15 Reasons Why Mass Media Employees Act Like Propagandists

Caitlin Johnstone
20 min readJun 4, 2023


Listen to a reading of this article (reading by Tim Foley):

If you watch western news media with a critical eye you eventually notice how their reporting consistently aligns with the interests of the US-centralized empire, in almost the same way you’d expect them to if they were government-run propaganda outlets.

The New York Times has reliably supported every war the US has waged. Western mass media focus overwhelmingly on foreign protests against governments the United States dislikes while paying far less attention to widespread protests against US-aligned governments. The only time Trump was universally showered with praise by the mass media was when he bombed Syria, while the only time Biden has been universally slammed by the mass media was when he withdrew from Afghanistan. US media did such a good job deceitfully marrying Saddam Hussein to the September 11 attacks in the minds of the public in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq that seven in ten Americans still believed he was connected to 9/11 months after the war began.

That this extreme bias occurs is self-evident and indisputable to anyone who pays attention, but why and how it happens is harder to see. The uniformity is so complete and so consistent that when people first begin noticing these patterns it’s common for them to assume the media must be controlled by a small, centralized authority much like the state media of more openly authoritarian governments. But if you actually dig into the reasons why the media act the way they act, that isn’t really what you find.

Instead, what you find is a much larger, much less centralized network of factors which tips the scales of media coverage to the advantage of the US empire and the forces which benefit from it. Some of it is indeed conspiratorial in nature and happens in secret, but most of it is essentially out in the open.

Here are 15 of those factors.

1. Media ownership.

The most obvious point of influence in the mass media is the fact that such outlets tend to be owned and controlled by plutocrats whose wealth and power are built upon the status quo they benefit from. Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post, which he bought in 2013 from the also-immensely-wealthy Graham family. The New York Times has been run by the same family for over a century. Rupert Murdoch owns a vast international media empire whose success is largely owed to the US government agencies with whom he is closely intertwined. Owning media has in and of itself historically been an investment that can generate immense wealth — “like having a license to print your own money” as Canadian television magnate Roy Thomson once put it.

Does this mean that wealthy media owners are standing over their employees and telling them what to report from day to day? No. But it does mean they control who will run their outlet, which means they control who will be doing the hiring of its executives and editors, who control the hiring of everyone else at the outlet. Rupert Murdoch never stood in the newsroom announcing the talking points and war propaganda for the day, but you’ve got a snowball’s chance in hell of securing a job with the Murdoch press if you’re a flag-burning anti-imperialist.

Which takes us to another related point:

2. “If you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.”

In a contentious 1996 discussion between Noam Chomsky and British journalist Andrew Marr, Chomsky derided the false image that mainstream journalists have of themselves as “a crusading profession” who are “adversarial” and “stand up against power,” saying it’s almost impossible for a good journalist to do so in any meaningful way in the mass media of the western world.

“How can you know that I’m self-censoring?” Marr objected. “How can you know that journalists are-”

“I’m not saying you’re self-censoring,” Chomsky replied. “I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is that if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.”

In a 1997 essay, Chomsky added that “the point is that they wouldn’t be there unless they had already demonstrated that nobody has to tell them what to write because they are going to say the right thing anyway.”

3. Journalists learn pro-establishment groupthink without being told.

This “you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting” effect isn’t just some personal working theory of Chomsky’s; journalists who’ve spent time in the mass media have publicly acknowledged that this is the case in recent years, saying that they learned very quickly what kinds of output will help and hinder their movement up the career ladder without needing to be explicitly told.

During his second presidential primary run in 2019, Senator Bernie Sanders enraged the mass media with some comments he made accusing the Washington Post of biased reporting against him. Sanders’ claim was entirely correct; during the hottest and most tightly contested point in the 2016 presidential primary, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting noted that WaPo had published no fewer than sixteen smear pieces about Sanders in the span of sixteen hours. Sanders pointing out this blatantly obvious fact sparked an emotional controversy about bias in the media which yielded a few quality testimonials from people in the know.

Among these were former MSNBC reporter Krystal Ball and former Daily Caller White House correspondent Saagar Enjeti, who explained the subtle pressures to adhere to a groupthink orthodoxy that they’d experienced in a segment with The Hill’s online show Rising.

“There are certain pressures to stay in good with the establishment to maintain the access that is the life blood of political journalism,” Ball said in the segment. “So what do I mean? Let me give an example from my own career since everything I’m saying here really frankly applies to me too. Back in early 2015 at MSNBC I did a monologue that some of you may have seen pretty much begging Hillary Clinton not to run. I said her elite ties were out of step with the party and the country, that if she ran she would likely be the nominee and would then go on to lose. No one censored me, I was allowed to say it, but afterwards the Clinton people called and complained to the MSNBC top brass and threatened not to provide any access during the upcoming campaign. I was told that I could still say what I wanted, but I would have to get any Clinton-related commentary cleared with the president of the network. Now being a human interested in maintaining my job, I’m certain I did less critical Clinton commentary after that than I maybe otherwise would have.”

