No slap dash effort, directors Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick crafted Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media from a rough assembly of 120 hours of archival and original footage. The archival material was culled from nearly two hundred sources; while the original material was filmed over four years, in 23 cities across seven countries.
Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media is a call to action which identifies a problem and proposes a solution. The problem is that a cabal controls the United States' government through the manufactured consent of the electorate by major media. The proposed solution is for the public to question the legitimacy of all sources of authority, and where that legitimacy is found wanting, to act to divest that authority.
The 168-minute documentary is divided into two parts. Part one, entitled 'Thought Control in a Democratic Society', frames the problem. Through a series of debates and interviews, Chomsky challenges the common wisdom that the media is a public watchdog keeping the government accountable to an informed citizenry. Contrary to this view, Chomsky argues that corporate media is a propaganda tool for manufacturing consent.
The title of this documentary and of Chomsky's 1988 book, Manufacturing Consent, originates with media critic and philosopher Walter Lippmann (1889-1974), who proposed that because democracies are circumscribed in their ability to use force on their citizens as totalitarian states may, they must resort to propaganda. Manufactured consent is a benign necessity because most people are too irrational and myopically self-interested to vote for the common good, Lippmann asserted.
Under this propaganda theory of democracy, the citizenry is divided into two target groups: the political class composed of educated elites, and the non-political class composed of the remaining four-fifths of the citizenry. The propaganda targeted at the political class is intended to cajole support and marginalize dissent through selecting, shaping, controlling, and restricting the information provided by agenda-setting elite media sources like The New York Times. The non-political class, on the other hand, is controlled through diversion media intended to induce political apathy. They are fed a steady diet of mindless infotainment, and taught that political activism is a sucker's bet.
The documentary provides examples of propaganda targeted at each group. For the political class, it contrasts how The New York Times allotted 1175 column inches to coverage of human rights abuses committed in Cambodia by a regime unfriendly to the United States, against only 70 inches for similar abuses in East Timor committed by an American ally. As a second example of how skewed the information presented to the political class is, the documentary identifies a study conducted of ABC's Nightline finding that out of 865 programs reviewed, 92% of the American guests were white, 89% male, and 80% professionals (n.b., Chomsky was one of these white, male, professional guests).
For the non-political class, Chomsky selects American football as an example of targeted propaganda. He asserts that the non-political class is indoctrinated from an early age to love spectator sports and to feel a possessory interest in a team which they will then mindlessly root for. This indoctrination builds up irrational attitudes of submission to authority in the non-political class and shunts attention away from important issues. Thus, a football fan may know a lot of esoteric trivia about a sports team, but know little about what the government is up to. The role of Hollywood entertainment is not addressed directly, but no doubt Chomsky has a similar view on the purpose and effect of Hollywood movies as a means of indoctrination and distraction.
Chomsky counters the argument that a liberal elite controls the media this way: the propaganda system works best when there is a perception of liberal bias expressed as a hostile attitude to government because this suggests an outer limit of what is a reasonable contrary position. In other words, if The New York Times is perceived as extremely liberal, then few will question whether The New York Times' message is actually still supportive of the system. Chomsky notes that 23 corporations own more than half of the newspaper, magazine and book publishers, radio and TV stations, and major motion picture studios, and that it is these corporate masters that ultimately call the shots. Since this documentary was made the number of corporations controlling the majority of media has fallen from 23 to just 5.
Having identified the problem, the second part of the documentary, entitled 'Activating Dissent', suggests a course of action: question the legitimacy of institutional power in all its guises, and strip that authority where it is illegitimate. Chomsky provides two examples of legitimate institutional power for him: the authority of a parent over a child, and the use of totalitarian techniques of coercion by the U.S. government during the Second World War. Chomsky applauds the civil rights and feminist movements for challenging some institutional sources of power, but he alleges that the most important source of power, corporate-capitalism has not being meaningfully challenged. Unrestricted access to information and the means to coordinate activity is necessary to change the system. Here Chomsky recommends independent alternative media, and the documentary gives individual attention to a leftist news zine, an alternative publishing house, and an independent radio station, as examples of the 5000 alternative publications, 800 alternative radio stations, and 2200 community and public access stations operating in Canada and the United States in 1993.
In 2008, many of the challenges identified by Chomsky appear worse. Even fewer corporations control even more of the traditional media, while many alt media sources have folded or come under corporate control. On the other hand, access to information and conduits for collective action provided by the internet are far beyond anything that could have been imagined in 1993. Surprisingly, and I think mistakenly, Chomsky finds no cause for heightened dismay or joy in any of this. In the follow-up interview conducted in 2007 for the bonus disc, Chomsky declares he sees little difference between 23 corporations in 1993 controlling traditional media and 5 today because they all share identical interests. Similarly, though the internet provides a good means of disseminating information, Chomsky asserts that too much energy is siphoned off into meaningless online activities when that time could be better used affecting change in the real world. I think Chomsky is too short sighted on the harms that further traditional media consolidation is causing, and the benefits that the internet has provided the Left through the growth in action groups and networks of like-minded individuals.
Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media was a freshman effort for its directors, Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick. Nevertheless, it's been remarkably successful in its effort to provide exposure to Noam Chomsky's ideas about the media to an audience beyond that reachable by his books and lectures. However, there are faults in this documentary that more experienced editor-directors would not have made. The ideas conveyed require a lot of time to unspool, but not 168 minutes. Achbar covers far more material in less time in his 2003 documentary The Corporation. Too often Achbar and Wintonick include material that a more experienced hand would have left on the cutting room floor, or in this age of DVD, left for the bonus disc. There are too many excursions and diversions from the central storyline in pursuit of tangential topics like how the citizens of Media, Pennsylvania are served by their local newspaper, too much repetition, and too many silly visual accompaniments. Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media is good filmmaking, but it could have been even better with a less diluted 120-minute runtime.
This review is of the 2-disc 15th anniversary release of Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media by Canadian label Mongrel Media. This release is only available in Canada, and should not be confused with the inferior 2002 U.S. release by Zeitgeist.
In addition to all the bonus footage, this release includes Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky's 1988 book Manufacturing Consent in its entirety as an Adobe PDF file.
Short of perhaps a video of Noam Chomsky crowd surfing at a Negativland concert, I'm not sure what more one could ask for in terms of bonus material.