Theories about propaganda and its evolution simultaneously fascinate and disturb me. I think I'm motivated to study propaganda by the belief that understanding how you're being manipulated makes that manipulation less effective. Over the years the term propaganda has been defined in many ways by many people. Often, defining this word is itself an act of propaganda. I use the term in a manner very similar to political scientist Michael Parenti, who defines it as the mobilization of information and ideas for the purpose of persuading a mass audience. He uses a rather broad definition, but in the US the term usually has a negative connotation and implies some kind of deception or manipulation.
Propaganda can take many forms, but in the US a few noticeable features stand out. Firstly, there is no leftwing / rightwing propaganda disparity. One side is not truth and the other propaganda. The media personas of both the left and right are manipulative to a similar extent. Both use similar techniques such as manipulating the semantic framing of messages; selectively and manipulatively editing audio/video clips; hosting faux debates with straw-man opponents; disseminating the messages of interest groups, unchallenged when the groups are friendly, interrupted and prevented from making a point when they're opposed. It's not what they say, but how manipulatively they say it that qualifies the corporate media's messages as propaganda.
Certain perspectives and world views have little to no voice in the news media. I'm not talking about the left's perspective, or the right's perspective. Both sides (as defined in the media) are represented evenly enough. However, the media's definition of left and right bears little resemblance to reality; the dividing line has been gerrymandered more than most urban congressional districts. Whether most people recognize it or not, the real division in our society is where it has always been, around class. Severing this class-consciousness from the public zeitgeist is the core purpose of the corporate propaganda system.
It is increasingly common for television news channels to take ideological or partisan stands on issues that the ruling class have significant policy disagreements over (in this context by ruling class I'm generally referring to the political and economic elite who own and control various media corporations along with most of the rest of the public and private economy). These issues are what define the left right divide; they are what the media focuses most of its attention on, in spite of the interests of their audience and of the population in general.
There are often fervent debates with much yelling and screaming when these elitist controversies are discussed. This qualifies their coverage as balanced since an argument by definition must have two sides to it (the ruse is the implication that there are only those two sides out there). This kind of vigorous debate is nearly absent in their coverage of issues that the ruling class is in general agreement about. On these consensus issues, across US media outlets there tend to be strikingly uniform messages in support of their common position. This message uniformity is especially evident in the perspectives not represented by any of the mainstream media outlets. The media's omission of information is a very effective form of mass manipulation and a telling characteristic of many propaganda systems.
The modern news media in the US reveal their manipulativeness in a number of ways. For instance, across multiple news channels there is frequently a common (seemingly coordinated) use of semantic framing (semantic framing can at its simplest be thought of as the implied connotations of the words, and especially of the metaphors, used in the construction of a message). On most news programs, regardless of whether the presenter self identifies to the audience as a liberal or a conservative, their use of framing is nearly always biased in favor of corporate and ruling class interests. On Comedy Central's The Daily Show, Jon Stewart often highlights this seeming coordination. He will show a series of clips, from a number of different major news programs' coverage of a story, and each of the different anchors or hosts will use the exact same talking point (often the exact same wording) to make the exact same point.
Stewart often seems like the only voice on television that contradicts the corporate media's nearly uniform messaging about certain issues, but I should clarify the kinds of issues I'm talking about. It's not that Stewart is liberal, while I think the "liberal media" is a figment of a few conservative talk show hosts' imaginations, there are outlets like MSNBC that represent the mainstream liberal perspective. Stewart goes beyond the mainstream liberal position; he challenges his guests on their manipulative statements; he touches on issues that seem taboo even on outlets like MSNBC. His most important critiques are those of the news media itself. Critiques that mainstream news outlets seem unwilling to make. However indirectly, he shines a bit of light on the nature of the propaganda we're inundated with.
I've long wondered how programs like The Daily Show fit into the corporate propaganda system. The corporate media produces them, yet they directly challenge that media's propaganda messages and highlight its manipulativeness. Damaging the corporate news media's credibility and breaking message uniformity seemingly violates core principals of traditional propaganda systems. It seems out of place that a major media corporation like Viacom would actively contradict the corporate media's propaganda. However, the Daily Show is a cash cow. Ratings and ad revenue can go a long way towards explaining why Viacom lets the show exist, but letting the Daily Show's message go out relatively unrestrained might also serve a deeper purpose in support of the propaganda system.
