For example, and as I’ve often emphasized, philosophers and historians of science commit this error when they claim that the key theses of Aristotelian philosophy of nature (concerning substantial form, natural teleology, etc.) were refuted by modern science. As , what modern science has refuted are really only certain auxiliary empirical assumptions that medieval Aristotelians took for granted when applying these ideas, but not the ideas themselves.
Naturally, it would also be fallacious to judge that some application of a theory, or some auxiliary assumption made when developing that application, must be correct simply because the theory itself is sound. A modern Aristotelian would be committing such a fallacy if, for example, he judged that, since Aristotelian philosophy of nature is after all still defensible, we should conclude that medieval empirical science too is still defensible and that Galileo and company were all wrong.
A very different example is provided by the “propaganda model” of mass media famously associated with Noam Chomsky, and developed by Chomsky and Edward Herman in their book Chomsky is well-known for applying this model to media coverage of U.S. foreign policy, in the service of his particular (anarchosyndicalist) brand of left-wing politics and economics. Many right-wingers dismiss Chomsky’s model because they reject his left-wing assumptions and the claims he makes about U.S. foreign policy in the name of the model. Many left-wingers, finding the model itself plausible and already sympathetic to some the political and economic assumptions Chomsky brings to bear when applying it, judge that the applications must be sound. But here too the three factors – the model itself, the auxiliary political and economic assumptions in question, and the various applications to particular cases – must be distinguished. Acceptance (or rejection) of one doesn’t entail acceptance (or rejection) of the others..
Wholesale acceptance or rejection is nevertheless common, and tends to be vehement, for Chomsky is a polarizing figure. This is unsurprising. On the one hand, he is obviously brilliant and has made important contributions to modern intellectual life – to linguistics, of course, but also to philosophy, as . Even when you think what he is saying is batty, he is always interesting to listen to, and is independently-minded enough to annoy even his fans from time to time. On the other hand, especially on political matters he is, to say the least, prone to wild overstatement and sweeping remarks. He has an annoying habit of reeling out long strings of peremptory assertions, some of them reasonable, some unreasonable, but in any case largely tendentious and controversial yet presented as if no rational and well-informed person could possibly disagree. He is himself also insufficiently careful to distinguish his “propaganda model” from the left-wing political and economic assumptions that influence his application of it.
My own political and economic views are most certainly not left-wing, though I also reject the libertarian or doctrinaire free-market position that is Chomsky’s usual target. In my opinion, . You needn’t either accept the whole thing or reject the whole thing. Left-wingers are too quick to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and right-wingers are too willing to swallow the bathwater in the name of saving the baby. In any event, my fundamental political principles are subsidiarity, solidarity, and pietas rather than, say, (much less ). My basic economic principles are those of popes and . In short, I approach these issues from the point of view of Catholic social teaching and Thomistic natural law theory.
Naturally, since my political and economic commitments are very different from Chomsky’s, I disagree with much of what he says when he applies his “propaganda model” to specific cases. For example, while I agree with him that business interests are not always as benign as too many free-marketers suppose, I do not think that U.S. anti-communist foreign policy was essentially malign, as Chomsky supposes. But you’d have to go case by case when evaluating his various applications of the model, and that’s not what I’m interested in here. What I do want to address is the “propaganda model” itself, which can be disentangled from Chomsky’s own applications and his background auxiliary political and economic assumptions.
Chomsky and Herman’s “propaganda model” is intended to explain and predict how mass media operate in capitalist countries like the United States, where the feature of capitalism they are most concerned with is the domination of the economic system by large private business corporations. They hold that mass media in such countries exhibit a systematic tendency to select and convey information, formulate matters of controversy, and frame what counts as respectable alternative positions on those matters, in a way that reflects and upholds the basic ideological presuppositions of the overall corporate order of things. This basic idea is pretty simple, and may even seem almost trivially true. Indeed, Chomsky himself takes the basic thesis to be really more of an observation about a fairly obvious feature of the system rather than a “theory.” But it is an observation that many people do not make, and its implications are insufficiently appreciated.
