WHY THE MEDIA LIE The Corporate Structure Of The Mass Media

By Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed

Part 1
Part 2

New Dawn No. 72 (May-June 2002)

The Independent Media: A Myth
Filter 1: Elite Ownership
Filter 2: Elite Funding
Filter 3: Elite Information Sources
Filter 4: Elite Flak
Filter 5: Elite Ideology

On 11th September, in the space of an hour and a half, the United States faced a sample of the same brand of terrorism that has been inflicted on vast swathes of the world’s population throughout the twentieth century by its own military forces. The destruction of the World Trade Centre and the explosion that racked the Pentagon, left America in shock and on high alert.

It was not long before the perpetrators of the attack had supposedly been discovered. Osama Bin Laden and his international terror network, Al-Qaeda, was blamed, and the Taliban was pinpointed as a “government” harbouring Al-Qaeda. A war on Afghanistan was justified, along with an unlimited militarisation of US foreign policy, which has gone on to focus on key strategic regions of the world as potential targets of US intervention, and thus the expansion of US hegemony.

The official story around 11th September espoused by the US government and propagated by the mass media contains innumerable anomalies and discrepancies. Some of these will be discussed in the second part of this paper. In this part, we will focus on the principal reason why the official story should be doubted by the public: the fact that the media amounts to a propaganda machine for elite interests.

The Independent Media: A Myth

For those who have inspected the facts, it is clear that the mass media has failed to generate genuine public awareness of the nature of Western policy. Majid Tehranian, Professor of International Communication at the University of Hawaii and Director of the Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research, points out that:

In their scholarship, William Appleton Williams, Noam Chomsky, Richard Falk, Ramsey Clark, Ali Mazrui, and other critics of US foreign policies have provided an abundance of evidence to support the charges on the counter-democratic role of the United States in much of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.1

In an extensive study of the US-UK special relationship, British historian Mark Curtis, former Research Fellow at the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London, finds that:

Mutual Anglo-American support in ordering the affairs of key nations and regions, often with violence, to their design has been a consistent feature of the era that followed the Second World War... Policy in, for example, Malaya, Kenya, British Guiana and Iran was geared towards organising Third World economies along guidelines in which British, and Western, interests would be paramount, and those of the often malnourished populations would be ignored or further undermined. Similarly, US interventions overseas – in Vietnam, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Chile, etcetera – were designed to counter threats to the Western practice of assigning the Third World to mere client status to Western business interests. British and US forces have acted as mercenary – and often extremely violent – mobs intended to restore ‘order’ in their domains and to preserve the existing privileges of elites within their own societies.2 

Development specialist Dr. J. W. Smith, who is Director of Research for the California-based Institute for Economic Democracy, is even more explicit:

No society will tolerate it if they knew that they (as a country) were responsible for violently killing 12 to 15 million people since WW II and causing the death of hundreds of millions more their economies were destroyed or those countries were denied the right to restructure to care for their people. Unknown as it is, and recognising that this has been standard practice throughout colonialism, that is the record of the Western imperial centres of capital from 1945 to 1990... While mouthing peace, freedom, justice, rights, and majority rule, all over the world state-sponsored terrorists were overthrowing democratic governments, installing and protecting dictators, and preventing peace, freedom, justice, rights, and majority rule. Twelve to fifteen million mostly innocent people were slaughtered in that successful 45 year effort to suppress those breaks for economic freedom which were bursting out all over the world... All intelligence agencies have been, and are still in, the business of destabilising undeveloped countries to maintain their dependency and the flow of the world’s natural wealth to powerful nations’ industries at a low price and to provide markets for those industries at a high price.3

It is obvious that the media has failed to accurately portray the real nature of Western foreign policy to the public. The question is, why does the media conform to the dubious agenda of the government and corporate elite?

