"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, February 10, 2012

Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media

"It's true that the emperor doesn't have any clothes, but the emperor doesn't like to be told it, and the emperor's lapdogs like The New York Times are not going to enjoy the experience if you do." – Noam Chomsky

With the media frenzy that surrounded Michael Moore’s documentary, Fahrenheit 911 (2004), it is interesting to observe how the controversy that swirled around it (Disney backed it financially but wouldn’t distribute it) had been documented in the press. It made a film like Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (1992) all the more relevant more than ten years after its release. Noam Chomsky is a soft-spoken professor at MIT who has become quite a vocal political activist and critic of the American media. He believes that ordinary people can comprehend and act on the issues he raises, but this is not always an easy task because of the thick web of deceit and doublespeak that the government creates to blind us from "elementary truths" that are right in front of us.

However, he believes people are indoctrinated to be apathetic so that they don't want to make the effort that is needed to see what is really going on. And the media doesn't help either. In fact, one might say that they promote this sense of apathy by showing redundant, repetitive sitcoms and reality shows that turn us into mindless couch potatoes. Now, you might be thinking, this sounds like a lot of conspiracy theory garbage, but Chomsky does not look, act or speak like some crazed conspiracy nut. He is an intelligent man who talks to a BBC reporter the same way he would talk to an ordinary person. Chomsky is a clear and concise speaker who backs up everything he says with an ample supply of facts and unfaltering logic. He is a man dedicated to uncovering the deception and atrocities that are committed by governments all over the world and teaching others how to become aware of and act on these acts.

With funding from the National Film Board of Canada, filmmakers Peter Wintonick and Mark Achbar followed Chomsky around the globe for five years. The result was a two hour and forty-five minute documentary that explored Chomsky's view of the media and his relationship with it. The film acts as a sort of "stepping stone" to Chomsky's books, which are filled with pretty heavy concepts and a lot of information to absorb. The film doesn't water down his ideas, but rather represents them on a visual level so that they are a bit easier to grasp.

The film wisely begins with Chomsky’s origins so that we can get a handle on who he is and where he came from. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1928, his parents taught Hebrew and as a result Chomsky became fascinated with literature, reading voraciously at an early age (often borrowing 12 books out of the library at once). He grew up during the Depression and was surrounded by a frightening amount of anti-Semitism, which were probably the roots to him championing the cause of the underdog. Growing up, Chomsky would take the train to New York City and hang out at anarchist bookstores on Fourth Avenue, which exposed him to working class ideals and culture. He learned all about politics and how to organize and fight back against oppressive institutions, which he would employ later in life.

Chomsky started as a linguist with the publishing of Syntactic Structures in 1957, which offered a radical new way of looking at grammar. He began to look at language and behaviorism. The established belief at the time was based on the writings of B.F. Skinner who stated in his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity, that "the control of population as a whole must be delegated to specialists—to police, priests, owners, teachers, therapists, and so on, with their specialized reinforcers and their codified contingencies." Skinner suggested a control of speech, creating strict rules for us to follow to make the world a safer place. These rules are really restrictions to ensure that people say what is politically correct so as to ensure advancement. Anyone who deviates or questions the party line is punished.

Chomsky disagreed with Skinner's theory, effectively saying that we are not living in a democracy where the power is exercised by a population free of hierarchy or ordered classes, but actually living in a "regime of dictatorship," as Michel Foucault says. The most powerful class uses violence and coercion to control the masses. Chomsky criticizes these powerful institutions for the abuses they perpetrate on weaker nations and exposes the subtle and not so subtle ways that they go about performing these actions. It is important that we understand, as he puts it, the "nature of power and oppression and terror and destruction in our society," and combat it. The United States in particular, is guilty of all of these abuses, and we are guilty for sitting by and letting it happen.

Once Chomsky realized that the government and media were working hand in hand to support this system of behaviorism, he decided to take an active role. His first major action as a dissident was participating in a weekend anti-war demonstration at the Pentagon on October 19-21, 1967. He was arrested and ended up sharing a cell with Norman Mailer. From that point on Chomsky has never looked back, releasing countless books criticizing the U.S. government, its foreign policy, and how periodicals like The New York Times push these covert actions under the carpet and out of sight from the public.