“This is something that a lot of people don’t understand,” said Enjeti. “It’s not necessarily that somebody tells you how to do your coverage, it’s that if you were to do your coverage that way, you would not be hired at that institution. So it’s like if you do not already fit within this framework, then the system is designed to not give you a voice. And if you necessarily did do that, all of the incentive structures around your pay, around your promotion, around your colleagues that are slapping you on the back, that would all disappear. So it’s a system of reinforcement, which makes it so that you wouldn’t go down that path in the first place.”

“Right, and again, it’s not necessarily intentional,” Ball added. “It’s that those are the people that you’re surrounded with, so there becomes a groupthink. And look, you are aware of what you’re going to be rewarded for and what you’re going to be punished for, or not rewarded for, like that definitely plays in the mind, whether you want it to or not, that’s a reality.”

During the same controversy, former MSNBC producer Jeff Cohen published an article in Salon titled “Memo to mainstream journalists: Can the phony outrage; Bernie is right about bias” in which he described the same “groupthink” experience:

“It happens because of groupthink. It happens because top editors and producers know — without being told — which issues and sources are off limits. No orders need be given, for example, for rank-and-file journalists to understand that the business of the corporate boss or top advertisers is off-limits, short of criminal indictments.

“No memo is needed to achieve the narrowness of perspective — selecting all the usual experts from all the usual think tanks to say all the usual things. Think Tom Friedman. Or Barry McCaffrey. Or Neera Tanden. Or any of the elite club members who’ve been proven to be absurdly wrong time and again about national or global affairs.”

Matt Taibbi also jumped into the controversy to highlight the media groupthink effect, publishing an article with Rolling Stone about the way journalists come to understand what will and will not elevate their mass media careers:

“Reporters watch as good investigative journalism about serious structural problems dies on the vine, while mountains of column space are devoted to trivialities like Trump tweets and/or simplistic partisan storylines. Nobody needs to pressure anyone. We all know what takes will and will not earn attaboys in newsrooms.

And it is probably worth noting here that Taibbi is no longer with Rolling Stone.

4. Mass media employees who don’t comply with the groupthink get worn down and pressured out.

Journalists either learn how to do the kind of reporting that will advance their careers in the mass media, or they don’t learn and they either remain marginalized and unheard of or they get worn down and quit. NBC reporter William Arkin resigned from the network in 2019, criticizing NBC in an open letter for being consistently “in favor of policies that just spell more conflict and more war,” and complaining that the network had begun “emulating the national security state itself.”

Arkin said he often found himself a “lone voice” in scrutinizing various aspects of the US war machine, saying he “argued endlessly with MSNBC about all things national security for years.”

“We have contributed to turning the world national security into this sort of political story,” Arkin wrote. “I find it disheartening that we do not report the failures of the generals and national security leaders. I find it shocking that we essentially condone continued American bumbling in the Middle East and now Africa through our ho-hum reporting.”

Sometimes the pressure is much less subtle. Pulitzer-winning journalist Chris Hedges left The New York Times after being issued a formal written reprimand by the paper for criticizing the Iraq invasion in a speech at Rockford College, realizing that he would either have to stop speaking publicly about what he believed or he’d be fired.

“Either I muzzled myself to pay fealty to my career… or I spoke out and realized that my relationship with my employer was terminal,” Hedges said in 2013. “And so at that point I left before they got rid of me. But I knew that, you know, I wasn’t going to be able to stay.”

5. Mass media employees who step too far out of line get fired.

This measure doesn’t need to be applied often but happens enough for people with careers in media to get the message, like when Phil Donahue was fired from MSNBC for his opposition to the Bush administration’s warmongering in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion despite having the best ratings of any show on the network, or in 2018 when Temple University professor Marc Lamont Hill was fired from CNN for supporting freedom for Palestinians during a speech at the United Nations.

6. Mass media employees who toe the imperial line see their careers advance.

In his 2008 book War Journal: My Five Years in Iraq, NBC’s Richard Engel wrote that he did everything he could to get into Iraq because he knew it would provide a massive boost to his career, calling his presence there during the war his “big break”.