The answer lies in an analysis of how the media works. Probably the most thorough analysis is Manufacturing Consent, written by two leading US academics, Edward Herman (Professor Emeritus of Finance at Wharton School in the University of Pennsylvania) and Noam Chomsky (Institute Professor of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT).4 

The principal reason to begin with this study is that it contains arguably the most thoroughly researched and empirically verified model of the media available. Herman and Chomsky’s landmark book is recommended by America’s leading national media watchdog, the Washington D.C.-based research group Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR). The Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy (GRIID), affiliated to the U.S.-based Community Media Centre (CMC) also recommends the book as an “essential resource for media literacy”.5 The Oxford-based research and publishing group Corporate Watch describes the study as “one of the most incisive critiques of the media’s role in society”.6 The respected journal Publisher’s Weekly gives the following review of Manufacturing Consent:

Herman of Wharton and Chomsky of MIT lucidly document their argument that America’s government and its corporate giants exercise control over what we read, see and hear. The authors identify the forces that they contend make the national media propagandistic – the major three being the motivation for profit through ad revenue, the media’s close links to and often ownership by corporations, and their acceptance of information from biased sources. In five case studies, the writers show how TV, newspapers and radio distort world events… Extensive evidence is calmly presented, and in the end an indictment against the guardians of our freedom is substantiated. A disturbing picture emerges of a news system that panders to the interest of America’s privileged and neglects its duties when the concerns of minority groups and the underclass are at stake.

Indeed, according to the leading US media scholar Robert W. McChesney – Research Professor in the Institute of Communications Research and the Graduate School of Information and Library Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign – any significant attempt to comprehend the structure and operation of the mass media must begin with Herman and Chomsky’s study.7 He observes that:

This book promises to be a seminal work in critical media analysis and to open a door through which future media analysis will follow… Manufacturing Consent is a work of tremendous importance for scholars and activists alike… Each chapter is meticulously researched and most draw heavily on the authors’ earlier works in these areas.8 

All this provides ample reason to understand Herman and Chomsky’s model of the media.

A propaganda model does not entail a grandiose conspiracy theory. Rather, it is based on analysing the politico-economic influences on the mass media, and the extent to which those influences condition the media’s reporting tendencies in accord with the interests of power. The model can be described as a ‘guided free market’ model, arguing that the media’s reporting is dominated by the same factors that guide corporate activity: the maximisation of profit. A propaganda model of the media asserts that the media is fundamentally conditioned by the profit-orientated activities of corporate elites. As US media scholar Professor Robert W. McChesney observes:

Herman and Chomsky quickly dismiss the standard mainstream critique of radical media analysis that accuses it of offering some sort of ‘conspiracy’ theory for media behaviour; rather, they argue, media bias arises from ‘the preselection of right-thinking people, internalised preconceptions, and the adaptation of personnel to the constraints’ of a series of objective filters they present in their propaganda model. Hence the bias occurs largely through self-censorship, which explains the superiority of the US mass media as a propaganda system: it is far more credible than a system which relies on official state censorship.9

Filter 1: Elite Ownership

Herman and Chomsky’s model describes five ‘filters’ that limit what the media reports in accord with governmental and corporate interests. Professor McChesney observes that:

Only stories with a strong orientation to elite interests can pass through the five filters unobstructed and receive ample media attention. The model also explains how the media can conscientiously function when even a superficial analysis of the evidence would indicate the preposterous nature of many of the stories that receive ample publicity in the press and on the network news broadcasts.10 

The first filter consists of the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth and profit-orientation of the most dominant mass media firms. Media ownership involves enormous costs, which imposes rigid limits on who is able to run a media entity, even a small one. To cater to a mass audience, a media organisation must be a fairly sizeable corporation. Consequently, it will be owned either directly by the state, or by wealthy individuals. In 1986, out of 25,000 US media entities, a mere 29 largest media systems accounted for over half the output of newspapers and for the majority of sales and audiences in magazines, broadcasting, books and films. These massive media firms are profit-orientated corporations, owned and controlled by wealthy profit-orientated people, which are also “closely interlocked, and have common interests, with other major corporations, banks, and government”.11 Because they are often fully integrated into the stock market, they become subject to powerful pressures from stockholders, directors and bankers to focus on profitability. This means that they are united by a basic framework of special interests, even though they remain in competition:

These control groups obviously have a special stake in the status quo by virtue of their wealth and their strategic position in one of the great institutions of society [the stock market]. And they exercise the power of this strategic position, if only by establishing the general aims of the company and choosing its top management.12 

