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Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media.

Manufacturing Consent: Noam Choresky and the Media, a documentary by Canadian filmmakers Peter Wintonick and Mark Achbar, provides an entertaining and sophisticated introduction to the life and work of Noam Chomsky. The film includes a biographical sketch and a basic outline of Chomsky's social/political outlook, focusing mainly on his critique of the media and its coverage of U.S. foreign policy. Through a blend of speeches and clips from public appearances and interviews, Wintonick and Achbar outline Chomsky's "propaganda model" of the media, which holds that the social function of the major media in the United States is to maintain the public's ignorance or acceptance of the corporate plunder of the planet. Underlying this thesis is a radical critique of several of the basic features of capitalism, including competition, the drive for profit-maximization, and the tendency towards concentration of ownership. The evidence presented consists of facts about corporate ownership of the media and specific examples of biased coverage where corporate interests coincide with U.S. foreign policy. The documentary itself is an example of alternative media, but the history of the film's creation and the techniques used by the filmmakers also reflect the contradictions inherent in attempting to use televisual technologies--which have been developed as tools to disseminate official ideology in advanced capitalist society--as vehicles for dissent.

A possible criterion for judging how well the media are functioning in a democratic society might take into account the diversity of the views they present, the rigor of their coverage of events in detail, and their responsiveness to the information needs and desires of the public at large. In many respects, it would appear that the media in the United States are perfectly healthy. With today's information technology the public now has virtually immediate access to world affairs as they occur. In the United States, CNN has played a particularly prominent role with its day- to-day coverage of events such as the Gulf War, the L.A. riot, and, more recently, Yeltsin's coup. Who could dispute the beneficial nature of the cooperation between the major media and the government, which allowed, for instance, U.S. television crews to be present as the troops arrived at their covert destination on the shores of Somalia in 1992?

Moreover, isn't any thesis that claims that specific events are systematically covered up or played down conspiratorial? Surely, there are too many variables in the chaotic world of modern journalism for there to be large-scale manipulation? Most importantly, if the media are so controlled, how is it that we ever hear a dissenting voice like Chomsky's at all? These are a few of the questions that Chomsky is trying to explore. His research reveals a dominant media that, far from being democratic, is both highly ideological and propagandistic. And propaganda is to democracy, he asserts, what violence is to dictatorship.

In one of many speeches, parts of which appear throughout the film, Chomsky outlines the effects of the market dynamic on the media. As with all large-scale businesses, the corporate media are driven by the necessity of capital accumulation. Television corporations derive their profit from the sale of advertising time. Similarly, newspapers such as the New York Times derive much of their profit by selling advertising space. The more potential consumers that a particular channel or newspaper can guarantee as an audience, the higher the price of the advertising time or space that they sell. "That [also] means," explains Chomsky, "that they want to adjust their audience to the more elite and affluent audience." The result is a class bias within the media because of their intended audience and a general political bias in favor of the corporations who buy the advertising time and space.

The facts of corporate ownership of the media are relatively straightforward. The filmmakers present us with statistics that Chomsky cites from Benjamin Bagdikian's The Media Monapoly (The Beacon Press: Boston, 1990). In North America there are seven major movie studios, over 1,900 dally newspapers, 11,000 magazines, 11,000 radio stations, 2,000 TV stations, and 2,500 book publishers. Twenty-three corporations own and control over 50 percent of the business in each medium, in some cases exercising a virtual monopoly. The concentration of influence that this implies is exacerbated by the fact that, for various organizational reasons, certain media are "trend setters." One example of this is the New York Times, which serves as an informational source for radio stations and local papers all over the country.

But what, one asks, are the demonstrable results of the drives of profit maximization and the concentration of ownership and influence within the major media? "Have you ever heard of East Timor?" the filmmakers ask two patriotic young men at a Gulf War Victory Parade. Media coverage of East Timor is the most in-depth case study presented in the film. The United States backed the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in 1975. This intervention crushed the popular left Catholic government which had been established there by the Freitilin party in 1974 after the former colony had freed itself from Portuguese fascism. Chomsky considers the invasion the worst case of genocide since the holocaust carried out by the nazis, with atrocity stories and numbers that are easily comparable to those commonly attributed to the Khmer Rouge. In his study of how the media serves as the "lapdog" of corporations who profit from their influence over U.S. foreign policy, Chomsky compares the New York Times coverage of East Timor with its coverage of the Khmer Rouge. The qualitative and empirical evidence is clear: the United States backed the invasion of East Timor, and the New York Times failed to cover it adequately, basically presenting a whitewash. During approximately the same period, Washington opposed the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. "After the first two hundred deaths," Chomsky points out, "they [the New York Times] were already calling it genocide." The film presents a brief but well-documented description of the invasion of East Timor which includes chilling clips shot by an Australian news team that was killed in the invasion, as well as interviews with activists and a survivor. Other specific cases of omissions, whitewashes, and distortions, such as coverage of the Gulf War, are also presented briefly. The film starkly and convincingly presents Chomsky's conclusion that, although we do live in a society that is in many ways unusually free, it is also highly indoctrinated and is dominated by a narrow view of the world.

