TSC Polemic: A Review of the film Manufacturing Consent by Zeeshan Husain

An IAF helicopter showers flower petals on medical professionals 

Propaganda is to democracy what violence is to dictatorship. ~ Noam Chomsky
The film Manufacturing Consent was made in 1992 by two Canadians Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick. The film draws the core of its arguments from a book with the same title. The book was jointly written by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman in 1988. The film is subtitled- Noam Chomsky and the Media whereas the book is subtitled- The Political Economy of the Mass Media. As the sub-title suggests, the film focuses much more on the life and works of Noam Chomsky than the book which looks into the ownership of media houses. Chomsky says in the film that he derived the title of the book while reading Public Opinion (1922) by Walter Lippmann. Lippmann wrote that ‘the practice of democracy is actually a technique of control’. The film tells us in detail about the life and works of Noam Chomsky and secondly, how mass media is controlled by the big corporates. The film is 2 hours 40 minutes long and is full of clips of Chomsky’s speeches, debates, interviews, filmmakers’ own narratives, interviews with journalists, editors and activists and some dramatisations.
Noam Chomsky: A brief biography
Noam Chomsky is a linguist, philosopher, political commentator and an activist. He is a Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and currently teaches at the University of Arizona. He has written many books on different subjects such as linguistics, wars, international and domestic politics, and mass media. His book Manufacturing Consent (1988) is one of the many dealing with military-industrial-media complex in the US. Chomsky is loosely labelled as the ‘father of modern’ linguistics, and his work goes well beyond the academic confines of cognitive sciences while enquiring into fields such as US imperialism, neo-liberalism and state capitalism among others. Chomsky is a regular contributor to the Frontline magazine, and often gives interviews on various platforms. Chomsky is also a supporter of two nation-states in Levant, that can be home to both Arabs and Jews.
Chomsky belongs to that tribe of linguists who say that language is a system of thought which is inherited by human beings. It is not something that we learn from our environment. Language, like rationality, is innate within humans and gets unfolded slowly and gradually. He believes that there is a universal grammar which generates natural languages. Task of a linguist then becomes to find out the rules of that universal grammar, Chomsky argues.
Chomsky started his political activism by giving lectures against US involvement in Vietnam war (1954-1975). He has written and spoken against Nazism, Israeli occupation of Palestine, totalitarianism, US support of Contra militia against the Sandinista government during the 1985 and Nicaraguan-Contra War. The September 11 attacks in 2001 and the US invasion of Iraq (2003) made Chomsky busier with his public interactions. He kept on writings and speaking against the ‘War on Terror’ as ‘US imperial grand strategy’. He is a regular participant of World Social Forum and has visited India several times. Chomsky remains firmly against state capitalism and, as the film tells us, his politics is grouped under the label of ‘Rationalist Libertarian Socialism’.
Watching the movie Manufacturing Consent (1992)
This film tells us about the functioning of democracy mainly within the geographical boundaries of the US. We know that in a properly functioning democracy, the State will be monitored by its aware citizens and there will be mechanisms for checks and balances against the State’s excesses. Information and awareness will keep the relationship between citizens and the State alive, characterised by the umbrella-term of Citizen Rights. This relationship is, more often than not, a tug of war between the two over various issues- freedom, distribution of resources, control over resources, decision-making, participation in State and market, etc. just to name a few. According to Chomsky, for the State, it is not viable to use force against the citizens so that they can be goaded into submission. Using force can backfire and citizens can increasingly become aware of their exploited status. So what the State does is to distract the public’s attention from  important issues to the frivolous ones. In the book Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932) moralist and theologian Reinhold Neibuhr says: ‘Rationality belongs to the cool observers but because of the stupidity of the average man he follows not reason but faith, and this naive faith requires necessary illusion and emotionally potent over-simplifications which are provided by the myth-maker to keep the ordinary person on course.’ This creation of necessary illusions (note the word ‘necessary’ used by Neibuhr) is what makes democracy possible. But is it an aberration or a norm in our present liberal democratic structure? Any liberal political thinker would say it will be an aberration for any ruling elite or state to create false illusions among the masses. It is here that Chomsky takes a theoretical turn. He makes a point which is fresh as it critiques the existing liberal understanding of democracy. Chomsky argues that this creation of illusions is necessary for democracy; that our present political system compels  the ruling class to create illusions so that masses can be goaded into a consensual position of submission. In the words of Chomsky, “... The naive might think that indoctrination might be inconsistent with democracy, rather, it is the essence of democracy.”
Now let us ask- who are the ruling elites and who are the masses? And how elites control the masses? Do they control bodies or minds? The film Manufacturing Consent gradually answers these questions one by one without loosening the grip over the viewer’s attention. Ruling elites are the top 1% of the population. They are the biggest shareholders of large corporations and conglomerates. They need the consent of almost 20% of the society just below them, what Chomsky calls the ‘political class’. This is a relatively educated and articulate section of the society. These are mostly professionals, and play some role in political, social and cultural life. Having their consent is crucial. Below them is the bottom 80% of the population. They are just given the message simply to follow orders and not to think about anything. This bottom 80% is also the one which is worst hit by the malfunctioning of the State and its welfare policies. The question, then, arises as to how the elites control these two groups- the top 20% and the bottom 80%. What are the mechanisms for ‘thought control’ in a democratic society?