Major media corporations thus tend to avoid news that questions the status quo in terms of the actions of the wealthy: If media entities are owned by profit-orientated corporations that have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, those corporations are clearly not going to employ individuals who question the status quo to run their media entities. McChesney observes:

Many of these corporations have extensive holdings in other industries and nations. Objectively, their needs for profit severely influence the news operations and overall content of the media. Subjectively, there is a clear conflict of interest when the media system upon which self-government rests is controlled by a handful of corporations and operated in their self-interest.13

A large amount of the information the public receives is controlled by a very small number of media sources. Freedom House records that within states, out of 187 governments, 92 have complete ownership of the television broadcasting structure, while 67 have part ownership.14 Ownership of the world’s media sources is growing increasingly concentrated. Thousands of other sources do exist, but in comparison, their influence is negligible. The leading US media analyst Ben Bagdikan – former Dean at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, and a winner of almost every top prize in American journalism including the Pulitzer – noting that despite more than 25,000 media entities in the US only “23 corporations control most of the business in daily newspapers, magazines, television, books, and motion pictures”, concludes that this endows corporations with the extensive power to exercise influence over “news, information, public ideas, popular culture, and political attitudes”.15

The result is that a total of 12 corporations dominate the world’s mass media. US media and communications expert Dr. Dean Alger – former Fellow in the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government – lists this ‘dominant dozen’ as follows in order of power: Disney – Capital Cities – ABC; Time Warner – Turner; News Corporation; Bertelsmann; Tele-Communications (TCI) – AT&T; General Electric – NBC; CBS Inc.; Newshouse/Advance Publications; Viacom; Microsoft; Matra – Hachette – Filipacchi; Gannet.

Leading journalists have commented on the implications. Journalist and former top editor of the Chicago Tribunal, James Squires, describes the concentration of media-ownership in profit-orientated corporations:

In its struggle for relevance and financial security in the modern information age, the press as an institution appears ready to trade its tradition and its public responsibility for whatever will make a buck. In the starkest terms, the news media of the 1990s are a celebrity-oriented, Wall-Street dominated, profit-driven entertainment enterprise dedicated foremost to delivering advertising images to targeted groups of consumers.

Richard Clurman, who was for years a leading figure in Time magazine, observes:

As the news media became bigger and bigger business, the innovative traditions led by creative editorial dominance began to erode... The media had grown from a nicely profitable, creative business into a gigantic investment opportunity. It was becoming harder to think of them as different from any other business in free enterprise America.

Doug Underwood – former reporter for The Seattle Times and the Gannett News Service, now Professor of Communications at the University of Washington – also confirms the drastic corporatisation of the media:

It’s probably no surprise that in an era of mass media conglomerates, big chain expansion, and multimillion dollar newspaper buy-outs, the editors of daily newspapers have begun to behave more and more like the managers of any corporate entity.16 

The elites who dominate the various institutions of society share a common set of values and associations linked with their generally wealthy position as members of a highly privileged class. These elites include the decision makers over politics, investment, production, distribution; members of ideological institutions involving editorial positions, control of journals and so on; those in managerial positions, who manage corporations and have similar roles. These different elite groups all interpenetrate one another in accord with their shared values and associations. Furthermore, due to their common social position, they are largely socialised into the traditional values that characterise their wealthy class. This has a significant impact on their outlook on the world, and consequently their attitude towards political affairs.17 

In Britain, the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) constitutes an obvious example. The board of governors on the BBC tends to be drawn from the ranks of the ‘great and good’ and to mirror the predominance of the upper middle classes in the ranks of political life in elected and non-elected positions of power…

Of the eighty-five governors who have served in the first fifty years of the BBC’s history, fifty-six had a university education (forty at Oxford or Cambridge) and twenty were products of Eton, Harrow or Winchester. The political experience of Board members has come mainly from the House of Lords although there have been nineteen former MPs.18 

