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concordia 21/02/2017 - 12:00PM

Fake News is so 1992: An Introduction to the 25 year anniversary screening of Manufacturing Consent

The following introduction was given by Cinema Politica co-founder Ezra Winton at the CP Concordia 25 year anniversary screening of Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, in Montreal on February 20th, 2017. We were all very pleased to witness the staying power of this important film, as more than 250 people packed into our screening space to see a Canadian classic!

First off, let me just say by way of a prelude that on the way to this screening tonight, while flipping radio channels for news, I caught the BBC World Service global news update. Among the array of regurgitated stories repeated hourly across the mainstream spectrum, the BBC thought it pertinent to take up precious broadcast time for a special field report, delivered to their global audience. This report announced a new breakthrough: scientists have apparently discovered how to get the last bit of ketchup out of the ketchup bottle. 

And so, tonight’s film.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the release of the documentary Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media. When it was released in 1992, this remarkably inventive, trail-blazing film by Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick was a landmark for Canadian cinema, for documentary and for political film in general.

It not only introduced an entire generation to the writings and politics of progressive American linguist Noam Chomsky, but is also considered one of the earliest and still rare examples of a documentary able to achieve three things: critical acclaim, box office success, and wide circulation among activists and social movements. The film screened theatrically in over 300 cities across the globe, became the most successful feature documentary in Canadian history and counts two dozen awards among its achievements.

Most importantly, however, Manufacturing Consent presented an engaged, compelling and incisive critique of mainstream media. It focuses on Chomsky and his colleague Edward Herman’s “propaganda model,” which lays out a scholarly and activist model for understanding the concentration of media ownership and the collusion between media and political and economic elite to maintain the status quo.

When this film entered the public sphere, “propaganda” was a word most commonly associated with communist Russia, while advertisers and hucksters had already rebranded themselves with newspeak terms like “public relations.”  Indeed, when the film launched the concentration of media ownership in the hands of a few major corporations was either ignored completely or widely considered a natural and benign aspect of globalization. As for the troubling cocktail of media censorship, corporate interests and government complicity, this film made visible the intentionally concealed dark side of mainstream media’s populist gloss and sheen.

In this light, Manufacturing Consent exemplifies Finley Peter Dunne’s famous axiom that media should afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Now, 25 years later, can we say with confidence that our corporate and state media fulfil this goal?

No. Here in Canada, we only need to consider the injurious misrepresentation of Indigenous peoples, of Muslims and Black people, of immigration, or the  glorification of pipelines, the tar sands, and Canadian mining companies to see little has changed – in fact, by many measures it has worsened.

The same media outlets that raked in copious revenue last year by way of their wall-to-wall broadcasting of the racist US presidential circus ring-leader are now drumming up an absurd exaltation of Justin Trudeau as the yogic angelic antidote. Such mythmaking of course depends on and rehearses the dominant narrative that positions Canada as the mythic land of multicultural peace and love. While the mainstream media may cry foul at President Agent Orange’s ideological “alternative facts,” they themselves have much to answer for in misleading and misguiding the public.

As Chomsky makes clear in the film, journalists and editors don’t even need to be conscious of the propagandistic role they are playing – in fact, it’s better if they remain unaware. They simply need to frame the story in conventional ways that erase systemic and structural contexts. A listen to CBC Radio news headlines will confirm this: we learn of sensational instrumental violence like murder, but not the structural violence of climate change that is leading to the unnecessary deaths of tens of thousands around the world, mostly people of colour.

Nor do we hear of the much more prevalent, destructive, corporate malfeasance, which occurs around the globe every day. Watching mainstream news on television is no different, as it paints a very skewed picture of the world: there is no investigation nor mention of the root causes of social problems; the real sources of injustice, inequity, violence and trauma, are never named.

No, as viewers we are actually made more ignorant by our mainstream media. This fact is all the more troubling when one considers studies that show people replicate their so-called traditional media environments when they toggle to online platforms (as in, if you watch CNN on TV, you’re likely going to the CNN website when you go on the Internet).

Chomsky calls this whole process the manufacturing of consent: if hetero-patriarchy, capitalism, colonization, white supremacy and sexism aren’t consistently named and deconstructed in our most popularly consumed media, how can we ever expect to dismantle oppressive ideologies and structures managed by a global corporate/state elite?

The answer, in part, is to be better informed, and to help our families, friends, neighbours and everyone in-between to be better informed as well. That starts with engaging with, supporting and championing alternative media dedicated to social justice (which includes subscribing and donating when we can).

And there is a lot to choose from. Here are a just a few more examples of (admittedly mostly Anglophone) alternative media that you may or may not know about, in no particular order: The Media CoopBriarpatch MagazineRicochet.mediaRabble.caWindspeakerAnishanabek NewsGUTS MagazineNo More PotlucksItsGoingDown.orgUnicorn RiotDemocracy NowIntercontinental CryRoar MagazineAlternetBitch MagazineThe InterceptTruthdig.comFeministing.comRadical Film NetworkMother Jones MagazineThe Real News NetworkÀ babordNational ObserverUpping the AntiThe Link at Concordia University, CKUT Radio at McGill University and countless other campus-based examples.

On a personal note, this film is partially responsible for the reason we’re all here tonight. For both me and CP Executive Director Svelta Turnin, viewing Manufacturing Consent opened our eyes to the problems of mainstream media and the importance to commit ourselves to its alternatives, especially to the genre of independent documentary film. And so, nearly two decades later, tonight’s event is part of a grassroots political documentary screening network that now spans the globe and can be counted among a growing alternative media family.

And lastly, to conclude: while Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media may be slightly dated, especially in its lack of diverse on-screen representation of both people and alternative media, it also was ahead of its time in two ways: first, it showed that documentaries can be both deeply political and entertaining at the same time; second, it drew attention to “fake news” at least two and a half decades before a certain TV-reality star turned politician discovered its existence.

So here’s to fracturing consent and fermenting dissent. Bon cinema! 


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