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Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media.

Book and film hint free press is a fraud

Some say George Bush could not have been elected president in 1988 without the help of surly rapist and killer Willie Horton, But Horton could not have done it alone. The media did the rest.

Television ads and newscasts fed each other until, in the end, to see Horton was to see Michael Dukakis, a sinister specter of what life under a "liberal" Democrat might be.

As Horton prowled the newspapers and airwaves, the real news was proportionately neglected, the savings and loan scandal, for example, a complex story to write, a dry story to read, a downer. We were sailing through the 80s on a love boat of self-indulgence, a boat no one, not even editors, and least of all their conglomerate chiefs, was eager to rock.

If Horton wasn't your style, there was Donald Trump, blow-dried tycoon with ivory teeth and matching ego, in bed with all imaginable media while buying airlines and yachts and creating his debonair self, day by debonair day.

Writes Howard Kurtz in a new book, Media Circus: The Trouble With America's Newspapers (Times Books): "The media's Trump infatuation was all the more humiliating in light of the stories we so cavalierly kissed off during those years. The homeless, the urban poor, the less fortunate were all deemed hopelessly declasse during the 1980s."

Fabulous freedom of the press

American freedom of the press is legendary, treasured about as much as our other legendary right: to have guns. Oppressed foreigners look toward these shores, often from behind prison bars, and in their noble way envy American openness. In the process, though, they of ten inflate it.

There is, not surprisingly, a darker side. A current book and movie contend the U.S. media are lulling us into stupefaction. Too sophisticated, in the late 20th century, to bludgeon us into line, the media are instead killing democracy softly with their song.

The book is Media Circus. Author Kurtz is an insider, longtime media reporter for The Washington Post. The movie is Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media," a documentary presently criss-crossing the country in art theaters and other alternative outlets, an incongruous competitor of "Jurassic Park."

Created by Peter Winick and Mark Achbar, it focuses on Chomsky, the ultimate outsider, who rails not only against the media but against the greedy corporate culture of which, he says, the media have become the obsequious mouthpieces.

The book is more rollicking, taking satisfaction in nailing the inept, venal, bombastic, greedy media. The movie is more intense, the curmudgeonly Chomsky insisting this is notjust aimless greed and carefree ineptitude but a more sinister collusion of media and other powers to keep the vast, silent throng in line and at the service of Greed Inc. If this sounds like the usual liberal cliche, the philosophical Chomsky would retaliate that cliches survive only because somehow true.

Media Circus leaves no embarrassing stone unturned. In a news culture that runs through celebrities like Kleenex,' writes Kurtz, nothing is more important than being wealthy or famous."' What the circus was to ancient Rome, he is saying, the mindless media are to our times. Among other typical sideshows of the 980s he mentions Leona Helmsley, Michael Milken, Imelda Marods - freaks, as it were, of fortune.

But when New York Times columnist Sydney Schanberg gave Trump senous press attention, a chill descended. To everyone's surprise, Tramp had sleaze in his closet, including dubious tricks to get the merely rich out of an apartment building so he could remodel it for the obscenely rich.

Schanberg received a memo of reprimand from The New York Times publisher, one Arthur Ochs Sulzberger. The columns were too negative, the memo said, Trump wasn|t like that. Replied berg, The reason you don't know about all the bad things he's done is that Metro isn't covering it." Disclosures about MM had been routinely negk& ed by Times news editors. Adds Schanberg: It was the only note I ever got from (Sulzberger)." Soon, Schanberg's column was taken away. Soon, be was gone from the Times.

The New York Year is not the blunt instrument Pravda, for example, was. It's smooth. And Trump was not a story of national security or the end of the world. And publisher Sulzberger is maybe a nice man, if s just that he's paid by shareholders to make the tough decisions. And everyone else was writing glo of Trump at the time, even George Will and The Wall Street Journal. Hell, there was even talk of Trump for president. Writes Kurtz, "The herd instinct is one of the strongest forces in journalism."

