Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media

Toronto Festival of Festivals, Sept. 18, 1992–Dedicated to the memory of distinguished documentarian Emile de Antonio and the people of East Timor, Manufacturing Consent examines in great detail the views of Noam Chomsky, the distinguished MIT linguistics professor, intellectual, and political activist, on the mass media. Unfortunately, excessive running time (168 mins) will severely restrict theatrical release of a docu that is otherwise insightful, informative, accessible and surprisingly entertaining.

The title derives from the influential media text that Chomsky co-authored. Canadian Filmmakers Achbar and Wintonik follow Chomsky around the country as he lectures at universities, attends international conferences with French scholars Jean Piaget and Michel Foucault, Netherlands' Defense Minister, etc. “Every country I go,” Chomsky mischievously observes, “they are already there.”

In the first part, “Thought Control in Democratic Society,” Chomsky describes the necessity of every regime to create illusions and to control the masses. Claiming that “propaganda to democratic society is what violence is to dictatorship,” he views the functions of the mass media (print and TV) as setting the general agenda; selecting, distorting, and framing issues; and boundering the limits of debate–all mechanisms that promote the interests of the ruling class. Maintream media inevitably exclude dissenting voices and trivialize or marginalize controversial issues.

Chomsky believes in Cartesian common sense–the remarkable creativity of ordinary people. His vision for the Future Society is one that challenges the legitimacy of every form of authority–“Any form of coercion requires justification; most don't.” A strong opponent of private ownership of resources and state capitalism, Chomsky views the U.S. as “ideologically narrower” than other countries.

The docu consists of two compelling case studies that illustrate the media's selective and distorting treatment of political issues. The East Timor genocide and the Cambodia invasion occurred at about the same time. Yet, the NY Times published 70 column inches about Timor, but 1175 about Cambodia. Another study, of what the linguist calls “Nightline's usual suspects,” finds that of the 865 programs analyzed, in which there were 1530 appearances by Americans, 92 percent of the guests were white, 89 males, and 80 professionals.

Achbar and Wintonik shrewdly avoid the conventional strategy of many docus, voice-over narration, by letting Chomsky, a most charismatic figure, speak for himself. Archival footage, tech credits, and production values are all very accomplished, making Chomsky's ideas accessible to the lay public.

Unfortunately, the film's skimpy personal and biographical information doesn't show the cognitive evolution of Chomsky's thought. Indeed, failing to mention Chomsky's intellectual debt to Marx and Engels' ruling class theory and C. Wright Mills' seminal The Power Elite, viewers might get the erroneous impression that his Propaganda Model is an original concept. Also missing from docu is a discussion of Chomsky's position in the New Left, past and present, and his criticism of Zionism.

The film celebrates Chomsky as a rare breed, a man of ideas and action. But too limited a time is given to Chomsky's opponents, among them popular novelist Tom Wolf, who in a brief appearance describes the intellectual's views as “nonsense and rubbish.”

Chomsky believes that he is helping people develop an intellectual self-defense, a critically independent mind. Described as “the most important intellectual alive,” there is no discussion of how influential Chomsky actually is–within and without the academic world. Early on, Chomsky voices his strong opposition to the increasing cult of public personalities. Ironically, Manufacturing Consent will further his own reputation as a media star.

Running time: 168 min (Part One: 95 minutes, Part Two: 73).