February 12, 2004
Propaganda, Power, And Moral Truisms
The New Obedience
Chemistry teachers have long delighted students by showing how 
near-perfect symmetrical structures can be produced simply by pouring a stream 
of small balls into a square box, whereupon a pyramid inevitably forms. 
The balls either settle in a pyramid-building position or bounce out. 
The resulting shape - like crystalline structures found in the natural 
world – appears to have been carefully designed; in fact it is merely a 
consequence of the random flow of spherical objects over a square 
In a roughly analogous way, we believe, elite managers establish and 
protect the framing conditions of modern society: elite management of 
stable’ economic growth generated by maximised corporate profit, fuelled 
by mass production and mass consumption. By ‘pouring’ news, 
information, and ideas into this political and economic framework, a version of 
reality suited to the requirements of the system emerges without the need 
for conspiratorial control. 
Much of what we believe about ourselves and the world, then, is 
conditioned by a ‘pyramid’ of individuals who accept a range of “necessary 
illusions” and who are therefore selected for positions of influence 
within an establishment framework. Because these journalists, politicians 
and academics all believe what they’re saying, and because they all say 
pretty much the same thing, their version of reality has every 
appearance of being simply the Truth.
As a result, like the air we breathe, many of us take for granted that 
a corporate press is a free press; that we are a basically 
compassionate society pursuing rational, humane policies; that profit maximisation 
leading to economic growth is the proper, rational goal of society; 
that success and happiness are best defined in terms of high status 
conformist production and high status conformist consumption. Crucially, we 
also tend to assume that we freely choose these beliefs and goals, that 
our consent is volunteered, not manufactured. Psychologist Erich Fromm 
described the reality:
“From the fight against the authority of Church, state, and family 
which characterise the last centuries, we have come back full circle to a 
new obedience; but this obedience is not one to aristocratic persons, 
but to the organisation. The ‘organisation man’ is not aware that he 
obeys, he believes that he only conforms with what is rational and 
practical.” (Fromm, Beyond The Chains Of Illusion, Abacus, 1989, pp.157-158)
Recently, we suggested to Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, that his 
newspaper is very much subject to, and the product of, the framing 
conditions and social filters described above. More specifically we proposed 
that the Guardian should be willing to acknowledge and debate the 
significance of Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model – which explains the 
mechanics and effects of social filtering in the media - as part of an 
honest debate on the extent to which our ‘free press’ truly is free. 
Rusbridger recently responded:
“Dear David,
I continue to be very pressed. You make an nteresting critique of the 
general position regarding the funding of newspapers - and you draw the 
implication you choose to draw. That's an interesting debate, if hardly 
a new one. I'd be interested to know what alternative business model 
you propose for newspapers which would sustain a large, knowledgeable and 
experienced staff of writers and editors, here and abroad, in print as 
well as on the web. Do you prefer no advertising lest journalists are 
corrupted or influenced in the way you imagine?  If so, what cover price 
do you propose? Or, in the absence of advertising,  what other source 
of revenue would you prefer?
These are all interesting debates, and I wish you well.  I can only 
answer as to my experience. alan.” (Email to David Cromwell, February 6, 
Rusbridger acknowledges that our critique is interesting and worth 
discussing. He even suggests that the argument has merit by moving onto the 
issue of possible alternative sources of funding. He points out, 
however, that the argument is “not new”.
We checked how many times the Guardian has discussed the propaganda 
model in the sixteen years since it was published in 1988. We found that 
it has been mentioned, in passing, once. In fact, according to the 
Lexis-Nexis media search engine, the model has been mentioned by name in UK 
newspapers some ten times since 1988.
The significance is clear - even the most rational and important ideas 
about ourselves and our world can be subject to near-totalitarian 
levels of suppression in the absence of conscious planning or deliberate 
censorship. Crucially, we believe, this suppression extends to the most 
elementary and important moral truisms of human culture.
The Principle Of Universality
In his latest book, Hegemony Or Survival, Chomsky outlines “a few 
simple truths”:
“The first is that actions are evaluated in terms of the range of 
likely consequences. A second is the principle of universality; we apply to 
ourselves the same standards we apply to others, if not more stringent 
ones.” (Chomsky, Hegemony Or Survival, Hamish Hamilton, 2003, p.187)
In other words, it is, for example, not reasonable or moral for Britain 
and the United States to condemn al-Qaeda for terrorist actions while 
themselves employing violence and terror in pursuit of state policy. 
Chomsky quotes the former director of Human Rights Watch, now a professor 
of law at Emory University, Atlanta:
“I am unable to appreciate any moral, political or legal difference 
between this jihad by the United States against those it deems to be its 
enemies and the jihad by Islamic groups against those they deem to be 
their enemies.” (Ibid, p.201)
In fact the principle of universality is consistently ignored in 
Western culture – we forever apply to others standards that we would not 
dream of applying to ourselves. To take only one example, in April 1999, 
Jonathan Freedland wrote:
“Future historians will spend long hours and write fat books working 
out this phenomenon. Why have the Serbs not risen in outrage at the 
unspeakable horrors committed in their name?” (Freedland, ‘A long war 
requires patience, not a search for the door marked “Exit”’, The Guardian, 
April 14, 1999)
Freedland, like most other journalists, had not himself “risen in 
outrage” at the effects of US-UK sanctions on Iraq – effects that dwarfed 
Serbia’s “unspeakable horrors”. Future historians will doubtless not 
write fat books about the phenomenal version of events published by the New 
York Times last week: 
“In response to Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait and its defeat the next 
year by an American-led military coalition, the United Nations Security 
Council imposed oil export restrictions [on Iraq], a ban on the import 
of weapons and potential weapons ingredients, and a series of 
disarmament requirements to be monitored by aggressive international 
inspections.” (‘A Success Worth Noting’, Leader, February 8, 2004
There were problems, the Times notes, but “the totality of these 
measures, particularly the prohibitions on importing weapons and their 
ingredients, now appears to have worked surprisingly well”. 
