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Propaganda Power: Inherent Bias in Mass Media

Chomsky, Communication Theory, Media Manipulation, Propaganda

One television news show with integrity and the determination to end domestic tyranny brings about a senatorial indictment and galvanizes a nation against government sanctioned witch hunts. Good Night and Good Luck gives an indirect inside look at the media filters that bias the news. The docudrama, set in the 1950s, illustrates the Propaganda Model of Mass Communication Theory. Good Night and Good Luck allows a look into the inner workings of network approval and advertiser backlash that hinders the media in their reporting of unbiased news. Filters in news reporting either alter the original message in a story or bury unfavorable stories. To limit the amount of bias, an organization must be aware that it is happening. The Propaganda Model assists in that quest.

First described by Herman and Chomsky in their book Manufacturing Consent (2002), the Propaganda Model follows the trail of power and wealth which creates “systematic propaganda” inherent in mass media (p.1). They argue, by using the model and applying it to a media climate such as the one we have today, we may “explain the performance of the US media in terms of the basic institutional structures and relationships within which they operate” (Herman and Chomsky, 2002, p.xi). Herman and Chomsky’s model also explains how dissent from the mainstream is given little, or zero, coverage, while governments and big business gain easy access to the public in order to convey their state-corporate messages (Cromwell, 2002, ¶ 1).” The model consists of five filters that news must pass through before being reported to the public-private ownership, advertising income, sourcing, flak and anti-terrorism (Herman and Chomsky, 2002). First, only a few private companies control most of mass media today. The ownership of these companies plays an important part in news, because the bias favors causes and topics related to the corporation reporting the news. If the news hurts the corporation or the stockholders, it has a higher chance of being selectively filtered. Second, with the monetary costs of doing business being so great, media must placate its advertisers in order to stay competitive and earn money for the stockholders. Third, with the news media taking prewritten stories from large businesses and government agencies in order to lower costs, they accept a certain amount of misinformation coming from those official sources due to the ease of getting that news. Fourth, “‘flak’ refers to negative responses to a media statement or program” (Herman and Chomsky, 2002, p.26). Flak is costly to deal with and ultimately sways news media. Last, what once was anti-communism, anti-terrorism prays on the fears of the public towards real or imagined threats. This filter of “us or them” allowed McCarthy to rise to power and gain validation for a time in mainstream media. There is a controversial sixth filter, direct infiltration of the media, but in the interest of keeping this paper succinct, it is omitted in this study (Boyd-Barrett, 2004).

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Co-written, directed and starred in by George Clooney, Good Night and Good Luck tells the story as a docudrama of Edward Murrow’s on-air confrontation with Senator Joseph McCarthy during McCarthy’s witch-hunts for suspected communists in the United States. Shown in black and white, Good Night and Good Luck is set in 1953 at CBS’s studios. As the McCarthy senate hearings occur, the Air Force Reserves forcibly discharges a man by the name of Lieutenant Milo Radulovich without a trial due to his father and sister’s suspected communist affiliation. No person including Radulovich’s attorney has seen the evidence against him. Murrow shows footage of the family and raised public attention to his cause. This was meant as a slight to McCarthy, though the senator had nothing directly to do with Radulovich’s case. Murrow and his crew decide to strike at McCarthy before he can denounce them all as communist sympathizers, as McCarthy had already done with Murrow. See It Now, the television show that Murrow hosts, shows footage of McCarthy, letting the senator’s own words speak for themselves. He manages to highlight the serious issues involved in the McCarthy hearings: namely, the line between investigation and ‘persecution’; that dissent is not disloyalty; accusation is not proof; conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law; and finally, as defenders of freedom abroad, the US cannot desert it at home (Warner Brothers, p.3).The Air Force reinstates Radulovich, and, in turn, give Murrow and CBS the vindication that they are correct in their search for the truth. See It Now extends an invitation to Senator McCarthy to come on the show and refute their allegations against McCarthy and the hearings. Instead, the senator pre-tapes a speech allegedly outing into the public sphere Murrow as a communist sympathizer. See It Now‘s viewers see through McCarthy’s diatribe and, after Murrow refutes the claims on his next show, the Senate finally begins an investigation of McCarthy’s “trials”. Murrow, though vindicated in his quest for the truth, still incurs backlash with the loss of his advertisers and faith of the network. He is slowly fazed out of CBS, but will always be remembered for his search for truth.

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Good Night and Good Luck’s example of media manipulation by personal and overt attempts at censorship reveals many principles of the Propaganda Model at work. First, during the time setting of Good Night and Good Luck, William S. Paley owns, formerly Columbia Broadcasting System, CBS. Because Paley supported Murrow’s actions in attacking McCarthyism, Murrow had the ability to pursue the truth behind McCarthy’s allegations by raising questions as to their validity. If Paley had not supported Murrow, the piece would never had seen air time. Second, Paley, believing that advertising is the key to network television’s success, spearheaded the act of bringing shows of cost only to the advertisers of the programs. In the movie, Paley tells Murrow that he doesn’t feel that the network is his anymore while attempting to explain ALCOA’s monetary pullout of funds for Murrow’s show. ALCOA threatened to takes its advertising money away if Murrow did not cease the attack on Sen. McCarthy. Third, within the plot line, the US government is shown having a stake in the release of the Radulovich episode. This apparent official source makes an effort to sway the network into thinking that the Air Force was a more credible source than a discharged Reservist. They repeatedly remind Friendly and Murrow that the US Air Force has been a long term supporter of CBS. They insinuate that they would no longer speak so freely with CBS and provide news stories to the network. Fourth, after the original broadcast of the Radulovich’s segment on See It Now, the news room sits waiting for the phones to begin ringing. They are waiting specifically for the flak from advertisers, government officials and, more specifically, even McCarthy himself. It may take the form of letters, telegrams, phone calls, petitions, law-suits, speeches and Bills before Congress, and other modes of complaint, threat and punitive action” (Herman and Chomsky, 2002, p26.) McCarthy used scare tactics consisting of “outing” Murrow as a communist sympathizer and putting pressure on Paley to fire Murrow. Last, due to the time period of the movie, the focus shall remain on anticommunism instead of the newer overarching filter of anti-terrorism. This form of filter is pervasive in the movie. People had to be excused from reporting on McCarthy for fear of their own activities tainting the show’s chance of being not labeled as a communistic prop. Good Night and Good Luck illustrates the fear of the label with the tie in of the suicide of Don Hollenbeck after being hounded about previous communistic ties, real and imagined, added to his broken personal life. Every word and action that See It Now is closely scrutinized for fear of imagined communist bias.

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The Propaganda Model describes the underlying bias in the media as it is set up in this country. Good Night and Good Luck illustrates the principle filters of the Propaganda Model, consisting of private ownership, advertising, sourcing, flak and anti-terrorism/anti-communism. One wonders, can anyone-media, organization or individual-be truly unbiased?


Boyd-Barrett, O. (2004). Judith Miller, The New York Times, and the

Propaganda Model. Journalism Studies, 5(4), 435-449.

Cromwell, D. (2002). The Propaganda Model: An Overview. Retrieved October

15, 2007, from http://www.chomsky.info/onchomsky/2002—-.htm.

Herman, E. & Chomsky, N. (2002). Manufacturing Consent: The Political

Economy of the Mass Media.. New York: Pantheon Books.

Warner Brothers. (n.d.). Good Night and Good LuckProduction Notes. Retrieved

October 15, 2007, from