Traditional media owners may still control the news media, but they no longer control the news. A chapter from “Postjournalism and the death of newspapers” (2020).
Under the idea of ownership as a filter of the Propaganda model, Herman and Chomsky grouped together three intertwined factors: “size, ownership, and profit orientation of the mass media” (Herman & Chomsky, 2002 , p. 3).
Size related to the cost of capital investment needed to establish a newspaper. Early newspapers were industrial only in a technological sense: they printed many identical copies of the same product. But in terms of their economic and business organization, they remained workshops of a comparatively small-scale business.
The workshop-organized papers tended to be class-related because they were respectively funded – either by political patrons from above or by class-specific self-identified readers from below, such as merchants, the bourgeoisie, and, later, workers. These were the first identifiers of the media audiences when the audience of papers started taking structure from the unsegmented primeval soup in the 17th to 19th centuries.
When advertising became the dominant factor of the media business, the scale of distribution outvalued the social addressing of content. Profit-seeking became the leading motive for publishing newspapers (compared to party papers).
The papers with more ads obtained an advantage: they could cash in both on copy sales and advertising. The significance of the class identifiers of the audiences diminished, and the audience started being structured within consumer profiling. The profit orientation with newly opened opportunities to increase profit on ads favored the papers with broader content and larger audiences. To achieve these conditions, large enterprises were required.
The capital cost for the media to enter the market became a restraint for startups. This secured the media market for rich owners and big media corporations. The process of concentration in the media began.
The size of operations required for a truly profitable business in this market made newspapers big corporations, but also incorporated them into the corporate world. Herman and Chomsky marked out the factor of social affiliation based on size and profit-seeking:
In sum, the dominant media firms are quite large businesses; they are controlled by very wealthy people or by managers who are subject to sharp constraints by owners and other market-profit-oriented forces; and they are closely interlocked, and have important common interests, with other major corporations, banks, and government. This is the first powerful filter that will affect news choices. (Herman & Chomsky, 2002 , p. 14.)
That is why Herman and Chomsky, even without admitting so formally, nevertheless listed ownership (size and profit-seeking) as the first and assumedly most important filter of their Propaganda model. The media depicted the world deprived of social controversies and class struggle because they themselves belonged to the big corporations’ world and therefore propagated that respective worldview. The class struggle got masked by consensus, and the audience was identified along consumerist-demographic, not political, differences. Upon this, the personal, professional, thematic, value-based and other dependencies and audience affiliations in the media and their agendas were built.
According to the Marxist understanding of social-economic relations, concentration and corporate control are the pillars of the political economy of the mass media. The concentration of media ownership has been constantly increasing since the late 19th century. Any political-economic analysis of the media in recent decades has contained a scrupulous count of an increasingly smaller number of big corporations controlling increasingly larger chunks of the market.
One of the last tendencies in the classical political economy of the mass media, before it started losing its subject, was the transfer of ownership control from the media orgs to telecom corporations. The deliverers of signals had generally seized the power over ‘signal’ production, particularly in the TV and radio segments. Newspapers have mostly avoided such a fate, but that is merely because investors have not seen a viable business there.
Concentrated ownership (along with size and profit-seeking) is still an important factor in defining the principles of agenda-setting. But its impact has significantly decreased for several reasons.
1) The political-economy power of ownership concentration moved to new media – social network platforms, whose size and outreach are simply incomparable with that of old media, – and defines the principles of meaning production on the internet.
2) With emancipated authorship, the power of public opinion – now flak – has increased tremendously. Flak generally outperforms ownership in terms of their impact on agenda-setting.
Ownership is still an impactful force in the media industry, but it is not the ownership of the media. It is the ownership of platforms. The owners of platforms, mainly Google and Facebook, are those who determine the owners’ power in the media system.
