Noam Chomsky – Manufacturing Consent

In the documentary Manufacturing Consent, which was produced by Canadian filmmakers Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick using much material from the book of the same name by Chomsky & Herman as well as film footage of and about Noam Chomsky.  Noam Chomsky was a prominent and outspoken intellectual in the 20th century.  Though his principal area of study centers around linguistics, he is perhaps better known for his philosophical ideas and political activism both which consistently challenged convention.

At the start of the documentary, Chomsky proposes the idea that the media in the United States is a mechanism of propaganda under the control of the powerful elite and that the content exists solely for the purpose of thought control of the people within our society.  He states that “propaganda is to a democracy what violence is to the dictatorship.”  Though I agree with idea in the quote, I strongly disagree with the preceding statement implying conspiracy.  Not only do I believe that the conspiracy charge is false but also that dismissing all mainstream media because of this belief is dangerous to society as it can lead the American people to seek out information from much less reliable sources taking them further away from the truth.  This documentary which proposes to uncover the true face of the American media as a tool of thought control itself uses most of the same blatant forms of propaganda trickery that it accuses the mainstream media of in attempt to persuade viewers of its assertions.  Perhaps, a primary reason why this documentary has been successful at being persuasive, is that it intersperses logically valid and invalid ideas along with emotionally strong creative enhancements which all lead less skeptical viewers toward conclusions that do not follow from stated premises.

Chomsky states that he has strong anarchist convictions and considers himself a Libertarian Socialist which he explains is the mainstream of traditional anarchism.  It is therefore understandable why he feels the need to break down our system of free press.  As an anarchist he would want to stand against all forms of power and authority.  Further more, as a cutting edge intellectual seeking recognition, it stands to reason that one can more easily gain notoriety by challenging powerful institutions that have escaped the attention of most others.  Anyone can pickup a six-pack of naysayers at any convenience store voicing condemnation of the government, the wealthy, and the military.  Challenging the institutions of education and the press is something that has been successfully accomplished by a relative few in comparison.

The film quotes Clement Walker who famously stated in the mid 1600’s of the new democrats in England; “they have made the people thereby so curious and arrogant that they will never find humility enough to submit to a civil rule.”  This quote leads into the idea that to govern a democracy the ruling class would need to make use of propaganda as a new form of subversion to get the masses to submit willingly to rule and that without such controlled indoctrination a democracy such as ours could not survive.  The claim of democracy not being able to survive is not substantiated or supported in any way.  Even if it were true though, to prove the claim of conspiracy one would need to establish first the pervasiveness of systematic and organized propaganda by the ruling class using the American media and second that convincing the masses to willingly act in some manner should be considered subversion.  The support for both is lacking in this film.

The film states that the position of the power elite is that with democracy, rule is a game for elites not for the ignorant masses who have to be marginalized, diverted, and controlled for their own good.  Therefore the success of democracy depends upon indoctrination of the masses by creating necessary illusions in order to manufacture their own consent to being ruled.  While this last statement may be true it doesn’t imply that the process is systematic and organized by a single entity.  It is much more likely that there exists varying degrees of power and control exercised by multiple entities in constant conflict with each other and that they are all seeking to influence the masses for independent reasons and thereby gain the benefit of the power of numbers.  As for the media, rather than being systematically organized and controlled by a single entity with a single agenda, I believe that it is a power unto itself that is randomly distributed in a similar way as the multiple entities previously described having its own incentives to compete against and discredit each other.  Though it is reasonable to believe that the media is influenced at different times by entities of power and is susceptible to internal biases the condition of the American press as a whole tends more by far toward being free of restraint than Chomsky’s envisioned controlled mechanism of thought control by those in power.

An idea I have developed for understanding and explaining the classes of power in our society fits nicely with the target groups of the propaganda model outlined in the film.  Twenty percent of the population make up the leading political class swaying the direction of societal progress and the rest of the population are followers.  I have often explained the breakdown of citizens using this arbitrary 20/80 split and have long found it amusing that while it is almost universally accepted, everyone I have discussed this with believes that they are among the 20% and not the 80%.  I assure you that I don’t sequester myself choosing only to engage conversationally with those in the 20%.  But there you have it, everyone prefers to believe that they are in the know and are active participants in the political process while the truth is that many of them blindly follow what is offered without taking the time or effort to think for themselves.