Bob Franklin, Reader in Media and Communication Studies at the University of Sheffield, observes that abundant documentation proves that the elite “uses its privileged access to media institutions to produce programming which is partial and supportive of a particular class interest.” Franklin refers to the series of Bad News studies by Glasgow University Media Group (GUMG), offering ample evidence “of a systematic skew in the reporting of certain kinds of news.”19 In their first study, the Glasgow scholars concluded that “television news is a cultural artifact; a sequence of socially-manufactured messages which carry many of the culturally dominant assumptions of our society.” In a later study titled More Bad News, they found that television news reporting “consistently maintains and supports a cultural framework within which viewpoints favourable to the status quo are given preferred and privileged readings.”20

Former Editor-in-Chief David Bowman of the Sydney Morning Herald thus confirms that “having thrown off one yoke, the press should now be falling under another, in the form of a tiny and ever-contracting band of businessmen-proprietors. Instead of developing as a diverse social institution, serving the needs of democratic society, the press, and now the media, have become or are becoming the property of a few, governed by whatever social, political and cultural values the few think tolerable”.21 “The danger”, he elsewhere observes, “is that the media of the future, the channels of mass communication, will be dominated locally and world-wide by the values – social, cultural and political – of a few individuals and their huge corporations.”22 

The mass media also broadly restricts the ideological orientation of its staff, the result being that the media becomes largely ideologically subservient to the assumptions and interests of the elite. Bob Franklin notes that this is because, editors are simply workers – albeit at a high grade – and, as such, remain subject to the discipline of proprietors...

It would certainly be difficult to persuade an editor that proprietors are no longer in control of their newspapers. A succession of editors from Harold Evans to Andrew Neil acknowledge the power of proprietors in autobiographies which invariably detail their prompt removal from the editorial chair following a disagreement with the owner... Proprietors’ power to ‘hire and fire’ makes them formidable figures, but they also control all aspects of a newspaper’s financial and staffing resources.23 

Media expert Ben Bagdikan acknowledges the dictatorial control over public life entailed by the increasing concentration in corporate ownership:

In an authoritarian society there is a ministry, or a commissar, or a directorate that controls what everybody will see and hear. We call that a dictatorship. Here we have a handful of very powerful corporations led by a handful of very powerful men and women who control everything we see and hear beyond the natural environment and our own families. That’s something which surrounds us every day and night. If it were one person we’d call that a dictatorship, a ministry of information.24 

The extent of the power that elites have over the media can be grasped when we recall that even Western intelligence agencies control the press. For example, an internal committee of the CIA reported in 1992 that:

We [i.e. the CIA] have relationships with reporters [that] have helped us turn some intelligence failure stories into intelligence success stories. Some responses to the media can be handled in a one-shot phone call.25 

Former CIA Director William Colby went further, admitting: “The Central Intelligence Agency owns anyone of any significance in the major media.”26 

Consequently, the legitimacy of elite interests are presupposed by the mass media in terms of a general all-pervading set of assumptions. Since these assumptions are rooted in the elite ideology, the mass media, owned by a corporate elite, is generally unable to fundamentally question that ideology. Bob Franklin thus concludes that “while it is possible to cite cases where the media have toppled the powerful, there is a greater body of evidence to suggest that their role is more typically to serve as a source of support.”27 

It is therefore not surprising that debate within the media is largely restricted to the assumption of Western governmental and corporate benevolence, the belief in the viability and legitimacy of the status quo. Dissent that stretches beyond these limits by choosing to question the very assumptions adopted at the outset by the media, will be neglected. Certainly, due to the sheer mass of news it is also predictable that the odd dissenting report may filter through – but the substantial majority of reports will “serve as a source of support” for elite interests.

