An Animated Introduction to Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent and How the Media Creates the Illusion of Democracy

For near­ly as many years as he’s occu­pied the pub­lic eye, famed lin­guist and anar­chist philoso­pher Noam Chom­sky has made claims that might have dis­cred­it­ed oth­er aca­d­e­mics. Per­haps his many books, arti­cles, lec­tures, inter­views, etc. car­ry such weight because of his “famed lin­guist” sta­tus and his long­time tenure at MIT. But there’s more to his longevi­ty as a respect­ed crit­ic of U.S. state pow­er. His voice also car­ries sig­nif­i­cant author­i­ty because he sub­stan­ti­ates his argu­ments with eru­dite, gran­u­lar analy­ses of eco­nom­ic the­o­ry, his­to­ry, and polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy.

We’ve seen him do exact­ly this in his fierce oppo­si­tion to the Viet­nam War at the begin­ning of his activist career, and in his cri­tiques of proxy wars, impe­ri­al­is­tic repres­sion, and cor­po­rate resource grabs in Latin Amer­i­ca and South­east Asia in decades since.

When it comes to the U.S. domes­tic scene, one of Chomsky’s most point­ed and con­tin­u­al­ly rel­e­vant cri­tiques address­es the way in which we’re led to believe the country’s actions over­seas jus­ti­fy them­selves, as well as its actions upon its own cit­i­zens. We might debate whether the U.S. is a democ­ra­cy or a repub­lic, but accord­ing to Chom­sky, both notions may well be illu­so­ry.

Instead, Chom­sky argues in Man­u­fac­tur­ing Con­sent—his 1988 cri­tique of “the polit­i­cal econ­o­my of the mass media” with Edward S. Herman—that the mass media sells us the idea that we have polit­i­cal agency. Their “pri­ma­ry func­tion… in the Unit­ed States is to mobi­lize sup­port for the spe­cial inter­ests that dom­i­nate the gov­ern­ment and the pri­vate sec­tor.” Those inter­ests may have changed or evolved quite a bit since 1988, but the mech­a­nisms of what Chom­sky and Her­man iden­ti­fy as “effec­tive and pow­er­ful ide­o­log­i­cal insti­tu­tions that car­ry out a sys­tem-sup­port­ive pro­pa­gan­da func­tion” might work in the age of Twit­ter just as they did in one dom­i­nat­ed by net­work and cable news.

Those mech­a­nisms large­ly divide into what the authors called the “Five Fil­ters.” The video at the top of the post, pro­duced by Marcela Pizarro and nar­rat­ed by Democ­ra­cy Now’s Amy Good­man, pro­vides a quick intro­duc­tion to them, in a jar­ring ani­mat­ed sequence that’s part Mon­ty Python, part Res­i­dents video. See the five fil­ters list­ed below in brief, with excerpts from Goodman’s com­men­tary:

1. Media Own­er­ship—The endgame of all mass media orgs is prof­it. “It is in their inter­est to push for what­ev­er guar­an­tees that prof­it.”

2. Adver­tis­ing—Media costs more than con­sumers will pay: Adver­tis­ers fill the gap. What do adver­tis­ers pay for? Access to audi­ences. “It isn’t just that the media is sell­ing you a prod­uct. They’re also sell­ing adver­tis­ers a prod­uct: you.”

3. Media Elite—“Jour­nal­ism can­not be a check on pow­er, because the very sys­tem encour­ages com­plic­i­ty. Gov­ern­ments, cor­po­ra­tions, and big insti­tu­tions know how to influ­ence the media. They feed it scoops and inter­views with sup­posed experts. They make them­selves cru­cial to the process of jour­nal­ism. If you want to chal­lenge pow­er, you’ll be pushed to the mar­gins…. You won’t be get­ting in. You’ll have lost your access.”

4. Flack—“When the sto­ry is incon­ve­nient for the pow­ers that be, you’ll see the flack machine in action: dis­cred­it­ing sources, trash­ing sto­ries, and divert­ing the con­ver­sa­tion.”

5. The Com­mon Ene­my—“To man­u­fac­ture con­sent, you need an ene­my, a tar­get: Com­mu­nism, ter­ror­ists, immi­grants… a boogey­man to fear helps cor­ral pub­lic opin­ion.”

Chom­sky and Herman’s book offers a sur­gi­cal analy­sis of the ways cor­po­rate mass media “man­u­fac­tures con­sent” for a sta­tus quo the major­i­ty of peo­ple do not actu­al­ly want. Yet for all of the recent ago­niz­ing over mass media fail­ure and com­plic­i­ty, we don’t often hear ref­er­ences to Man­u­fac­tur­ing Con­sent these days. This may have some­thing to do with the book’s dat­ed exam­ples, or it may tes­ti­fy to Chomsky’s mar­gin­al­iza­tion in main­stream polit­i­cal dis­course, though he would be the first to note that his voice has not been sup­pressed.

It may also be the case that media the­o­ry and crit­i­cism like Chom­sky’s, or the work of Mar­shall McLuhan, Theodor Adorno, or Jean Bau­drillard (all very dif­fer­ent kinds of thinkers), has fall­en out of favor in a 140-char­ac­ter world. In the late-80s and 90s, how­ev­er, such the­o­ry received a good deal of atten­tion, and Chom­sky appeared in the many venues you’ll see in the short video above, excerpt­ed from an almost 3‑hour 1992 doc­u­men­tary called Man­u­fac­tur­ing Con­sent, a film made by “die-hard fans,” wrote Col­in Mar­shall in an ear­li­er post, that “curates instances of Chom­sky going from inter­view to inter­view, debate to debate, forum to forum, mak­ing sharp-sound­ing points about the rela­tion­ship between busi­ness elites and the media.”

Our desire for instant reward and set­tled opin­ion may have over­tak­en our abil­i­ty to sub­ject the entire phe­nom­e­non of mass media to crit­i­cal analy­sis, as we leap from cliffhang­er to cliffhang­er and cri­sis to cri­sis. But should we take the time to watch this film and, prefer­ably also, read Chomsky’s book, we may find our­selves some­what bet­ter equipped to eval­u­ate the onslaught of pro­pa­gan­da to which we’re sub­ject­ed on what seems like an hourly basis.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Noam Chom­sky Defines What It Means to Be a Tru­ly Edu­cat­ed Per­son

Noam Chom­sky & Michel Fou­cault Debate Human Nature & Pow­er (1971)

Noam Chom­sky Talks About How Kids Acquire Lan­guage & Ideas in an Ani­mat­ed Video by Michel Gondry

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • Dears, I’d like to add Por­tuguese sub­ti­tles to this ani­ma­tion. Is there any­where Eng­lish sub­ti­tles ready for trans­la­tion?

  • Mat Verberkt says:

    In a way Trump is right. I mean stric­tu­ur, in a way

  • Mat Verberkt says:

    In a way, Trump is right. I meam in a strict­ly way he has right

  • Mitt Yerevan says:

    Trump is a liar and a crook and IS the absolute­ly the epit­o­me of what Chom­sky is speak­ing against, espe­cial­ly in Man­u­fac­tur­ing Con­sent. I hope that man goes to jail as he should, and nev­er holds any posi­tion of pow­er again.

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