Mass Media, Propaganda & Public Opinion
This paper examines the relationship between mass media and public opinion, and it explores the difference between mass media as a dispenser of information and mass media as a dispenser of propaganda. After discussing the concept of propaganda, the paper examines mass media in the United States and investigates whether propaganda can be issued through mass media when the government does not have direct and exclusive control of the channels of mass communication. The paper uses the Iraq War as a case to examine the possible use of propaganda in the mass media to sway public opinion, and then looks at both government strategies and programs that the Bush administration used to influence mass media content and the relationship between corporate ownership and censorship as another means of influencing public opinion.
Keywords Downing Street Memo; Federal Communications Commission (FCC); Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO); Mass Media; Master Narrative; National Public Radio (NPR); Pentagon; Propaganda; Public Opinion; Video News Release (VNR)
Mass Media, Propaganda
The mass media refers to national/international channels of news and information distribution such as newspapers, radio, television, and Internet that reach a vast majority of citizens in all developed countries. The mass media shapes public opinion more than anything else in society, particularly because it is a central broadcast source that has, since its inception, carried and reinforced all the cultural nuances that comprise mainstream society at any given time. For example, we can easily tell that a 1950's newscast indeed comes from the 1950's, and we often are amused at perceiving its dated cultural contexts - though we rarely perceive anything odd about the cultural contexts of today's newscasts. Aside from the cultural context, the news items are important since they serve as the currency of public discussion and exchange. This activity is also increasingly part of the mass media, so that Americans vicariously debate issues through the many "pundits" on forums and talk shows that, in effect, represent our "national discussion." The power of the mass media to influence public opinion is probably why many writers, educators, and political philosophers have pointed out how vital it is in a democracy that the mass media inform and educate the public on important issues (Champlin & Knoedler, 2008, p. 133). However, we should also consider the process by which something becomes an important issue in the mass media to begin with, and we should question whether the act of repeatedly presenting some news as a central issue can actually create a national issue that is, in reality, invalid or unwarranted. Finally, we should search for the line between the honest presentation of information, and the dishonest propagation of propaganda.
The Power of Propaganda
Propaganda is deliberately misleading or deceptive information that is widely publicized in order to promote an idea, policy, or cause. The main point is that the information is deliberately spread so as to sway public opinion in favor of a specific agenda created by those in power. Propaganda often contains false information (or even lies), and also false or hidden assumptions. The most obvious historical example of promoting propaganda occurred in Nazi Germany when the mass media repeatedly presented "The Jewish Question" as though it were an obvious central issue - and indeed it became a central German issue since "The Jewish Question" inundated German print and airwaves. The Nazi government used mass media to persuade the majority of Germans to believe that a very important question of the day was, "What are we going to do about all the Jews in our country?" By thus manipulating the content of the mass media, by flooding the communication channels of mass media with the same central "problem" over an extended period of time, the Nazi government created an unwarranted and false issue that was in fact its own agenda. There is always a certain amount of presumption present in all propaganda, i.e., the question itself is never questioned - which is why we should always consider the process and reasons that something becomes an important national issue. We should also examine whether a specific group has something to gain from creating the national "problem/issue," as this will often indicate the source of the propaganda.
Who Controls the Media?
A government need not, like the former Soviet Union or the modern Chinese government, directly control all the channels of mass media in order to control the content and message of the mass media. If, without direct control of the communication channels, a government can shape public opinion through propaganda, then the question becomes, How? How can the content and tone of national news remain unified if a government does not own all the channels of mass communication? Can propaganda become widespread and consistent even when the mass media is privately owned?
Cameron Doudu, an African writer from Ghana, was quite surprised by the content of the British media when he visited England. Doudu observed that the British media has a very specific point of view for foreign news, and he noticed that particularly, any news about Africa seemed to follow a government agenda. He concluded, "the uniformity of thought in the British media is sometimes astounding. It is as if they all get their line about particular countries from one source" (2008, p. 20). Doudu then notes that the British media actually does get its information on Africa from one main source, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). Doudu found that, "the FCO holds regular briefings for the media, at which the British government line on foreign countries is staked out, but with the understanding that if the correspondents who attend the briefings use anything coming out of the briefings, they won't attribute it to the Foreign Office" (Doudu, 2008, p. 19).
Doudu also makes observations that compare the U.S. mass media to the British mass media. Rather than news about Africa that is biased by government agenda, the U.S. mainstream media doesn't even have news about Africa. Doudu writes, "Days can go by when the entire African continent ceases to exist," to the point that it seemed to him as though he "was on a completely different planet" (Doudu, 2008, p. 18). Granted, the geopolitical significance of Africa is much less for the U.S. than other regions of the globe, but this argument assumes that a government's decision on national interests highly influences the evening news.
The Case of Iraq
Doudu could make such observations because he traveled and could critically compare mass media content among nations, but citizens from their respective nations generally are not able to see beyond their own mass media. For example, if we look at the global media coverage of Saddam Hussein before the United States attacked Iraq, for several months the U.S. national media was oddly disproportionate and quite isolated in its emphasis of Hussein as a danger. For the first few months, the various national and continental media outside the U.S. gave nearly no coverage on this issue. In fact, news coverage of the Iraq issue outside the United States was mainly other national media covering how Iraq seemed a very important issue in the U.S. media, with implications that the U.S. government seemed intent on invading Iraq. It soon became quite apparent that the U.S. government had an agenda, and the U.S. mass media was being used to try to shape American public opinion in support of that agenda. Americans assumed their evening news reflected world news concerns rather than narrow national interests. Ironically, America's narrow national interests actually became the primary news concern for the rest of the world.
The Master Narrative
Champlin and Knoedler (2008) create the concept of a "master narrative" that they believe controls mass media content, and they assert that the government and corporate sources construct the nation's Master Narrative. Just as Doudu observes that the FCO shapes British public opinion through its briefings with the mass media, Champlin and Knoedler argue that the U.S. government does the same through similar departments. The "master narrative" is rarely challenged by competing views, and "it is important to note that, over the past seven years, this official narrative has been framed by the Bush administration, which includes some of the most accomplished spinners and rhetoricians seen in modern politics" (Champlin & Knoedler, 2008, p. 140).
We should examine this modern term, "spin." How does producing spin or "spinning the facts" to garner public support for a war differ from using propaganda to sway public opinion to support a war? New spin is actually old propaganda - except "spin" seems more insidious and subtle since the term suggests it contains the basic truth which is merely "spun" enough to create a desired effect. This is the post-post-modern political perspective on the value of truth. The term "spin" is essentially "propaganda" with a new face that is "spun" to justify telling "near-truths" that are in fact plain lies. Thus, the term "spin" can be considered as synonymous with the term "propaganda." The subtle process of "spinning" a news story is the main reason that Champlin & Knoedler warn reporters that their assumptions “that official press releases require less research and investigation than other sources is not valid” (Champlin & Knoedler, 2008, p. 140). In fact it is a dangerously invalid assumption that can lead to the mass media promoting wars based on "spin" - or essentially, based on "propaganda." As White (2005) observes,
… modern politics is carefully filtered and treated through the alchemy of public relations and spin to create a political discourse that, when reported in the newspapers and on television is far from honest, fair, or delivered with a sense of duty to the public (p. 653).
Even America's public media has been affected by the propensity to follow the master narrative. In other words, the ultimate triumph of spin is when it is considered straight news. Solomon (2008) writes...
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