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manufacturing-consent.jpgSurfing on Youtube the other day, I came across a documentary on Noam Chomsky entitled Manufacturing Content. It deals with the way media is used to control the people in modern democracies. Even though it was made more than a decade ago, I was hooked, and I spent the entire weekend going through the 17-part opus.

Chomsky argues that every state needs to control its people. Totalitarian states do so by means of violence, but democracies to a large extent do not have that option. Media, and especially the news media, fill that gap. In more honest times, Chomsky states, this was called propaganda, but nowadays media manipulation goes largely unnoticed by the common man.

If you have the time, this documentary is definitely worth a watch. It’s thought provoking, though I feel that it misses when trying to explain how the process works in practice. In a way the documentary doesn’t explain at all. You are just left with an ominous feeling that somewhere there’s a government offical preparing the day’s news brief for the press. I don’t think that’s correct. The state doesn’t control these matters. Instead, I believe that it is largely self-inflicted.

chomsky.jpgI can give you an example that deals with reporting during the Iraq War. I happened to be living in Paris at the time and got my news from a mixture of French, US and Dutch sources. On the 6th of April 2003, American F-14s accidentaly bombed a Kurdish convoy, seriously injuring a senior Kurdish commander and killing some 18 others.

The incident was reported in all media. In American broadcasting the event was described as a tragic case of friendly fire and a Kurdish spokesman was quoted as saying that an unfortunate mistake was made, but that these things happen in war. The French press stuck with the same story, but concluded it with an op-ed statement by the reporter that in spite of these conciliatory words, it was obvious that US – Kurdish relations would be strained for quite some time. The Dutch media reported the event and left it at that.

The point is that each news outlet was trying to frame the story in a way that was most appetizing for its own consumers. The Americans optimistic, the French pessismistic, the Dutch neutral. It’s consumer behaviour, advertising eyeballs, that control the media manipulation.

No one forced US viewers to switch to Fox in droves, but they did. The fact of the matter is that we like our news to be sanitized, to be made fair and balanced per our pre-existing beliefs. We go to church and sit in the choir expecting nothing but the usual sermon.

The truth will set you free, but freedom isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, it seems.

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Two in the morning and in spite of the late hour the air smells of lingering heat, of bracing summer. An oven briefly switched off. In front of me a sixty-year old man, wearing thick-framed glasses, mutters to his wife to hurry up as she digs through her handbag for the passports. He has one of those loud management books in his hand, “Achieving Success – The Easy 6-Step Program,” or something like that. Indian airports must have the highest density of self-improvement books in the world. Jack Welch and cheap derivatives galore.

Suitcases papered on all sides with a return address fill the arrivals hall. They disappear in the jostling crowd. Outside, the streets are relatively empty as we drive through the western suburbs of the city past nearly completed fly-overs and dimly lit malls. Women appear in the headlights sweeping the road. Dust to dust.

We approach a building about to be demolished and the supervisor forgets to either block traffic or halt work. A fist-sized rock hurtles down and hits the side of the car. We drive on. Not much to do about it anyway.

It’s 2008 and we’re back.

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