Chomsky has always remained a sort of character on the fringes, never getting any real media exposure. He has never enjoyed the limelight, emphasizing his ideas more than himself. To this end, he avoids becoming a role-model for other people, instead stressing that you can change your own life. Chomsky rarely does T.V. because it is a medium that does not conform with his way of speaking. He will make a radical statement and then have less than two minutes to support it. Chomsky just does not fit into the two commercial time slot of Nightline. However, on those rare occasions where he does get his time to speak, like on Bill Moyer's show, A World of Ideas, he garners a huge response. Chomsky's appearance generated over 1,000 letters and more requests for transcripts than any other show in the series.

In Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky reveals that all major decisions over what happens in our society are controlled by a heavily concentrated network of corporations, conglomerates and investment firms. This network also has considerable influence over positions in the government. Just looking at the big Savings and Loans scandals that plagued the U.S. years ago reveals this link. Corporations also own the media and therefore decide what we watch and hear for the most part. They control the resources and as a result show only what is in their best interests. This is achieved by propaganda or the "manufacturing of consent," a term borrowed from political philosopher and journalist, Walter Lippmann. Manufacturing consent is a technique of control over the masses — in other words, propaganda or the creation of necessary illusions to marginalize the general public or reduce them to apathy in some form. The news media participates in this manufacture of consent by simplifying, selecting, and dramatizing events. Propaganda affects not only the masses, but is targeted at what Chomsky calls the "political class," approximately 20% of the population who are educated and articulated decision makers. These are teachers, managers and so forth — people who vote and whose consent is crucial. The rest of the population follow orders, are apathetic, and rarely vote, therefore paying for their inactions by living in impoverished conditions.

The national media for example, The New York Times, the Washington Post, NBC, or CBS set the general framework for local media to adapt to. The national media ignore and place emphasis on certain issues, in effect shaping history. Another great trick of the trade is rhetoric. Everyone knows about the military doublespeak used in the Persian Gulf War, but the government used it long before then. During the 1980 and 1984 elections, the Reagan administration blasted the Democrats as the "party of special interests," which was negative because special interests were considered a bad quality. However, upon closer scrutiny, they listed special interests as: women, poor people, workers, young people, old people, and ethnic minorities — everybody, but corporations because they belonged to the national interest, and everyone is in favor of that. So, people voted for a person who was against the population and who supported corporations.

Perhaps the most effective part of Manufacturing Consent is a case study of how selective the U.S. media is of what they report. They usually support the party line, rarely criticizing their actions. There are always exceptions to the rule, but the most startling case of selective reporting by the U.S. media is the simultaneous genocides in Cambodia and East Timor between 1975 and 1978. In Cambodia during these years, the Communist backed Khmer Rouge wiped out thousands upon thousands of people, which received tons of press coverage because it was backed by our official enemy. What the press barely covered was the period before that (1973-1975) when U.S. backed forces were wiping out the people of Cambodia. That period was described by the U.S. press as a tranquil, peaceful time. While the Communist backed genocide was occurring in Cambodia, a genocide on a comparable level was taking place in East Timor, a little country north of Australia between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It was hardly covered at all in the U.S. press because it was backed by the U.S. government. They provided 90% of the arms to the Indonesian forces and Ford and Kissinger were even near the area prior to the invasion, but conveniently delayed the attack so that their hasty departure would not look suspicious. By February of 1976, approximately 60,000 people were killed in East Timor. When 1978 rolled around, the killings were approaching real genocidal levels with around 200,000 people dead.

Coverage in The New York Times had a definite bias. Between 1975-79 the Times spent only 70 column inches on East Timor, while 1,175 column inches was dedicated to Cambodia. These stats are just of index listings and don't even cover the length of the actual stories which would probably show an even more dramatic gap. The Times made the excuse that they couldn't possibly cover every story with the same detail and depth, but this act was on such a devastating level that it should not have been ignored. And it wasn't ignored in the international press. Australian media in particular, deserves a large part of the credit for keeping the story alive. At least six Australian journalists lost their lives covering the story that the U.S. media tried to bury.

