Ever since Rockefeller supporter and Hitler advisor Poison Ivy (also known as Ivy Lee) transported the Catholic Church’s idée fixe of propaganda into modernity, we have suffered from it. Since World War II and particularly with Joseph Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda, the term propaganda has attained a negative connotation.
As a consequence, one of the early masterminds of propaganda, Edward Bernays, promoted a more neutral sounding word. Public relations was born. Disguising itself not as what it is – propaganda – but as public relations (giving corporations a voice, as PR likes to call it), it has been propaganda’s most successful achievement. As long as public relations does not appear as propaganda, it will succeed.
However, media scholars like Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky still called a spade a spade. They called the model that illuminates the role of propaganda: the propaganda model. The model explains how propaganda manufactures consent amongst the people.
More recently, David Edwards and David Cromwell have called their investigation into how the corporate media create consent while distorting reality: Propaganda Blitz. Propaganda and public relations (PR) have the same goal: creating consent among the governed.
In PR’s undertakings, corporate media and journalists play a key role. Eminent journalist John Pilger writes, whether they would admit it or not, Western journalists believe in a guided democracy in which approved opinions are elevated regardless of the absence of factual basis.
The role of the media as the broadcasting arm of establishment power was turbo-charged by what German philosopher Habermas calls The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. This transformation converted a reasonable plurality of largely independent media organizations into a handful of global players – few global media corporations (e.g. News Corp., The New York Times Company, Daily Mail and General Trust, Sinclair Broadcasting Co., E. W. Scripps). With it came overwhelming power.
The recent history of the media as an extension of establishment power defined not just the 20th but also the 21st century. It is found in what the BBC once called the mythical media bogeyman Randolph Hearst. Hearst’s media power was eternalized in what many people believe to be the best movie ever made: Citizen Kane.
In the year 2021, the world’s most powerful corporate media bogeyman is Rupert Murdoch. Largely isolated but still in existence there are also a few none-corporate media left on planet earth.
Consider the BBC. A recent study at Cardiff University found that the BBC reflects the government line “overwhelmingly”. Like many others, the BBC prefers to present itself as liberal ready to challenge the corrupt state power. In reality, the BBC courts and protects the state from the Iraq War to Brexit. In worse cases, media institutions like the BBC, CNN, etc. simply become part of propaganda psyops – albeit a bit less obvious than Murdoch’s Fox.
Originating in war propaganda, such psychological operations (psyops) are operations that convey propagandistic information to a target audience with the goal to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning and ultimately their behavior.
A good psyops example is the 2003 Iraq war fought for no weapons of mass destruction. It led to the partial destruction of Iraq with thousands of deaths. As in Iraq, in Afghanistan and elsewhere perhaps US commander General David Petraeus was correct when saying, there is always a war of perceptions. Just as in the case of the Vietnam War, for many in the USA’s military-industrial complex, the real enemy is a skeptical public at home. Once you have eliminated those, you’ve made it.
Much of this isn’t exactly new. Already Hitler’s prime propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl had freely admitted, propaganda always wins. While many of the techniques used in psyops and war propaganda have been transferred to civilian affairs, one of the most spectacular achievements of public relations has been to make the public believe that corporate media do not have a bias.
Most media are run by a handful of billionaires or large media corporations owned by them, e.g. Jeff Bezos buys the Washington Post. It allows the power elite to broadcast its view. As a consequence, many newspaper might better be called viewspapers.
Newspapers, radio and TV like to present themselves as neutral utilities and as a kind of objective information pipeline that delivers only the facts. They do this without ever alluding to the reality that facts never speak for themselves. Facts hardly speak – they have no mouth!
Actually, what is presented as facts depends on someone’s judgment and such a judgment tends to reflect someone’s believes, upbringing, politics, values, history, etc. no matter how objective a journalist or news organization presents itself. As French philosopher Foucault has shown, this is unavoidable.
Even unhealthier for our societies is the reality that most corporate media tend to highlight the same facts. Simultaneously, they tend to de-emphasizing or simply de-selecting inconvenient facts. With that, the appearance of an informed consensus is created. Everyone agrees – those facts matter (read: others don’t).
This global agreement among key media corporations works like colossal magnifying glass highlighting pro-business and convenient facts that support capitalism. Almost self-evidently, these are the facts that benefit corporate friendly political parties, politicians, leaders, states, organizations, institutions, universities, think-tanks, NGOs, etc. Simultaneously, corporate media also de-emphasize facts that undermine and harm corporations and corporate capitalism. Concurrently, corporate-unfriendly parties, leaders and groups are marginalized.