As the American political scientist Michael Parenti writes, the result of corporate ownership of the media where staffing will be especially restricted to those who conform to the ideological requirements of corporate power, is that journalists “rarely doubt their own objectivity even as they faithfully echo the established political vocabularies and the prevailing politico-economic orthodoxy. Since they do not cross any forbidden lines, they are not reined in. So they are likely to have no awareness they are on an ideological leash.”28 A propaganda model clarifies the institutional structure of the media that prevents criticism of elite policy from receiving little in-depth critical analysis by the mainstream media. Permissible dissent then becomes powerless, unable to question the ideological framework upon which the elite dominated social structures are based. The result has been noted by media analyst W. Lance Bennett:

The public is exposed to powerful persuasive messages from above and is unable to communicate meaningfully through the media in response to these messages... Leaders have usurped enormous amounts of political power and reduced popular control over the political system by using the media to generate support, compliance, and just plain confusion among the public.29

Filter 2: Elite Funding

The second filter noted by Herman and Chomsky, related to the first filter, is advertising. Professor McChesney notes that advertising “has colonised the US mass media and is responsible for most of the media’s income.”30 The growth of advertising has meant that newspapers and other media sources have a primary source of funds other than their selling price. This means that the media’s reporting tendencies can be influenced through the withdrawal or offer of economic support. Since the mass media is largely financed through advertising, it becomes financially dependent for its existence on advertising revenue from corporations. All forms of media have to ensure that their advertising profile is high to retain corporate investment in advertising, and thereby to retain a source of funds. This is ideally achieved by becoming ideologically appealing to an audience with a high buying capacity: i.e. members of the elite and generally members of the wealthiest classes. Newspapers that are attractive to advertisers are able to lower their price below the cost of producing them, due to advertising revenue.

Advertisers, of course, constitute corporate sponsors. This means that newspapers that fail to attract such corporate sponsors, are more likely to be either marginal or non-existent. Additionally, a newspaper will be more favourable to advertisers if it is biased towards the assumptions and values of a wealthy readership. With newspapers having become so dependent on advertising to exist and flourish, corporate sponsors effectively retain a significant control over which newspapers survive, what they choose to report, and how they do so. Consequently, newspapers unattractive to advertisers can be undercut – without a good source of funds from advertising, their prices tend to be higher, reducing sales and reducing profit by which to invest in improving saleability (via quality, format, promotions, etc.). Such newspapers can therefore be effectively marginalised – in some cases, driven completely out of existence.

In their authoritative history of the British press, James Curran and Jean Seaton conclude that the growth in both advertising and capital costs were critical in eliminating the popular radical press that had emerged in the first half of the nineteenth century. They record that “advertisers thus acquired a de facto licensing authority since, without their support, newspapers ceased to be economically viable”.31 

These two filters mean that the mass media is institutionally structured to be subservient to the corporate elite. It is at once directly owned and thereby structurally controlled by that elite, and indirectly influenced by financial pressures from corporate sponsors related to advertising. The mass media as an institution is intrinsically subservient to corporate ideology. As Professor Edward Herman states, “capitalists control the media and they do so to maximise profits”. What does this entail? Herman explains:

The main element in corporate ideology is the belief in the sublimity of the market and its unique capacity to serve as the efficient allocator of resources. So important is the market in this ideology that ‘freedom’ has come to mean the absence of constraints on market participants, with political and social democracy pushed into the background as supposed derivatives of market freedom. This may help explain the tolerance by market-freedom lovers of market-friendly totalitarians – Pinochet or Marcos. A second and closely related constituent of corporate ideology is the danger of government intervention and regulation, which allegedly tends to proliferate, imposes unreasonable burdens on business, and therefore hampers growth. A third element in the ideology is that growth is the proper national objective, as opposed to equity, participation, social justice, or cultural advance and integrity. Growth should be sustainable, which means that the inflation threat should be a high priority and unemployment kept at the level to assure the inflation threat is kept at bay. The resultant increasingly unequal income distribution is also an acceptable price to pay. Privatisation is also viewed as highly desirable in corporate ideology, following naturally from the first two elements – market sublimity and the threat of government. It also tends to weaken government by depriving it of its direct control over assets, and therefore has the further merit of reducing the ability of government to serve the general population through democratic processes... [P]rivatisation yields enormous payoffs to the bankers and purchasers participating in the sale of public assets.32

These ideological positions become implicit assumptions pervading permissible political discourse within the media. It is therefore extremely rare to find these principles being subjected to fundamental critical examination by the corporate-owned media.

