The Impact of Digital Technologies on Chomsky’s Media Ownership Filter

Noam Chomsky

In their 1988 book, Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman posit a theory of “systemic propaganda” in which the mass media control content in order to serve the ends of the dominant elite.  The ingredients of this model are five “filters” used to censor content, which consist of concentrated media ownership, advertising, government news sourcing, flak, and anticommunism.  The cultural and technological landscape in which this theory arose is vastly different than today’s, which is characterized by interactive technologies that allow everyday citizens to manipulate media in ways that were impossible 22 years ago.   At the same time, interactive technologies pose their own set of challenges to the open distribution of news and other media content.   The strengthening of copyright laws benefitting corporate media creators, as well as governmental restrictions on technology, have created a situation in which government is still in control of the creation and distribution of content. Additionally, corporate media producers have engaged in practices of aggressively persecuting fans and citizen producers over intellectual property rights – forcing fan websites to be shut down, and litigating against consumers who share and remix media.

How do changing copyright laws and a participatory media landscape impact the fitters theorized by Chomsky two decades ago? To try to answer this, I will look specifically at Chomsky’s ideas of media ownership and examine how they may be challenged by contemporary media practices.  I will examine not only the concept of content ownership, but also ownership of the media companies themselves and try to discern how interactive media both challenges Chomsky’s theory, as well as how it has created an environment in which new censorship filters have emerged, and whether it’s possible for old economic models to survive in the digital age.

Content Ownership

In Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky and Herman present a critique of corporate ownership of media, showing that consolidation of ownership arose due to the “increase of capital costs […] which was based on technological improvements, along with the owners’ increased stress on reaching large audiences.” (3-4) In other words, it simply became too expensive for independent producers to create content and compete with large corporations.  As a result, the major producers of media today are owned by wealthy people with a vested interest in preserving their wealth.   The remainder of Chomsky’s arguments about media ownership (relationships with banks, deregulation, ties to government) is dependent on this basic assumption that a wealthy power elite owns media content.

Partly due to the rise of interactive technologies and the way they allow content to be extracted, appropriated and recontextualized by consumers, there are two ways to consider ownership of media today: ownership of content, and ownership of the media organizations themselves.   For the former, the concept of content as property depends on the metaphors we use to describe it, and it’s important to take a look at the history of copyright before we examine how it has been transformed in the 20th century by metaphors of physical property.  Copyright began in Britain in 1710 with the Statute of Anne, conceived as a contract that allowed publishers a limited monopoly on the copying of books.  As such, it had nothing to do with “property,” but existed as a way for authors and publishers to profit from their work for a prescribed time period.  It wasn’t until 1967 that the term “Intellectual Property” came into popular usage (Lemley 1003 n.4) and became the dominant metaphor for copyright.   Clearly, this isn’t the kind of “ownership” that Chomsky was referring to in Manufacturing Consent, but the current battles around copyright protection are important to consider and play a role in shaping how we think about corporate ownership of media.  With the rise of interactive and media sharing technologies, consumers can easily appropriate media created by corporate producers and use it to create transformative works that are critiques or commentary on the original, and that make potentially subversive statements about our culture.  This presents a challenge to Chomsky’s ownership filter in that, while corporations may still control the output of content, their grip on its distribution and how that content is “read” is diminishing.  Through the recontextualization of corporate content, remixers have the ability to re-examine and critique the content and redistribute it in such a way that it provides consumers with an alternate, often critical reading of the original.  This loosening of “control” of their brands and messages has spurred a backlash among corporate content creators, which has led to copyright infringement litigation against consumers who reuse their content.  While such transformative use is legally protected under the fair use doctrine of US copyright law, the usual result of corporate litigation of individuals is that the consumer, due to the inability to pay legal costs, will back down and the litigator will have won by default.  Thus, we can think of this tactic of using the market to achieve dominance over independent producers, as another kind of “filter” in the Chomskian sense.  While it pertains directly to ownership of content, this tactic is akin to Chomsky’s filter of “advertising” in that, like the use of advertising to subsidize media, it forces smaller players out of the market, effectively silencing them.

Media Ownership

Enforcement of copyright protection can also be seen as having led to a deterioration of discourse in the public sphere.  In 2008, The Electronic Frontier Foundation reported the removal of the presidential debates by corporate broadcasters from the video sharing site YouTube, which points to a critical failure of copyright protection – the censorship of political discourse from publicly available resources.   This indicates not only problems with content ownership, but refers directly to Chomsky’s critique of corporate ownership of media organizations.

On one hand, it can be said that Chomsky’s filter of media ownership is not only still in effect, but perhaps even stronger than it was 20 year ago in that the number of controlling corporations has now dwindled to six: NewsCorp, GE, Time Warner, Disney, Viacom and Bertelsmann. In a statement that reinforces Chomsky’s view of media ownership as a propaganda filter Amy and David Goodman wrote in the Seattle Times, “These are not media that are serving a democratic society, where a diversity of views is vital to shaping informed opinions.  This is a well-oiled propaganda machine that is repackaging government spin and passing it off as journalism.”  However, in a networked society where information can so freely be copied and distributed, large news organizations are facing a crisis of ownership. Thus, when considering corporate ownership of media organizations themselves, it is useful to look at news organizations and the economic troubles they are currently facing, largely due to the ubiquity of free news enabled by interactive distribution technologies.