The measures that “worked surprisingly well” were responsible for one 
million civilian deaths in Iraq, including hundreds of thousands of 
children under five. Not one word was said about this vast cataclysm by the 
editors of America’s leading liberal newspaper.
Equalising Self And Other
Like the suffering of Iraqis, indeed like the propaganda model itself, 
an understanding of the rational basis and importance of the principle 
of universality has been almost completely filtered out of our culture. 
As a result, we are left with a shell of rhetoric that serves to 
camouflage and protect a ruthlessly self-serving reality. 
The consequences are appalling. An Egyptian academic describes how 
hatred of the US is rooted in its support for “every possible 
anti-democratic government in the Arab-Islamic world... When we hear American 
officials speaking of freedom, democracy and such values, they make terms 
like these sound obscene.” (Quoted Chomsky, op., cit, p.215)
The Financial Times reports, “while only might can destroy al-Qaeda, 
its expanding support base can be eroded only by policies Arabs and 
Muslims see as just”. Destroying al-Qaeda will therefore have little effect 
if ”the underlying conditions that facilitated the group’s emergence 
and popularity – political oppression and economic marginalisation – will 
persist”. (Editorial, Financial Times, May 14, 2003)
Two political scientists comment:
“Delicate social and political problems cannot be bombed or ‘missiled
out of existence... Violence can be likened to a virus; the more you 
bombard it, the more it spreads.” (James Bill and Rebecca Bill Chavez, 
Middle East Journal, autumn 2002)
No surprise, then, that a 2003 UN report indicated that al-Qaeda 
recruitment accelerated in 30 to 40 countries as the US prepared for war 
against Iraq. 
Ami Ayalon, the head of Israel’s General Security Service (Shabak) from 
1996 to 2000, suggests that “those who want victory” against terror 
without addressing underlying grievances “want an unending war”. (Quoted, 
Chomsky, op., cit, p.213)
The benefits of respect and compassion for others extend far behind 
political concerns. In Buddhist philosophy, a version of the principle of 
universality is described as “equalising self and other”. At a time 
when Britain languished in the Dark Ages and warrior kings battled Viking 
invaders, the 8th century Buddhist philosopher, Shantideva, asked:
“Since I and other beings both,
In wanting happiness, are equal and alike,
What difference is there to distinguish us,
That I should strive to have my bliss alone?” (Shantideva, The Way of 
the Bodhisattva, Shambhala, 1997, p.123)
It is, after all, an undeniable fact that our own happiness is +not+ 
more important than the happiness of others, much less many others. Thus, 
the reasonable and fair-minded person who is outraged, say, at the 
thought of a well-fed adult stealing food from a starving child, must feel 
similar outrage at his or her own selfish behaviour in neglecting the 
fate of others:
“I indeed am happy, others sad;
I am high and mighty, others low;
I am helped while others are abandoned;
Why am I not jealous of myself?”
Indeed, if it is admirable to stand up for the weak against the strong, 
how much more so to stand up for the weak against +ourselves+!
It is not just unreasonable to be biased in our own favour, it is also 
naïve. On closer inspection, Shantideva insists, we will find that 
selfish needs – by nature insatiable - are the source of endless craving, 
anxiety, boredom, depression and strife. Happiness, peace of mind and 
fulfilment are instead found in compassion, generosity and altruism. Is 
this mere sentimentality?
Reviewing a vast array of research studies across the world, American 
psychologist Tim Kasser of Knox College, reports:
“Existing scientific research on the value of materialism yields clear 
and consistent findings. People who are highly focused on materialistic 
values have lower personal well-being and psychological health than 
those who believe that materialistic pursuits are relatively unimportant. 
These relationships have been documented in samples of people ranging 
from the wealthy to the poor, from teenagers to the elderly, and from 
Australians to South Koreans.” (Kasser, The High Price Of Materialism, 
MIT Press, 2002, p.22)
Kasser adds:
“Almost everyone believes that getting what you want makes you feel 
good about yourself and your life. Common wisdom, as well as many 
psychological theories, says that if we reach our goals, our self-esteem and 
satisfaction with life should consequently rise...” However “people who 
are wildly successful in their attempts to attain money and status often 
remain unfulfiled once they have reached their goal.” (p.42)
Martin Seligman, Professor of Psychology at Pennsylvania University 
“In the laboratory, children and adults who are made happy display more 
empathy and are willing to donate more money to others in need. When we 
are happy, we are less self-focused, we like others more, and we want 
to share our good fortune even with strangers. When we are down, though, 
we become distrustful, turn inward, and focus defensively on our own 
needs. Looking out for number one is more characteristic of sadness than 
of well-being.” (Seligman, Authentic Happiness, Nicholas Brealey, 2002, 
The propaganda model, the principle of universality, and many other 
issues will be discussed at a one-day conference: 
FEBRUARY 28th, 2004
Conway Hall (Main Hall), 25 Red Lion Square, London, WC1R.
Guest Speakers: Yvonne Ridley, David Miller, Richard Keeble, Fuad Nahdi 
and Hilary Wainwright.
Tickets are £5 (+ booking fee) ticket only event. Tickets must be 
pre-booked 9.30am-5pm. (doors open 9am) 
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and 
respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge 
readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to the editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger:
Write to the New York Times editors and letter’s page:
Please also send all emails to us at Media Lens: 
Visit the Media Lens website:
Please consider donating to Media Lens:
This media alert will shortly be archived at: