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‘Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media’ (NR)

By Joe Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 30, 1993

A movie review, to borrow the words of media critic and activist Noam Chomsky, "requires necessary illusion and emotionally potent oversimplification provided by the mythmaker {me} to keep the ordinary person {you} on course."

So here goes: "Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media" is a juicily subversive biographical/philosophical documentary bristling and buzzing with ideas -- it may have you groping in vain for the remote control to rewind back to that last thought. The film is politically and intellectually potent, even infuriating, whether you agree with Chomsky or disagree with him.

An early moment demonstrates how this elegant, wittily constructed (and irreducible) film works: We see and hear a newspaper blurb describing Chomsky, an author and professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as "arguably the most important intellectual alive." Then we see Chomsky: "You have to watch those things," he says, chuckling. "The next sentence says, 'Since that's the case, how can he write such terrible things about American foreign policy?' "

Directed by media-savvy filmmakers Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick with an entertainingly fluid montage of sound and vision, the three-hour (with intermission) film is divided into two parts, "Thought Control in a Democratic Society" and "Activating Dissent," both examining how mass media organizations shape public perceptions and behavior, and reinforce the status quo.

In part one, Chomsky cries "propaganda," essentially. "Propaganda is to democracy," he says, "what violence is to dictatorship." This kind of talk has made him extremely unpopular in media and government circles, understandably.

Among his innumerable controversial assertions presented here is his contention that 20 percent of the population is indoctrinated to support and manage cultural life. "Then there's maybe 80 percent of the population whose main function is to follow orders and not to think . . . And they're the ones who usually pay the price."

Chomsky's wide-ranging critical eye eventually zeroes in on all areas of the culture at large, including, of course, entertainment. Sports, for instance, Chomsky calls "another example of the indoctrination system . . . it offers people something to pay attention to that's of no importance, that keeps them from worrying about things that matter to them."

"Manufacturing Consent" is not a hagiography of Chomsky -- he is perpetually confronted in it, by the likes of William F. Buckley Jr. (who threatens to "smash him in the goddamn face") and "Nightline" producer Jeff Greenfield, who says Chomsky's ideas "come from Neptune."

In fact, Chomsky at one point amusingly resists being myth-made into a "movie star," dismissing the "whole notion of developing public personalities as stars of one sort or another, where aspects of their personal life are supposed to have some sort of significance." t the Key.

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