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

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 05, 1993

If what the subject of Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick's superb, thought-provoking documentary, "Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media," says is true, then the ideas discussed in this review may well be curtailed, censored or otherwise suppressed. Or else, through more subtle and insidious methods, they will be rendered irrelevant because the American people have been systematically numbed into apathy by the mind control tactics of the power elite -- that is, the Establishment media and the corporate interests they serve.

How does this happen? Well, that's what "Manufacturing Consent" devotes the better part of its 167 engrossing minutes to explaining. Using what the filmmakers call "the best of Noam Chomsky," culled from 120 hours of footage spanning 25 years, Achbar and Wintonick have compiled a definitive, essential portrait of the Philadelphia-born linguist, social critic and political activist.

The main focus of attack for Chomsky, a self-proclaimed anarchist libertarian socialist, has been the American media, which he believes have, through the production of "convenient myths," allowed the government to play a role in global affairs that is far more partisan and repressive than the electorate believes.

This, of course, is a gross simplification of complex ideas that the filmmakers, skillfully exploiting every novel storytelling device available to them, attempt to explore in full depth. And the miracle is that they succeed, not only in making these controversial theories accessible to the layman, but also putting them across with modest reason, wit and panache.

Without being the least bit precious, Achbar and Wintonick constantly find ways to lighten the film's tone and make us laugh. In this regard, they remain true to Chomsky's dry, anarchist example. The film never screams or pontificates. Instead, it entices us, through a seemingly inexhaustible supply of imaginative visual playfulness, to participate in its iconoclastic brand of anything-goes social analysis.

The first section of the film runs 95 minutes, and is labeled "Thought Control in a Democratic Society." Its basic supposition is that propaganda and democracy are necessary accomplices in the conduct of state affairs -- much more so, in fact, than in, say, a totalitarian state where the government can use the iron fist of the military to keep the populace in order. In a "free" society, Chomsky believes, ideas are the state's weapon of control.

The media tell us, he asserts, how to think and what to think about the events of the world. For example, it's the media that "manufactured" the image of Pol Pot in Cambodia as a genocidal maniac solely responsible for the atrocities committed in that country after his takeover while ignoring the history of crimes committed (with U.S. participation) before Pol Pot came to power.

But what about East Timor, the former Portuguese colony, where millions lost their lives but which, by comparison, was virtually ignored by the mainstream media?

Never heard of it.

Whether Chomsky's analysis of the culture is accurate is, of course, up to the viewer. As the movie shows, representatives of the major media think he's wacko. And though the film is weighted heavily in favor of Chomsky's point of view, it is also open enough in its investigation to present dissenting views.

The second part of the film, "Activating Dissent" (which runs 72 minutes), gives advice on how these mind manipulation techniques can be balanced and offers a prescription for how a participant in a modern democracy should go about the task of informing himself. It advises us, as citizens, to seek information from as many sources as possible, to arm ourselves with alternative viewpoints -- from small presses and publishing houses to alternative radio and the overseas press.

Since Chomsky says that all forms of authority must be challenged, he does not exclude himself from close scrutiny. Chomsky himself would be the first to encourage us to undertake further independent study to decide whether his ideas hold water. Consent -- even consent to his own ideas -- must not be manufactured, but, instead, must rise up spontaneously from a free and well-informed electorate. With regard to this journey, "Manufacturing Consent" makes an excellent starting point. With it, Achbar and Wintonick have made a significant and timely contribution to the debate. Even if their arguments are not wholly persuasive, their movie is well-supported, confidently reasoned, imaginatively presented and, without a doubt, seductive.

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