Chomsky’s reply: Mass Media. He proposes ‘propaganda model’ about the mass media. Manufacturing Consent is analysing the political economy of the media. Chomsky asks who owns the media and says that the owners of the media houses are major corporations. News is just a product to be sold to the public (consumers?) for profit. Profit is made through advertisements. News also has to follow certain set of practices which might help the country sustain its domestic and foreign policies. These policies are not in favour of US citizens but in favour of the wealthy classes. Let us take an example from the movie: ‘In north America, there are seven major movie studios, and more than 1800 daily newspapers, 11,000 magazines, 11,000 radio stations, 2000 TV stations and 2500 book publishers. Twenty-three corporations own and control over 50% of the business in each medium. In some cases they have a virtual monopoly.’ They run, what Chomsky calls ‘national media or elite media or agenda setting media’. The Media is like an oligarchy. He gives examples of New York Times (henceforth NYT), Washington Post, NBC, CBS, and ABC. They set the basic framework of reporting any event, which the local media adopt later. “Who is in a position to make the decisions that determine the way the society functions? Societies differ, but in ours, the major decisions over what happens in the society- decisions of investment, production and distribution and so on- are in the hands of a relatively concentrated network of major corporations and conglomerates and investment firms. They’re also the ones who staff the major executive positions in the government and they are the ones in media and they are the ones to make the decisions. They have an overwhelmingly dominant role in the way life happens; what is to be done in the society. Within the economic system, by law and in principle, they dominate”, Chomsky explains how the US society is controlled by a handful of business elites via mass media. In a shot, the camera enters an office room of the New York Times where the staff members tell us that 60% of the newspaper space is reserved for advertisements, while only 40% is for news.
There is another example where the film spends considerable amount of screen time doing ‘quantitative’ analysis of NYT. Chomsky takes a slice of history (1970s) where two events happened simultaneously. One was the genocidal policies of Pol Pot in Cambodia. Another was the Indonesian occupation of East Timor in 1975, a country 420 kilometres north of Australia. Both are relatively comparable in terms of level of atrocities: case of Cambodia as communist atrocity and case of Timor as non-communist atrocity. On 6th December, US President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visited Jakarta and the following day, the Indonesian army went for a full-scale invasion. On early morning, 7th December, Indonesian military just started firing at innocent Timorese people. According to a witness, ‘dead bodies were falling on him like leaves fall on ground’. A series of crimes were committed till 1976-77 like killings of men, women and even children, abduction of women by army, and lastly, leaving people just to starve. “By 1977, it was reaching genocidal levels”, says Chomsky. Chomsky analysed NYT from 1975 to 1979. What he did was to clip out each and every news report on these two genocides. He literally pastes every news item in a column-wise fashion. The result was startling: There was 70 column inches for Timor while for Cambodia it was 1175 column inches. NYT defends itself by saying it was just a coincidence. Chomsky counters saying it was a purposeful selection of news to suppress US atrocity and to exaggerate communist atrocity.  Fake photos and exaggerated news about atrocity in Cambodia were published by many US newspapers. On Timor, media deliberately remained silent. It was found that the US (90% contributor of arms to Indonesia) along with many countries like Canada, England and Holland were selling weapons to Indonesia so that the war against East Timor could  continue between 1977-78. Indeed, arms sales were increased by US President Jimmy Carter when it was falling short in 1978. War is also an enterprise meant for profit, in this capitalist world: Shed blood, earn money. It was in gruesome year of 1978, the year when the killings were at its peak, that the coverage on East Timor dropped to almost zero in both US and Canada media. Chomsky clarifies that the media is not merely subservient to power; they are complicit in the crimes by suppressing the facts so that no protests can happen in US or the world. Noam Chomsky’s polemic comes alive here: “The biggest international terror operations that are known are the ones that are run in Washington”.
What I found most important about the film is that I am seeing in front of my eyes same things happening in India. Poverty, hunger, unemployment, crime against women, pogroms against religious minorities, and poor healthcare all characterise 2020 India. But all we see over media is praises for Modi as the best PM in India and the world! Crisis of Covid 19 could have pushed the state to reform its policies on health. India spends just 1.6% of its GDP on health while WHO sets the bar at at least 6%. What media gave us intead: Corona Jihad; where a series of fake news items were spread saying Muslims are spreading the virus. Ravish Kumar of NDTV calls pro BJP/ RSS media as ‘Godi media’ for this reason. SK Husain in his article on Clarion India (dated 24th April 2020) tells us that news channels like Republic TV, Times Now, India Today, CNN News 18, Zee News, India TV, Aaj Tak, ABP news, Sudarshan News, News Nation, and India 24 (India), all are linked to BJP/ RSS supporting media personalities or corporate. News has become a commodity to be sold for profit. News has to create ‘necessary illusions’ for the democracy (or autocracy?) of India to run smoothly. All the social tension has to be directed against a shadow enemy: communists in US till Cold War and Muslims in the world post 9/11. New world order has now an enemy- an Orientalist image of Islam. Seeds of Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) sown during colonial times have grown now into full fledged trees.  I personally don’t think people meet the real me, I feel people meet my image created by today’s media.
A poor paan seller tells me in a village in Uttar Pradesh that India is now world’s most powerful and richest country. I ask him where did he hear it? He says- Kaagaj roz padhta hoon, TV par news roj dekhta hoon. Is Modi also manufacturing consent?
Zeeshan Husain is an independent researcher. His research area is society and politics in Uttar Pradesh, India.

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