Of mice and media

The media had other solid human reasons for messing up. One could be called laziness. Take, for example, the Department of Housing and Urban Development scandals, a gold-plated symptom of the Reagan-era run for the gusto and the corruption in its wake.

Basically, HUD's purpose was to help the poor with housing. Instead, a bunch of inept functionaries doled out billions of dollars to the politically well-connected, a massive giveaway of money. HUD officials were so out to lunch that they even approved a mortgage for a 4-year-old girl," writes Kurtz. For years, no one bothered with the story: Newspapers were running upbeat profiles of canny corporate leaders and takeover artists. It was OK to be rich in America."

And besides, HUD was boring, directed by a nondescript, aloof little man named Samuel Pierce, widely known as "Silent Sam." And money matters - even gobs of it being given away illegally - are complex. Nothing visual there for TV. No conflict, no personalities, no story.

The media, on the other hand, are understood to have some kind of vague social contract with the rest of us. We vaguely revere the media (when we are not reviling them) because of a vague hope (everything is vague) we have that they will somehow keep the air around us morally clean, will tell it like it is when we really need to know it.

Of course, it's not just the media's fault. We, the people, don't read; or we read USA Today, which is almost the same thing. We need the sensational or exotic as mental laxatives. Thus, it was much easier to tell about HUD once reporters discovered Marylyn Harrell, a HUD worker in Maryland who embezzled $5 million from the agency and gave it, she said. to the poor, earning herself the irresistible name of "Robin HUD."

There were also serious journalists who would, if they could, tell all, make the world better, win Pulitzers. For the serious journalist, today's journalistic doldrums are most frustrating of all. When Ronald Reagan came in to inaugurate the 1980s, riding a white horse named "Good Times," Congress bowed before the prophet of low taxes, little government and the more intangible Gipper gusto. Spinelessness had one of its finest hours. Even sane and decent Democrats caved in, voted the Gipper's agenda, kept their heads low.

This was a great opportunity for the media, wise women and men, people of rounded education and global experience, to say, "Let's look more closely at the emperor's suit." With very few exceptions they flunked the test. And if you're not part of the solution, you're likely to be part of the problem.

"In the 1980s," said William Greider, who wrote about the S&Ls for Rolling Stone, "most reporters and most editors, for whatever psychic reasons, didn't want to challenge the government on a lot of fundamental stuff."

Comments Kurtz, "As us", we all traveled in a pack. ... We were trapped by the conventions of objective journalism, the insistence on quoting experts, when what was needed was some old-fashioned crusading. Conditioned by decades of restraint not to cause panic among depositors, we were afraid to shout fire in a crowded theater. The problem was, the theater was burning down."

Kurtz's book recounts a formidable list of failures by the media: the L.A riots of 1992, or rather the untold story of the powder keg waiting to explode; demagogue Al Sharpton, or rather how, while privately considering him a clown, the media gave him enough serious coverage to make him important; the tabloidization of the media; Bob Packwood's sexual harassments; AIDS; outings of gays; Anita Hill; the various briberies of the media; the seduction of the media. These are just samplings of a book that leaves one wondering if freedom of the press isn't the best means ever devised to lull whole populations into compliance.

There is a wide range of seductions along the rocky road to journalistic integrity. Kurtz tells how Maureen Dowd, new on the White House beat for The New York Times, wrote of White House officials worrying lest reporters would write that President Bush had "no agenda, no money, no strategy, no message, no ideology, no worldview, and no explanation of his mysterious role in the Iran-contra scandal."

While lesser aides groused about this, the more sagacious John Sununu suggested inviting Dowd for a movie and buffet with the president. Barbara Bush couldn't conceal her resentment, and the president ignored Dowd completely. "I really felt we (invited reporters) were interchangeable with an antiabortion group, Dowd recalls. The clincher for Dowd, who arrived hungry, was when "buffet" turned out to be one cake for a dozen reporters.

