McVicker on DiMaggio, 'Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Examining American News in the'

Anthony R. DiMaggio
Jeanette McVicker

Anthony R. DiMaggio. Mass Media, Mass Propaganda: Examining American News in the. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2008. viii + 329 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7391-1902-0.

Reviewed by Jeanette McVicker (SUNY Fredonia) Published on Jhistory (March, 2009) Commissioned by Donna Harrington-Lueker

Still Manufacturing Consent

Despite the almost daily examples of declining news readership, we should not forget, as Anthony R. DiMaggio reminds us, that “media corporations today appear more powerful than at any time in world history, and they exercise a tremendous amount of influence and power over public opinion in the markets in which they operate” (p. 2). Building on an abundance of critical assessments of the news media’s power to shape public perception that reach back to journalist Walter Lippmann, DiMaggio argues that today’s “media corporations use their resources to portray a favorable image of the United States in the ‘War on Terror’” that amounts to propaganda (p. 2). The book systematically documents that claim and delineates a variety of negative implications that follow from it. For political journalists, journalism faculty and students, and common readers who believe the news media should present a more diverse spectrum of views about the defining political issue of our era, Mass Media, Mass Propaganda is a must-read book.

DiMaggio, who currently teaches in the Department of Politics and Government at Illinois State University, utilizes a political economy approach and defines “propaganda” from that perspective: “While mainstream journalists are technically independent of government as a result of private, rather than government, ownership of the press, they have ... generally failed in promoting an open-ended debate over war that transcends narrow partisan perspectives” (p. 24). In eleven chapters plus a brief introduction and conclusion, DiMaggio demonstrates that this multifaceted failure derives from numerous causes, among them: news framing and agenda setting consistent with corporate ownership of news outlets, impeding balance in war coverage; the absence of antiwar perspectives in media coverage; overreliance on official sources and statements; and a glut of fluff or “junk” news, rather than substantive information that could be useful to citizens during a time of international crisis.

From that point of departure, DiMaggio spends a chapter detailing the failure of U.S. news media to adequately report on the George W. Bush administration’s claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, even when other media systems in the United Kingdom, Australia, and elsewhere were criticizing the administration’s “evidence” (or lack thereof) and dismissal of the now infamous “Downing Street Memo” (which recorded a July 2002 meeting of Labour government officials in the United Kingdom, citing classified U.S. documents that the Bush administration was determined to invade Iraq regardless of evidence of a credible threat). In another chapter, DiMaggio deconstructs the U.S. media’s uncritical acceptance and promotion of “a charitable, humanitarian vision of the U.S.” as an agent of democracy in Iraq, and faults it for lopsided reporting on the Iraqi insurgence (p. 4). Subsequent chapters take up contiguous issues in depth. For example, DiMaggio examines how the U.S. media has “punished, downsized, or eliminated” antiwar voices, bolstering instead “nationalist, pro-war pressures” (p. 5). He discusses the widening gap in reporting between U.S. mainstream news outlets and the progressive-Left press (comprised of independent media centers, weekly left-leaning news magazines, Internet news sites, etc.), and the “gulf between American mainstream reporting and alternative paradigms of reporting as seen in other media institutions throughout the U.S. and the world” (p. 5). The accumulation of evidence, presented in comparative charts, graphs, tables, and detailed footnotes, supports DiMaggio’s assertion that the American public has been systematically denied access to the full spectrum of diverse points of view on matters of crucial national and international importance by its mainstream media. It should come as no surprise that DiMaggio includes a chapter analyzing “the way in which corporate reporting mirrors George Orwell’s ‘Doublethink’ propaganda model”--for example, that “military force is the best means of promoting peace” (p. 5). The comparison serves his argument in highlighting various contradictory news frames, such as the “media’s promise of democracy in Iraq, pursued alongside media admissions that the United States is pursuing imperial policies in the Middle East” (p. 5).

Two key observations stand out in this abundantly researched yet bound-to-be controversial study. First, DiMaggio demonstrates that the private ownership of mainstream media organizations, and the kind of reporting practiced by those organizations, is not inherently natural, but represent only one model among, potentially, many others. If American citizens have been shortchanged by a media establishment that has adopted a propaganda model of reporting on the “war on terror,” that’s not the way it has to be, he maintains. “The American press has revealed itself as subservient to the agendas of the American foreign policy elite. Official ‘enemies’ are vilified (although at times for good reason), while the questionable actions of American leaders are largely left unchallenged, as professional norms of ‘objectivity’ do not allow for the challenge of official statements. As the propaganda model suggests, American reporters have faithfully taken to the role of an unofficial propaganda arm for the state, most blatantly during times when the United States rules in favor of allies and client regimes against powers deemed antagonistic to U.S. interests” (p. 294). 