Filter 3: Elite Information Sources

The third filter constitutes the sources that the mass media routinely relies on for news. Because the media needs a steady and reliable source of news, resources are focused where news can be most easily acquired. Unfortunately, central news terminals of this type happen to be the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department, as well as business corporations and trade groups. The importance of such organisations as news sources is because they possess the greatest resources for public relations and promotional material. Consequently, “the mass media are drawn into a symbiotic relationship with powerful sources of information by economic necessity and reciprocity of interest”.33 Alternative media entities established by human rights organisations and other groups are thus marginalised. The public then receives news and analysis that fundamentally conforms to the elite ideology, and facts largely cannot be scrutinised free from the assumptions of that ideology. News is thus filtered in accordance with what is suitable to the requirements of elite power and its interests. McChesney explains:

The media rely heavily upon news provided them by corporate and government sources, which have themselves developed enormous bureaucracies to provide this material to the media. They have developed great expertise at ‘managing’ the media. In effect, these bureaucracies subsidise the media and the media must be careful not to antagonise such an important supplier. Furthermore, these corporate and government sources are instantly credible by accepted journalistic practices. Anti-elite sources, on the other hand, are regarded with utmost suspicion and have tremendous difficulty passing successfully through this filter.34

For example, the US Air Force publishes 140 newspapers per week, issuing 45,000 headquarters and unit news releases per year. Other government-related institutions produce a similar proportion of information. This massive amount of news produced by the state and corporations provides the media with ‘facts’ that easily acquired and inexpensive. Herman and Chomsky observe that:

To consolidate their pre-eminent position as sources, government and business-news promoters go to great pains to make things easy for news organisations... In effect, the large bureaucracies of the powerful subsidise the mass media, and gain special access by their contribution to reducing the media’s costs of acquiring the raw materials of, and producing, news. The large entities that provide this subsidy become ‘routine’ news sources and have privileged access to the gates. Non-routine sources must struggle for access, and may be ignored by the arbitrary decision of the gatekeepers.35 

The impact of this, as Mark Fishman affirms, is that:

News workers are predisposed to treat bureaucratic accounts as factual because news personnel participate in upholding a normative order of authorised knowers in the society. Reporters operate with the attitude that officials ought to know what it is their job to know... In particular, a newsworker will recognise an official’s claim to knowledge not merely as a claim, but as a credible, competent piece of knowledge.

“This amounts to a moral division of labour: officials have and give the facts”, which are therefore beyond question, however tenuous or absurd, while “reporters merely get them” from the bureaucratic elite.36

Filter 4: Elite Flak

The fourth filter Chomsky and Herman refer to is ‘flak’: the negative responses to a media report in the form of letters, phone calls, petitions, speeches, legal and parliamentary action, among other methods of complaint. One of the most significant forms of flak already discussed is the withdrawal of advertising revenue, which in itself can be sufficient for editors to review their product. This form of flak can lead to the entire elimination of a media source that is unfavourable to corporate sponsors and their interests. Flak can also serve as a deterrent to producing certain kinds of programme or story, and can even prevent reporters from investigating particular issues because of how unlikely it is that such stories would be published. Business organisations often come together to form organisations devoted solely to the mass dissemination of flak, by which to impose immense pressure on the media to follow the corporate lead.

In the US, the conservative media organisation Accuracy In Media (AIM) is a clear example of this – formed at the instigation of various giant corporations with the view to impose flak on mainstream media sources who may occasionally produce a piece questioning the legitimacy of elite ideology in some way. As McChesney comments, right-wing corporate ‘flak’ producers such as Accuracy in Media [act] to harass the mass media and to put pressure upon them to follow the corporate agenda…

This filter was developed extensively in the 1970s when major corporations and wealthy right-wingers became increasingly dissatisfied with political developments in the West and with media coverage… While ostensibly antagonistic to the media, these flak machines provide the media with legitimacy and are treated quite well by the media.37 

One of the most potent disseminators of flak is the government itself due to its enormous resources. Compared with such corporate power, the ability of other organisations representing the poor, the oppressed or the environment to pressurise the media is dwarfed.38