“In the run-up to the war, it was clear that Iraq was a land where careers were going to be made,” Engels wrote. “I sneaked into Iraq before the war because I thought the conflict would be the turning point in the Middle East, where I had already been living for seven years. As a young freelancer, I believed some reporters would die covering the Iraq war, and that others would make a name for themselves.”

This gives a lot of insight into the way ambitious journalists think about climbing the career ladder in their field, and also into one reason why those types are so gung-ho about war all the time. If you know a war can advance your career, you’re going to hope it happens and do everything you can to facilitate it. The whole system is set up to elevate the absolute worst sort of people.

Engels is now NBC’s chief foreign correspondent, by the way.

7. With public and state-funded media, the influence is more overt.

So we’ve been talking about the pressures that are brought to bear on mass media employees in the plutocrat-run media, but what about mass media that aren’t owned by plutocrats, like NPR and the BBC?

Well, propaganda thrives in those institutions for more obvious reasons: their proximity to government powers. Right up into the 1990s the BBC was just letting MI5 outright vet its employees for “subversive” political activity, and only officially changed that policy when they got caught. NPR’s CEO John Lansing came directly out of the US government’s official propaganda services, having previously served as the CEO of the US Agency for Global Media — and he was not the first NPR executive with an extensive background in the US state propaganda apparatus.

With US government-owned outlets like Voice of America the control is even more overt than that. In a 2017 article with Columbia Journalism Review titled “Spare the indignation: Voice of America has never been independent,” VOA veteran Dan Robinson says such outlets are entirely different from normal news companies and are expected to facilitate US information interests to receive government funding:

I spent about 35 years with Voice of America, serving in positions ranging from chief White House correspondent to overseas bureau chief and head of a key language division, and I can tell you that for a long time, two things have been true. First, US government-funded media have been seriously mismanaged, a reality that made them ripe for bipartisan reform efforts in Congress, climaxing late in 2016 when President Obama signed the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act. Second, there is widespread agreement in Congress and elsewhere that, in exchange for continued funding, these government broadcasters must do more, as part of the national security apparatus, to assist efforts to combat Russian, ISIS, and al-Qaeda disinformation.

8. Access journalism.

Krystal Ball touched on this one in her anecdote about MSNBC’s influential call from the Clinton camp above. Access journalism refers to the way media outlets and reporters can lose access to politicians, government officials and other powerful figures if those figures don’t perceive them as sufficiently sympathetic. If someone in power decides they don’t like a given reporter they can simply decide to give their interviews to someone else who’s sufficiently sycophantic, or call on someone else at the press conference, or have conversations on and off the record with someone who kisses up to them a bit more.

Depriving challenging interlocutors of access funnels all the prized news media material to the most obsequious brown-nosers in the press, because if you’ve got too much dignity to pitch softball questions and not follow up on ridiculous politician-speak word salad non-answers there’s always someone else who will. This creates a dynamic where power-serving bootlickers are elevated to the top of the mainstream media, while actual journalists who try to hold power to account go unrewarded.

9. Getting fed “scoops” by government agencies looking to advance their information interests.

In Totalitarian Dictatorships, the government spy agency tells the news media what stories to run, and the news media unquestioningly publish it. In Free Democracies, the government spy agency says “Hoo buddy, have I got a scoop for you!” and the news media unquestioningly publish it.

One of the easiest ways to break a major story on national security or foreign policy these days is to get entrusted with a “scoop” by one or more government officials — on condition of anonymity of course — which just so happens to make the government look good and/or make its enemies look bad and/or manufacture consent for this or that agenda. This of course amounts to simply publishing press releases for the White House, the Pentagon or the US intelligence cartel, since you’re just uncritically repeating some unverified thing that an official handed you and disguising it as news reporting. But it’s a practice that’s becoming more and more common in western “journalism” as the need to distribute propaganda about Washington’s cold war enemies in Moscow and Beijing increases.

Some notorious recent examples of this are The New York Times’ completely discredited report that Russia was paying Taliban-linked fighters to kill US and allied forces in Afghanistan, and The Guardian’s completely discredited report that Paul Manafort paid visits to Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy. Both were simply falsehoods that the mass media were fed by intelligence operatives who were trying to seed a narrative in the public consciousness, which they then repeated as fact without ever disclosing the names of those who fed them the false story. Another related example is US officials admitting to NBC last year — again under cover of anonymity — that the Biden administration had simply been feeding lies about Russia to the media in order to win an “information war” against Putin.

This dynamic is similar to the one in access journalism in that outlets and reporters who’ve proven themselves sympathetic and uncritical parrots of the government narratives they are fed are the ones most likely to be fed them, and therefore the ones to get the “scoop”. We caught a whiff of what this looks like from the inside when acting CIA director under the Obama administration Mike Morell testified that he and his intelligence cartel cohorts had initially planned to seed their disinfo op about the Hunter Biden laptop to a particular unnamed reporter at The Washington Post, whom they presumably had a good working relationship with.