Chomsky and Herman hold that there are, specifically, five “filters” that determine what information and ideas tend to be conveyed through mass media and how they are presented. The first concerns the ownership of the media. In the United States, the main media outlets are themselves owned by large private corporations. Accordingly, they have a direct interest in upholding the ideological presuppositions of the overall corporate-dominated economic order. There are, of course, smaller and more local media companies as well. But they have a strong tendency to reflect the view of things that prevails in the larger mass media. For the larger companies have much greater resources and thus can generate the information and opinion content that smaller companies draw on in putting together their own content. The larger companies also have brand-name recognition and prestige that gives smaller and more local media an incentive to follow their lead.
The second filter concerns advertising as the primary source of the income of media companies. This feature makes media companies inclined to cater primarily to the interests of advertisers rather than to those of readers or viewers (who provide much less in the way of revenue via subscriptions and the like). Advertisers themselves are primarily interested in appealing to those with purchasing power. The overall result is that media companies have a strong incentive not to offend the sensibilities of the wealthy, and indeed to frame news and opinion in a way that upholds the basic presuppositions of the system that keeps them wealthy.
The third filter concerns the sources of the information and opinions that are propagated by mass media, which are primarily government officials, business interests, and the experts who are approved of and often funded by government and business. News media require government and business sources to provide most of the day-to-day information that serves as the content of news stories and programs. That reporters can draw on “official” sources like these saves them much work and gives the information a prima facie credibility, especially since the government and business sources have more direct knowledge of the events and policies being reported on. Media also have a natural incentive to want to stay on good terms with these sources. Government and business sources, meanwhile, obviously have a strong incentive to present information in a way that is maximally consistent with furthering their own interests, and also to stay on good terms with media. The result is that media, government, and business tend to converge in the picture of events that they present to the public, in a kind of tacit collusion of bureaucracies.
Universities are also a source of expert information, but these, Chomsky notes, are themselves largely dependent for their funding on government and on corporate donations. Hence they inherit the tendency not to challenge the basic ideological presuppositions shared by government and corporations. We might note also that, just as smaller media companies follow the lead of the big corporations, so too do smaller academic institutions tend to follow the lead of the most prestigious universities vis-à-vis what ideas are judged respectable, who are the sorts of faculty who ought therefore to be hired, and so on. And the most prestigious universities are, of course, the ones that cater to the wealthiest segment of society, and whose graduates provide the personnel that dominate media, business, and government. The result of all this is that it is what is in the common interest of these institutions (government, big corporations, mass media companies, and prestige universities) that will be reflected in the sources that shape the content of news and opinion outlets.
The fourth filter has to do with the “flak” or negative feedback that mass media companies get when their content conflicts with these common interests. Flak can of course include angry letters to the editor from unhappy readers and the like, but this is not the sort of thing that makes much of a difference to media content. The flak that counts is the flak that comes from powerful people and institutions – corporations who might threaten lawsuits or pull their advertising from a program or publication, government officials who might stop providing information or threaten hostile regulation, experts whose criticism of a media outlet might entail a loss of prestige, boycotts organized by well-funded interest groups, and so on.
The fifth and final filter is “fear.” The idea here is that mass media have an interest in selecting and conveying information, and in molding what counts as a respectable range of opinion, in a manner that is conducive to generating fear and hostility toward anyone who would challenge the shared basic ideological presuppositions of the overall government-corporate-media complex. News stories will, accordingly, tend to characterize people who criticize these presuppositions as ill-informed and irrational, will portray these critics as a constant threat to social order, will play up stories that make this threat seem grave and imminent, and so on.
Naturally, these critics will also tend to be portrayed as villainous in the popular entertainment content provided by mass media companies. But Chomsky sees such entertainment as playing essentially a “bread and circuses” role in the corporate economic order. The function of the ideas that prevail in news media, expert opinion, and universities is to mold the thinking of those who will become future leaders in government, business, media, etc., so that they will act in a way that positively upholds the ideological presuppositions of the status quo. The function of the ideas conveyed in popular entertainment is to keep the masses acquiescent in this status quo, but primarily by way of providing endless distractions that keep most people from even thinking about the nature of the political and economic system and its ideological presuppositions.
