Research By: Fasiha Shaikh & Firasha Shaikh
The mainstream Indian news media has gone rogue. Over the past few years, it has increasingly been called out for spreading polarisation, hate and toxic propaganda. Watering the seeds of prejudice, it has been condemned for its communally divisive programming and anti-Muslim dogwhistling. To understand this news media ecosystem, we use Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model. How is news media structurally geared to serve those in power? How does media work as a propaganda tool? Who sets the limits of the news discourse?
We inhabit a world of information. We walk with it. Eat with it. Sleep with it. The world has never been so informed. It has also never been so mis-informed. Mis-informed and dis-informed. Polarised into echo chambers. Us. Them. Propaganda.
Propaganda has taken many forms and faces across history. We look at arguably, its most dystopian manifestation of our times. The Indian news media. Now we know that Indian media gone rogue is not a new story. It's been around for a while and it’s an ongoing story. But is this descent into toxicity an aberration or does it tell us something about the news media as an institution? Was there ever a time when Indian media was ‘good’ before it got ‘bad’? Or are there certain rules that media as a system plays by? What does media theory tell us?
HERMAN and CHOMSKY - MEDIA THEORY
It's the late 1980s and two white American men, Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, publish an institutional analysis of mass media that forever changes the way we look at media. They call it a propaganda tool. They contend that the news media as an institution primarily serves the interests of those in power.
What becomes news and what doesn't, what you can and cannot talk about, the limits of the news discourse, all of this, serves the priorities of the powerful. And by deciding what the public is “allowed to see, hear and think about”, mass media “manages public opinion”. It “manufactures consent”. To study this, Herman and Chomsky propose a propaganda model with five structural filters.
FILTER 1: MEDIA OWNERSHIP
India is one of the biggest media markets in the world but the ownership of its national media is concentrated in the hands of a few private players – large corporations, business families and individuals. In broadcast television, you have the recent Adani takeover of NDTV, the Ambanis who own Network18, Zee Media’s Subhash Chandra or India Today’s Aroon Purie. While in print, you have the Birlas who own HT Media, the Goenkas of Express Group or the Jains from the Times Group, who like many others are key players in multiple media sectors.
Now, these conglomerates don't just own media houses, they also have other businesses to run. And most importantly, profits to make. And so, multiple conflicts of interest arise. How to run your media business without hurting the commercial gains of your other businesses? Or how to be critical of a government that has significant powers to influence your corporate fortunes? Therefore, ownership determines what business and political interests the news media caters to. And while the current media regime operates in the extreme, there is nothing new about a cosy relationship between the government and the media.
This govt-corporate nexus determines media biases. And only those who reflect these interests make it to positions of power within media organisations. The board positions and leadership roles in newsrooms in India are occupied by the upper caste elite. Chomksy argues that this is a kind of pre-selection that happens, of individuals who have internalised the constraints of the market forces and political power, which in india also includes caste structures. Interests of the dominant elite. Political interests. Business interests. All of it goes back to media ownership. It is ownership patterns that necessitate the system serving those in power. But speaking of business interests, it takes us to the next filter of the propaganda model.
FILTER 2: FUNDING
News media is a business enterprise. And businesses have economic imperatives. And what is the revenue model of news media in india? Advertisement with a capital A. It's simple. News media needs money to run and you and I are not paying that money. Enter advertisers. So while advertisers might not have editorial control over content, they do decide which media organisation they give their money to. And who are these advertisers? Governments and corporations. Aha! The power groups come back and so do their interests. In an ad-dependent revenue model, both compliance and dissent are rewarded and punished respectively.
So if you’re Dainik Bhaskar, one of the largest read newspapers in India and you report on the collapse of government infrastructure during the second wave of the covid pandemic, brace yourself for half of your govt ad revenue disappearing. But if you are Network18 that toes the government line, program after program, year after year, then rejoice, you have topped the ad revenue charts. There’s another aspect to the advertisement game in India, TRP (Television Rating Points). TRPs is viewership data that measures tv audiences. And advertisers use these ratings to give ads. The higher your ratings, the more ads you get. So channels compete for these ratings or engage in rigging them. Competition means that news becomes less about public interest and more about what sells. And so you have sensationalism enter the picture and in India’s current political climate, polarisation and hate.
So funding too determines what private and government interests the media serves. Now the government is not just a source of revenue for the media, it is also a source of information. Filter number three,
FILTER 3: SOURCING
The political establishment is a source of information scoops, official accounts, exclusive interviews. Closeness to power determines who has how much access to this information. And so you have an Arnab Goswami in his leaked chats boasting about his close relations with the PMO. Or you have the group editor of the Times Now Group flaunt a whole brigade of sitting cabinet ministers including the Prime Minister attend her son’s wedding. Such close proximity to power comes with its terms and conditions. If you want access then complicity is expected. And so in exchange of proximity, you have news personnel parrot the government’s version and discredit a peoples’ movement like the 2021 farmers’ protest or celebrate bad economic moves or provide cover to a failed administration during a deadly wave of the pandemic or even spread outright fake news around Indo-China border disputes. And thus, power centres manage and manipulate media narratives. Again, access journalism is not a new phenomenon. Ravish Kumar in an old interview with Newslaundry speaks about this elite hegemony in the media, what he calls ‘lutyens journalism’
What is different, however, with the current political dispensation is the kind of exchange happening. While there is complicity, there’s not really a lot of access. Compliance is maintained through other mechanisms of ‘reward and punish’, and in the name of access, you get memos of tweets to be copy-pasted or exclusive information about what your leader eats, how much he sleeps or his superhuman tendencies. Reducing mainstream media to a servile PR spouting machine, running propaganda campaigns. And so you have media baron Aroon Purie at his own 2023 India Today Conclave sharing the stage with the Prime Minister. But at this ‘media’ event, the only thing he has to say to a Prime Minister who has never held a press conference, is not a question but a meek complaint about lack of access. And then in true Orwellian doublespeak, the prime minister advises the media to not work under ‘any pressure’. In a system where only compliance is rewarded with access, and sometimes not even that, any challenge to power will have its consequences. And so we have the fourth filter.
