Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Occupying my library studies school work

This weekend I stayed away from political and social activities and completed three assignments for my Libraries and Popular Culture class. It's a great class, and I'm learning a lot, and it's definitely worth the work. One of my assignments was to write a review of a documentary dealing with popular culture. I picked the movie Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Mass Media.

I watched the movie and wrote the review, I was struck by exactly how applicable Chomsky's ideas were to the current Occupy movement. So I'm posting my review here in the hopes that it will contribute to discussions of ideas and strategy in our quest to rein in the corporatocracy our nation has become. (If you would like to watch the film, you can do so here. If you can't devote three hours in one sitting to this, you could check out the film from the Oklahoma County Metropolitan Library System.)

My review follows below:


            On November 4 I watched the 1992 documentary Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media by Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick. I’ve read some of Chomsky’s political analyses, and I’ve wanted to watch this movie for years. Recently I checked it out from the public library because it seemed very relevant to our class discussions on corporate hegemony in creating mass culture. Manufacturing Consent also seemed an appropriate choice for our class documentary project.

            This 168-minute film is partly an analysis of Chomsky’s political ideas, partly a biography of Chomsky, and partly an examination of some of his opponents and detractors. Chomsky, a self-described anarcho-syndicalist, says that coercion in human society should take place only for clearly justified reasons. He argues that concentrated private control of economic resources allows the owners of these resources unjustified control over society. In a totalitarian society, elites retain power by using obvious overwhelming force. In a democracy, such as the United States, elites maintain power by “manufacturing consent.”
            Chomsky says that the elites who own and control mass media believe that ordinary people must be diverted and controlled for their own good. This is not done by direct censorship. Major newspapers and major television stations control the political agenda through such strategies as selecting topics, framing issues, filtering information, and setting the boundaries of acceptable debate. 

As an example of this process, Chomsky compares US media coverage of genocide in Cambodia in the 1970s with coverage of atrocities committed by US-backed Indonesian forces against the people of East Timor in the same time period. He argues that abuses committed by US enemies were exaggerated while abuses committed by US allies were ignored.

Additional Sources

            Making a balanced selection of additional sources related to this movie was challenging because Chomsky’s opponents often use such extreme language in attacking him that they undermine the credibility of their own case. My own sympathy with Chomsky’s views undoubtedly made it more difficult for me to be neutral. Nevertheless, I hope this resource list would be useful to library patrons who had a variety of responses to the film.

  1. The IMDB Web page on Manufacturing Consent (Internet Movie Database n.d.) contains reviews from both viewers and critics. While most of these reviews are positive, there are cogent dissenting points of view, as well as links to message boards for further discussion. There is also a link that allows a viewer to watch the movie for free.
  2. Z Magazine was one of the sources of information that Chomsky suggested in the film. This website by the publishers of the magazine (Z Communications n.d.) contains links to much news and analysis from a libertarian socialist point of view, as well as a link to an online version of the magazine. Viewers who found the movie convincing would particularly like this site, and Chomsky himself has a blog here.
  3. This page (Wvong 2001) by Canadian computer programmer Russil Wvong offers a critical assessment of Chomsky’s work. While agreeing with Chomsky in part, Wvong also presents evidence that Chomsky advances his claims in intellectually dishonest ways. Wvong also argues that Chomsky is willing to accept human rights abuses when perpetrated by regimes he supports.
  4. The book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (Herman and Chomsky 1988) offer a clearer and more comprehensive explanation of Chomsky’s “propaganda model” than the movie does.

Discussion Topic

            Noam Chomsky, a linguist by training, is most emphatically not part of the culture-and-civilization tradition. His work on universal grammar—which he believes is hard-wired into the human brain—has convinced him that ordinary people are creative geniuses. He doesn’t believe that ordinary people are dupes, but simply that they lack resources to gain complete information.
            In the 1992 movie, Chomsky advanced a specific model for how corporate elites create and maintain what Antonio Gramsci calls “hegemony” over popular culture. Chomsky argued that most news media outlets are owned by giant corporations that share the interests of the rest of the ruling elite. This allows them to control the terms of popular debate and crowd out dissenting ideas.
            Do you think Chomsky’s argument was accurate in 1992? This movie was released before widespread public use of the Internet. How has the existence of the Internet affected the accuracy of Chomsky’s position? Does greater availability of the means to publish mean that corporate control is much less of a problem than it was?


Achbar, Mark and Peter Wintonick (directors). 1992. Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media. Necessary Illusions/National Film Board of Canada. Zeitgeist Films, 2002, DVD. Includes Chomsky’s 2002 reflections on the film, extended excerpts of 1969 Firing     Line debate with William F. Buckley, Jr., and a 1971 discussion with Michel Foucault.

Herman, Edward S. and Noam Chomsky. 1988. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of  the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon Books.

Internet Movie Database. n.d. “Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media.”             http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0104810/. Accessed November 5, 2011.

Wvong, Russil. 2001. “Noam Chomsky: A Critical Review.” http://www.russilwvong.com/future/chomsky.html.  Accessed November 5, 2011.

Z Communications. n.d. “Z Net: A Community of People Committed to Social Change.”           http://www.zcommunications.org/znet. Accessed November 5, 2011.

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