Another twist on the intelligence cartel “scoop” dynamic is the way government officials will feed information to a reporter from one outlet, and then reporters from another outlet will contact those very same officials and ask them if the information is true, and then all outlets involved will have a public parade on Twitter proclaiming that the report has been “confirmed”. Nothing about the story was verified as true in any way; it was just the same story being told by the same source to different people.

10. Class interests.

The more a mass media employee goes along with the imperial groupthink, follows the unwritten rules and remains unthreatening to the powerful, the higher up the media career ladder they will climb. The higher up the career ladder they climb, the more money they will often find themselves making. Once they find themselves in a position to influence a very large number of people, they are a part of a wealthy class which has a vested interest in maintaining the political status quo which lets them keep their fortune.

This can take the form of opposing anything resembling socialism or political movements that might make the rich pay more taxes, as we saw in the virulent smear campaigns against progressive figures like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. It can also take the form of encouraging the public to fight a culture war so that they won’t start fighting a class war. It can also take the form of making one more supportive of the empire more generally, because that’s the status quo your fortune is built on. It can also take the form of making one more sympathetic to politicians, government officials, plutocrats and celebrities as a whole, because that class is who your friends are now; that’s who you’re hanging out with, going to the parties and the weddings of, drinking with, laughing with, schmoozing with.

Class interests dance with the behavior of journalists in multiple ways because, as both Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi have noted, journalists in the mass media are increasingly coming not from working-class backgrounds but from wealthy families, and have degrees from expensive elite universities.

The number of journalists with college degrees skyrocketed from 58 percent in 1971 to 92 percent in 2013. If your wealthy parents aren’t paying that off for you then you’ve got crushing student debt that you need to pay off yourself, which you can only do in the field you studied in by making a decent amount of money, which you can only do by acting as a propagandist for the imperial establishment in the ways we’ve been discussing.

Universities themselves tend to play a status quo-serving, conformity-manufacturing role when churning out journalists, as wealth won’t flow into an academic environment that is offensive to the wealthy. Moneyed interests are unlikely to make large donations to universities which teach their students that moneyed interests are a plague upon the nation, and they are certainly not going to send their kids there.

11. Think tanks.

The Quincy Institute has a new study out which found that a staggering 85 percent of the think tanks cited by the news media in their reporting on US military support for Ukraine have been paid by literal Pentagon contractors.

“Think tanks in the United States are a go–to resource for media outlets seeking expert opinions on pressing public policy issues,” writes Quincy Institute’s Ben Freeman. “But think tanks often have entrenched stances; a growing body of research has shown that their funders can influence their analysis and commentary. This influence can include censorship — both self-censorship and more direct censoring of work unfavorable to a funder — and outright pay–for–research agreements with funders. The result is an environment where the interests of the most generous funders can dominate think tank policy debates.”

This is journalistic malpractice. It is never, ever in accord with journalistic ethics to cite war profiteer-funded think tanks on matters of war, militarism or foreign relations, but the western press do it constantly, without even disclosing this immense conflict of interest to their audience.

Western journalists cite empire-funded think tanks because they generally align with the empire-approved lines that a mass media stenographer knows they can advance their career by pushing, and they do it because doing so gives them an official-looking “expert” “source” to cite while proclaiming more expensive war machinery needs to be sent to this or that part of the world or what have you. But in reality there’s only one story to be found in such citations: “War Industry Supports More War.”

The fact that war profiteers are allowed to actively influence media, politics and government bodies through think tanks, advertising and corporate lobbying is one of the most insane things happening in our society today. And not only is it allowed, it’s seldom even questioned.

12. The Council on Foreign Relations.

It should probably also be noted here that the Council on Foreign Relations is a profoundly influential think tank which counts a jarring number of media executives and influential journalists among its membership, a dynamic which gives think tanks another layer of influence in the media.

In 1993 former Washington Post senior editor and ombudsman Richard Harwood approvingly described CFR as “the nearest thing we have to a ruling establishment in the United States.”

Harwood writes:

The membership of these journalists in the council, however they may think of themselves, is an acknowledgment of their active and important role in public affairs and of their ascension into the American ruling class. They do not merely analyze and interpret foreign policy for the United States; they help make it. Their influence, Jon Vanden Heuvel speculates in an article in the Media Studies Journal, is likely to increase now that the Cold War has ended: “By focusing on particular crises around the world {the media are in a better position} to pressure government to act.”