Worse, corporate media will always allow certain criticisms. This is the criticism that allows media capitalism to perfect its affairs. It fine tunes the system of capitalism. Coined as critique, progressives, for example, are made to believe that the media is unbiased.
Corporate media will even give corporations a hard time particularly when their evildoing becomes corporate criminality that can no longer be denied. In reality such officially only enhances and strengthens corporations and capitalism, pretending that there are only a few bad apples among corporations. On the whole, so the ideology goes, corporations aren’t bad. There is the difference between “system-stabilizing critique” (allowed) and “system-challenging critique” (marginalized).
Not critical at all (preferable) and system-stabilizing critique (tolerated) is, of course, important for the function of capitalism. What we experience as news, radio, TV broadcasting, online platforms, etc. often exists because of an interest symbiosis between three key media actors:
1) Corporations that produce commodities like Toyota, Nestle, etc.;
2) Corporate advertisers that do the selling through marketing; and
3) Media corporations which gives us advertisements and news (e.g. News Corp).
Key to this is the creation of a pro-business atmosphere in which capitalism can thrive. In some incidents, corporate capitalism is forced to deal with democracy as about half of all countries are considered to be democratic, in some form or another
In many of those and in particular in countries like the USA, UK, Australia, New Zealand, etc. corporate media support a system that American political activist, author, lecturer, and attorney Ralph Nader describes in the follow way:
We have a two-party dictatorship in this country. Let’s face it. And it is a dictatorship in thraldom to these giant corporations who control every department agency in the federal government.
Perhaps one might imaging such a two-party system of democracy to be a bit like a gigantic iceberg with two peaks. Imagine the two parties representing the two peaks that lurk out of the water. That is what we see. What we do not see remains what is below the water mark. In fact, most of an iceberg we cannot see. As little as one-eighth of an iceberg is visible above the water.
The Iceberg Theory of Media Capitalism
The system we have been made to understand as democracy (e.g. no workplace democracy, for example) is not a one party but a two party system. In our widely accepted officialdom, a one-party system is called a dictatorship. A two-party system is called democracy.
Yet the entire operation of the two-party system operates like a gigantic iceberg with two tops lurking out of the water. What we are made to see is only that which lurks out of the water. These are the two tops of our iceberg. These two peaks represent the two parties of the two-party system.
Peak one represents progressive political parties and peak number two represents conservative political parties. What is hidden from our view is what lies below the watermark, namely that both political parties are part of the same iceberg. Let’s call this iceberg capitalism. In other words, those two parties that are made to appear as representing two different ideas do in fact belong to the same iceberg, the same capitalism.
In media capitalism, these political parties depend on the support of corporations for campaign financing. They need the support of marketing (selling a politician like a piece of soap) and PR (creating a conservative climate, for example) for a successful media campaign. Finally, they need the support of media corporations so that both parties become visible to the public and – more importantly – to the voter.
This is the ingenious setup of media capitalism. All we see is two sides battling it out while in reality both belong to the same underlying system: capitalism – a system that is never questioned or challenged; a system which creates pathologies that are presented as normal, unavoidable and even as natural. What we are made to see are two opposing media corporations:
+ in the UK it is the Sun vs. the Guardian;
+ in Sydney it is the Daily Telegraph vs. the Sydney Morning Herald;
+ in politics it is Democrats vs. Republicans;
+ Clinton vs. Trump and Biden vs. Trump;
+ UK’s Labor vs. Tories, etc.
They key to all this is that it creates the illusion of voters’ choice, the illusion of two different ideologies, the illusion of democracy. The mainstream media of media capitalism present those political parties as mainstream parties. We are made to see these media as the most trusted and respected news sources. We are made to believe this is it: TINA – there is no alternative. Yet both political parties and their associated media organizations are travelling in exactly the same direction, like a gigantic iceberg floating down the drain.
All of the above is labeled as “the free press” even though economists would tell you there is no such thing as a free lunch. In other words, someone, somewhere has to foot the bill. Yet the free press and free access to news websites means that you – the consumer – are the product.
Google, Facebook, etc. sells your free clicks to advertisers and makes billions. Facebook, for example, isn’t a social media company. It is an anti-social media company – a gigantic advertising corporation pretending to connect people.
