The Limits of Our Free Press

Aug 14, 2019 | Politics


Fake news and post-truth politics seem to be the word on everyone’s lips these days when they talk about today’s news media. With the numerous accusations of fake news on Twitter from the highest office in the land (1,052 times since June 26th, 2016), there has been increasing scrutiny on how news is reported. Whether this increased scrutiny has elected officials or the quality of reporting to blame, the topic of “fake news” has gripped the American people. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, 50 percent of 6,127 respondents identified “made-up news/info” as a “very big problem in the country today.”  

The overwhelming majority of the media we consume is owned by just six companies. As with any company, profit margins force CEOs and other executives to make decisions that better the bottom line, forcing managers, editors, and reporters to follow suit. These profit forces discourage investigative reporting that would hurt their company’s bottom line. This cause and effect is the basis for one of the five media filters introduced in Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Propaganda Model from their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent:

  1. Media Ownership.
  2. Advertiser Pressure.
  3. Sourcing.
  4. Flak.
  5. The Common Enemy.
Advertiser Pressure

The pressures mentioned, along with media ownership being tied to a bottom line are compounded by the pressure private media corporations receive from advertisers. If you turn on cable news, do you pay for NBC? CNN? FOX? No, these programs come as a part of your cable service, and you only pay to have access to cable in general, not specific programs (usually). If you aren’t paying directly for the content of these Fortune 500 companies, then who is? Advertisers. Advertisers pay to put their products on news media through the airwaves and through our screens. One way advertisers can exert pressure over media is by pulling or threatening to pull funding. One contemporary example of this is advertisers pulling ads from Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight after Carlson racistly suggested immigrants make our country “dirtier.” While I vehemently disagree with Carlson, the power to pull advertising, and thus funding, is worth noting. Anything that the advertiser disagrees with, regardless if it is widely disavowed racism, or something deemed “too” progressive for the advertiser like antitrust or pro-union rhetoric.


The next three filters move away from money and private ownership as the main influences on news media. The Sourcing filter addresses who is likely given the voice to speak on an issue or topic, such as who is deemed a credible expert, and who the issue impact. News media hold tremendous power in who it decides to quote and who it decides to show on our screens. These decisions frame the narrative and reality even before an interviewee opens their mouth. Not only this but the ability to withhold access to what the public deems credible sources, like revoking a White House press pass, further curtails the ability of a journalist to investigate a topic or piece critically. If a journalist has critically covered a person or topic in the past, or if the relevant source did not like their reporting in the past, the journalist is unlikely to get access. 


Flak is a collection of negative responses to a media statement or program. Flak can be as standard as a phone call or letter, or as inciting a testimony to Congress or a lawsuit. However, like most things in media, Flak’s power depends on who sent it. Flak is essentially the omnibus method by which the previous filters function. If an influential shareholder in the first filter doesn’t like a piece, they can pressure the company through the aforementioned methods. If an advertiser thinks a show such as Tucker Carlson’s is not friendly to their products or clashes with their own messaging, they can use Flak. Sometimes even news media that are not directly related may attack another’s reporting through op-ed or similar means at the request of stakeholders or advertisers. 

The Common Enemy and a Mini Case Study

The fifth filter is the more amorphous of the five, as it frequently changes on the government’s and public’s commonly accepted ideology. In the 1988 edition of Manufacturing Consent, this filter was anti-communist but in the 2002 edition was updated to include free-market ideology. What this filter serves to address in general are the common ideological assumptions that underlie reporting and discussion in the media, and show how any attack on this ideology is represented as an attack on the foundation of our society. One good example of how these five filters function is how the mainstream media treated the 2013 Venezuelan election.

In 2013, after Chavez’s death, Venezuela held an election, and the two final candidates were Maduro, a government-endorsed socialist, and Capriles, who was backed by the opposition. Maduro won the election 51 percent to 49 percent with almost an 80 percent turnout. Influential U.S. and U.K. newspapers (New York Times, The Guardian, etc.) overwhelmingly viewed the elections as unclean, despite a complete audit that found the results to be 99.98 percent accurate (Bad News from Venezuela, Alan McLeod). Additionally, the U.S.-based Carter Institute found the 2013 results to be accurate and the elections to be fair, but these two facts went wholly unnoticed by U.S. media. Similar trends can be seen in Manufacturing Consent’s case studies highlighting media coverage of Nicaragua, El Salvador, Vietnam, and East Timor. 

Regardless of the legitimacy of the above case study or the extreme presidential and economic turmoil currently ongoing in Venezuela, this article is not meant to be comprehensive. Even with the most comprehensive fact-checking our mainstream media can muster, every form of privately-owned and advertiser-funded news media in the USA, and anywhere with similar media, all pass through these five filters. With these filters, we can discover just how far the First Amendment carries us in actual practice. 

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Topics: Media