FILTER 4: FLAK
When the media doesn’t toe the narrative of power, it gets flak. Negative repercussions which can be financial, editorial, where your credibility is made suspect or the govt can unleash its agencies against you. In India, the current political establishment is particularly tight-gripped over the media. It’s an establishment that has teams tabulating in excel sheets, who speaks for and against them. And so you have a big section of the media itself that acts as the extended hand of power and suppresses any form of dissent. The government discredits international reports and Big Media follows suit: elected autocracy? We don't need their approval. Lack of religious freedom? Motivated and biased. Low ranking on press freedom index? Questionable methodology.
Then there’s Arnab Goswami dismissing western media outlets like the NYT or the Washington post for being ‘anti-India’, or anchors who defame a young climate activist as a conspirator during the farmers’ movement. Or the spectacle that unfolds every night on primetime, diverting the audiences from any real issues. The coverage of political opposition can also be a powerful means of censure. And so you have legacy media either dismiss it or mock it or erase it. And finally, there is the occasional ED ‘raid’ or ‘survey’ of news organisations that dare tip toe over the line.
It’s all flak. Dismiss. Discredit. Divert. And all this is said to be done in the name of a larger cause called ‘national interest’. Which brings us to the final filter of the propaganda model.
FILTER 5: THE OTHER/THE ENEMY
Any ideology that speaks of ‘national interest’ requires an opponent, an antagonist, a villain. The Self needs the Other to exist. In the American context Herman and Chomksy were writing in, it was communism. For us in India, with the dominance of Hindu nationalism, the bogeyman keeps changing faces. On odd days, it can be the arch enemy, Pakistan, on even days it can be the in-house/domestic ‘anti-nationals’, the left brigade, the liberal gang. But on all days, it must also be the ‘Muslim’. Given the virulent political climate in India that is openly anti-Muslim, Big Media mirrors this sentiment and you have unabashed demonisation of Muslims on Indian television. They are violent (Ram Navami), they spread covid (tablighi jamaat), they are regressive (population control), they are…
All kinds of prejudice used to perpetuate fear, paranoia and hate. And so polarising is this discourse that the constant positioning of Muslims as a threat is simultaneously pitted against Hindus as victims. A dichotomy that serves who?
And so we come full circle. The media as an institution that plays by the book and serves those in power.
CONCLUSION and CRITIQUE
Information that reaches you, first passes through these 5 filters. It is controlled by political and business interests, a crooked revenue model, a required degree of compliance, all of which work together to manufacture your consent. And even though we are looking at examples of an openly partisan/toxic media because India is currently in a particularly dystopian phase of its media history, the propaganda model is applicable to the entire spectrum of news media. Liberal media too sets the limits of its discourse. Here’s a good example: the endorsement of liberalisation policies in the 1990s. There was a media consensus on how great liberalisation was, that primarily served the interests of the dominant elite, including the media businesses themselves. (market forces)
Or more recently, State narratives reproduced en masse when article 370 was abrogated. (territorial sovereignty)/can replace Kashmir with:
Or you only have to pick up national newspapers and see the number and frequency with which leaders of the governing party and its ideological parent are given space as ‘opinion writers’.
Or the media discourse on terrorism in India that is in lockstep with the State, uncritically reproducing police versions and prejudice. Where terrorism is almost always Islamic, and the Muslim almost always suspect.
Or just the very language and words with which it speaks at times, where the targeted violence against Muslims in Delhi 2020 becomes ‘clashes’ reduced to a false equivalence of ‘both sides involved’. Again, speaking in tune with the State by flattening unequal power dynamics. Or Hindutva violence is mis-characterised as ‘talibanisation’. In fact, Chomksy says that right-wing media is easy to discern, it is liberal media that serves the system more effectively. So is it all doom and gloom? Are we condemned to being indoctrinated?
The propaganda model has faced its fair share of critique. As it punctures the democratic idea of news media as a check on power, critics have called it too simplistic a framework or too pessimistic or too deterministic. They argue that the media has way more complex power dynamics: There is a multiplicity of journalists and organisations that are diverse, competitive and have certain autonomy and independence. The events they cover, they are not all the same, there is contextual complexity and variance. Then what about journalistic objectivity? And what about the resistance to this dominance/propaganda? Resistance from both within the media and outside of it? If there is narrative hegemony, what about counter-hegemony?
The propaganda model does not explain everything about the media. And it doesn't claim to. Herman argues that it analyses only the behaviour of the media, not its effects. It gives you a framework of structural factors that govern this behaviour. So it doesn't mean that there is no pushing back of propaganda, there’s the resistance of alternative media, counter-cultures and other forms of public opposition. It doesn't mean that there is no journalistic objectivity or good journalists. You have great journalists out there. But that’s not the point. The point is that the systematic behaviour of media has functional limits. The model is not so much about individuals or organisations but about a market system of control.
So if such is the system, how does one resist?
Invest in media literacy and media criticism, be critical thinkers, always have multiple sources and contribute towards building a mediascape that is as diverse and plural as possible. Want to hear Dalit voices? Support them. Want to hear Muslim voices? Support them.
In the end, there will always be constant negotiation with the media. Life is complicated. And there are often no straight answers. In some cases, however, there are straight answers. Like, what do you as a viewer do about the cesspool Indian news has descended into?