Are Mass Media and Democracy Compatible?

by Mindy Clegg

Herman’s and Chomsky’s classic work on American Mass Media!

In their oft-cited classic examination of the modern mass media, Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky described modern American news media thusly: “The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfill this role requires systematic propaganda.”1 In other words, democratic states use privately-owned media as a means of social control. Private corporations own and operate media outlets and they work with the US government because the power of the state dovetailed with their own economic interests.

The groundwork for this state of affairs emerged out of intellectual discourse in the early days of mass media. In the wake of the first world war, prominent intellectuals like Walter Lippmann and Edward Bernays suggested a set of strategies for channeling democratic impulses expanding in the United States to better align with the wishes of the ruling classes.2 Such analysis was and continues to be necessary, as many are unaware of the very real pitfalls of corporate media in democratic societie. These systems are now often globalized which shape our understanding of the past and present that we must understand in hopes of changing them. But we must also wonder if the singular focus on these systems of control lead to the feelings of hopelessness that many of us feel about our institutions these days. As much as describing what dominates us feels cathartic, focusing only on the systems of control and not on resistance makes the problem seem insurmountable. I argue that we need to look for the cracks as much as describe the problem posed by corporate medi. Understanding the democratic alternatives within and outside of the mainstream production of popular culture can help us to see these cracks.

Books like Manufacturing Consent tend to treat American mass media as generally top-down propaganda operation that is relatively all-encompassing. Scholars often draw comparisons to the propaganda machines of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. In contrast with the United States media, the propaganda aspect of these governments were much more obvious. This makes sense, as these were state-run apparatuses, heavily invested in replicating their chosen ideological messages among their own citizenry and to a larger world. Nazi Germany gives us the most notorious case of state propaganda, given its role in the Holocaust. Developed by Joesph Goebbels, this sophisticated propaganda arm of the Nazi party justified mass violence and genocide in order to protect the “German family” (but in reality in service to the elites of the party, helping to keep them in power). The Nazi propaganda machine was relatively centralized and disciplined, spread out across the German media landscape of the early mass-media age.3 The Soviet Union also had a state-based, centralized body for shaping propaganda at home and abroad. This was a bit more of a diffuse, depending on the period, but the Glavit – or the General Directorate for the protection of state secrets in the press – functioned as the primary body responsible for propaganda. Historian of science in the Soviet Union Asif Siddiq pointed to “five modes” of censorship in the Soviet Union, which included “self-censorship; editorial censorship..; censorship by Glavlit…; punitive censorship by the political police such as the KGB; and overall ideological censorship as mandated by the Central Committee of the Communist Party.” He notes that many scholars of Soviet or Russian censorship centers on institutional structures, though he argues that more nuance exists in English scholarship on the Soviet Union in recent years.4 Historian Kristin Roth-Ey noted that in the postwar period, the Soviet Union was participating in a larger shift being seen globally. She said that “never had mass culture in such volume been so accessible to so many and so regularly. In the industrialized west, and in many new postcolonial states as well, governments turned their attention to print, film, and broadcasting as matters of state policy, essential to both national integration and international prestige.”5 Mass media was a symbol of modernity for postwar nation building. The state in both cases played a major—thought not a singular—role in creating propaganda that shaped these countries. Both openly called their apparatuses “propaganda” rather than using some sort of euphemism.

But America was (and is) different, we are told. We had no department of propaganda, at least none labeled as such—but we are told this by the very institutions that promote what we call the American way. The American state has indeed cultivated artists and the media for specific aims. During the second world war, numerous creatives who worked in popular culture participated in the wartime propaganda efforts. At his first job in the comics industry, Stan Lee drew Captain America punching Hitler in an overtly political storyline, aimed at drumming up wider support for US entry into the war. When he joined the US Army at 19, he was assigned to the job of “playwright” in the Signal Corps. Beloved author Dr. Seuss likewise used his artistic skills for the war effort, primarily via animation. Institutions funded and supported by the American government such as the Voice of America carried on pushing particular views about the United States into the Cold War. But, we are told, VOA only broadcast overseas and was an effort to counter Soviet propaganda about living in America—informational in other words. In theory, that propaganda was not aimed at a domestic audience—unlike the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union.6 But was domestic American media really free of propaganda?