The continually growing popularity of Chomsky and the very existence of Manufacturing Consent demonstrate that the media are not monolithic. The obstacles to presenting alternative views are, however, extreme. The history of how the film was made illustrates this point. After getting Chomsky's assent to the project, Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick registered their production company, Necessary Illusions, and spent almost a year writing proposals, accumulating letters of support, and applying for grants. They ran out of grant money after four years, with thousands of feet of film shot and none of it edited. Consequently, they had to give up half of their salaries each to continue working on it until further contributions could be successfully solicited. The major motion picture industry, itself owned by a handful of large corporations, has little interest in undertaking "risky" projects. The low artistic and intellectual quality of much of what passes for entertainment today is arguably more the result of a cynical attitude on the part of a few producers concerning what will sell, rather than a true reflection of the range of the public's curiosity. This raises the question of public access to alternatives.

Efforts to distribute the film have faced structural limitations. Even though it has won high critical acclaim and several awards-- including the Gold Sesterce (Grand Prize) before an international jury at the 1992 Lyon International Documentary film festival (one of the most prestigious awards that a documentary can win), a Golden Hugo for best Political/Social Documentary at the Chicago International Film Festival, and numerous others--it is not likely to be reviewed on the evening news, norwill it receive wide circulation. Unlike Rambo, Jurassic Park, or whatever blockbuster is currently being promoted by the motion picture industry, we will not be seeing television commercials or posters telling us that Manufacturing Consent is coming, despite the fact that the information presented in it is extremely scarce and important for the public welfare. Most people who have the opportunity to "vote with their dollars" for these other films will probably never even hear of it. Such are the dynamics of really-existing capitalism. Under these circumstances, Manufacturing Consent has done surprisingly well.

Attempting to critique the media through a televisual medium presents a dilemma. The corporate media have attempted to present this technology, which it largely dominates, as inherently objective and authoritative. The filmmakers attempt to combat this image in several ways. Most importantly they remind us that there are always humans behind the cameras. They do this by filming themselves and others filming Chomsky. They also parody the gloss and sound-byte patterns of the mainstream media, placing footage of Chomsky in absurd talking head scenarios, such as a giant video screen at the world's largest shopping mall. Playful visual aids, humorous skits, and interviews--with people on the street, alternative media activists, and those who manage the centers of media power--help to illustrate Chomsky's ideas. They also make the movie lively and accessible to a wide audience. Such well-known figures as Michel Foucault, Tom Wolfe, and William F. Buckley (who nervously threatens that he might "smash" Chomsky "in the goddamn face") make brief appearances. Overall the film is provocative and inspiring, even if the humorous antics of the filmmakers verge occasionally on the annoying rather than entertaining. Manufacturing Consent is an important effort in radical popular education.

Chomsky's popular appeal in the face of marginalization in the mainstream press is a testament both to his efforts and to the substance of his analysis. The existence of this film and other alternative media shows that despite obstacles there is some room for dissenting voices, that there is an audience for such material, and therefore that there is hope. In one interview, culled from the Bill Moyers' series A World of Ideas, Chomsky explains that his theories of linguistics, referred to in that field as the "Chomskyan Revolution," have lead him to believe that in talking, "just the way we are, nothing fancy" ordinary people exhibit a high level of creativity and an innate ability to order their universe. This evidence suggests to him a social essence of humanity and thus an as-yet unrealized potential for large-scale forms of cooperative social organization. When the people of the so-called advanced countries learn the facts about the atrocities that are being committed in their name, particularly in the Third World, they are likely to "apply their decent instincts" and attempt to "help others who are really suffering and oppressed." Without rigorous and radical theory, however, there can be no thoroughgoing movement for social change.

Although control over the means of mental production may be concentrated within the hands of a few, we still have intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and filmmakers like Peter Wintonick and Mark Achbar to help us challenge that hegemony. As human and ecological tragedy threaten to completely engulf the globe, Chomsky repeats an old warning in his own simple words: At this stage of history, either one of two things is possible. Either the general population will take control of its own destiny and will concern itself with community interests, guided by values of solidarity, sympathy, and concern for others, or, alternatively, there will be no destiny for anyone to control.
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Author:Antush, John C.
Publication:Monthly Review
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Feb 1, 1994
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