Accusations of partisan media bias are commonplace in the highly polarized political environment of the United States. Indeed, many U.S. citizens believe the news is biased along partisan lines, between conservatives and liberals (Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 2012). In fact, like many Americans, I believe bias is a persistent phenomenon in mainstream news. However, when does persistent bias cross the line and become propaganda? Herman and Chomsky (2002) suggest propaganda is easier to identify in autocratic societies, but “much more difficult to see a propaganda system at work where the media are private and formal censorship is absent” (p. 1). Of course, Herman and Chomsky’s (2002) observation seems particularly true in the U.S. where citizens are assured the worst abuses of press interference are prevented by First Amendment protections. In fact, it seems that our strong beliefs in a free press may undermine our ability to examine critically whether we are subject to propaganda. However, as a free-minded, critical thinker, I want to examine the evidence myself to discern whether the news I consume is merely biased or whether others are attempting to manipulate the media and ultimately my opinion for propagandist ends. Thus, what follows in this essay is a brief review of what constitutes propaganda in the literature and a content analysis of recent stories on Hugo Chavez to examine evidence for or against the presence of propaganda.
To identify propaganda, we need to understand what it is. Unfortunately, there is significant disagreement in the literature defining the phenomenon of propaganda (Black, 2001). Whereas Lasswell (1927) described propaganda as “the control of opinion by significant symbols, or, so to speak, more concretely and less accurately, by stories, rumors, reports, pictures, and other forms of social communications” (p. 627), later definitions focus the definition on the deliberate intention of the propagandist to use propaganda to manipulate public opinion (Doob, 1966; Jowett & O’Donnell, 1999; Qualter, 1962).
In contrast, Ellul (1973) has a broader conception of propaganda, arguing it is “a set of methods employed by an organized group that wants to bring about the active or passive participation in its actions of a mass of individuals, psychologically unified through psychological manipulations and incorporated in an organization” (p. 61). In fact, Ellul’s (1973) conception of propaganda differs from other accounts in two distinct ways. First, Ellul (1973) suggests that propaganda is the inevitable result of a technological, mass society where individuals are no longer bound to small groups, local communities, or religion, instead cleaving to mass society for their socialization and belonging needs through the mass media. Second, Ellul (1973) acknowledges the traditional stimulus-response view of propaganda, while suggesting the view is somewhat anachronistic; instead, the author focuses his analysis on sociological propaganda, whose design is the integration of individuals into mass society. Sociological propaganda operates subtly through the mass media, where the “existing economic, political, and sociological factors progressively allow an ideology to penetrate individuals or masses” (Black, 2001, p. 14). Thus, sociological propaganda is “long-term propaganda, a self-reproducing propaganda that seeks to obtain stable behavior, to adapt the individual to his everyday life, to reshape his thoughts and behavior in terms of the permanent social setting” (Ellul, 1964, p. 74).
In truth, Ellul’s conception of propaganda resonates in me for a number of reasons. First, propaganda has a negative connotation and is typically associated with despots, dictators, and villains from the past making rational discussion of propaganda in a participative democracy problematic. Indeed, Chomsky was vilified in the media for presenting rational, well-founded, arguments for how the media, business, and government disseminate propaganda—in fact, he was labeled a conspiracy theorist (Wintonick & Achbar, 1992). Thus, existing definitions that require the deliberate, systemic, manipulation of the populace—such propaganda still exists in democracies, for instance during the Iraq War—make rational discussion difficult because of the slippery slope from serious intellectual to conspiracy theorist. In fact, Ellul (1973) suggests sociological or integration propaganda is often unconscious rather than deliberate, the result of people being invested in the values, beliefs, and ideologies of their social world. Second, Ellul’s conception of propaganda is consistent with a wide body of communication theory and research, including agenda-setting theory, spiral of silence, cultivation theory, the propaganda model, and Hall’s cultural studies. Third, Ellul avoids simplistic explanations for propaganda, recognizing, in a mass society, the state needs propaganda to manufacture consent for policies and individuals need propaganda “to be re-integrated into a community, to have a setting to experience ideological and affective communication” (Ellul, 1973, p. 148). Thus, Ellul’s postmodernist conception of propaganda is remarkably relevant in our technological society; thus, it will serve as the starting point for the subsequent analysis of news stories on Hugo Chavez.
Content Analysis of News Stories on Hugo Chavez
The reason I chose stories of Hugo Chavez as a subject of analysis is because of Chavez’s relevance on the world stage, his unique form of democratic socialism that stands in contrast to the neoliberal worldview, and his recent death that assured recent coverage in the press. I believe U.S. private media will negatively characterize Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan state, and their economy, because a successful socialist state undermines neoliberal ideology. Using the search string “Hugo Chavez”, I selected and analyzed the first ten non-duplicative stories from three domestic and three international news sites: ABC, Fox, PBS, RT, BBC, and Al Jazeera. For each story, I categorized the context of the story and judged whether the overall tone of the stories were favorable, unfavorable, or neutral. In addition, I captured whether the stories were favorable, unfavorable, or neutral to the Venezuelan state, their economy, or Hugo Chavez personally by capturing negative language with unsubstantiated claims. For example, I captured words and phrases with negative connotations in the U.S., like state apparatus, black market, nutty, cult, coup, regime, dictator, strongman, and notorious. The details of the content analysis are in Appendix 1.