Historians in recent years turned to examining what Frances Stonor Saunders dubbed the Cultural Cold War, highlighting a new understanding of propaganda abroad and at home. Her path-breaking work illustrated how the CIA funded various kinds of cultural production abroad during the Cold War, which helped shape the nature of the output in a way that was favorable to US aims. 7 The Cold War mindset also shaped cultural production at home. The essays in the edited volume by Elaine McClarnand and Steve Goodson explored the myriad of ways cultural production was shaped by the Cold War.8 The CIA, charged with foreign intelligence gathering, also operated at home, Hugh Wilford argued.9 Hollywood partnered with the Museum of Modern Art and the CIA in order to promote the film industry and modernist art as quintessential American, according to Peter Decherney.10 Despite claims that the promotion of propaganda was solely for foreign consumption, the American public also received the same kind of cultural indoctrination.

A question that many of these works do not seem to address was the effectiveness of these propaganda campaigns or challenges to these institutions. More recently, historians have pushed for a more complicated understanding on the role mass media played in creating the modern nation-state during the Cold War era. Roth-Ey’s work provides one such example. She argued that the Communist party in the Soviet Union sought to build a counterpoint to American mass culture that the US government actively promoted during the Cold War. The Soviet government wanted to create “an anti-mass cult culture for the masses” as she phrased it. The government built a “hierarchy” of culture, a “table of ranks”, with distinctions between mass culture and “authentic art.” For the party elite, there was a major difference between “cultural products” and this more “authentic art.”11 Her work avoids some major pitfalls of many studies examining the role of culture during the Cold War. She seeks to focus not only those shaping the production of culture, arguing doing so can “stunt historical analysis.” Rather, she brings in the voices of the average Soviet citizen and works to illuminate their own experiences with Soviet mass culture.12 She also noted that if what helped bring down the Iron Curtain was the “infiltration” of American and British popular culture into the Soviet Union, that analysis is inadequate to fully understanding what actually happened at the end of the Soviet era.13 If the Soviet authorities lost a degree of control over how the public understood mass culture in the1970s and 1980s, that had less to do with individuals seeking to undermine the system from without, and more to do with size and scope of these industries and institutions. They were in part undermined by their own unwieldiness and the inability to dictate meaning to the Soviet public. She said that “people found more spaces within [Soviet mass media] to pursue their own interests, as they defined them” rather than how the party defined them.14 Roth-Ey argued for looking at the cracks in the mass media rather than just the intentions of officials. It cracks the solid veneer of the Soviet media empire.

Some have done the same work in the history of American media and culture. Cracks exist, all across the history of the veneer of the mass production of news and culture. This proved to be the case with the foreign programs and domestically. The United States actively promoted American culture abroad during the Cold War, including jazz, a genre of music already popular abroad. Starting in the late 1950s, the State Department sponsored jazz concerts around the world. However, as Penny Von Eschen argued, the artists sent abroad often had their own agendas that sometimes contradiction the message the US government hoped to send to foreign audiences.15 A domestic example was that of the Hollywood Ten who were blacklisted by the Hollywood establishment. Script writer Dalton Trumbo had used his scripts to promote his leftists political views. During the Cold War, he ended up on the Blacklist and was jailed when he refused to name names to Congress. But he kept working (under fake names) despite that and worked to eventually break the blacklist.16 Another example was the media during the Vietnam War. Herman and Chomsky characterized the criticism of the war by some in the news media late in the war as “slippage” which indicates that they view it as a deviation from the norm, but also more of a struggle between elites. Some in elite circles began to oppose the war, based on facts on the ground. This made it possible for some in the media to begin to criticize the war more broadly. Nothing—in their view—happens without elite consent in the American news media. Inconvenient facts of the failures in the war drove this split not any real opposition based on human rights.17 Despite the cracks, it still is an elite story. But as historians such as John McMillian have demonstrated, cracks were growing in the top-down media landscape during the 1960s for other reasons. Many young people were already turning to alternatives to the mainstream press. Critically, the underground press was built from the ground up, by active participants, often aimed at the local community. McMillian said that the reporters from the underground press “lack[ed] any pretense of objectivity” such as when they covered the infamous Altamont Concert.18 Later youth countercultures took note. As punk went underground, zines became one of the major modes of cultural information and communication among the translocal punk scene of the 1980s. Zines were locally focused but aware of the globalized nature of the hardcore. Punk became defined by do-it-yourself ethics, a democratic impulse whose practitioners understood as rejecting offerings of the “corporate music industry” opting instead for personal networking to sustain cultural production. By the early 1990s, the producers of the zines Maximum Rock-n-Roll and Profane Existence put together a collection of resources aimed at the maintenance of DIY networks of music production, Book Your Own Fuckin’ Life.19 Punk scenes were not just part of the cultural landscape in the capitalist west. Scenes thrived in the Communist bloc, such as in East Germany. They shared an embrace of DIY culture and community found in punk scenes in the capitalist west.20 These examples not only point to the existence of cracks within the veneer of mass culture, but to the ability of democratic culture to exist alongside and even challenge more corporate or state-run cultural institutions.

