How Corporate Propaganda Shapes Public Opinion


When journalism became Churnalism – the churning out of massive amount of articles in a relatively short period of time, it turned journalism into a form of corporate propaganda that reflects the ideology of media owners. Yet, it also made media outlets to be increasingly reliant on the so-called news agencies that supply newspapers and TV with news items. Associated Press and Reuters are the two dominant players in the field. All of this has very serious consequences.

For example, Reuters earns well over 90% of its money from selling news to the global finance industry. As a consequence, Reuters is far more likely to cover the price of cotton than the life of the cotton worker. Yet, Reuters is not alone.

Like Reuters, many media corporations operate in multiple markets. This encourages media corporations to cover subjects that sell well in multiple markets – entertainment, sports, celebrities, etc. And, at times, this demands rapid change. A case in point is the reporting on the death of Princess Diana – five days before and five days after her death. While being presented as the scheming tart before her death, this quickly fell apart.  As with her death, she quickly – almost overnight – became the people’s Princess.

These stories are intentionally constructed to sell. Worse, the mass manufacturing of news under Churnalism tends to drain the detail out of these stories. Churnalism clears away complexities. It cuts out much of the context often reducing next to everything to a mere event. Habitually, much of this is devoid of meaning. Churnalists seek the lowest common denominator – in the form of dumbing down.

It is pretty much as what Rupert Murdoch once said rather crudely, I’m not having any of that upmarket shit in my paper. Murdoch, too, loves the uneducated and also offers a hefty dose of anti-intellectualism. The corporate media’s vision of the future of journalism is shorter stories, more fun, and plenty of variety within the confinements of the underlying ideology of capitalism.

Since about forty years, the preferred ideology supporting capitalism has been neoliberalism with its relentless focus on cost-cutting, profit-maximization, and the creation of insecure work arrangement known as the precariat.

One journalist puts it in crystal clear words when saying, we won’t look into a story that we know we are going to get no money for. The confinement in the world of capitalism demands profitability. And that means publishing articles that sell – not necessarily articles that are good, useful, helpful, interesting, or even true. In short, profitability and salability set up an ideological mind-set for those, i.e. churnalists who produce news under capitalism.

Of course, this requires the corporate media to run stories which are being widely published elsewhere even – or in particular – when those stories clearly lack merit. What counts is salability – not merit. Some of this is driven by the fear of preventing their media consumers from being cut out from popular debate – and potentially worse – from possibly being tempted to look elsewhere for their news.

What makes the entire process worse is the often unrecognizable habit of many journalists covering their backs by colluding with other news outlets on their stories. For example, there were at least ten years during which the editors of two newspapers – the New York Times and the Washington Post – informed one another on the headlines, issues, and subjects they intended to publish. It worked through exchanging early proofs of their front newspaper pages before the presses started rolling. Yet, they are not alone in streamlining their news reporting.

Worse, there are plenty of governments that engaged in rather heavy news management. At times, they have the ability to drive unwanted news coverage into a dead end. They can decide whether or not a certain story should get much coverage or not. Meanwhile, there is also the fear of challenging the consensus established between the journalists and the government.

In any case, the great mass of news reporting – even by powerful media organizations – remains compliant to corporate interest, the government, the official line, or, worse, all three. Churnalists and media outlets tend to select stories in a rather arbitrary, almost irrational way.

They are also inclined to recycle falsehoods and distortions. In addition, they prefer to cling to the safest of political, economic, and ideological assumptions. Sometimes, the outcome of all this is rather irrational bordering on the fantastical and obscene.

It has often been said, you need 20 to 25 deaths on a daily basis in order to get a story into the United States Press Agency. Pretty much all of this favors the quick turn-over of news, news as mind-numbing entertainment, and ultimately, the status quo.

Much of this is cranked up by the impact of PR which is primarily a tool of the powerful. PR – whether coming from politics, the military, corporations, etc. – is happily passed on to newspaper editors (at times, even with pride) by churnalists. This does not seem to have a conflict with their refusal to make judgment based on clinging on to the hallucination of a balanced view.

Worse, churnalists – perhaps more than journalists – view their balanced non-judgments as objectivity. This ideology is particularly powerful among churnalists even though they spice up their articles with pre-written articles generated by corporate PR.

Stories that are being fabricated by corporate PR experts are often given appearance of being written by journalists. This practice lies at the heart of corporate PR. Through corporate press releases and pre-written stories – often composed by corporate PR experts – these stories become fabricated news. These fabricated PR items are designed to open media doors of time-pressed churnalists.

In that way, corporate PR and its adjacent ideology enter the news. Its underlying ideology always supports the corporation. This marks the true triumph of public relations. On this, the Godfather of PR – Edward Bernays – noted,

the counsel on public relations not only knows what news value is;

but, knowing it, he is in a position to make news happen.

PR experts know that people can be flooded with pseudo-events. Of course, freedom of speech and of the press includes the freedom to create pseudo-events. At its most basic, a pseudo-event simply and overtly couples up journalists with carefully selected information.

Such pseudo-events are created by the global industry of public relations. This industry has mutated in to a huge global industry – an industry of mass manipulation. It tends to target vulnerable media – made vulnerable by the imperatives of neoliberal capitalism: cost-cutting, the unremitting pressure to generate profits, etc. Yet, corporate PR feeds falsehoods and distortions directly into news channels – without the need to use media proprietors or advertisers as levers.