The analysis revealed an interesting trend; domestic, privately owned, media outlets were far more likely to publish unfavorable stories than both international outlets and public outlets.
Table 1. Overall tone of stories by source.
Table 1. Summary analysis of story tone adapted from detailed date in Appendix 1.
In addition, domestic, privately owned media outlets were far more likely than all other outlets to publish unfavorable views of the Venezuelan economy, the Venezuelan state, and Hugo Chavez personally.
Table 2. Percentage of stories with unfavorable views of Venezuelan economy, state, or Hugo Chavez between domestic, privately owned media outlets and all others.
|Source Category||Unfavorable towards economy||Unfavorable towards state||Unfavorable towards Chavez|
Table 2. Adapted from data in Appendix 1.
From all appearances, the U.S. based private media outlets demonstrate a definite bias against Chavez and the democratic socialist ideals of the Venezuelan state, but is it propaganda? Accepting the traditional definitions of propaganda, we would have to find the puppeteer manipulating the media to undermine the Venezuelan system, or evidence in the form of internal memos directing the coverage; or, we might need to look for a systematic, deliberate attempt by the government or its surrogates to provide anti-Venezuelan talking points. However, another explanation is available.
In fact, ideological differences between the United States and Venezuela provide a starting point for the discussion. Indeed, the United States, with a neoliberal economic model that favors privatization, deregulation, free trade, and open markets, is irreconcilable with Venezuela’s democratic socialist revolution that favors nationalization of the oil and agriculture industries, heavy regulation of industry, and redistribution of wealth to solve pervasive poverty problems. In the United States, the myths of work, happiness, nation, and progress support the dominant neoliberal ideology. Furthermore, we connect to neoliberal ideals, like hard work, individual success, and the American Dream.
Indeed, in the U.S., it is difficult to envision other ways of being in the world, particularly from an economic standpoint, because there are so few successful alternative models. Communism is nearing its final gasp, and while Europe has socialistic tendencies, they largely embrace neoliberal economics. However, a successful democratic socialist neighbor that manages to both grow their economy and solve persistent problems like poverty and inequality is a direct threat to our beliefs. Therefore, whether consciously or unconsciously, we undermine Venezuela’s accomplishments to rationalize our own choices, support our belief systems, and maintain the passive participation of our mass society. Otherwise, we risk opening the public dialogue to alternate realities. Thus, U.S. media presents a view to audiences that support dominant neoliberal ideology. According to Croteau, Hoynes, and Milan (2012), media texts are “sites where cultural contests over meaning are waged” (p. 154). Of course, if we only hear one meaning, it is not much of a contest, there is no discussion, and that is precisely what makes the Hugo Chavez media texts from ABC and Fox propaganda.
Like most people, I consider myself a free thinker and do not want to believe propaganda shapes my opinions, nor do I want to believe the government or media institutions are manipulating me. Indeed, maintaining a traditional view of propaganda allows me to embrace the illusion. However, Ellul’s (1973) conception of propaganda as a sociological process shatters the illusion and forces me to think critically about the ideas I often take for granted. In truth, I wonder whether I can understand any mediated reality when the media only exposes selective facets of the truth.
Black, J. (2001). Semantics and the ethics of propaganda. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 16(2/3), 121-137.
Croteau, D., Hoynes, W., & Milan, S. (2012). Media/society : Industries, images, and audiences (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
Doob, L. W. (1966). Public opinion and propaganda (2d ed.). Hamden, CT: Archon Books.
Ellul, J. (1964). The technological society (1st American ed.). New York,: Knopf.
Ellul, J. (1973). Propaganda: the formation of men’s attitudes. New York,: Vintage Books.
Herman, E. S., & Chomsky, N. (2002). The propaganda model. In E. S. Herman & N. Chomsky (Eds.), Manufacturing consent : the political economy of the mass media (pp. lxiv, 412 p.). New York: Pantheon Books.
Jowett, G., & O’Donnell, V. (1999). Propaganda and persuasion (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
Lasswell, H. D. (1927). The theory of political propaganda. American Political Science Review, 627.
Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. (2012). Cable Leads the Pack as Campaign News Source: Section 3 Perceptions of Bias, News Knowledge. Retrieved April 13, 2013, from http://www.people-press.org/2012/02/07/section-3-perceptions-of-bias-news-knowledge/
Qualter, T. H. (1962). Propaganda and psychological warfare. New York,: Random House.
