Demonopolize Them!

In the years to come, critical histories of the media--if there are any published--will surely point to 1995 as the Year of the Great Meltdown. Rupert Murdoch's big gift from the FCC, Disney's grand ingestion of Capitol Cities/ABC, the "courtship" of CBS by Westinghouse and then the vanishing of Ted Turner's empire into Time-Warner (the world's largest media corporation, for the moment) all indicate the onset of a new kind of "China syndrome"--i.e., the same bright garbage forever broadcast, published and/or released the whole world over, with dissident views and original voices simply disappearing from mainstream culture.Of course, this impending cultural disaster is, according to the barons of the media trust, a utopian achievement. In 1989, Disney chair/CEO Michael Eisner, named "Adman of the Year" by Advertising Age, told that magazine what makes his octopus-like corporation beautiful: "The Disney Stores promote the consumer products which promote the [theme] parks which promote the television show. The television shows promote the company. Roger Rabbit promotes Christmas at Disneyland."At the press conference hailing Disney's merger with Cap Cities, Eisner likewise marveled that "the synergies go on and on," and Robert Eiger, ABC's president, seconded the CEO's millennial view: "We have plans to be in so many activities far and wide that the list is substantially longer than Mike is even aware of at this point."Aside from its possible multiplying effect on Disney's bottom line, what, finally, will result from all those grandiose attempts "to be in so many activities"? As readers well know, such concentration will tend to inhibit even further the investigative drive of all those news departments lately swallowed up by this or that gigantic advertiser -- news departments that were no great shakes to start with, but that now will seldom threaten the myriad interests of their respective parent companies.Given the uniformity of Disney's product, and the notorious hands-on style of its management, ABC News may well be disinclined to probe Disney's ever-growing empire--and this self-restraint will make a difference. In 1990, ABC's PrimeTime Live featured a hard-hitting story ("Tragic Kingdom") on Disney's blithe mistreatment of the land and people where the company has built its sprawling theme parks. What is the likelihood of such sharp coverage by ABC, now that the newsfolk are all Disney employees?KEEPERS OF THE BOOKS Nor is it just by owning the newsrooms that the media trust determines what we know. The trust now dominates book publishing almost completely: Of all the major U.S. houses, only two are still independent of the likes of Murdoch, Newhouse, Viacom, Time-Warner, Bertelsmann--and Disney, which owns Hyperion. Such ownership has helped immeasurably to skew our public discourse toward the interests of the powerful.At times the trust releases were propaganda, such as Deng Xiaoping: My Father, a hagiography of the old murderer penned by his adoring daughter--and published by Rupert Murdoch's Basic Books, because (as Joe Conason reported in the New York Observer) of Murdoch's eagerness to win access to China's satellite TV market.Usually, however--and, of course, not always consciously--the trust works to keep the world safe for monopoly by rejecting, dumping or otherwise suppressing books that might arguably hurt someone's profits, or the wrong person's feelings. Thus did Bantam (i.e., Bertelsmann) suppress Marc Eliot's Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince, so as not to jeopardize the profitable Bantam/Disney project of stocking supermarkets with kids' books based on Disney films, as The Nation noted (5/31/93).DEGRADING THE CULTURE To take note only of the trust's suppression of information, however, would be to overlook another of its dubious accomplishments--and therefore to shrug off the serious concerns of millions of Americans, left and right, black andwhite. As the trust excises the news its owners think unfit to print, so too does it degrade the culture by resorting continuously to the crudest stimuli: loud, dumb gunplay, cool scenes of torture, screaming music, flying glass and lots of skin. Indeed, the trust's various shock tactics cannot--and should not--be distinguished from its tendency to censorship.As a Murdoch property, for example, TV Guide does not just routinely hype what Murdoch broadcasts on his Fox network--such as Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, subject of a cover story that ingeniously plays down the controversy over that sadistic show--but the magazine itself is now often as dim and lurid as the worst of television.Before Murdoch finally took control (his henchmen know him as a hands-on owner), TV Guide was, for a few years, actually a decent magazine, running serious articles and suitably caustic reviews. Under Murdoch, the magazine has turned into something like a glossy little version of his London tabloids, its covers and its pages full of cheesecake: the female stars of NYPD Blue posed in their underwear, Pamela Anderson of Baywatch fabulously kneeling in her nice bikini, etc.And as a Newhouse property, The New Yorker does not just publish, and review favorably, far too may authors published by Newhouse's Random House/Knopf franchise (an arrangement further eased by editor Tina Brown's marriage to Harold Evans, Random House's president). The magazine has also been ideologically renovated, as Brown has forced out or driven away many of its best investigative journalists (like Raymond Bonner and Allan Nairn), and has taken to excerpting books like A Moment on the Earth, Gregg Easterbrook's weighty heap of anti-environmentalist propaganda,(and this in the magazine that first published Rachel Carson's Silent Spring).Such signs of favoritism and of rightward drift, however, are quite inseparable from the magazine's overall dumbing-down and radical offenses against taste: the huge celebrity photo-portraits (Prince and others), the elevation of mere PR gimmickry over a commitment to the prose (Roseanne Barr guest-editing an issue), the inexorable shortening of the articles (Bonner's work was just too long!), the deliberately "outrageous" covers, and so on. By such means, Brown/Newhouse have been working not to keep the magazine's original readers (who have largely given up on it), but to attract much the same youngish, TV-centered cohort to whom Newhouse also pitches its GQ, ,Self Details and Vanity Fair (which made headlines last year with a cover photo of twelve movie starlets in their underwear).BRINGING OUT THE WORST The gladiatorial "talkshows" that are now all over TV offend not because they're trivial distractions from reality. Distraction in itself is necessary. What makes