The documentary suggests that the elite media organizations act as agenda setters and the lesser media outlets digest the information disseminated so that the 80% can get on board.  I concede this point fully.  It does not seem necessary as the film attempts to do, to prove that the non-agenda setting media outlets are complicit in any supposed systematic organized attempt to deceive and control the public.  To group the media regurgitators of the 80% along with the 20% agenda setters would falsely skew the numbers giving the impression of more weight toward collusion than is reasonable.  Whether the 80% media is regurgitating information out of laziness to make a buck or is under the watchful authority of a higher power is not relevant to the discussion as the end result is the same.  If a single source investigates a story and all of the lesser outlets run with it only to have it later be discovered that the story was false, the fact that such a large number of media outlets covered the story should not be considered when assessing the presence or degree of presence of any conspiracy.  Only the originating source matters in this hypothetical case.  Therefore it should only be necessary to dispel Chomsky’s arguments against the media agenda setters.  In the film these are listed as those such as ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, FOX, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many more.

The narrator states that 80% of mass media is about distractions to dumb down the masses to get them away from things that matter.  This statement shows an example of how the documentary mixes in unsubstantiated subjective content as if it serves to emphasize the truth while it in fact distracts from the truth.  I might even agree with the producers of the film on the examples of mass media that act as a distraction away from things that matter but that is my subjective opinion laced with my own biases of what is important.  Whether or not distractions dumb down the masses is a matter for debate.  No empirical support is offered up but rather is substituted with imagery of stupidity.  This then implies that if you agree that what you are seeing is stupid the preceding statements in the film must be true which of course nicely frames a logical non sequitur.

Chomsky expresses that if people attempt to enter the institution of the press with dissenting views, they are likely to be excluded as no system or institution allows for a self destructing mechanism to exist and so will work to marginalize or eliminate dissenting voices because they are dysfunctional.  I agree that this is a part of the nature of systems and institutions but that as a fact does not add any weight to the argument that the American free press has been hijacked and is under the control of the power elite.  The film implies that since members of the press with dissenting views are marginalized or excluded this indicates a conspiracy but then proves this not to be the case by statement that such behavior is natural for systems and institutions.

One of the main points of support for the claim that America’s free press is not free but under the control of the power elite was that the press coverage for seemingly equal stories has been demonstrated to be disproportionate in favor of stories which promote the ruling agenda.  The fact that it was much more widely reported that a genocide took place in Cambodia than the genocide in East Timor was cited as direct support that the press was pushing the anti-communist agenda of the government.  Isn’t it more likely that each contributing outlet of the press made the decision to dedicate more resources toward reporting about a story which was assumed to be more interesting to the public.  Since the Vietnam war was fresh in everyone’s memories and helped to shape or reshape every aspect of American society, wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume that this was a topic more relevant to the viewers?

The apparent discrepancy between effort in reporting of similar stories also does not take into account an alternative and perhaps more likely explanation which is that individuals within media organizations are going to make decisions which are assumed to benefit the individual or organization.  When presented with multiple stories for coverage, it is likely that an individual will make decisions to favor his or her role in the organization.  Which adds more weight to the probability of a reporter’s promotion versus termination, a story about how a local government outside of the viewing area is corrupt or a story about how the primary advertiser Jimbo’s Used Car dealership is corrupt?  This example demonstrates the likelihood of the existence of bias in the press but does not support the claim of conspiracy.  One could correctly argue that such bias contradicts core tenants expressed by the press establishing a clear case of hypocrisy.   But again this doesn’t support the conspiracy claim.  It is more reasonable to assume a motivation of individual success than collusion with the power elite to control the minds of the public.  Regardless, considering the example of reporter’s dilemma, a competing media outlet who does not receive advertising benefit from Jimbo’s Used Car dealership might break the story and thereby garner the attentions of Jimbo’s competitors as advertisers.

While discussing the discrepancy of coverage between the genocides of Cambodia and East Timor, a clip was inserted showing President Jimmy Carter with a smiling demeanor signing an executive order or law giving favor to the perpetrators of the East Timor genocide while people praised and clapped in the background.  The commentary of the film expressed that the President Carter signature extended support for the Indonesians at the time that they were actively involved in the massacre of East Timor citizens.  Ominous music played to help emphasize how happy the power elite were while signing away the lives of the impoverished.  This is a common propaganda trick used in practically every political campaign.  Combine stock video footage unrelated to the content being presented to color it with emotional spin by making the figure at the center appear callous to the plight of lesser people.