Democratic production of popular or mass culture can provide a needed alternative to more commercially produced offerings. Stories and the various ways in which we tell them are critical to our common humanity, which helps explains why they are such big business. They help us to understand both ourselves individually of course, but they also help us to construct society. Each era in history had ways of understanding itself via some variety of cultural production. In the era of mass production, popular culture can and should regain its older connotation – not commercially produced for a mass audience, but created by a community for a community, speaking about and for a community. Despite claims that mass media is inevitably anti-democratic, more democratically produced culture has long existed in tension with corporate or state-run mass media. They also can offer us an alternative that is more in line with our cultural needs rather than simply lining the pockets of those who run corporations.


1 Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988), 1.

2 See Edward Bernays, Propaganda, (New York: Liveright publishing Co, 1928) and Walter Lippman, Public Opinion, (New York: Pelican Books, 1922).

3See for example, Robert Edwin Herzstein, The War that Hitler Won: Goebbels and the Nazi Media Campaign, (New York: Paragon House Publisher, 1987), and Horst JP Bergmeier and Rainer E. Lotz, Hitler’s Airwaves: The Inside Story of Nazi Radio Broadcasting and Propagand Swing, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), among many others on this topic.

4 Asif Siddiqi, “Soviet Secrecy: Toward a Social Map of Knowledge,” The American Historical Review 126, no. 3, (September 2021): 1048-1050. He gives several extensive footnotes on the topic.

5 Kristin Roth-Ey, Moscow Prime Time: How the Soviet Union Built the Media Empire That Lost the Cultural Cold War, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011), 1-2.

6 See a discussion of that tension in Gerald Steibel’s preface to James L. Tyson, US International Broadcasting and National Security, (New York: Ramapo Press, 1983), v-viii.

7 Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, (New York: The New Press, 1999).

8 Elaine McClarnand and Steve Goodson, The Impact of the Cold War on American Popular Culture, (The State University of West Georgia, 1999).

9 Hugh Wilford, The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).

10 Peter Decherney, Hollywood and the Cultural Elite: How the Movies Became American, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 123-204.

11 Roth-Ey, Moscow Prime Time, 2-3.

12 Roth-Ey, Moscow Prime Time, 6.

13 Roth-Ey, Moscow Prime Time, 10.

14 Roth-Ey, Moscow Prime Time, 13.

15 Penny Von Eschen, Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).

16 Bruce Cook, Trumbo: A Biography of the Oscar-Winning Screenwriter Who Broke the Hollywood Blacklist, (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1977).

17 Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, xiv.

18 John McMillian, Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 2.

19 Book Your Own Fuckin’ Life: Do-It-Yourself Resource Guide, No. 1, 1992, 1.

20 Tim Mohr, Burning Down the Haus: Punk Rock, Revolution, and the Fall of the Berlin Wall, (New York: Algonquin Books, 2018).