The Propaganda Model and Independent Journalists

I recently completed an essay as part of a midterm assignment for my theory class about whether or not the five filters of Herman and Chomsky’s Propaganda Model apply to “journalist bloggers.” It’s an interesting question. When Manufacturing Consent was published in 1988, media concentration was arguably an even larger issue than it is today. While ownership is more concentrated, there were fewer economically viable options for alternative news outlets to publish to a global audience. The internet, of course, makes it possible for a journalist to function more independently and not just as a freelancer working for some larger organization. But all news organizations have blog sections and most encourage journalists to run a blog of their own for easy additional content.

In the documentary based on the film, there’s a segment where Chomsky talks about independent and alternative media being absolutely necessary, or something to that effect. I can’t remember precisely what was said, but when we try to apply the 5 filters to independent media, we have some very different results. For a quick review, the five filters are

  1. Ownership
  2. Funding
  3. Sourcing
  4. Flak
  5. Anti-communism (read “anti-ideology/fear”)

It’s easy to see how these work in theory, but Herman and Chomsky took the trouble to actually detail the reality of it at the time they wrote the book. News outlets are for-profit ventures which owe a commitment to positive return for stockholders, gaining those revenues from advertisers who have a legitimate business interest in the content produced by the news org, content which must be sourced reliably from establishment (corporate and governmental) representatives who do not appreciate criticism, all of which runs the risk of generating flak to interfere with the professional relationships and reputation of the business (phew!). Then there is the pervasive ruling ideologies which seeks to frame threats to its stability as an out-group, some mysterious other which must be feared (whether they are communist “pinkos” or “islamist jihadists,” depending on what xenophobia is in style).

Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!

While independent journalists deal with the fallout of the major media’s propaganda wars and all the influence generated by agenda setting between CNN/ABC/NBC/CBS/etc, they have a bit more freedom to do things outside the filters described above. I’ve been interning at Democracy Now! for the past two months, and heard a few stories from this perspective. During the press conference after the other American hikers were released from prison in Iran, it sounded like there was a pretty tense, adversarial attitudes towards the DN! crew and Amy Goodman, from where they could set up the camera to whether or not they would be able to interview Sarah Shourd (although they clearly were on the schedule). There was also the fact that when Ms. Goodman was arrested in 2008 at the RNC convention, a news producer asked her, “why wasn’t I arrested?” and she told him he had to get out there and not stay in the production room (IE, do your job).

I think the best example though is illustrated by this 2004 article, about the interview that Goodman did with then-president Bill Clinton in 2000. During the interview, she “strayed” from the topic that aids had determined for the president, went over the time that was allotted for the phone interview, and drove the staff furious. They called the next day to let Democracy Now! know how they felt:

…the Clinton administration threatened to ban me from the White House and suggested to a Newsday reporter that they might punish me for my attitude by denying me access — not that I had any to lose. The White House spokesperson said, “Any good reporter understands if you violate the ground rules in an interview, that it’s going to be taken into account the next time you are seeking an interview.”

Amy Goodman

This is a clear example of flak and sourcing. The establishment intended to let DN! know that they would not tolerate deviation from their expectations in dealing with the press. In that sort of atmosphere, how is critical journalism supposed to take place? Now, the difference between corporate media and independent media, is this: for a major news outlet, these threats would have worked. The offending reporter would have been in big trouble, and the network would be in serious jeopardy of the effects of those threats. But Goodman’s reaction is telling of the liberties alternative/independent media enjoy:

“President Clinton is the most powerful person in the world,” I said. “He can hang up if he wants to.”

…we hadn’t agreed to any ground rules. Clinton called us. Second, we wouldn’t have agreed to any. The only ground rule for good reporting I know is that you don’t trade your principles for access. We call it the “access of evil.”

Unfortunately, access is often more important to reporters than principles.

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