In order properly to understand this “propaganda model” of mass media, it is crucial to note that it is not saying what people often mistakenly accuse it of saying. For example, Chomsky is often accused of peddling a “conspiracy theory.” But that is precisely what he is not doing. Indeed, Chomsky has, much to the frustration of some of his fans, been consistently critical of the best-known conspiracy theories of recent times, such as , and .
Chomsky is not positing a cabal of sinister operatives who gather in smoke-filled rooms to plot out what will be said in mass media. He is instead describing economic incentives, cultural attitudes and mores, and the like, which shape the thinking of opinion-makers mostly without their even realizing it. He is also not claiming that most of the people who write news stories and express opinions on issues of the day are lying, or that they have bad motives. On the contrary, he says that for the most part they sincerely believe themselves to be conveying the unvarnished facts and to be providing reasonable and responsible commentary about those facts. The trouble is rather that, in determining what facts are important and worth reporting, which experts to trust, which alternative opinions are respectable and worth a hearing, and so forth, they are guided by assumptions they are mostly unaware of and never seriously question, and that these assumptions conform to the basic ideological presuppositions of the overall governmental-corporate order of things. Hence they never seriously reflect on whether that order is itself problematic, and indeed find it very difficult even to consider the possibility that it might be and that those who challenge it might have serious reasons for doing so.
Nor is Chomsky positing a self-defeating “hermeneutics of suspicion” that undermines the possibility of knowing anything, including the propaganda model itself. Chomsky is not a skeptic who thinks that we can never get at the truth. On the contrary, he thinks that the relevant information about important controversies is available, sometimes in media and government sources themselves. The trouble is that most people, including journalists and opinion makers, either don’t bother to look for it or misunderstand its significance. The reason is, again, that their decisions about what is worth looking for, about how to interpret the relevant information, etc. are shaped by assumptions that uphold the interests of the corporate-government-media order and which they never seriously question.
Chomsky also acknowledges that there are dissident voices and alternative sources of information. He does not think that the U.S. political system is like that of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, violently quashing dissent. He emphasizes that that is not how suppression of criticism of those in power works in capitalist societies with democratic political structures. Rather, it works in the much more subtle ways described by the propaganda model. Indeed, the point of the model is in part to explain how violent suppression is not the only way for powerful political and economic forces to sustain themselves. Chomsky is not claiming that dissent cannot or does not exist in the political and economic order he criticizes, but rather that voices and institutions that challenge the basic presuppositions of that order are at a massive disadvantage. Hence it is not a serious criticism of the propaganda model to point out that there do exist anti-establishment media, that critics like Chomsky are able to get their books and articles published, etc.
Chomsky also does not deny the obvious fact that there is media criticism of government policy and of business, vigorous debate between the political parties over policy, and so on. His point is that the criticism and debate are all kept within certain boundaries. Criticism occurs when government or business does not live up to principles that reflect the basic ideological presuppositions of the state-corporate-media order of things. Policies are considered worthy of debate when they are consistent with those presuppositions. What does not occur is criticism or debate about those basic presuppositions themselves. Chomsky also acknowledges that corporations do not always pursue profit, for an idea might be profitable in the short term but have a tendency to undermine the basic presuppositions of the government-corporate-media order in the long run. Hence corporations and media will forego profits in a particular case if doing so helps to uphold that order.
It is also very important to see that there is nothing essentially left-wing in the model as I have described it so far. Indeed, the model as I have described it so far is for the most part politically neutral. One can even imagine someone who approves of the existing political and economic order of things and judges it good and proper that it is upheld in the way that Chomsky describes. But of course, for someone who is critical of that order, what the propaganda model describes is seriously problematic, a major structural impediment to achieving a more just society.