Manufacturing Consent goes on to not only identify this problem of manufacturing of consent, but how to fight back. Wintonick and Achbar take a look at various forms of alternative media, from the successful independent publishers, South End Press to Alternative Radio that is dedicated to reporting events that the U.S. media conveniently ignores and giving people like Noam Chomsky more exposure. The film has certainly exposed Chomsky's ideas to a wider audience creating a sort of cult following in Canada and in Europe where he is more popular than in his native United States.

The film doesn't talk down to the viewer and brilliantly conveys Chomsky's ideas on a visual level utilizing all forms of media. The directors also dedicate time to show some of Chomsky's detractors like William F. Buckley, Jr. and Tom Wolfe who come across like pretentious bullies while Chomsky appears calm and rational in response to their vicious, snide attacks. They are ironic scenes that add more credibility to Chomsky's views.

Manufacturing Consent received positive reviews from critics at the time. In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Whether or not you agree with Mr. Chomsky's conclusions, his reading of the American scene is persuasive: that the government is most responsive to the wishes expressed by the minority of citizens who vote, which is also one of the principal points made by John Kenneth Galbraith in his recent book The Culture of Contentment.” The Washington Post’s Hal Hinson wrote, “With regard to this journey, Manufacturing Consent makes an excellent starting point. With it, Achbar and Wintonick have made a significant and timely contribution to the debate. Even if their arguments are not wholly persuasive, their movie is well-supported, confidently reasoned, imaginatively presented and, without a doubt, seductive." The Chicago Sun-Times gave the documentary three-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, "Ultimately, we shouldn't judge a film like this on whether we agree with its positions, but on how well it presents them. On those terms, Manufacturing Consent is a brilliant success. It casts a haunting, post-1984 glow with its use of video imagery – Chomsky's talking head is seen, among other places, atop Times Square and on a giant amalgamation of screens. At the same time, it plugs into a deep, humanist belief in the people's ability to change things.” The San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle wrote, “The documentary is a good movie in different ways. For one thing, it's an admirable piece of film making that provides satisfying visual contexts for what is essentially three hours worth of ideas. Though the film begins to strain in the last 20 to 30 minutes, Manufacturing Consent is often fascinating and never boring.”

When asked about the documentary, Chomsky’s biggest gripe about it was that he felt it portrayed him as a leader of a movement for people to join: “I don't think the medium can make people understand that if they film me giving a talk somewhere, that's because somebody else organized the talk, and the real work is being done by the people who organized the talk, and then followed it up and are out there working in their communities. If they can bring in some speaker to help get people together, terrific, but that person is in no sense ‘the leader.’ That somehow doesn't get across in a movie – what gets across is, ‘How can I join your movement?’ And then I've got to write a letter which is a big speech about this. So I am ambivalent about it.”

Manufacturing Consent is a fascinating look Chomsky and his ideas that are guaranteed to provoke discussion. It also makes one want to check out some of his work and sparks a desire to wake up and realize what is going on in our society. The film is a real eye-opener to the behind the scenes mechanics of our government and the media and how little we realize what they are really up to. The film does not dip into tabloid or conspiracy depths, but presents a logical and intelligent analysis with a good sense of humor that is often missing from such material. Chomsky is a man who sincerely believes that we can identify and react to the problems in our government and media, but realizes that it cannot be done by just one man, it will take a massive grass-roots organization. First, people must be educated and this is hard because it is so easy to do nothing. Realizing that there is a problem is the first step, correcting it is the next.

This documentary is available to download at the Internet Archives.


  1. I've got to see this after reading your fine piece on it, J.D. Thanks.

  2. Great selection on this important film. Chomsky's framing is so precise that it's depressing in the context of the age. Not much has changed in regards to his thesis about corporate dominance.

  3. le0pard13:

    Thanks! yeah, I think you'll dig this film. Very thought-provoking!


    Thank you! And you're right about how not much as changed. If anything, things have gotten worse.