The object of the film Manufacturing Consent is rightly to introduce, rather than evaluate, Noam Chomsky and his work. The intro is skillful and surprisingly entertaining. In fact, if your interests extend even slightly beyond your next footwear purchase, you will be angered, stimulated and riveted by this film.
Here’s Chomsky. Old, Jewish professor at MIT, universally recognized as a genius of the highest caliber – in the field of linguistics. Most people who read Chomsky, however, read his widely despised, ignored and vaunted political works. These works come from a libertarian socialist/anarchist perspective and treat American foreign policy the same way we at Ruthless treat the films of Jennifer Lopez. Not that Chomsky is “anti-American.” He says he is hard on America because 1) It’s his country. He thinks we ought to be concerned primarily with our own faults rather than with those of others. 2) America is the free-est country in the world and has the most potential for change. 3) America is the most powerful country in the world, and our policies are therefore the most consequential.
The cornerstone of Chomsky’s political views is also his most interesting and complex bit of political thinking, and the topic of this film. He argues that the news media in the U.S. present a greatly distorted view of world events, basically propaganda, and that this paves the way for misdeeds by our government and that most of these misdeeds are against the interests of the majority of citizens. In other words, you have been systematically deceived about matters of great importance through your whole life.
The theory is more complicated than that, of course, although few of Chomsky’s critics treat it that way. Author Tom Wolf is typical, characterizing Chomsky’s view as asserting that cabals run the country from backrooms. That’s why when you see Wolf after an hour or two of the film laying out the intricacy and subtlety of Chomsky’s argument, he comes across as such an ass.
In fairness, it is easy to dismiss Chomsky’s counterintuitive theory out of hand, especially if you hear people talk about it rather than exposing yourself to it directly. Most people who talk Chomsky are either a) disingenuous or ignorant critics who distort his work (like Wolf), or b) equally off-putting Chomsky-bots who treat the man like a prophet. But before you write off the theory as too implausible, take this as a starting point. What if all of the news media were owned by unions and employed machinists as journalists? Would the coverage be skewed? Suppose the media were owned almost exclusively by churchgoing Christians or old people or homosexuals? Would coverage be skewed then? Would the skewing of that coverage require a cabals and backrooms? Well, the big corporations that own the media are just as much special-interest groups as those mentioned above. In fact, they spend more money trying to influence the political process than all of those other groups put together. So why would the media they own be anything but skewed?
But that again is a very glib lead-in to Chomsky’s work. The film, however, is not, weighing in at 167 minutes — none of them boring — plus there are extra segments on the DVD. The film persuasively and accurately lays out Chomsky’s argument, mixing pieces of his lectures and interviews with illustrations of his concrete examples. His discussion of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, for example, is backed up with chilling footage of the real thing and a visual demonstration of how The New York Times actually devoted much less coverage than usual to East Timor during the invasion and ensuing massacre. Finally, we get to see NYT honchos explain the drop in coverage about as convincingly as Pete Townshend explains those credit card statements.
The film also presents several of Chomsky’s critics — not just the foolish ones — and gives him a chance to respond. Manufacturing Consent doesn’t go any further in criticizing Chomsky’s ideas, and it shouldn’t. Merely introducing us to a complex set of ideas is enough work. The viewer is left to decide for himself whether Chomsky and the issues he raises deserve further attention.
It’s a crime that this film is so remarkable. There should be dozens like it covering our great minds from across the political spectrum and outside of politics altogether. Oh well. This is about all we’ve got (unless you want to read), and it’s near-great, so I give it my sweeping and unqualified recommendation. If you’re even partially ignorant of Chomsky and/or the viewpoint he represents, this should be the next film you see.
Yes! It’s not often that DVD extras give you exactly what you had hoped for. In this case, we get several full segments of Chomsky’s rumble with William F. Buckley, which is only sampled in the film. In one way, the footage itself is evidence of Chomsky’s theory. People this smart and discussions this serious are simply not allowed on TV anymore, and these segments really make me wish they were. But it ain’t all highfalutin. Both men get pissed off, and Buckley threatens to punch Chomsky “in the goddamned face.” Really? Who wins? I don’t know. It’s pretty close. You’ll have to see it for yourself. You’ll be glad you did. There’s also an extended discussion between Chomsky and Foucault and an interview with Chomsky about the film.