The Culture Industry and A Propaganda Model

In “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno defines the culture industry as that vehicle of society that regulates and homogenizes all things, including media such as films, magazines and radio. In Horkheimer and Adorno’s view these mediums, “… make up a system which is uniform as a whole and in every part.” (72). Like a sophisticated machine on an automotive assembly line that consistently cranks out streamlined, identical parts, such as cylinders, the “culture industry” cranks out sterilized, watered down, innocuous media products, palatable for mass consumption.

“It has made the technology of the culture industry no more than achievement of standardization and mass production, sacrificing whatever involved a distinction between the logic of the work and that of the social system.”

The culture industry absorbs pure art and manipulates it into a standardized product. Also, in order to succeed, the artist him/herself must be absorbed and assimilated; socially edited—so to remove all coarseness, true originality and innovation, in order to fit into a model of success (72).

According to Horkeimer and Adorno, the culture industry is totalitarian, self-policing and has a built-in system of reinforcement. It strengthens itself the more it grows and the general public, in fact, likes its system of filters and controls and has come to rely on it. At the helm of the culture ship is ruler, or führer; the most powerful force in the system being those parties with the most capital. “The people at the top in the culture agencies, who work in harmony as only one manager can with another … have long since reorganized and rationalized the objective spirit.” Capitalism confines the consumer to the serving class, and therefore limits he/she from receiving the whole picture—or seeing the forest for the “filters” that are at work upon him/her (79).

This is similar to the power at play in “A Propaganda Model” as outlined by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, but not identical.

“A propaganda model focuses on this inequality of wealth and power in its multi-level effects on mass media interests and choices,” Herman and Chomsky write (280).

Herman and Chomsky propose a multi-tiered system of control in which news/communication is filtered so that only what is “safe” to the reputations, bank rolls and perpetuation of those in power is delivered to the public. But instead of framing this form of manipulation as iron-fisted, totalitarian and practically omnipotent, Herman and Chomsky break it down into five filters which they define to be not as overtly fascist, though potentially just as forceful and manipulative.

The five filters that Herman and Chomsky discuss are 1.) “Size, ownership profit orientation of the mass media.” That is, the clear concentration of wealth and media resources which belong to an elite, uber-wealthy segment of the population. Namely, about two dozen families and a handful or other “outside directors.”

2.) “The advertising license to do business.” That is, the persuasion of advertiser dollars over the slant of the content. For example, editorial staff in a form of media dependent on ad sales for revenue, such as a newspaper, might hesitate to run a story in which an interviewee criticized the business practices of one of the newspaper’s ad clients, let’s say, such as The Gap, for fear that the client would cancel ads and therefore forfeit revenues (289-292).

3.) “Sourcing mass-media news.” Because media outlets are limited in budgets and staff numbers to gather news, they rely on a set group of “official,” “available” sources, such as press agents from the U.S. armed forces, church and special interest groups and government officials. Collecting news from these sources inherently allows the debasement of objectivity, for information provided comes from the vantage of the sources and is most likely slated to protect the source’s own best interests. (292-298)

4.) “Flak and the enforcers.” Flak is the negative responses generated sometimes by advertisers, the government, religious interests, other media outlets, etc. in response to statements or programs generated by a media source. For example, an editorial run in a newspaper deriding The Gap for abusing its workers in unregulated sweatshops. Flak could be the corporation’s response to the editorial in the form of scolding, writing a response column denying the abuses, or withdrawing the purchase of pre-negotiated advertising space. Flak can not only tarnish a media outlet’s reputation and hurt subscription numbers or affect viewership, it can cost actual dollars if/when advertisers withdraw ads in response to flak fallout. (298-300, 302-304)

5. “Anticommunism…” as fervor and national religion. Herman and Chomsky show how making examples of the communist plight can be set in motion to instill fear of anything or anyone who is perceived as different, pro-Socialist, or critical of Capitalism (i.e. dissidents) (300-302).

Herman and Chomsky conclude by defining who uses propaganda models and for what reasons. For example, they cite the presses failure to cover the torture of Turkish political prisoners and break up of trade unions in Turkey in 1980 because of a concealed U.S. government interest in supporting the “martial-law” state in Turkey (302). Conversely, Herman and Chomsky discuss the way the American press jumped to cover rights violations of Polish trade unions at a time under Reagan’s presidency when the U.S. government wanted to appear pro-business and pro-Free Trade (303).

Again, as in the Horkheimer/Adorno reading, those in power, or those who held the greatest wealth would be at the reins of a propaganda campaign. Samely, the filterization of information and the ad hominem forced adherence to a culture standard lies in the hands of those with the greatest power and wealth, who stand to benefit the most, from controlled responses of the general public (and preordained, orchestrated buying patterns).

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One Response to “The Culture Industry and A Propaganda Model”

  1. “adherence to a culture standard lies in the hands of those with the greatest power and wealth, who stand to benefit the most, from controlled responses of the general public (and preordained, orchestrated buying patterns).” … However… what I’m saying is that those with the greatest power and wealth are the mutual wealth funds of the mass public, which is inherently conservative. What I’m saying is… well… it is conformity itself, and our national habit for conformity, which makes people conformist. It is just a conventional wisdom benefiting no-one and leading to an end of empire. P.I.C.

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