Theories about propaganda and its evolution simultaneously fascinate and disturb me. I think I'm motivated to study propaganda by the belief that understanding how you're being manipulated makes that manipulation less effective. Over the years the term propaganda has been defined in many ways by many people. Often, defining this word is itself an act of propaganda. I use the term in a manner very similar to political scientist Michael Parenti, who defines it as the mobilization of information and ideas for the purpose of persuading a mass audience. He uses a rather broad definition, but in the US the term usually has a negative connotation and implies some kind of deception or manipulation.
Propaganda can take many forms, but in the US a few noticeable features stand out. Firstly, there is no leftwing / rightwing propaganda disparity. One side is not truth and the other propaganda. The media personas of both the left and right are manipulative to a similar extent. Both use similar techniques such as manipulating the semantic framing of messages; selectively and manipulatively editing audio/video clips; hosting faux debates with straw-man opponents; disseminating the messages of interest groups, unchallenged when the groups are friendly, interrupted and prevented from making a point when they're opposed. It's not what they say, but how manipulatively they say it that qualifies the corporate media's messages as propaganda.
Certain perspectives and world views have little to no voice in the news media. I'm not talking about the left's perspective, or the right's perspective. Both sides (as defined in the media) are represented evenly enough. However, the media's definition of left and right bears little resemblance to reality; the dividing line has been gerrymandered more than most urban congressional districts. Whether most people recognize it or not, the real division in our society is where it has always been, around class. Severing this class-consciousness from the public zeitgeist is the core purpose of the corporate propaganda system.
It is increasingly common for television news channels to take ideological or partisan stands on issues that the ruling class have significant policy disagreements over (in this context by ruling class I'm generally referring to the political and economic elite who own and control various media corporations along with most of the rest of the public and private economy). These issues are what define the left right divide; they are what the media focuses most of its attention on, in spite of the interests of their audience and of the population in general.
There are often fervent debates with much yelling and screaming when these elitist controversies are discussed. This qualifies their coverage as balanced since an argument by definition must have two sides to it (the ruse is the implication that there are only those two sides out there). This kind of vigorous debate is nearly absent in their coverage of issues that the ruling class is in general agreement about. On these consensus issues, across US media outlets there tend to be strikingly uniform messages in support of their common position. This message uniformity is especially evident in the perspectives not represented by any of the mainstream media outlets. The media's omission of information is a very effective form of mass manipulation and a telling characteristic of many propaganda systems.
The modern news media in the US reveal their manipulativeness in a number of ways. For instance, across multiple news channels there is frequently a common (seemingly coordinated) use of semantic framing (semantic framing can at its simplest be thought of as the implied connotations of the words, and especially of the metaphors, used in the construction of a message). On most news programs, regardless of whether the presenter self identifies to the audience as a liberal or a conservative, their use of framing is nearly always biased in favor of corporate and ruling class interests. On Comedy Central's The Daily Show, Jon Stewart often highlights this seeming coordination. He will show a series of clips, from a number of different major news programs' coverage of a story, and each of the different anchors or hosts will use the exact same talking point (often the exact same wording) to make the exact same point.
Stewart often seems like the only voice on television that contradicts the corporate media's nearly uniform messaging about certain issues, but I should clarify the kinds of issues I'm talking about. It's not that Stewart is liberal, while I think the "liberal media" is a figment of a few conservative talk show hosts' imaginations, there are outlets like MSNBC that represent the mainstream liberal perspective. Stewart goes beyond the mainstream liberal position; he challenges his guests on their manipulative statements; he touches on issues that seem taboo even on outlets like MSNBC. His most important critiques are those of the news media itself. Critiques that mainstream news outlets seem unwilling to make. However indirectly, he shines a bit of light on the nature of the propaganda we're inundated with.
I've long wondered how programs like The Daily Show fit into the corporate propaganda system. The corporate media produces them, yet they directly challenge that media's propaganda messages and highlight its manipulativeness. Damaging the corporate news media's credibility and breaking message uniformity seemingly violates core principals of traditional propaganda systems. It seems out of place that a major media corporation like Viacom would actively contradict the corporate media's propaganda. However, the Daily Show is a cash cow. Ratings and ad revenue can go a long way towards explaining why Viacom lets the show exist, but letting the Daily Show's message go out relatively unrestrained might also serve a deeper purpose in support of the propaganda system.