Writes Kurtz: "The range of ethical problems encountered by a media reporter is somewhat startling. There are conflicts of interest, freebies, junkets, intellectual theft, deception, carelessness, kowtowing to advertisers, use of dubious evidence and outright bias. It's striking how often we in the news business fail to live up to the high-minded standards that we prescribe for everyone else."

This last sentiment leads us effortlessly to Chomsky. The makers of Manufacturing Consent7 followed the linguist, radical philosopher and MIT professor around the world, recording every word and encounter. Why Chomsky? Probably for the same reason The New York Times Book Review once wrote of him: "Judged in terms of the power, range, novelty and influence of his thought, Noam Chomsky is arguably the most important intellectual alive."

While others, especially lately, trumpet the success of democracy, Chomsky casts a more jaundiced eye on it. Democracy has evolved as "a game for elites,' he says. The masses are told what to do "for their own good." In more sophisticated societies, this is not done with the big stick but the big lie. Not a crass big he, either, more an accumulation of nuanced, sugared little lies.

All this, Chomsky claims, is based on a long-standing philosophy that "the people who own the country ought to govern it." This is consistent with the practice of "democracy," not so long abandoned even in the West, whereby only those who owned property could vote.

Halfway through an argument such as Chomsky's, the average citizen is at a loss for verification. Am I. in short, getting screwed by the system? No one is stopping me from speaking, so bow can Chomsky say I am being marginalized? You are being stopped from speaking effectively, Chomsky will say. Eighty percent are followers, he tells us; not that the other 20 percent are leaders, but they make the system work for an even smaller, more wealthy and powerful elite.

And the media, far from explaining society to itself, molds and preserves this system, Chomsky says. The elite media - he mentions The Washington Post, New York Times, the TV stations - "set the framework. ... They shape the world in a way." Thus, history becomes what The New York Times decrees is important, Chomsky says. What happens is that the other media fall in line with the elite media in this land of docility.

And why, if this is true, and as blatant as, Chomsky says, has there not been a revolution? Because it!s done smoothly, and it's done loosely, even generously, with enough.freedom of speech for all but the most demanding. For the fact is, people are not demanding. They don't question. Like the ancient Romans, they go to the circus.

Chomsky quotes Reinhold Niebuhr to the effect that the average person stupidly follows not reason but faith. We give the system the benefit of the doubt. We give received wisdom the benefit of the doubt. And this seems all the more persuasive thing to do when we lack the energy or power or eloquence to do anything about it anyway, because we have enough trouble just surviving. To do otherwise, we know, would be an endless hassle, and would probably leave us with the same chance of a brilliant career as a whistle-blower in the Pentagon.

"Managing Consent" is a long movie and a challenge to head and heart, without respite, with little cheer. Social commentator Tom Wolfe comes on briefly to scoff at Chomsky. What be calls Chomsky's "cabal theory" - guys in a smokey back room running the world - is, he says, "rubbish."

And Chomsky agrees about the rubbish: "There's nothing more remote from what I'm discussing....than a conspiracy theory. If I give an analysis of, say, the economic system, and I point out that General Motors tries to maximize profit and market share, that's not a conspiracy theory. That's an institutional analysis ... and that's precisely the sense in which we are talking about the media."

Chomsky, a thundering herd of one, is the kind of guy the folks who run the world must get very annoyed with, not just for his abrasive brilliance but for his ubiquity and tenacity; the kind that, even if we agree with him, we wish he would make less of a fuss about it; like a friend in the restaurant who loudly sends back the snapper, we want to be civilized and go with the flow, to accept and be accepted.

And that, says Chomsky, is the trouble. And one has only to read Media Circus to realize, by golly, that what Chomsky says looks suspiciously like what's happening.

If a powerful elite does, indeed, rule our destinies, it doesn't need a smokey back room from which to con us. We grumble along mostly willingly, we, the media, with a few brave, squeaky exceptions, playing pied pipers for the imperfect but tolerably profitable status quo.
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Author:Farrell, Michael J.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Aug 13, 1993
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