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Noam Chomsky and the Media

Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media
1992 / Color & b&w / 1:37 / 167 min. / Street Date April 2, 2002, 29.99
Starring William F. Buckley, Noam Chomsky, Kelvin Flook, Edward S. Herman, Peter Jennings, Bill Moyers, Tom Wolfe
Cinematography Mark Achbar, Norbert Bunge, Kip Durrin, Savas Kalogeras, Antonín Lhotsky, Francis Miquet, Barry Perles, Ken Reeves, Bill Snider, Kirk Tougas, Peter Wintonick
Film Editor Peter Wintonick
Original Music Carl Schultz
Produced by Mark Achbar, Dennis Murphy, Colin Neale, Adam Symansky, Peter Wintonick
Directed by Mark Achbar, Peter Wintonick

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, this is 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. professor famous for revolutionizing linguistic theory, 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 dangerous radical lunatic.

When 9/11 happened last year, Noam Chomsky's immediate response was to dryly say that the loathsome 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 traveling 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 closed 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 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 hear only his detractors' claims that he's an anti-semitic monster.

This is a man that 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 marginalization.

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 through controlled advertising. Right-wingers claim a liberal conspiracy and Left-wingers cry conservative conspiracy, but Chomsky says that there is no conspiracy per se, simply 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 and 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 seen only on a voting ballot are never 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 claim is 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, 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 'marginalized'.

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's poor treatment by the media happens 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, or money. Chomsky is difficult to discredit because his approach is scientific, not political. He can't be linked with 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. Chomsky remains the darling of cautious, isolated intellectuals, while the rest of the population probably perceives him as a 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 usual 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. 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 slick, sophomoric 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 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 makes his familiar points over again, like a college Professor with one last chance to get through to his students. It's not the disc's best feature.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: debate clips, new Chomsky interview
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 8, 2002

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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