Windsor — On the day after over 300 media critics, students, journalists and independent media pioneers from around the world converged on Windsor for a conference that drew, among others, Noam Chomsky, Edward S. Herman, Democracy Now‘s Amy Goodman and Judy Rebick — Toronto Star columnist Antonia Zerbisias wrote an article noting how the mainstream media largely ignored the event.

“[T]here are no corporate media here but me,” wrote Zerbisias. “Until yesterday, even the Windsor Star had not showed up and had only given the conference a scant paragraph or so notice.”

Zerbisias’ observation was surely not meant to demonstrate corporate media ineptitude, but rather to highlight the truth in Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s propaganda model, of which the

Windsor Star coverage of Noam Chomsky was a perfect example.

“Noam Chomsky: Buying poppies better than using guns,” read the headline in the Windsor Star, continuing largely with Chomsky’s views on military strategies in Afghanistan.

One wouldn’t know it from the article, but Chomsky, who had gone out of his way to attend the conference despite cancelling all other public appearances due to a personal matter, did not fly all the way to Windsor with the primary purpose of discussing military strategy in Afghanistan. He had come to partake in the revisiting of the propaganda model of media criticism that he had pioneered with Edward Herman.

Herman and Chomsky first presented the propaganda model in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. Although it was not the first critique of capitalism’s effect on mass media, the model quickly became a staple in academia and media circles as a way of explaining how mass media consistently produce news that favour corporate interests.

Not surprisingly, while the mainstream media ignored the event, conference members in general gave a resounding endorsement to the propaganda model. Speakers drew attention to the continued concentration and consolidation of media ownership both nationally and globally to warn that not only was news becoming more corporate-interest friendly, but was also directly undermining democracy.

Edward Herman himself declared the critique of corporate media as ever-more important, saying: “I think the model is stronger now than it was in 1988 given the institutional structures in place.”

Amy Goodman, co-founder and main host for the globally distributed current affairs radio program Democracy Now, echoed those sentiments in her keynote address that kicked off the conference.

Critiquing the mass media’s coverage of the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq by the United States, Goodman charged that judging from most television reports and newspaper articles, no one in the United States could ever have possibly fathomed that global public opinion was heavily weighted against the invasion.

“They are not the silent majority,” stressed Goodman. “They are the silenced majority.”

Goodman also noted the mass media’s complicity in helping to stymie outrage over the impact of the American-led occupation of Iraq. Pointing to the use of “embedded” journalists, Goodman showed how mainstream reporters have followed government lines by focusing their reports on troop morale and death counts instead of the tragic human tales that are a product of war.

“The way the media covered Virginia Tech should be a model,” said Goodman, drawing a comparison between massacres that have occurred at two top Universities — one at the University of Mosul in Iraq, the other at Virginia Tech in the United States. The massacre at Virginia Tech drew personal impact stories by the mass media from victims and from the families and friends of those who were killed, while the lives of the students at the University of Mosul were reduced to statistics.

In addition to writing a column on the event, award-winning journalist Antonia Zerbisias was invited as a keynote speaker and gave a chilling account of how she has noticed the Toronto Star change under the pressure of competition and a switch in management.

Through multiple redesigns, Zerbisias noted how her column, one of the most prominent media critiques in a national paper, has slowly been reduced to fewer and fewer words.

“It’s not easy to get something in under 600 words,” lamented Zerbisias, questioning how she could provide in-depth reports on complex political topics in a column that is now half the size that it used to be. “What we are doing right now is creating a newspaper for people who don’t read newspapers.”

Chomsky, who gave talks on the final day of the conference, emphasized in a panel discussion how the propaganda model illustrates the mass media’s shaping of perceptions of truth.

“The more educated are the main targets of propaganda,” said Chomsky, highlighting how the framing of stories plays a large role in this perception-shaping. As an example, Chomsky noted a case where a manufacturing sector was calling for some kind of a health policy, but the media dismissed the idea “as not politically possible.”

In this way, the corporate media effectively dismissed the entire idea of universal health care by claiming there wasn’t support, when, in reality, as Chomsky put it, “most Americans want some kind of [universal] health care found in other countries.”

The conference saw many supporters of independent media asking how to bolster the democratization of media and erode the power of the corporate mass media.

Nick Montgomery, an undergraduate politics and sociology student at Queen’s University, asked Chomsky and Herman what strategies could be used for bolstering the power of alternative media.

“It requires capital,” answered Chomsky, “but it’s not going to come from Bill Gates or GM.” The further building of social movements of support is important, Chomsky noted, because, after all, capital (owned by corporations) does not work to undermine capital.

“I think the internet has great potential”, added Herman, attributing the virtual world as a possible realm to overcome the costs needed for large broadcast networks.

“We need more grassroots organization,” continued Herman, “maybe a little decentralization of existing corporate media”.

Thoughts of grassroots and social movement building strategies were already on the minds of conference participants, who gathered in the final hours of the conference to discuss how to build movements to support independent media.

“I’m new to this movement,” announced Brian McAnoy, a conference participant who had recently sold his dry cleaning company with thoughts of working in social justice and independent media. “We need to start knocking on doors and talking to people outside of our sphere.”

Other projects discussed were the creation of a Canadian media monitoring project mirroring FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting) in the United States, and a bolstering of MANA (the Media Alliance for New Activism), which is Canada’s largest network of independent media groups.

All these ideas, all these new possibilities, but you would have never known had you only read the Windsor Star, the mainstream media, or failed to read more deeply into Antonia Zerbisias’ column of exactly 600 words.

Clearly, the propaganda model lives on. But we need a strong independent media to fight it.

Tor Sandberg

Tor Sandberg

Tor Sandberg is the program director for rabbletv. When Tor was 8 years old, the two schoolyard bullies, Allen and Roger, made up a mean little ditty about him. “Let’s tear Tor in the Northwest...