One of the most common features of what has been said above involves what might be called a propaganda blitz. Such a propaganda blitz supports the hegemony of capitalism while simultaneously attacking and humiliating what mainstream media and the propaganda blitz has identified as the “official enemy”. The “official enemy” can be anyone the system of media capitalism deems a threat to its existence. It can also be an external enemy.
What is deceptively called “defense” (read: capitalism’s attack dog) actually means, in the case of Iraq for example, kick their ass and get their gas. The unwarranted attack on Iraq for no WMD was originally called “Operation Iraqi Liberation” until someone noticed that its acronym actually spelt out “OIL” – a bit too obvious. In any case, a propaganda blitz accompanying such an attack on Iraq
Propaganda blitzes are fast-moving attacks intended to inflict maximum damage in minimum time on those perceived as ideological enemies – not on an often-trumped-up enemy in the field, like the relative small and incapable Iraq army that was overrun quickly. The accompanying media blitz or propaganda blitz tends to rely on four elements:
1) the blitz is based on (often false) allegations (e.g. Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction which simply did not exist). This is spiced up (or sexed up, Tony Blair would say) by dramatic new evidence;
2) the propaganda blitz communicates its key message with high emotional intensity inflated by moral outrage;
3) the propaganda blitz is always supported by well-informed corporate media, by compliant academics and by selected experts;
4) the propaganda blitz’s main message is reinforced by denunciating virtually anyone who questions the carefully constructed consensus that a propaganda blitz has achieved.
The key to understanding the propaganda blitz is that it is not directed against an external enemy but against an internal enemy. This may be a peace movement, the environmental movement in the case of global warming, a consumer movement in the case of smoking, sugary drinks, fact food, etc.
The key task of the propaganda blitz is what the Godfather of public relations – Edward Bernays – once identified as: The significant revolution of modern times is not industrial or economic or political but the revolution which is taking place in the art of creating consent among the governed.
To create consent among the to be governed, the propaganda blitz of the corporate media fools people into believing that there is a widespread consent (e.g. for attacking Iraq, for not acting on global warming etc.). An official government policy, for instance, must be made to appear as total agreement. Those arguing against it are quickly labeled “controversial”, isolated and dismissed.
Worse, anyone challenging the propaganda blitz runs the danger of becoming a target of the blitz. Dissenters are marginalized, disallowed access to corporate media and the so-called liberal media which has always been part of the aforementioned iceberg. This involves dirt files, character assassinations, online bullying, etc.
At the same time, the fiction of free speech, liberty, freedom, democracy and of a civil society is maintained as media capitalism rules. Meanwhile, one journalist openly admitted,
I can write an article that’s critical of what a drug company is specifically doing, but I can’t criticize the company. If I did, my editor would read me the riot act. He knows if he published that article, his boss would get a visit from the company. They would threaten to pull their advertising. Everybody would be in serious trouble. There is a fine line. Sometimes, the evidence against a drug company is huge, and we can get away with a critical article. But most of the time, it’s a no-go area. I could lose my job. If I did, I would have a hell of a time trying to find another position on the same level. I might be subject to an industry-wide demotion.
Meanwhile, any critique that unmasks the role that corporate media is pushing is isolated to online platforms and a handful of independent websites. Shut down these sites and you virtually shut up the opponents of media capitalism. So far, isolating them has been enough. They hardly ever bother capitalism on its way to global environmental self-destruction. Here is how this is done:
On 25th April 2017, the behemoth that organises the Internet – Google – announced changes to make it harder for users to access what Google labels low-quality sites. In July 2017, the independent website WSWS started to notice the impact.
Between April and July 2017, the global traffic rankings of a broad range of progressive organizations have fallen significantly. WSWS said that before Google’s change (April 2017), visits to its website originating from Google searches numbered 422,460 while after Google’s change, WSWS registered merely 120,000 – a decline of more than 70%.
Others also experienced a sharp drop. Even prominent democratic rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International appear to have been hit. In the age of online platforms, you no longer need to arrest opponents, you no longer need to close their publications, you no longer need to torture or kill opposing journalists, you no longer need to outlaw their publications and you definitely do not need Index Librorum Prohibitorum – an index of forbidden books.
All you need a simple change in an algorithm and your opponents vanish into thin air. And best of all, you maintain their marginalized existence so that you can claim to support free speech, democracy and an open society. George Orwell and Aldous Huxley could have hardly dreamed up a more ingenious system.