Sunday, 2 March 2008

Manufacturing Consent : Noam Chomsky and the Media

Synopsis from Wikipedia: Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (1992) is a documentary film that explores the political life and ideas of Noam Chomsky, a linguist, intellectual, and political activist. Created by two Canadian independent filmmakers, Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick, it expands on the ideas of Chomsky's earlier book, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, which he co-wrote with Edward S. Herman.

The film presents and illustrates Chomsky's and Herman's propaganda model, the thesis that corporate media, as profit-driven institutions, tend to serve and further the agendas of the interests of dominant, elite groups in the society. A centerpiece of the film is a long examination into the history of The New York Times's coverage of Indonesia's invasion and occupation of East Timor, which Chomsky claims exemplifies the media's unwillingness to criticize an ally.

Until the release of The Corporation (2003), made by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan, it was the most successful documentary in Canadian history, playing theatrically in over 300 cities around the world; winning 22 awards; appearing in more than 50 international film festivals; and being broadcast in over 30 markets. It has also been translated into a dozen languages.

Chomsky's response to the film was mixed; in a published conversation with Achbar and several activists, he stated that film simply doesn't communicate his message, leading people to believe that he is the leader of some movement that they should join. In the same conversation, he criticizes the New York Times review of the film, which mistakes his message for being a call for voter organizing rather than media critique.

Quotes from the film

“In a totalitarian state, it doesn't matter what people think, since the government can control people by force using a bludgeon. But when you can't control people by force, you have to control what people think, and the standard way to do this is via propaganda (manufacture of consent, creation of necessary illusions), marginalizing the general public or reducing them to apathy of some fashion.

“It's the primary function of the mass media in the United States to mobilize public support for the special interests that dominate the government and the private sector.

“If you want to understand how a particular society works, you have to understand who makes the decisions that determine the way a society functions. In the U.S., the major decisions over what happens in a society (investment, production, distribution, etc.) are in the hands of a relatively concentrated network of major corporations, conglomerates, and investment firms. They're also the ones who staff the major executive positions in the government, and they're the ones who own the media, and are the ones who are in the position to make decisions. They have an overwhelmingly dominant role in the way life happens, what's done in this society.

“War is a serious business, and in a totalitarian society, the dictator simply says 'we're going to war' and everybody marches.

“These are not just academic exercises. We're not analyzing the media on Mars, or in the 18th century, or something like that. We're dealing with real human beings who are suffering and dying and being tortured and starving, because of policies that we are involved in – we as citizens of democratic societies are directly involved in and responsible for. And what the media are doing is ensuring that we do not act on our responsibilities, and that the interests of power are served, not the interests of suffering people and not the needs of the American people who would be horrified if they realized the blood that's dripping from their hands because of the way they're allowing themselves to be deluded and manipulated by the system.

“I think what used to be called centuries ago 'wage slavery' is intolerable. I don't think people ought to be forced to rent themselves in order to survive. I think that the economic institutions ought to be run democratically by their participants, by the communities in which they exist, and so on. And basically through various kinds of free association.

“My work is not directed to intellectuals, but to what are called 'ordinary people.' And in fact what I expect from them is exactly what they are, that they should understand the world and act according to their decent impulses. And that they should try to improve the world.

“I'm helping people develop intellectual self-defense... I don't mean go to school, because you're not going to get it there... It means that you have to develop an independent mind, and work on it. That's extremely hard to do alone... The beauty of our system is that it isolates everybody. Each person is sitting alone in front of the tube. It's very hard to have ideas or thoughts under those circumstances. You can't fight the world alone. Some people can, but it's pretty rare. The way to do it is through organization.”

“I do not think that the state ought to have the right to determine historical truth and to punish people who deviate from that truth. I'm not willing to give the state that right [...]. If you believe in freedom of speech you believe in freedom of speech for views you don't like. Göbbels was in favour of freedom of speech for views he liked.. so was Stalin. [...] If you are in favour of freedom of speech, that means you are in favour of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise - otherwise you're not in favour of freedom of speech.”

“The point is that you have to work. And that's why the propaganda system is so successful. Very few people are going to have the time or the energy or the commitment to carry out the constant battle that's required to get outside of Lehrer, or Dan Rather, or somebody like that. The easy thing to do, you know, you come home from work, you're tired, you had a busy day, you're not going to spend the evening carrying out a research project. So you turn on the tube, you say it's probably right, or you look at the headlines in the paper, and then you're watching sports or something. That's basically the way the system of indoctrination works. Sure the other stuff is there, but you're going to work to find it.

“Modern industrial civilization has developed within a certain system of convenient myths. The driving force of our industrial civilization has been individual material gain, which is accepted as legitimate, even praiseworthy on the grounds that private vices yield public benefits, in the classic formulation. Now it's long been understood, very well, that a society that is based on this principle will destroy itself in time. It can only persist with whatever suffering and injustice it entails, as long as it's possible to pretend that the destructive forces that humans create are limited, that the world is an infinite resource, and that the world is an infinite garbage can.

“At this stage of history, either one of two things is possible: either the general population will take control of its own destiny and will concern itself with community interests, guided by values of solidarity, and sympathy and concern for others; or alternatively, there will be no destiny for anyone to control.

“As long as some specialized class is in a position of authority, it is going to set policy in the special interests that it serves. But the conditions of survival, let alone justice, require rational social planning in the interests of the community as a whole, and by now, that means the global community.

“The question is whether privileged elites should dominate mass communication, and should use this power as they tell us they must – namely to impose necessary illusions, to manipulate and deceive the stupid majority and remove them from the public arena. The question in brief is whether democracy and freedom are values to be preserved, or threats to be avoided. In this possibly terminal phase of human existence, democracy and freedom are more than values to be treasured, they may well be essential to survival.

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