Chomsky, again, criticizes the prevailing political and economic order from a left-wing point of view – in particular, from a very far-left point of view that he describes as “libertarian socialist” or anarchosyndicalist. Hence the examples he uses to illustrate the “propaganda model” reflect that point of view. For instance, his examples of the “fear” filter include anti-communism and the war on terror, and he routinely characterizes the government-corporate-media complex that the propaganda model upholds as “right-wing.”
Conservative critics of Chomsky often find this mystifying. They point to the liberal bias of news outlets like CNN and The New York Times, and the fact that one of the two main U.S. political parties is liberal, as if such facts obviously refuted him. But what Chomsky is criticizing is what mainstream Democrats and Republicans alike agree on. Both parties uphold a capitalist economic order dominated by large corporations, and thus neither is socialist, despite the fact that Democrats tend to favor more regulation and redistributive taxation than Republicans do. From Chomsky’s perspective, that makes them both “right-wing” (even if the Republicans are further right than the Democrats) and thus he is critical of liberals and conservatives alike. From a right-wing point of view that may be an idiosyncratic use of the term “right-wing,” but the substantive point is that to refute Chomsky it does not suffice merely to point out that mainstream media outlets tend to be liberal.
Appropriating the model
One could, in any case, object to the U.S. government-corporate-media complex from a right-wing perspective that is not as uncritical of capitalism as Chomsky’s usual conservative targets tend to be. For example, one could object to it from a populist point of view, or from the point of view of Catholic integralism or some other brand of throne-and-altar conservatism. Or one could simply object to features of the system for reasons drawn from Catholic social teaching and Thomistic natural law theory, even if one does not go in for populism, integralism, etc. And one could adopt something like Chomsky’s “propaganda model” as a tool for analysis and criticism. Needless to say, the particular features of contemporary mass media and state and corporate behavior that a right-wing version of the “propaganda model” would object to would be very different from the things Chomsky emphasizes. But the basic model would be similar. It would simply be a matter of applying it to different cases than the ones that interest Chomsky, and bringing different auxiliary political and economic assumptions to bear on the application.
Nor is it difficult to see obvious applications in recent history. Consider the lockdowns that afforded no significant net benefit in dealing with Covid-19, but inflicted staggering economic damage and harm to children’s education and mental health. Consider the 2020 riots that destroyed many businesses and neighborhoods, and the spike in crime that predictably followed in the wake of the imbecilic “defund the police” movement. Consider the stubborn insistence on Covid-19 vaccine mandates even after it became clear that vaccination was no longer effective in stopping transmission, despite the fact that many who refused to comply have lost their jobs as a result. Mass media outlets were in general not only supportive of these manifestly destructive policies, but shamelessly censored critics of the policies and demonized them as “anti-science,” “anti-vax,” “racist,” etc.
Given all of this enormous damage and how predictable it was, what explains the government-corporate-media complex’s support for the policies that led to it? Well, consider some further facts. Large corporations did extremely well during the lockdowns, especially media corporations and the tech companies that provide them their platforms. It is the small businesses that compete with big corporations that suffered. Wealthy and educated people who largely work and live online anyway had a relatively easy economic and psychological transition to lockdown conditions. Working-class people, by contrast, either lost their jobs, or had to put themselves at risk of getting the virus in order to make it possible for the affluent to work from home while still getting their food and groceries delivered, their plumbing and electrical problems solved, and so on. Wealthy people also had the financial wherewithal and technological resources to stay at home and make sure their children learned online, whereas poorer people had to go out to work or lacked the resources to provide reliable online access to class materials and Zoom sessions. It was primarily poor neighborhoods that suffered when rioting occurred and when police presence was reduced. Mandatory vaccination made enormous profits for pharmaceutical companies, and entailed unprecedented control by government-corporate-media bureaucracies over citizens, consumers, and public opinion. Those who lost their jobs for resisting were largely working class people, as were the bulk of those demonized as “racist,” “anti-vax,” etc.