Beyond all that, corporate PR also fabricates pseudo-groups that invent deceptive but independently- appealing news stories. These are also fed into the media. To masquerade their corporate origins, corporate lobbyists invent organizations that are given the appearance of being spontaneously formed as grassroots organizations. Inside corporate PR, the organizations are known – rather cynically – as AstroTurf. Like faked grass, Astro-Turfing is named that way because their grassroots are not genuine or real, they are a forgery.

Like propaganda and PR, AstroTurfing too, runs under the motto: doubt is our product. This is simply because creating doubt is one of the best means of competing with the body of scientific facts – on cancer, smoking, fast food, global warming, Covid-19 vaccination, etc. – that exist in the mind of the general public.

PR specialists like Blair Childs are strongly convinced that freedom of speech, public discourse, the hallucination that the best argument wins, etc. are fair game. Hence, Childs’ core idea is, Shaping Public Opinion—If You Don’t Do It, Somebody Else Will.

Beyond corporate PR that directly infiltrates the media, there still lurks another strategy that corporations use to get their ideology into the public domain. This is a setup known as think tanks. Most think tanks are funded by corporations with specific PR interests in mind. Worst, think tank bosses even award their staff with flashy pseudo-titles often with a ring of academic respectability attached to it.

Flavors of the month are senior fellow and research director. Furnished with fancy titles, they regularly perform in broadcasted TV debates and write in newspapers pretending to be “independent” experts. Yet, they all have a vested interest.

The multi-talented crypto-experts (actually, these are the PR experts), for example, argue for cuts in public transport, cuts in government spending, Brexit, scrapping the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, etc. while promoting businesses, corporations, and ultimately capitalism.

To be effective in manipulating public opinions, PR fabricates pseudo-evidence often expressed as surveys, polls and “specially-commissioned” (read: corporate financed) research. Public surveys continue to be a favorite PR tool. They are usually conducted for commercial PR, and they are usually released on a Sunday to fill the news vacuum of Monday morning’s papers.

Here is how it works: a business who is looking for free publicity will hire a PR outfit to dream up a catchy survey with enough leading questions to get the result the business wants. All too often, people simply stick a questionnaire on a website and offer a free goody or a weekend in a hotel as a prize.

This encourages people to complete the survey as formulated (read: leading questions get the desired results) by the PR firm. In that way, the PR firm gets the result they expect. And the company gets the result it has paid for. Next, they take the prefect result and create a new story. Finally, the newspapers publish a telling story supported by a survey that aids the appearance of legitimacy and even objectivity.

As the godfather of modern PR – Edward L. Bernays – once said, if we understand the mechanism and motives of the … mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it. This is the key to understand how PR and propaganda works. Yet, sadly it is also the key to understand how modern mass media work.

Propaganda expert George Creel – who was Bernays’ predecessor – once puts it like this, people do not live by bread alone; they live mostly by catchphrases. Finally, Vince Packard made it very clear when noting,

the goal is mind-molding itself. No longer is the aim just to play on our subconscious to persuade us to buy a refrigerator or new motorboat that we may or may not need. The aim now is nothing less than to influence the state of our mind and to channel our behavior as citizens.

Packard’s “mind-molding” means the calculated and well-planned targeting of the human subconscious. Once this is done, this so-called target audience is coupled with an explicit theme as engineered by PR. For example, the goal of this is to create an attitude supportive of capitalism.

Historically, many propaganda and PR experts viewed – and some still do – the masses and democracy as political threats to the established order. It was set in motion by Gustave Le Bon’s The Nature of Crowds. The solution to this threat is to be found in PR’s guidance of the masses towards accepting capitalism and democracy. The idea is that their thinking, feelings, and attitudes can be controlled by the techniques of PR.

It is not surprising to see that a nervous preoccupation with the perils of democracy has flanked the growth of corporate public relations for nearly a century. In other words, people can have a democracy, as long as PR is here to assure that people will vote in accordance with supporting the present economic system.

The underlying task is to create a consensus for capitalism, or, as some have put it, to link the ideology of free enterprise in the public consciousness with free speech, free press, and free religion so that all parts appear as an integral part of democracy.

To do all that, PR experts operate on a few core beliefs: firstly, they are convinced that the public’s opinion can’t be ignored – it’s a fact of life. Secondly, they also believe that it has to be fooled. Thirdly, the power of corporations and governments to deceive the public is so colossal that fooling all of the people – most of the time – can successfully be done.

Lastly, PR can achieve the seemingly impossible. PR and propaganda has – rather successfully – installed the core ideology of capitalism in the public mind– the ideology of neoliberalism. It has contributed to the stabilization of system that creates massive inequalities.

This is the task of corporate propaganda seeking to shape public opinions. It sustains the established order by making people accept capitalism. Yet, it also makes people to engage in democracy. This ideology lives from two things:

  1. the hallucination that democracy is inextricably linked to capitalism, and
  2. that eternal hope that democracy can change things. And indeed, democracy can change a lot of things – except one thing: capitalism.

Thomas Klikauer has published a book on Media Capitalism. My thank you goes to my highly dedicated proof reader, Meg Young.

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