Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, Part 1 (Thought Control in a Democratic Society) and Part 2 (Activating Dissent)

Peter Wintonick

Mark Achbar

Communications studies academics of my acquaintance typically respond to Noam Chomsky in one of two ways. One of these involves condemning him as a conspiracy theorist, a solitary (and therefore uniquely American) figure driven by the naïve conviction that if people only knew what was going on (in U.S. foreign policy, in the editorial rooms of the news media) they would rise up to end it. In this view, Chomsky embodies the tragic weaknesses of the U.S. political left in its waning moments--no longer able to attach its hopes to a social force, such as the working class, it has invested them in the enterprise of revelation, of unmasking and undermining the conspiracies on which U.S. political economic power rests. (Indeed, throughout the 1980s, it seemed that as much radical energy was spent trying to prove that Reagan stole the 1980 election as in organizing against that election's consequences.)

Chomsky responds to these charges patiently and instructively, throughout the book and film being reviewed here and elsewhere in his work. Manufacturing Dissent, the title of one of his own books, is borrowed openly from Walter Lippman and is meant to signal the dilemma of mass media in societies wherein power is not exercised through physical coercion. If Chomsky's claim that media professionals are socialized into constrictive and complicit world views is not state-of-the-art media theory, it is still far from the vision (which he himself caricatures) of executive committees of the bourgeois state scheming behind closed doors. It remains the case that the most common response to Chomsky's work on the part of media scholars, left-wing or otherwise, has been the claim that things are more complicated. For every exchange between power and the media, it is pointed out, there are complex levels of mediation and negotiation; for every message, there are an infinite variety of reading strategies. All of this is undoubtedly true, but it is equally true that an insistence on complexity is one of the mechanisms through which the sanctity of professional specialization is enforced. For at least a decade, it seems, critical media studies within the academy have been much more likely to denounce an analysis which seems crude (and therefore amateurish) than one which runs counter to their partisan impulses. If Chomsky has rarely been welcomed at the communications studies table, this has much to do with his unwillingness to believe that the crucial questions in media analysis are methodological ones.

There are those, as well, who simply pay little attention to Chomsky and feel guilty that they are not more excited by his work. I count myself among these, and much of my curiosity about Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, in both its book and film forms, has to do with understanding the fascination of Chomsky to Peter Wintonick and Mark Achbar. Wintonick & Ackbar had worked on an earlier film project, Peter Watkins' anti-nuclear The Journey, and in Watkins' quixotic, well-intentioned attempt to find a unity of radical activity across the globe one can see parallels with Chomsky's own, ongoing project. One sees repeated, as well, the attachment of Canadian filmmakers and political radicals to influential figures from elsewhere, and in this the Chomsky film has affinities with Terri Nash's documentary on anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott, If You Love This Planet. It is one of the clichés about Canadian life that our values are embodied more concretely in our institutions than in larger-than-life individuals, and one longs for a film on our health care system which would meet with the international acclaim which has greeted Manufacturing Consent.

Both film and book are divided into two parts, though a division of labour between them is not always maintained. The film benefits from the range of archival materials it has gathered together, most of them from televised debates: Chomsky vs. Foucault, Chomsky vs. Piaget, Chomsky vs. William F. Buckley, Jr., and so forth. One effect of these excerpts is to remind us of the centrality Chomsky has occupied within intellectual cultures elsewhere, and of the anomaly of his marginalization at home, where his itinerary seems increasingly limited to small-scale public radio or college stations or campus speaking "gigs." Over the film's running time, something like a method for analyzing the interrelationships of media and power is built up. This comes slowly, through the accumulation of extracts from Chomsky's speeches, archival news footage, and the dissection of media practices, but it is ultimately compelling and, at least for the duration, convincing. As a practical exercise in media dissection, Manufacturing Consent is much less focused or pedagogical than, for example, the Paper Tiger series, but in constantly reasserting the place of media analysis within an oppositional politics it is much more significant.

While the film has met with large-scale success throughout much of the world, it is as a book that Manufacturing Consent is most useful. A virtual transcript of the film, it also includes a range of other materials--extended extracts from Chomsky's writings, reviews of those writings, interviews, and a variety of novelty items, from comic strips through to a set of "Philosopher All-Star" trading cards attached to the spine. Through these, the emphasis on Chomsky's personality which marks the film (and about which Chomsky himself was concerned) is diminished, and the result is a highly skimmable guide to Chomsky's political ideas, the controversies in which he has been embroiled, and the notoriously thorny question of the relationship between his political and linguistic ideas. It is, perhaps, too fragmentary and montage-like in its organization to serve as a course text, but as a distillation of one important current within Western radical thought it is extremely useful.



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