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Media Critic Mark Crispin Miller

In mid-1996, Mark Crispin Miller, Chairman of the Creative Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University, and a media critic in Baltimore, sat down with Scott Loughrey for an interview.

Mediawise: The news that theme-park builder Walt Disney was acquiring ABC and nuclear power-plant manufacturer Westinghouse was buying CBS was met with indifference by the mainstream print media. These two large corporations are joining weapons manufacturer GE (which owns NBC) for control over much of the news that Americans receive nightly on TV. Why is is it not a good idea to give Westinghouse, Disney and GE this much influence?

Miller:: Historically the news has always been questionable because of the overwhelming pressure of commercial interests. This was a problem with the nation's daily papers a century ago. So it's nothing new. But what is new is the scale of the corporate domination and the breadth of the media interests controlled now by the giants. For example, Disney owns not only a major network in its news division, but it also has prodigious interests in filmmaking, book publishing, the music business and merchandising generally. This means that there is that much more that the reporters cannot cover aggressively. What is in fact a trust now dominates the very culture. The situation is unprecedented and poses a great threat to democracy.

Mediawise: Do you think the mainstream print media raised sufficient concern about the acquisitions?

Miller:: No. The mainstream media generally played down the many likely ill effects of those mergers. Likewise, the coverage of the Telecommunications Bill of 1996 was trivial. The print media are of course part of this whole problem, so it comes as no surprise that their approach should be so tame. But, by and large, the coverage by the alternative press was also pretty poor.

Mediawise: What effect will the Telecomm Bill have on encouraging media monopolies?

Miller:: The Bill was basically dictated by the likes of GE, Disney, Time-Warner and Rupert Murdoch [a media baron who counts Fox TV among his global TV/newspaper empire]. It was therefore an invariable recipe for increased monopoly control...[It allowed for] the number of TV and radio stations that can be owned by any one entity to be dramatically increased. Actually, the situation in radio is even worse than with TV. For example, take Infinity Broadcasting-which owns Howard Stern, G. Gordon Liddy, etcetera. They're planning a 24- hour Howard Stern network to be staffed by jocks picked by The Man himself. We can look forward to many more such innovations.

Mediawise: Some people would argue that letting market forces decide who owns the broadcasting companies is the fairest method, since if Disney or Westinghouse start airing programs the public doesn't want to see, no one will watch and profits will fall. How do you respond to that?

Miller:: There is such a thing as tyranny of the majority. The fact is that many different kinds of viewers, listeners or readers are not being served by the commercial mainstream. Let's assume that the giants are all making healthy profits (although it's very hard to see their books and verify such a claim). Even if that's true, a great majority of the American people are markedly unhappy with the content of the media.

Mediawise: When Bill Clinton ran for President he promised to put "People First." How has the Clinton administration responded to the forming media monopolies?

Miller:: Both political parties belong to the media trust. If Rupert Murdoch pulls the strings of the Republicans, Michael Ovitz [the head of CAA] and David Geffen [who formed DreamWorks SKG with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg] are pulling Clinton's. There's no difference. Any political effort to democratize the media must therefore be a thoroughly grassroots venture.

Mediawise: In your article in the Nov-Dec 1995 issue of Extra!, published by FAIR [Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting], you called for a "serious national debate on antitrust" to raise "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 the TV spectrum, and all the other issues on which this Congress has been speeding madly in the wrong direction." Deconstructing the first three parts, what is an issue that can be raised about foreign ownership?

Miller:: According to the Communications Act of 1984, no foreign entity is allowed to own more than 25% of any major media company. Now, considering the value of the media for propaganda purposes that's a pretty sane requirement. The fact is that Rupert Murdoch broke that rule because News Corporation is an Australian concern. [Aussie-born Murdoch became a U.S. citizen in 1985, critics allege, to circumvent U.S. foreign ownership laws. News Corporation was started by Murdoch and it owns Fox TV.] The NAACP sued to get the FCC to cut back Murdoch's enterprise because he had basically lied about the foreign interests. Yet, the FCC summarily waived that rule for him.

Mediawise: Can you give us a definition of `horizontal integration' and what are some of the dangers it poses?

Miller:: Horizontal integration refers to disparate industries being pulled together under one umbrella; i.e., industries that are tangentially related. For example, Time-Warner with its movie studios, TV production facilities, cable systems, publishing companies, music business, and CNN owns every conceivable kind of commercial medium. Every one of its enterprises can automatically market products of the corporations of its subsidiaries. Therefore, marketing becomes the main concern of everyone in this corporation's ventures, even those that are supposed to bring us news about the world. Can we believe Time, People or Premiere when they report on issues crucial to the movie or music business? On the cable industry? I doubt it.

Mediawise: Why does the public need more public access when they have PBS already?

Miller:: PBS now offers a sedated version of what's on the networks. [Their management is] running scared of the Right and they are more and more beholden to their so-called "underwriters" (i.e., the big oil companies). They've become timorous. So now, we're seeing mainly things like the Three Tenors [Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras] and John Tesh Live at Rusty Rocks. If public broadcasting were to be supported by a trust fund based on a small percentage of the billions made each year by the media giants then the offerings would be more diverse and challenging and we'd all be better off.

Mediawise: How have people reacted to what you're saying?

Miller:: The public response to this whole discussion has been exhilarating. I've heard from anti-trust lawyers, academics of all kinds, a few politicians (laughs), and scores of average people who are genuinely concerned about the dangers posed by this corporate control of the media. What's most promising to me is the fact that not all those respondents have been what you could call `liberal'. The response has come from all across the ideological spectrum. I think that progressives now have a golden opportunity to spearhead a genuinely popular drive for anti-trust. The Rightist media-bashers would never take that step-which is a step that most Americans would like to help us take.

Mediawise: Have you used the Internet to spread your views?

Miller:: Well, yes. For one thing we've put [a chart which illustrates the corporate web of media ownership] on several web sites and I hope to see the entire media cosmos thoroughly mapped and all the maps provided to the users of the Internet. The Internet is still a democratic medium. But that is going to change unless the people rally to defend it from virtual control by the same giant players that have now appropriated the other media. [Another purpose of] the Telecomm Bill is basically to facilitate the absorption of the 'Net for commercial purposes.

Mediawise: What can MediaWise readers, many of whom are pretty busy, do to respond to the coming media monopolies; i.e., become media-activists?

Miller:: [For one thing] There's a group called the Cultural Environment Movement. At the moment that is the group with the tightest focus, the largest membership and the strongest sense of mission. I urge people to join up. Also, we need to do whatever might be possible on the grassroots level.

[Here in Baltimore] the TV and radio stations are owned by the giants. The cable franchise is owned by TCI, and the Sun is owned by Times Mirror. Baltimoreans should therefore try to enhance their daily intake of such mainstream media with whatever alternatives might be at hand.

Mediawise: What resources do you recommend for media-activists?

Miller:: Extra!, the New York Observer, magazines like Harper's, Mother Jones, In These Times, and Jim Ledbetter's commentary in the Village Voice. [Also recommended are] trade magazines such as Broadcasting & Cable and Advertising Age. Also, the New York Times business section on Mondays and the Wall Street Journal [do a decent job of pointing out important developments]. It is useful to read such stalwarts as Noam Chomsky, Ben Bagdikian, Herbert Schiller, and Robert McChesney. There's also an NPR show out of New York called "On the Media," hosted by Alex Jones. Finally, it is always a good idea to tune in to certain foreign newscasts, such as the BBC.

Scott Loughrey

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