The Free Press and Thought Control

Against the Current, No. 46, September/October 1993

Ethan Casey

Manufacturhig Consent:
Nom Chomsky and the Media, 167 minutes.
Directed by Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick.

AT ONE POINT in “Manufacturing Consent,” two Canadian filmmakers’ masterful explication of Noam Chomsky’s ideas about the insidious symbiosis among state power, corporate interests and the mass media, Chomsky explains why television interview shows place such a premium on sound bites and concision. “The beauty of it is that you can only repeat conventional thoughts,” he asserts. There is time only for “regurgitating conventional pieties.” That is, if you say on TV that the Ayatollah Khomeini is evil or the Russians invaded Afghanistan, you need say no more. On the other hand, if you say (as Chomsky often does) that the United States invaded South Vietnam or that the defense budget is a ploy to coerce taxpayers into supporting high-tech industry, you’d better come prepared to cite chapter and verse.

Stuart Kiawans in the Nation objected gently to the length of “Manufacturing Consent,” pointing out that it gives theaters one more reason not to show it. But the film’s length is part of its point: it needs the time it takes. In the land whose constitution codified freedom of the press, if you want to show that the press is a tool of government and big business, you’d better come prepared. And while surely (and unfortunately) much of the film’s audience will need no convincing, Achbar and Wintonick wisely eschew the temptation to preach to the choir. They make their point thoroughly and well,

Twenty-three corporations own and control more than half the U.S. media outlets. Private control of resources, says Chomsky, is the “core” of the system of corporate domination. Information unarguably is a crucial resource, at least as important as oil or bauxite.

What is the raison d’etre of any corporation? To maximize profit and market share. A “relatively concentrated network of corporations’ has an “overwhelmingly dominant role” in American society, says Chomsky. For starters, the media are “big corporations selling relatively privileged audiences to other corporations.” In this scheme you and I, hapless sitcom viewers, are a commodity, and not much else. (The New York Times is sixty percent ads, a spokesperson tells the filmmakers; this is low compared to other newspapers.)

Further, corporate control of the media enforces “very tight constraints” on the political and ideological boundaries of American life and society. The “liberal’ media’s function is to imply “thus far and no further.” This, asserts Chomsky, should not be surprising in a well-functioning system of quasi-democratic thought control.

The title of the film (and of Chomsky’s book with Edward Herman) is borrowed from the eminent journalist Walter Lippmann, who advocated “the manufacture of consent,” claiming that “common interests elude the public at large.” In other words, pay your taxes and shut up. Lippmann was the greatest of apologists for the American governing class, insisting as he did on the untutored nature of the masses and on the need to maintain a buffer between them and the making of important decisions. Chomsky quotes John Jay, one of the country’s founders, who equally baldly divulged the elite character of the American Revolution: “The people who own the country ought to govern it.”

Chomsky says we went to war in the Persian Gulf “very much in the manner of a totalitarian state,” with the media almost pointedly not asking the most important questions. A Madison Avenue type interviewed during a victory parade tells the filmmakers that “it was good to be kept informed.” One recalls with achill the ABC News motto: “Where more Americans get their news than from any other source?”

“Most people, I would imagine, simply internalize the values” of corporate agenda setters, posits Chomsky. They are kept distracted and occupied by an assortment of opiates: religious fundamentalism, astrology, tabloid papers. Sports are a “crucial aspect of the indoctrination system,” giving people “something to pay attention to” and serving as (among other things) “training in irrational jingoism.” He also asserts that, if so many Americans can amass so much arcane knowledge on batting averages and field goal percentages they also can (if they want) understand things that actually matter.

Anyone who, like this reviewer, has worked in grassroots activism has seen at first hand the tendency of the spokespersons for power to invoke complexity in the service of mystification. “Things are not as simple as Professor Chomsky maintains,” harrumphs Dutch Minister of Defense Fritz Bolkestein.

As Chomsky asserts, the slinger of mud always beats the slingee. Tom Wolfe calls Chomsky’s claims “the most absolute rubbish I’ve ever heard” and “the old cabal theory.” Jeff Greenfield, the liberal occasional host of “Nightline,” calls his ideas “from Neptune” and “absolutely wacko.” Minister Bolkestein accuses Chomsky of “intellectual intimidation.”

For his part, Chomsky scoffs at the accusation that he is a conspiracy theorist. What he does is “institutional analysis,” he says. Echoes of Susan George, in her important book, A Fate Worse Than Debt: The World Financial Crisis and The Poor), in which she writes of a consortium of cooperating financial interests: “They don’t have to conspire if they have the same world view, aspire to similar goals and take concerted steps to attain them.”

“Manufacturing Consent” is lucid, challenging, thought provoking, inspiring and fun. Achbar and Wintonick approach their pedagogical task with great vim and a helpful, only occasionally slightly cloying sense of humor, as well as editorial skill. They show Chomsky’s talking head on a megascreen in a shopping mall and a giant scoreboard in a football stadium. (On the scoreboard Chomsky recalls the moment when as a teenager he suddenly wondered why he cared if his high school football team won; on the field below, two football players exchange a high five. “TODAY’s SEMINAR: TRAINING IN IRRATIONAL JINGOISM” reads the billboard.)

The filmmakers’ pointedly playful framings and juxtapositions greatly aid the viewer’s intellectual digestion. (And they spend a good twenty minutes on the Indonesian government’s genocide on East Timor. Once again, Chomsky’s point is well taking. If what you state is not the obvious, be prepared to explain yourself at length.)

Where to turn for news if not to the corporate media? Chomsky recommends listener-supported radio, the Non-Corporate News offered on some public access TV channels, Z Magazine and South End Press in Boston (his own publisher). I would add to the list this magazine and a few others like The Nation. And if you have never read Chomsky’s political books, begin with What Uncle Sam Really Wants ($5 paperback plus $2 shipping per order from Odonian Press, Box 7776, Berkeley, CA 94707, 510-5243143), a digest of his ideas and claims. Chomsky is an independent thinker and wishes everyone else were too.

September-October 1993, ATC 46