Filter 5: Elite Ideology

Since the corporate ideology dominates the media by way of being almost institutionally assumed, all ideologies that are in fundamental opposition to the corporate ideology must similarly be institutionally assumed incorrect: the fifth filter. Nationalist social movements around the world that threatened the international capitalist system under US hegemony were construed as totalitarian Communist movements. The final filter is thus the ideology of “anticommunism”, a stance that has become integral to Western political culture. According to McChesney: “Anticommunism has been ingrained into acceptable journalistic practices in the United States, to the point that even in periods of ‘detente’ it is fully appropriate and expected for journalists to frame issues in terms of ‘our side’ versus the communist ‘bad guys’,” even when Communism is not the real ‘threat’ at all.39 

We can recall evidence for this when we compare the orthodox interpretation of the Cold War espoused by most academic and media commentators with the fact that there was no global Communist threat. Major covert operations, such as the installation of the Shah in Iran after the elimination of the democratically elected government of Mussadeq, or the intervention in Nicaragua to overthrow the popular Sandinista Front, were undertaken on the pretext of preventing the violent rise of totalitarian Communism and protecting the independence of local populations. Herman and Chomsky observe: “When anticommunist fervour is aroused, the demand for serious evidence in support for claims of ‘communist’ abuses is suspended by the media, and charlatans can thrive as evidential sources”.40 

Conversely, when journalists or editors challenge the prevailing anticommunist orthodoxy, they “must meet far higher standards; in fact standards are often imposed that can barely be met in the natural sciences”.41 This filter is, however, not limited to anticommunism – rather it is related to the prevailing pretext for Western policy at the time. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the noble fight against the non-existent international Communist threat could no longer be pinpointed as a pretext for Western military operations that had been undertaken for far more familiar reasons of economic domination. Hence, it has been replaced by other diverse ideological threats to be similarly exaggerated, distorted or even fabricated. A particularly pertinent one in the present day is the alleged threat to the United States and the West due to Islam and global Islamic terrorism.42 

The fifth filter is essentially synonymous with the elite ideology, since it is in the context of this ideology that social movements and ideas in opposition to the dominant ideology are interpreted within the media. Other elements of the final filter will therefore include the benevolence of one’s government, the universal merits of private enterprise, the benign character of corporations and their activities, and so on. All of these inherently imply the demonisation of the perceived threat to US hegemony with respect to these aspects.

In the second part of this paper, we will discuss in further detail the new alleged threat that has come to the fore, particularly in the aftermath of 11th September: the threat of Islamic terrorism in the form of Osama Bin Laden’s “Al-Qaeda”.