Chomsky categorizes the system of press reporting as follows.  There are three types of bloodbaths processed by the press.  The benign bloodbaths are ignored.  The constructive bloodbaths are praised.  The nefarious bloodbaths are condemned.  This creates an emotional tie between the idea of the press and the bloodbath which leads the viewer to feel that the press is complicit in the actual act of the bloodbath.  In addition to this attempt at manipulating the feeling of viewers, the producers add a series of clips where ordinary people express negative feelings toward the media.  Feelings about a subject and the apparent number of people people who believe an idea are not relevant to what is true and so should be not be relied upon when seeking argumentative support.  This serves to further the case that the Chomsky and the producers rely upon argumentum ad passiones in the absence of concrete support.

It was expressed that Nightline News is biased and therefore presumed untrustworthy because the vast majority of the guests fell into three categories (professionals, government officials, or business men).  I put forth the idea that those three groups would comprise of almost all possible subject matter experts on any given story that Nightline aired with the rare exception of a feelgood story such as involving who knew what and when concerning the neighbor’s cat being stuck in a tree.

Chomsky acknowledges that there are many good investigative reporters who are caught in a contradiction of purpose.  They attempt to maintain the sense of journalistic professional integrity while keeping commitment to indoctrination and control.  I would trash and rewrite the later statement to state that they attempt to maintain the sense of journalistic professional integrity while ambitiously pursuing avenues of career advancement that aligns with their personal beliefs of what constitutes success.

My favorite Chomsky line of the film has to be “the beauty of concision is that you can only repeat conventional thoughts.”  I agree completely.  It does not help establish the point of the film but I do agree completely.  Apparently like myself, Chomsky lacks ability to be succinct on most occasions.  This was clearly presented in the film which might explain its extreme length for a documentary of its type.  This also might explain his frustration with the press as rarely has his expressed idea been allowed to be communicated in full not due to censorship but rather the restrictions of fitting a chapter’s worth of information between two commercials or in less than 600 words of print.  Chomsky proclaims that mainstream media forces concision which doesn’t allow for unconventional ideas.  The necessity for concision I would think is based on practical considerations such as duration of a news show or space on the front page not based on requirements enforced by the power elite.

The downside of attempting to express an unconventional idea is that it will need additional time or print for explanation.  I say that it is the burden of the advocate of the unconventional idea to find an appropriate medium that is receptive to the added explanation needed to present the idea or to find a method to express that idea more efficiently.  New ideas rarely take hold in the conscious understanding of the public from one person’s proclamation.  They must follow after the smaller prerequisite evolution of the public’s existing conscious understanding.  One who has studied 10,000 hours in a field to master an understanding which is now obvious to that person should not expect that the public will share that understanding without first convincing the public as a whole of all that is required to make sense of that elusive understanding.  It is a time consuming process to create a truly revolutionary idea.  At best one can expect to plant the seed and participate in the cultivation of the idea.  When conditions are right the idea will thrive.

I suggest that each media organization is the representation of the many individuals within operating from different sets of motivations.  Within each organization there is internal conflict over what should get squeezed between two commercials or fit neatly on the front page.  The conflict is complex and random originating from sources such as interpersonal work relationships, plays for power and influence within the organization, and of course influence by funding sources.  Then there is the complex structure of organization ownership.  Even if competing media organizations fall under the same ownership, they are likely be competing for the public’s attention in order to achieve a better position of influence within the organization’s structure.

The mainstream press gets us closer to the truth than most of us could without it; even if we were to take the time (which most would not).  No one can take the time to seek out the truth for every item of information.  We must depend upon experts who can take the time that we cannot.  With that in mind, I suggest looking past the news digesters, regurgitators & commentators and instead look to those who are doing the investigative work.  From those, don’t except the works as truth but as most likely true after spending some time reviewing sources of  previous works to establish a pattern of competence and integrity.   After doing what I suggest, I see nothing that would lead a rational person to conclude that the American press is unified and under the direct control of powerful individuals with an agenda to subjugate and indoctrinate the masses.  I applaud Chomsky for exercising incredible linguistic skill with making statements of wise observations.  I chastise Chomsky for stringing those statements together to force a conclusion from invalid reasoning which makes use of most of the known and obvious logical fallacies.


One thought on “Noam Chomsky – Manufacturing Consent

  1. Your observations on Chomsky’s film are interesting. It seems chomsky is guilty of many of the things he eschews in the Press.

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