those shows offensive is their systematic effort to bring out the worst in both their viewers and their guests--a mean enterprise that we can trace directly to the interests of the largest media corporations.When, last year, one man killed another after feeling that he'd been humiliated, his masculinity impugned, on the Jenny Jones Show (he had been surprised, on the air, by the revelation that his "secret admirer" was in fact another man), the consequent brouhaha, predictably, raised many a somber question about the show's producers and its audience--but none about its owner, Time-Warner.All those bitter, sleazy "talkshows" are the exclusive products of such mammoth entities: Gordon Elliott (Murdoch), Ricki Lake (Sony), Montel Williams (Viacom), Maury Povich (Viacom), et al., provocateurs so ruthless that they make Phil and Oprah look polite.The examples of the cultural devastation wrought by the media trust are endless: the movies, now loaded with blood and rape and great f/x and endless screams of "motherfucker"; gangsta rap at its most trigger-happy and misogynistic; ads everywhere, some of them bordering on pornography (and then the controversy only serves the advertiser).AGAINST MONOPOLY All such monopolistic excess tells us that the time has come for a concerted national effort at the only step that can, finally, make any real difference: anti-trust. Other measures may (or may not) be helpful in ameliorating certain isolated evils. Boycotts may force this or that corporation to give up (or just sell off) whichever unit turns out this or that offensive product (and, of course, mere offensiveness is always arguable). Efforts to shame the media into better coverage may well become less effective as the trust hardens into place, its managers and owners quite protected by their perfect lock on the attention, and the doors, of the global audience. Because that over-concentrated power is itself the problem, and an unprecedented threat to our democracy, it is crucial that we now use this democracy to break that power down.Obviously, this is a cause that cannot get much media attention (aside from ridicule), and so this necessary struggle must be fought out at the grassroots level; and this must mean strategic coalitions of progressive media activists with other groups, some apolitical and others to the right.A few such alliances have lately formed in opposition to the trust, and to good effect. In early September, the consumer-oriented progressive Center for Media Education teamed up with Black Citizens for Fair Media and the United Church of Christ, petitioning the FCC to turn down Westinghouse's bid for CBS.And a month earlier, Rep. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts liberal, managed to slightly blunt the deregulatory force of Newt Gingrich's communications bill with an amendment limiting the number of TV households that one company my reach--an achievement enabled by his teaming up with the conservative Rep. G.V. Montgomery (D.-Miss.), who "is worried," as the New York Times put it, "that the Walt Disney Company could bring sex and violence to the South."THE RIGHT'S HYPOCRISIES Such alliances are indispensable to any serious effort to democratize the media. Even if we cannot share the tastes (or the biases) of our fellow citizens, there can be no danger in a coalition whose purpose is to make the media more accessible and more diverse. Indeed, it would be riskier by far to let the Murdoch/GE/Disney/Newhouse apparat continue to absorb the culture -- and to leave many millions of Americans, with their often sensible concerns about the media's influence, to the provocations of such rightist demagogues as Newt Gingrich, Pat Buchanan and Ralph Reed, who just pretend to take those worries seriously.In fact, the right has managed to protect the corporate power behind the media, precisely through that great pretense at caring passionately about "family values," etc. There is no real conflict between those demagogues and the monopolists. (Indeed, certain of those demagogues, like Pat Robertson, are would-be monopolists themselves.)This was obvious when, at the 1992 Republican convention, Dan Quayle, as usual, scored "Hollywood" for its celebration of "sex and violence," and got, predictably, a big enthusiastic hand form the assembled delegates and the party bigwigs on the stage behind him--including Arnold Schwarzenegger. Such bad faith was obvious again last spring, when Bob Dole ripped narrowly into Time-Warner for its promotion of gangsta rap and bloody movies (although not Arnold Schwarzenegger's). Shortly afterwards, as Senate leader, he'd given that same corporation everything it had been lobbying him for.The right wants just to demonize the media, not demonopolize them. The spectre of immoral film and TV producers and traitorous liberal journalists--that is to say, Jews--is an old goad indispensable to agitators whose real program is profoundly anti-democratic, and who therefore must keep hammering at a certain evil and illusory "elite" so as to make themselves appear as populists instead of fascists, theocrats and/or simple servants of big business.CALLING THE BLUFF It is therefore time to call their bluff: i.e., to tell the people who it is that really owns the media (a lesson that will make clear to rational folks that it is not, in fact, "the Jews"); to remind the people that they are themselves the owners of the airwaves; and to point out the very close relationship between the media's ever-worsening excesses and its all-but-total domination by a few huge multinational corporations.And so we must begin a serious national debate on anti-trust, raising crucial questions about foreign ownership, the dangers of horizontal integration, the necessity of public access, the possibility of taxes both on advertising and on the use of TV spectrum, and all the other issues on which this Congress has been speeding madly in the wrong direction.However, before we can mount that debate, progressive media activists must start to engage the cultural concerns of those beyond our own too-small and (at the moment) isolated circle. Rather than ignore, or laugh off, the qualms of rural folk, suburbanites, even some Christian fundamentalists, et al., we must broaden our critique to take account of the trust's various aesthetic crimes along with its many journalistic lapses.Between ourselves as critics of the media, and those right-wingers who get so much mileage out of their attacks on "Hollywood," only we are capable of making any difference. To that end, we need to recognize the great and understandable uneasiness of all those parents, clergymen and teachers out there, and now include them in our democratic effort.


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