1. Tehranian, Majid, ‘A Requiem for Realism?’, Peace & Policy, 3:1, Spring 1998.
2. Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power: British Foreign Policy Since 1945, Zed, London, 1995.
3. Smith, J. W., ‘Simultaneously Suppressing the World’s Break for Freedom’, Economic Democracy: The Political Struggle of the Twenty-First Century, M. E. Sharpe, New York, Armonk, 2000. Excerpts of this study can be found at Institute for Economic Democracy, www.slonet.org/~ied. In his Killing Hope, former State Department official and investigative journalist William Blum confirms an even larger number of direct deaths than that produced by Smith.
4. Herman, Edward S. and Chomsky, Noam, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Vintage, London, 1994.
5. FAIR, www.fair.org; GRIID, affiliated with CMC, www.grmc.org, www.grcmc.org/griid.
6. ‘The Media’, Corporate Watch magazine, Issue 5 & 6.
7. McChesney, Robert W., ‘Introduction’ in Chomsky, Noam, Profit Over People, op. cit.
8. McChesney, Robert, W., ‘Edward S. Herman on the propaganda model’, Monthly Review, January 1989
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, op. cit., p. 14.
12. Ibid., p. 8
13. McChesney, Monthly Review, January 1989.
14. US News & World Report, 11 November 1996, p. 48.
15. Bagdikan, Ben H., The Media Monopoly, Beacon Press, Boston, 1992, p. 4.
16. Alger, Dean, Megamedia: How Giant Corporations Dominate Mass Media, Distort Competition, and Endanger Democracy, Rowman & Littlefield, Oxford, 1998. See this book for references on the previous citations.
17. All this is well understood. For studies of elite power in relation to Britain see for instance John Scott, Who Rules Britain?, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1991; Mark Curtis’s study in The Ambiguities of Power of the mainstream British media is also very illuminating, disclosing the subservience of the media in relation to Nicaragua and the Gulf War in particular. A fairly competent analysis of the British media is Curran, James and Seaton, Jean, Power without responsibility: The Press and Broadcasting in Britain, Methuen, London, 1985; and especially Franklin, Bob, Newszak & News Media, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1997. Also see Pilger, John, Distant Voices, Vintage, London, 1992; Pilger, John, Hidden Agendas, Vintage, London, 1998. Also see more general studies of the media that focus particularly on the U.S., especially Chomsky and Herman, The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism: The Political Economy of Human Rights, South End Press, Boston, 1979; Smith, Anthony, The Geopolitics of Information: How Western Culture Dominates the World, Faber & Faber, London, 1980; Herman, Beyond Hypocrisy: Decoding the News in an Age of Propaganda, South End Press, 1992; Parenti, Michael, Inventing Reality: The Politics of the News Media, St. Martin’s Press, 1993; Herman, Edward S. and McChesney, Robert W., The Global Media and the New Missionaries of Global Capitalism, Cassell, 1997.
18. Dearlove, J. and Saunders, P. An Introduction to British Politics; cited in Franklin, Bob, Newszak & News Media, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1997, p. 41.
19. Franklin, Bob, ibid.
20. Cited in Ibid.
21. Cited in 24 Hours, Sydney, April 1996; Pilger, John, Hidden Agendas, Vintage, London, 1998, p. 543.
22. Adelaide Review, February 1996.
23. Franklin, Bob, Newszak & News Media, op. cit. p. 40.
24. Ben Bagdikian interviewed by David Barsamian in ‘Navigating the Media’, Z Magazine, September 1998.
25. Memorandum to Director of CIA, Task Force on Greater CIA Openness, 18 Nov. 1991.
26. Cited in McGowan, David, Derailing Democracy, Common Courage Press, Monroe, Maine, 1999; from online e-mail bulletin, Political Literacy Course, Common Courage Press, 20 March 2000, www.commoncouragepress.com.
27. Franklin, Bob, Newszak and News Media, op. cit., p. 31.
28. Parenti cited in Pilger, John, Hidden Agendas, op. cit., p. 4.
29. Bennet, W. Lance, News: The Politics of Illusion, Longman, New York, 1988, p. 178-79.
30. McChesney, Monthly Review, January 1989.
31. Alger, Dan, Megamedia: How Giant Corporations Dominate Mass Media, Distort Competition, and Endanger Democracy, Rowan & Littlefield, Oxford, 1998, p. 154, 158; Curran, James and Seaton, Jean, Power without responsibility: The Press and Broadcasting in Britain, Methuen, London, 1985, p.31. Also see Barnouw, Erik, The Sponsor: Notes on a Modern Potentate, Oxford University Press, 1978.
32. Interview with Edward S. Herman and Robert W. McChesney by David Peterson, ‘The Global Media’, Z Magazine, June 1997.
33. Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, op. cit., p. 14.
34. McChesney, Monthly Review, January 1989.
35. Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, op. cit., p. 21-22.
36. Fishman, Mark, Manufacturing News, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1980.
37. McChesney, Monthly Review, January 1989.
38. For an introductory discussion of how the propaganda model can be extended to explain and reveal the corporate conditioning of Western culture and academia, see Edwards, David, Free To Be Human: Intellectual Self-Defence in an Age of Illusions, A Resurgence Book, Green Books, Devon, 1995.
39. McChesney, Monthly Review, January 1989.
40. Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, op. cit., p. 25.
41. Ibid., p. 291.
42. See for example, Masud, Enver, The War On Islam, The Wisdom Fund, Madrasah Books Division, Arlington, 2000.

Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed is a political analyst and human rights activist, specialising in Western foreign policy and its impact on human rights. He is Executive Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development (IPRD), an independent, interdisciplinary, non-profit think tank based in Brighton, UK. The IPRD conducts research and analysis of local and global society for the promotion of human rights, justice and peace. For further information, visit www.globalresearch.org.

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