Traditional media owners may still control the news media, but they no longer control the news. The media, the former monopolists of news production and delivery, have become a part of a bigger news ecosystem, within which the role of the media is shrinking. Consequently, the role of media ownership has also declined. In addition, new factors managing news production and delivery have appeared, such as sharing, or platforms, or algorithms, or virality, for which the classical political economy of the mass media (to which the Propaganda model belonged) did not even have a language. The entire Marx-Engels Galaxy, which contained the Herman-Chomsky Constellation, was swallowed by the McLuhan Universe.
According to Emily Bell, director at the Tow Centre for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School,
News spaces are no longer owned by newsmakers. The press is no longer in charge of the free press and has lost control of the main conduits through which stories reach audiences. The public sphere is now operated by a small number of private companies, based in Silicon Valley.
Nowadays, news must fit not to print but to digital. At the fundamental, technological level, the settings of the digital environment are managed by completely different institutions and forces, over which neither media owners nor editors have any power whatsoever, and which they oftentimes do not even understand. Emily Bell brilliantly emphasized this redistribution of power,
In creating these amazingly easy-to-use tools, in encouraging the world to publish, the platform technologies now have a social purpose and responsibility far beyond their original intent. Legacy media did not understand what it was losing, Silicon Valley did not understand what it was creating.
The factors of ownership, size and profit-seeking can now be applied to the digital platform, but they can hardly be seen as a content filter of the Propaganda model as it was defined by Herman and Chomsky. These factors impact content production but not towards consent; rather, the opposite. The platforms’ profit depends on users’ activity and therefore platforms’ settings incentivize the radicalization of self-expression for the sake of a better response (the engagement of others). With respect to political content, this unavoidably leads to polarization, not consensus with the ruling elites. The digital platforms’ ownership and profit-seeking environmentally entail anti-establishment, not pro-establishment, tendencies.
As for old media, classical ownership still matters to them themselves, but its influence on meaning production in society has dramatically decreased.
The other factor defining the decline of media ownership as a Propaganda model’s filter is flak.
Any media manager is now as much afraid of the audience as of the shareholders or the board. The media owners are under this pressure, too. With millions of users searching on the internet for something outrageous for their self-actualization, the new media environment can be extremely toxic to brand safety, including the safety of media brands. It is not without reason that companies are so concerned about this issue now. Meaning production is one of the most vulnerable areas of brand activity, be it advertising or media production.
Even some of the biggest brands have been ostracized and put at risk of losses after being caught with content that happened to be virally deemed inappropriate. Paradoxically, the executive power of cancel culture rests, for the most part, on the corporate culture of big capital. These are big corporations with their brand sensitivity and extra-cautious codes of conduct that most often execute the sentences of cancel culture. The media orgs are among them.
This is something completely opposite to the classical filter of size and ownership as defined in the Propaganda model. The impact on a media brand that activists and the viral crowd have today, would have been unthinkable in the 1970–80s, when the only way for activists to spread their outrage regarding the media was through the media. The media were free to simply ignore criticism, which basically made them, their owners, editors and journalists immune to any general public’s outrage. Without its own mechanisms of publicity, the only flak that mattered was the flak produced by the elites and the powerful, the classical Herman-Chomsky flak. They wrote:
The public is not sovereign over the media—the owners and managers, seeking ads, decide what is to be offered, and the public must choose among these. (Herman & Chomsky, 2002 , p. xix.)
This has changed since then. Now, because of the internet, the capacity to produce powerful flak has been ‘democratized’. With polarization and the never-ending search for insulting and inappropriate content to be condemned, the media are much more vulnerable to flak from activists, the Twitterati and the general public than they used to be.
The technically enhanced flak has significantly increased business risks for the owners and career risks for the media professionals. Under such conditions, size and corporate ownership of the media may well be factors that are detrimentally affecting their arbitrary rights of agenda-setting.
 Bell, Emily. (2014, November 21). “Silicon Valley and Journalism: Make up or Break up?” The Reuters Memorial Lecture at St Anne’s College. A short transcript.