Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media is an attempt to make the oft- described
'most important intellectual in America', more accessible to the public. Naturally, it's a
Canadian show. Chomsky is the most ignored sage of our times, and is vilified by the Right as
an unrepentant radical. Nobody seems to care that the messages he delivers are apolitical Truths.
Public access to information, he claims, is regulated and skewed by the mass media to hide
the real economic and political reasons behind governmental decisions.
Using countless clips from Noam Chomsky's speaking engagements, his ideas
about media manipulation and a culture of political lies are examined, debated,
challenged and defended. An M.I.T. prof. famous for revolutionizing theories of linguistics,
Chomsky turned activist in the '60s, urging among other things that Americans who wish to
protest their country's involvement in Vietnam refuse to pay their taxes. Seen in debates,
Chomsky tends to be shut down by pompous blowhards (a Dutch politico; William F. Buckley)
who misstate his ideas so as to ridicule them, or work backwards from the proposition
that he's a dangeous radical lunatic.
When 9/11 happened last year, Noam Chomsky's immediate response was to dryly say that
the loathesome attack was a gift to American right-wing conservatives, who would now have
license to promote their partisan policies. Chomsky has a habit of saying what he thinks
regardless of how easy a target it makes him for political bullies and acid-throwers. It's
a policy that has made him a dog in the manger of the
American political mainstream. He's been rendered invisible by an almost total exclusion from
normal media outlets. We see him gathering large audiences on college campuses, and
travelling to small town radio stations to explain his ideas (which he does with
extreme patience), but he's ignored by the news shows like Nightline, who invite a
steady diet of pundits and experts without a fraction of Chomsky's expertise.
Why? Chomsky's detractors pigeonhole him as a crackpot whose ideas make no sense. They
see no cause and effect chain of events to support his claims that the Media is the
puppet of corporate interests.
Chomsky says his arguments are based on relational analysis, of the kind he once used to
build new theories of how the human mind generates language skills. In debate after
debate, his attackers ask him to provide smoking-gun proof for phenomena that he says
cannot be explained in a twenty second sound bite, or softened to be palatable to
ideologues not open to alternative thinking.
More than one debate turns into a dogfight where Chomsky's opponent refuses to let him
state his case while hectoring the microphone with slanderous insults. A military
spokesman just attacks Chomsky with meaningless noise, making sure he can't say anything
until time runs out. Then, as the show cuts to a commercial, Chomsky sits there with
a smile on his face, perhaps reflecting on the way the TV format gives the
advantage to the bullies. In a later controversy, over a French crackpot's claim
that the Holocaust never happened, nobody seems to be able to separate Chomsky's
defense of free speech, from the hot-button topic. He's vilified by people who only
hear his detractors' claims that he's an anti-semitic monster himself.
This is a man who doesn't need the extra notoriety. When pushed, Chomsky comes out with
simple statements that nobody wants to hear. Four examples: "America exports exactly the
same kind of Terrorism that it accuses others of fomenting." "If the Nuremburg accords
were enforced, every post-war American President would have been hung." "The News Media
colluded with the government to make sure we didn't hear about the genocidal invasion
of East Timor by Indonesia in 1975." "A vicious hatemonger, who says the Nazis never used
gas chambers to run extermination camps, should be allowed to publish his views."
Chomsky goes against every rule of smart political behavior. His ideas require intelligence
and sometimes research from the reader to understand, and he takes nothing for granted -
especially messages from our own government. Naturally he's an easy target for what he calls
Chomsky's analysis shouldn't be unfamiliar. His case is that a small number of conglomerate
companies own all of the
news media, and can therefore manipulate what we see and hear for the benefit of
powered interests in the same way that mass marketers create a desired response by
controlled propaganda. Rightwingers claim a liberal conspiracy and Leftwingers cry
conservative conspiracy, but Chomsky says that there's no conspiracy per se, just a system
owned by a power elite that serves the purposes of its owners. East Timor was
allowed to fall at the hands of oppressors armed and encouraged by the U.S., because American
interests wanted it so. The public is left in the dark, because their presumed role is to stay
silent and let the 'experts' handle public policy.