Understanding where The Daily Show fits in the propaganda system requires a basic understanding of how modern propaganda functions. When most people think of propaganda they think of posters from WW2, or state controlled radio and television in authoritarian countries. While these traditional systems of propaganda still exist in many places around the world, they have rarely been the favored approach in modern western democracies (mainly due to their ineffectiveness). I think the propaganda model proposed by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in their book Manufacturing Consent most accurately describes the functioning of the propaganda system in the modern US. They argue that democratic countries, with privately (generally corporately) owned mass media systems, will have to use systems of propaganda that are more subtle, and that therefore function somewhat differently from propaganda systems in dictatorships. Instead of serving the government's interest they serve the interests of their corporate owners (note that most of these owners are not single individuals but groups of shareholders represented by a board of directors). Subtlety makes modern propaganda less detectable and therefore more effective, but the structure of such systems, especially their independent private ownership, makes them much less controllable (each corporation serves its own interest not the system's interest).
Even though democracies must generally be subtler with their propaganda than dictatorships, Chomsky and Herman argue that democratic countries are even more reliant on effective propaganda. In authoritarian countries with rigidly controlled propaganda systems most people are bombarded by official messages. From the media they may only ever hear the official line, but people know that line is not trustworthy and easily dismiss it. They tend to rely instead on information spread interpersonally and through local community level networks. The major advantage of the propaganda system in the US is that its messages are more believable. The population has (until recent years) seen the mainstream news media as relatively trustworthy. Since the goal of all propaganda is persuasion, believability and trustworthiness go a long way. Democratic regimes count on these advantages since they generally do not have a dictatorship's ability to use force and violence to keep their populations in line.
In recent years trust in the US news media as a whole has declined sharply. As news organizations increasingly adopt ideological perspectives, as their reporting grows increasingly biased by these perspectives, people increasingly identify with and rely on the particular news outlets that most closely match their personal ideologies. Polls indicate that people's trust in the US news media as a whole has been declining since the '90s, but their trust in the particular news sources they rely on has stayed relatively stable. This is the result of an intentional branding effort by the corporate media. It has created extremely polarized audiences.
Traditional propaganda is most effective when there is uniformity of message. When people hear the same message from most (or at least from multiple) sources they are given the impression that there is consensus about the veracity of the message. It makes the actual level of consensus among experts in the field the message pertains to less relevant. Conversely, when an audience hears messages that contradict a propaganda message it creates doubt about the truth of the propaganda message. This makes controlling access to information essential to the successful dissemination of propaganda.
Increasingly ideological US news organizations regularly disseminate torrents of contradictory information. This goes against the message uniformity that traditional propaganda systems rely on. It would seemingly make their propaganda less persuasive. However, increasingly polarized news audiences rarely hear the contradictory messages because the blatantly ideological bias of the opposing side's news outlets repulses them. This polarization is also at the heart of the widening "red vs. blue" ideological divide in the US. Within each bubble the propaganda is very consistent and therefore very effective. Because both the "red" and the "blue" media outlets are so clearly manipulative from the other side's perspective, when people do hear information that contradicts their own side's propaganda, they simply dismiss it as blatant deception by the other side. This gives the corporate media a way of discrediting alternative narratives; a valuable tool in the Internet age, where the corporate media's gatekeeper role has waned.
The divisions created in the US working class by this media posturing are deep and strategically located to promote and avoid threats to the ruling class's common corporate interests. These rifts are manufactured by ginning up controversy over social and cultural issues that stoke emotional reactions but which only marginally affect people's quality of life. They often discuss real social pathologies, but their roots in corporate policies and regulations (or lack thereof) are usually obscured and dismissed. The issues discussed by the news media tend to be the issues that our elections are decided over. By preventing issues that challenge corporate interests or power from entering the political discussion they prevent politicians from challenging their interests or power.
Issues that do threaten corporate interests require a more dependable technique. The most reliable propaganda tool is still omission. If there is some controversial issue that a government or a private organization wants to prevent an audience from being roused by, this is more easily accomplished by keeping the audience from knowing about the issue all together than it would be by trying to convince an audience that already knows about the issue that it isn't something to be concerned about. The most effective tool of modern propaganda is to simply ignore anything that challenges the interests of the ruling class. This ignoring can become quite sophisticated.
The propaganda model that Chomsky and Herman describe does not rely on any kind of centralized control. They do not propose any mass conspiracy to deceive the public. Instead they describe a system in which a corporate media, as a result of their intrinsic interests, incentives, and world views, filter their messages in support of the interests of their primary stakeholders (i.e. owners, advertisers, sources "). Because corporate conglomerates with holdings in banking, investment, industry, and transnational trade own most media organizations, their messages also get filtered to support these wider corporate interests. Michael Parenti put it well, saying that they promote their class interest as the public interest.