Wintonick, P., & Achbar, M. (1992). Manufacturing consent Noam Chomsky and the media.
Table 3. Content analysis of Hugo Chavez stories from major domestic, international, public, and private media outlets.
|Private||Domestic||0||ABC||Election||State apparatus, inflation, black market, food shortages|
|Private||Domestic||1||ABC||Election||1||1||State apparatus, food shortages, inflation|
|Private||Domestic||1||ABC||Election||1||1||State apparatus, Media control|
|Private||Domestic||1||ABC||Election||1||1||1||Cult of personality, food shortages, power blackouts, and high inflation rates.|
|Private||Domestic||1||ABC||Election||1||1||pervasive state media, double-digit inflation, food shortages, worsening power outages and rampant kidnapping and murder, apparatus of the state, strong-armed|
|Private||Domestic||0||ABC||Election||1||chronic food shortages, inflation, power outages and surging crime|
|Private||Domestic||1||ABC||Chavez death||1||strongman, notorious|
|Private||Domestic||1||Fox||Election||1||coup, media machine, mismanagement of the economy and infrastructure: chronic power outages, double-digit inflation, food and medicine shortages. rampant crime homicide kidnapping|
|Private||Domestic||0||Fox||Chavez||1||coup, food and power outages, rampant kidnappings and killings|
|Private||Domestic||1||Fox||Election||1||chronic power outages, crumbling infrastructure, unfinished public works projects, double-digit inflation, food and medicine shortages and rampant crime|
|Private||Domestic||1||Fox||Election||1||monopoly, state apparatus, soaring inflation, food shortages, crumbling infrastructure, worsening power outages and rampant crime|
|Private||Domestic||1||Fox||Media Bias||1||nutty, dictator,|
|Private||Domestic||0||Fox||Election||1||food shortages, double-digit inflation and worsening power outages.|
|Private||Domestic||0||Fox||Election||1||food shortages, nationalization, skewed markets, unfair competition|
|Private||Domestic||1||Fox||Election||1||1||Worsening power outages, crumbling infrastructure and other unfulfilled promises, violent crime, double-digit inflation, official corruption and persistent food shortages, government crackdown|
|Public||Domestic||0||PBS||Chavez death||Advocacy of leftist revolution, nationalization|
|Public||Domestic||0||PBS||Chavez death||1||0||survived a coup, dealt with legitimate grievances, consolidated power, crime, scarcity, reforms, autocratic, commitment to democracy, charisma, leadership|
|Public||Domestic||0||PBS||Chavez Health||Chavez health, up in the air, devaluation of currency, uncertainty|
|Public||Domestic||0||PBS||Chavez Health||Supporters, illness treated as state secret, continuity of the regime, antagonistic to U.S,|
|Public||Domestic||0||PBS||Chavez death||attempted coup, survived coup attempt|
|Public||Domestic||0||PBS||Chavez death||divisive opinions, divisive leader|
|Public||Intl||0||RT||Election||accusations of voter intimidation and irregularities|
|Public||Intl||0||RT||US effort to destabilize||destabilize, penetrate base, divide, Chavismo, fund NGOs|
|Public||Intl||0||RT||Election||Nasty campaign on both sides|
|Public||Intl||0||BBC||Chavez||Chavez attempted overthrow, failed attempt to oust him|
|Public||Intl||0||BBC||Election||election monitoring, orderly voting|
|Public||Intl||0||BBC||Election||Citizen interviews calling for safety, honesty, fighting corruption|
|Private||Intl||0||Al Jazeera||Chavez media legacy||divided coverage depending on media outlet, media rivalries in Venezuela, vilified by western media, didn’t tolerate criticism, Globovision was the opposition media, lack of free press|
|Private||Intl||2||Al Jazeera||Chavez and Bolivia||legacy of social programs in health, poverty, and sport|
|Private||Intl||2||Al Jazeera||Chavez death||liberalization from the west, authentic decolonization, commitment to social inclusion, Venezuelan aid|
|Private||Intl||0||Al Jazeera||Chavez election||Marxist thought, clamped down on media, cited Chomsky – Hegemony or Survival, poverty decreased, President Chávez and his followers have been building a system in which the government has free rein to threaten and punish Venezuelans who interfere with their political agenda|
|Private||Intl||0||Al Jazeera||Chavez death||0||1||2||not good for democracy, devastated industry, loved by the people|
|Private||Intl||0||Al Jazeera||Chavez death|
|Private||Intl||0||Al Jazeera||Chavez Health||Press secrecy|
|Private||Intl||2||Al Jazeera||Chavez election||transition to socialism, socialist revolution, helps workers|
|Private||Intl||0||Al Jazeera||Chavez health|
|Private||Intl||0||Al Jazeera||Chavez election|