In short, the social chaos of the last two years yielded increased wealth for corporations, increased power for governments, increased control over information flow for the mass media, and increased financial rewards and cost-free virtue-signaling opportunities for the affluent – while at the same time imposing economic hardship, decreased public safety, educational setbacks, psychological stress and humiliation on the working class and the poor.
It is largely right-of-center voices who have been calling attention to this breathtaking social injustice, though there are many honorable exceptions on the left – some, like Glenn Greenwald, precisely in a Chomskian spirit. In any event, the “propaganda model” makes good sense of what happened. And again, it has nothing to do with any conspiracy. It is instead a matter of a class of people with certain common interests and ideological presuppositions naturally converging on policies that serve those interests and support those presuppositions, while being blind or indifferent to the costs imposed on people with different interests or presuppositions.
Unfortunately, too many right-wingers have over the last couple of years nevertheless The patterns they see in recent events are real, and they are correct to judge that these patterns are not accidental, but they reason fallaciously when they infer from this that there must therefore be some cabal that planned things to go the way they have. The fallacy is similar to the one committed by egalitarians when they judge that economic disparities must have come about by discrimination. .
The truth is that complex social phenomena have structural features that can generate patterns without anyone having intended them. They are, as Hayek liked to say, “spontaneous orders” which (as Scottish philosopher Adam Ferguson famously put it) are “the products of human action but not of human design.” Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” is one such mechanism, and Chomsky’s “propaganda model” describes another. That does not mean, either with the patterns Smith described or those that the “propaganda model” describes, that the patterns are necessarily benign or that we can’t work to counteract them. That’s not the point. The point is that before you can properly evaluate such a pattern, you need to understand how it actually comes about. Conspiracy theories don’t aid us in understanding this, but only obscure what is really going on. Into the bargain, they actually help those who are responsible for bad policies, by making their critics look paranoid and stupid. (The Substack writer Eugyppius has written some helpful articles – e.g. and – about why what has been happening over the past couple of years is best understood as malign instances of “spontaneous order,” rather than in terms of conspiracy.)
The foolish things being said by a few (by no means all) Catholic traditionalists in defense of Vladimir Putin are the latest fruit of this muddleheaded “narrative thinking” and conspiracy theorizing. The narrative has it that the people who favored lockdowns and vaccine mandates, and who are imposing “wokeness” on the country, have also long hated Putin because of his hostility to wokeness and because of . And that much is true enough. The problem is that the Putin defenders think this somehow shows that the invasion of Ukraine is defensible, or at least maybe not so bad, and that to oppose it somehow puts one in league with the woke conspiracy. If you’re having trouble following the logic here, that’s because there isn’t any. Whatever one thinks of Putin’s anti-woke and pro-Christian rhetoric, the fact remains that his invasion of Ukraine , and an unjust war is among the most grave of injustices. Hence Putin is perpetrating great evil, and the fact that he has said some nice things in favor of Christianity and against wokeness doesn’t change that for a moment.
Of course, it doesn’t follow that NATO intervention in the war is a good idea. Since it would risk nuclear war, it is an extremely bad idea, and itself would not meet just war criteria. That there is even a debate about this is, I think, a consequence of the anti-Russian hysteria that has been ginned up within the mass media over the last few years. That brings us back to Chomsky, who has long been critical of this hysteria and who I’ll give the last word. In , he addresses the Ukrainian situation. On the one hand, he notes that peaceful, diplomatic means of addressing Russia’s concerns about NATO expansion were available before the war, and thus condemns Putin’s “criminal invasion” of Ukraine. On the other hand, he warns against actions that can only make the situation far worse, such as the NATO no-fly zone requested by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. Says Chomsky:
Zelensky’s plea is understandable. [But] responding to it would very likely lead to the obliteration of Ukraine and well beyond. The fact that it is even discussed in the U.S. is astonishing. The idea is madness. A no-fly zone means that the U.S. Air Force would not only be attacking Russian planes but would also be bombing Russian ground installations that provide anti-aircraft support for Russian forces, with whatever “collateral damage” ensues. Is it really difficult to comprehend what follows?