The main theory in this show is the increasingly narrow view of our mass media outlets -
newspapers,television news. The media, according to Chomsky, are naturally inclined to provide only
information and points of view that do not oppose the status quo. In mainstream
elections, for example, all those candidates you see only on ballots, are
never even given the chance to bring their views to a wide audience. They've been
marginalized, pushed off to the side because they get in the way of the 'real',
officially-sanctioned candidates of the major parties.
Chomsky's arguments claim no conspiracy, only a natural process, and
that's why there's no trail of evidence. His claims that there can be no democracy
with such a misinformed public. The intelligentsia
is encouraged to accept a narrow viewpoint on every issue of importance, and the
rest of the public is fed entertainment and diversion (sports, etc.) to keep them
happy and quiet and completely out of the picture.
Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media openly
advocates the Professor's ideas. It does a good job of presenting Chomsky as an
honest man who refuses to court media celebrity, even more than did Ralph Nader,
another counterculture hero that the mainstream couldn't smear but effectively
The show encourages investigation. The shocking East Timor story (even more relevant
now that the country has recently gained its independence) shows President Jimmy Carter
signing a bill to fund the Indonesian mass murderers. As this is inconsistent
with my image of Carter, I want to know more. Chomsky never speaks in terms of
our constipated political spectrum, but takes each incident and issue as a
simple collection of facts.
Chomsky considers himself an Anarcho-Syndicalist. True to his honest nature, he
defines himself with a word his detractors can exploit to make him sound like a rabble-rousing nutcase.
People readily accept the most meaningless definitions of Democracy and Freedom and Terrorism; it all
depends on who is saying them.
Chomsky is treated poorly by the media because the media is an informal defender of the
status quo, and he rocks the boat. The odds are all in favor of Chomsky's opponents, the formal defenders of the status
quo - all people with something to gain from their points of view - position, power, money. Chomsky
can't be discredited because his approach is scientific, not political. They can't
neutralize him by claiming that he has evil ulterior motives, so they simply ignore him or shout
him down. Naturally, a country needs consensus to operate, but alternative ideas and dissent over
any basic issue is strongly discouraged. To really speak one's mind about what we
see and hear, can easily put one's livelihood at risk. So Chomsky remains the 'darling' of
cautious, isolated intellectuals, while the rest of the population probably perceives him as
some kind of seditious troublemaker. That's what being 'marginalized' is.
Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media is a well-produced DVD with
some good extras. The show itself is divided into two hefty parts, and keeps moving
between visual mediums (video, film, graphs, montages) to maintain interest. The
picture is fine overall, but part two looks as if a few intermittent flaws in the
video master were carried over without correction - fast 'video hits' indicating
damage to the tape. None of them interrupt the show.
For extras, there are the ususal bios and notes, plus three interesting short films. One is a 1971
discussion with Michel Foucault, who disagrees with Chomsky. They nevertheless carry on a lively,
positive debate that presents both of their points of view, and is civilized as well. For contrast,
there are some extended excerpts from Chomsky's 1969 debate with William F. Buckley on Firing Line.
Here's the exact opposite, a debate that falls to the lowest level because Buckley interrupts and attacks
Chomsky constantly, usually with emotional retorts and condescending tricks, trying to get the Professor's
goat while scoring sophomoric slick debate points. Buckley is the sneering, dishonest debate equivalent of
an attack dog, distinguished from the boorish
Army officer seen in the docu only by his intelligence, and his self-presumed superiority on every issue.
Finally, Chomsky himself reflects on the film ten years after it was made, in a rather poorly taped interview in
his office where his quiet voice is never on mike. He starts to evaluate the show and its impact, but doesn't
follow through, and instead starts making his familiar points over again, like a college Professor with one last
chance to get through to his students. It's not the best feature of the disc.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media rates:
Supplements: debate clips, new Chomsky interview
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 8, 2002
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2002 Glenn Erickson
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