The second important observation comes in the final two chapters, which analyze, respectively, the media coverage of the war in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2002, and coverage of what the Bush administration continually hinted at as potential future targets in the never-ending war on terror, i.e., Syria, Iran, and North Korea. With notable exceptions (such as Seymour Hersh’s reporting in The New Yorker, among others), DiMaggio’s conclusion, following detailed evidence and analysis, suggests that “the American media establishment has generally declined to push the Bush administration on whether there is a specific timeframe in which they expect the ‘War on Terror’ to be completed; rather, most reporters seem to have accepted the thesis that today’s world is one in which global terror threats are constantly materializing, and prolonged engagement in foreign wars may be necessary for decades to come in order to fight terrorism.... Media institutions have reaffirmed their subordinate status to the Bush administration, as non-adversarial standards of reporting prohibit journalists from actively playing a role in politics by putting forth critical analysis and questioning administration policy plans” (p. 280).

The production of news in the United States has certainly undergone enormous transformation in the twenty years since the groundbreaking publication of Manufacturing Consent (1988) by economist and media analyst Edward S. Herman and linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky. Their book, which analyzed the political economy of the mass media by proposing what they called a “propaganda model”--the set of news filters through which the “raw material of news must pass ... leaving only the cleansed residue fit to print”--remains important, if still controversial in some circles, and has inspired much recent critical work on media theory, including the current study.[1] DiMaggio expands on and updates Chomsky and Herman’s thesis as it relates to the seemingly endless “war on terror.” He also adopts into his critical methodology the concept of news “indexing,” following W. Lance Bennett and Jonathan Mermin.[2] DiMaggio explains that, unlike their global counterparts, the U.S. news media have frequently failed to take critical, let alone oppositional, stances toward reporting Bush administration policy in the absence of political challenges from Democrats in Congress or others in Washington. While many recent studies have pointed out the too-cozy reliance of mainstream journalists on establishment sources, DiMaggio concludes that the “propaganda model” not only is validated based on his and others’ research, but has also become standard operating procedure for mainstream American journalists. The result is a media echo chamber of administration policy views, generally unchallenged throughout the mainstream media.

DiMaggio, who is completing a doctorate at the University of Illinois-Chicago in American government and urban politics with a focus on mass media, political communication, and public opinion, writes in a style addressing both general readers and academic scholars. The book is animated by passionate advocacy of alternative media and of general media reform, topics he explores most specifically in the introduction and conclusion. This book, which was scheduled for paperback issue in December 2008, comprises his dissertation research; DiMaggio is currently finishing a second book on media, war, public opinion, and dissent. He is also a frequent contributor to Counterpunch and Z Magazine, among the independent/progressive Left media he champions.

Mass Media, Mass Propaganda delivers a courageous critical analysis of the practice of news today and its impact on democratic public opinion. Readers familiar with a political economy approach to media studies and the growing critique of U.S. media power will be less surprised by its findings, however appreciative of the exhaustive research data. Some readers, particularly those who are less familiar with the political economy critique of media power, will likely be uncomfortable with what could be considered a lopsided leftist theoretical stance. DiMaggio, anticipating such a response, concludes his first chapter: “Fair reporting is not about achieving perfect balance, but rather about levels of balance.... When American media outlets systematically neglect Progressive-Left perspectives while consistently incorporating mainstream and conservative points of view, what is left is an extreme imbalance in war coverage” (p. 32).

One does not have to agree with the progressive/Left perspective for which he calls, but in a democratic society, one ought to be able to hear such views next to official administration sources as part of full-spectrum reporting. DiMaggio’s careful development of journalistic evidence builds a strong case for his basic conclusion: that the mainstream U.S. media has weakened democracy in America and the power of its citizens (and the rest of the world through its enormous media influence) to respond to climactic events by not providing a wide, diverse range of perspectives in its reporting on Bush administration policy surrounding the “war on terror.”

Although DiMaggio’s credibility as a media analyst may, for some readers, be compromised by his own reporting for independent media, the documentary record he offers is difficult to refute, as the now generally accepted denunciation of the media’s failed reporting of weapons of mass destruction has proven. While readers will likely be just as polarized over these findings as they were over Herman and Chomsky’s twenty years ago, they will surely be better informed for having taken time to hear the argument.


[1]. Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York: Pantheon, 1988). For the list of “essential ingredients” of their “propaganda model” see page 2. Their final news filter, “anticommunism as a national religion and control mechanism,” is clearly dated now, though one might be justified in substituting the “war on terror” in its place today.

[2]. Bennett suggests that the mainstream media “‘index’ the range of voices and viewpoints in both news and editorials according to the range of views expressed in mainstream government debate about a given top” in “Towards a Theory of Press-State Relations in the United States,” Journal of Communication 40 (Spring 1990): 103-127, quotation on 106. Mermin states: “I follow Bennett in using the term ‘indexing’ to describe journalism that lets the spectrum of debate in Washington determine the spectrum of debate in the news.” Jonathan Mermin, Debating War and Peace: Media Coverage of U.S. Intervention in the Post-Vietnam Era (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 5.

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