According to Keiyana Fordham, there are three ways interactive technologies have disrupted the news: 1. They can freely distribute news at zero cost; 2. They have greatly increased competition since anyone can distribute news; 3. They have changed consumer behavior so that buyers and sellers can connect directly, making advertisers increasingly irrelevant. (944) These disruptions have forced corporate news producers to not only reexamine their business models, but also to file suits against bloggers, aggregators, and search engines as a first line of defense. Aggregators like Yahoo News argue that what they do, i.e. excerpting headlines and linking back to the source, is fair use and should be protected (980-981).   In 2006 Field v. Google a federal district court upheld Google’s claim to fair use, citing the enormous public benefit that search engines offer.  Thus, it remains unclear where lines of ownership can be drawn, and news organizations continue to fight for control of their content, the loss of which threatens to obviate their businesses.

However, some entrepreneurs and scholars are positing solutions to save the news industry that would mitigate the problem of corporate media consolidation while at the same time allowing the industry to endure.  In a 2009 presentation to the Duke Conference on Nonprofit Media, Penelope Muse Abernathy put forward several options for the New York Times that entailed bringing the organization into the nonprofit sphere, including: establishment of an endowment, foundational support for certain of the Times’ journalistic endeavors, and purchase of the paper by an educational institution. (Abernathy 7-10)


Because interactive technologies radically change the way content, particularly news, is delivered, it will be necessary for the concept of ownership, both of content and the media themselves, to change along with it. In the 80’s, when Chomsky wrote his critique of media ownership, electronic mass media entailed the necessary licensing of airwaves by private companies.  Today, the Internet, which is available to private citizens with a computer and a connection, is one of the primary ways that information and media is distributed.  It can be likened to telephone lines, which are free for all to use.  When AT&T, in the mid-20th century, attempted to place a ban on technologies that utilized this network in a nondestructive manner.  This ban was overturned in 1968 and paved the way for devices like the modem, without which the Internet never would have come about. (B. Herman 272)    Now, in the 21st century, there are lobbies to place the same types of bans and restrictions on the Internet – such as those opposed to Net Neutrality who would allow corporations to become the gatekeepers of content.

Constitutional Law professor Lawrence Lessig and other free culture activists call for a preservation of the commons, which are public amenities free for all to use such as parks and streets.  It is their view that media content should be a part of this, free for artists and scholars to use for the betterment of society.  Can this metaphor also extend to concepts of ownership not just of media content, but of media organizations as well?  Given the importance of the media to governmental and private interests, it seems unlikely that the media will become a public utility any time soon, but there are steps that can be taken in the meantime to insure that Chomsky’s idea of media ownership as a propaganda filter isn’t simply replaced by another set of filters applied to new technologies.  First, there needs to be a reversal of the copyright extensions applied over the past half-century that have served the interests of corporate media creators, and stifled innovation by mitigating opportunities for citizens to access their culture in order to build upon it. To do this, it’s imperative that we re-examine the discursive metaphors we use to define copyright – and begin to see it is what it was originally intended to be, i.e. a monopoly granted to artists and publishers for a limited time, after which the work falls into the public domain.  It’s also essential we re-examine the importance of news and information to the public sphere, and develop protocols to determine what kinds of content can be privately owned and which must be ceded to the public for the sustainability of a democratic society.  Most importantly, we need to recognize the importance of individual media producers who are using new technology to add their voices to public discourse.  Only by doing so can we begin to eradicate the first filter of Chomsky’s propaganda machine, and work towards a free and open culture.  But there is a battle ahead on all these fronts – as professor Henry Jenkins wrote in his essay on the cultural logic of media convergence in 2004, “In the new media environment, it is debatable whether governmental censorship or corporate control over intellectual property rights poses the greatest threat to the right of the public to participate in their culture” (40)

Works Cited

Abernathy, Penelope Muse. “A Nonprofit Model for the New York Times?” Duke Conference on Nonprofit Media. 4-5 May, 2009.

Electronic Frontier Foundation. “TV Networks Must Stop Blocking Election Videos on YouTube.” 2008. Accessed October 17, 2010.

Fordham, Keiyana. “Can Newspapers Be Saved? How Copyright Law Can Save Newspapers from the Challenges of New Media.” Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal. Spring 2010, v20 i3, p939-990.

Goodman, Amy, and David Goodman. “Why Media Ownership Matters.”  Seattle Times.  3 April 2005. <>

Herman, Bill D. “Breaking and Entering on My Own Computer: The Contest of Copyright Metaphors.” Communication Law & Policy. Spring 2008, Vol. 13 Issue 2, p231-274.

Herman, Edward S., and Noam Chomsky. Manufacturing Consent. 1988. New York: Pantheon. 2002.

Jenkins, Henry. “The Cultural Logic of Media Convergence.” International Journal of Cultural Studies. Volume 7(1): 33-43. 2004.

Lemley, Mark A. “Property, Intellectual Property, and Free Riding.” Texas Law Review 83.4 (2005): 1031-1075. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 17 Oct. 2010.

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