ship Fire: [Brief] The Associated Press. New York Times.  (Late Edition (east Coast)). New York, N.Y.: Dec 26, 2009.  p. A.10
  5. Kyrgyzstan’s Deposed President Is Urged to Seek Exile: [Foreign Desk] Michael Schwirtz.  New York Times.  (Late Edition (east Coast)). New York, N.Y.: Apr 10, 2010.  p. A.3
  6. As Blackouts Hit Energy-Rich Venezuela, the President Tells People to Cut Back: [Foreign Desk] Simon Romero.  New York Times.  (Late Edition (east Coast)). New York, N.Y.: Nov 11, 2009.  p. A.6
  7. Giordano, Al. “NY Times Reporter Quits Over Conflict of Interest.” Narco News Bulletin 1.27 (2003): Web. 1 May 2010.
  8. Golinger, Eva. “Confused About Venezuela?” NY Latina Journal (2007). Web. 1 May 2010.

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