13. Advertising.

In 2021 Politico was caught publishing fawning apologia for top weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin at the same time Lockheed was sponsoring a Politico newsletter on foreign policy. Responsible Statecraft’s Eli Clifton wrote at the time:

There’s a very blurry line between Politico’s financial relationship with the largest weapons firm in the United States, Lockheed Martin, and its editorial output. And that line may have just become even more opaque.

Last week, Responsible Statecraft’s Ethan Paul reported that Politico was scrubbing its archives of any reference to Lockheed Martin’s longtime sponsorship of the publication’s popular newsletter, Morning Defense. While evidence of Lockheed’s financial relationship with Politico was erased, the popular beltway outlet just published a remarkable puff piece about the company, with no acknowledgement of the longstanding financial relationship with Politico.

Politico didn’t respond to questions about whether Lockheed was an ongoing sponsor of the publication after last month when it scrubbed the defense giant’s ads or whether the weapons firm paid for what read largely-like an advertorial.

Politico’s Lee Hudson visited Lockheed’s highly secure, and mostly classified, Skunk Works research and development facility north of Los Angeles and glowingly wrote, “For defense tech journalists and aviation nerds, this is the equivalent of a Golden Ticket to Willy Wonka’s factory, but think supersonic drones instead of Everlasting Gobstoppers.”

Ever wondered why you’ll see things like ads for Northrop Grumman during the Superbowl? Do you think anyone’s watching that ad saying “You know what? I’m gonna buy myself a stealth bomber”? Of course not. The defense industry advertises in media all the time, and while it might not always get caught red-handed in blatant manipulation of news publications like Lockheed did with Politico, it’s hard to imagine that their money wouldn’t have a chilling effect on foreign policy reporting, and perhaps even give them some pull on editorial matters.

Like Jeff Cohen said above: the top advertisers are off limits.

14. Covert infiltration.

Just because a lot of the mass media’s propagandistic behavior can be explained without secret conspiracies doesn’t mean secret conspiracies aren’t happening. In 1977 Carl Bernstein published an article titled “The CIA and the Media” reporting that the CIA had covertly infiltrated America’s most influential news outlets and had over 400 reporters who it considered assets in a program known as Operation Mockingbird.

We are told that this sort of covert infiltration doesn’t happen anymore today, but that’s absurd. Of course it does. People believe the CIA no longer engages in nefarious behavior because they find it comfortable to believe that, not because there is any evidentiary basis for that belief.

There were no conditions which gave rise to Operation Mockingbird in the 1970s which aren’t also with us today. Cold war? That’s happening today. Hot war? That’s happening today. Dissident groups? Happening today. A mad scramble to secure US domination and capital on the world stage? Happening today. The CIA wasn’t dismantled and nobody went to prison. All that’s changed is that news media now have more things for government operatives to toy with, like online media and social media.

And indeed we have seen evidence that it happens today. Back in 2014 Ken Dilanian, now a prominent reporter for NBC, was caught intimately collaborating with the CIA in his reporting and sending them articles for approval and changes before publication. In his emails with CIA press handlers Dilanian is seen acting like a propagandist for the agency, talking about how he intended an article about CIA drone strikes to be “reassuring to the public” and editing his reporting in accordance with their wishes.

Other potential CIA assets include CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who interned with the agency, and Tucker Carlson, whose past features a highly suspicious amount of overlap with the CIA.

15. Overt infiltration.

Lastly, sometimes the mass media act like state propagandists because they are actual state propagandists. Back in Carl Bernstein’s day the CIA had to secretly infiltrate the mass media; nowadays the mass media openly hire intelligence insiders to work among their ranks. Mass media outlets now openly employ intelligence agency veterans like John Brennan, James Clapper, Chuck Rosenberg, Michael Hayden, Frank Figliuzzi, Fran Townsend, Stephen Hall, Samantha Vinograd, Andrew McCabe, Josh Campbell, Asha Rangappa, Phil Mudd, James Gagliano, Jeremy Bash, Susan Hennessey, Ned Price and Rick Francona.

The mass media also commonly bring in “experts” to provide opinions on war and weapons who are direct employees of the military-industrial complex, without ever explaining that massive conflict of interest to their audience. Last year Lever News published a report on the way the media had been bringing on US empire managers who are currently working for war profiteer companies as part of their life in the DC swamp’s revolving door between the public and private sector and presenting them as impartial pundits on the war in Ukraine.

So as you can see, the news media are subject to pressures from every conceivable angle on every relevant level which push them toward functioning not as reporters, but as propagandists. This is why the employees of the western mass media act like PR agents for the western empire and its component parts: because that’s exactly what they are.


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