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 [Advertising] wants to become the air we breathe. It wants us not to be able to find a way outside of the world that it creates for us.

To start, we're hoping you could just give us kind of an overview of the messaging landscape, particularly all the clutter in media today and what that means for us.

Various experts have recently tried to quantify the amount of advertising that suffuses the culture. We hear that each one of us encounters in an average day 2,000 messages or a million solicitations. I don't know how anybody can come up with a figure like that. I think it's probably more poignant than accurate to note that there is so much clutter in the landscape. It's really more accurate to say that the landscape is clutter. There is nothing other than clutter.

It's not as if we have some preexistent blank space that's clean and tidy, and there happen to be a lot of ants floating around in it. It's extremely difficult to cut through that clutter to find a space that's not in some sense advertising already. All the old safe havens -- schools, churches, urinals -- one by one, they've all basically been appropriated by the advertising/public relations force so that it's actually accurate to say that we live in a universe of propaganda.

Then what's the messenger to do now?

Well, this is a problem for all of us. It's a special problem for the advertisers themselves. They are the ones who make clutter. They are, therefore, also the ones who are always trying desperately to break through the clutter. That's the line you always hear in ad agencies: "We can break through the clutter with this." Well, every effort to break through the clutter is just more clutter. Ultimately, if you don't have clean, plain borders and backdrops for your ads, if you don't have that blank space, that commons, that virgin territory, you have a very hard time making yourself heard. The most obvious metaphor is a room full of people, all screaming to be heard.

Media critic Mark Crispin Miller explains in this interview the flaw in the claim made by champions of advertising that it's a form of democracy because it's giving people what they want. He also talks about what happens when marketing and advertising techniques spill over into our politics, the difference between being a citizen and being a consumer and, lastly, the dangers of a culture where marketing is pervasive and it's all about the bottom line: "You'll hear [this] from novelists, filmmakers, reporters -- this is not just me. There's a kind of cultural crisis going on now where people are being forced to make the kind of thing that they weren't ever trained to do. … [It's] the kind of thing that's dictated by corporate interests alone, and it tends to make our air thinner. It tends to annihilate all the gorgeousness and novelty and all the challenges posed by really original, passionate works of art and news." This interview was conducted on May 26, 2004.

What this really means, finally, is that advertising is asphyxiating itself and really has been doing so for a couple of decades now. Some years ago, one advertising professor suggested in Advertising Age, in all seriousness, that advertisers generally would probably make more money by ceasing to advertise on TV entirely. TV had become so crowded, it had become so hard to break through the clutter of TV -- with more clutter -- that it was not even worth the investment, he argued. This was an argument that people in advertising took very seriously. Of course, many of them passionately resented it, but he did have a point, and the point only becomes more and more relevant as time goes on.

Should advertisers stop advertising?

Well, some advertisers actually have, in a sense, begun to stop advertising per se. When we talk about advertising, you usually mean "white propaganda"; that is to say, ads that are obviously ads. They announce themselves as ads. Beyond that, you get into a much subtler realm of propagandizing where people aren't quite aware, or aware at all, that they're being solicited, where the world you move through is an ad.

As advertising per se has come to encounter more and more sales resistance -- which is understandable, as people become more and more distrustful of these messages and harder and harder to stimulate, more and more blasé -- the advertisers have tried ever stealthier means to implant in your mind, in your soul, the urge to drink this or eat that or whatever it is. So you've got all kinds of methods that border on what people [in] spycraft call "black propaganda"; for example, folks who are paid to go to bars and chat up a new cigarette brand or brand of beer as if they were real people spontaneously celebrating this thing. You've got TV shows that are ostensibly ad-free, but they have logos and buildings and so on worked into the story so that the whole thing is really a commercial.

So we're moving away from advertising per se towards a more fundamental kind of pitch, which is what propaganda, generally speaking, always wants to do anyway. Advertising is just a commercial form of propaganda. What propaganda has always wanted to do is not simply to suffuse the atmosphere, but to become the atmosphere. It wants to become the air we breathe. It wants us not to be able to find a way outside of the world that it creates for us.

There is this company in [Scott Donaton's book] Madison & Vine that talks about how [the movie] Cast Away is this great advertisement for FedEx because it's not an advertisement for FedEx, but it advertises it perfectly, and that basically there are people spending a lot of money and research figuring out how to blur the line between what was content and what was advertising. Not that we should worry too much, but is our culture at risk of becoming pure advertising now?

The worry is not so much that the actual ads themselves will become ubiquitous. Rather, it's that advertising -- all propaganda -- desires for itself a background that will not contradict it. It desires for itself a neighborhood that it feels safe in. In fact, people in advertising use the expression "good environment." Certain shows are a "good environment" for their messages. Now, when, for example, we were waiting for the 1991 Gulf War to begin, everybody knew roughly when the war was going to start, because the date had been announced, and there was tremendous suspense and fear and so on. As the zero hour approached, which was January 15, 1991, more and more mainstream advertisers suddenly bailed on their advertising contracts. They were under the misimpression that our media might bring extremely graphic images of warfare into our homes, so you wouldn't want to put your Oil of Olay commercial on and then see somebody burned to a crisp inside a tank, right? That would be to put the ad in a bad neighborhood, in a bad environment.

So for the first few nights of the war, there were no major advertisers [on television]. It was all curious little independent advertisers. It was a strange thing. After a few days, it became obvious that the whole spectacle was itself an ad, that [it] was advertising the precision and might of the American armed forces. The whole spectacle was managed by the Pentagon. So AT&T, McDonald's, the whole bunch of them went back on the air, and it didn't take them long to start to use war-related motifs in their commercials to make the thing even more unified.

But at that point, they actually still had 30- and 60-second advertisements. Now it seems we're moving into a programming universe where the advertisement is part of the show.

That's exactly right. If you don't look very carefully, if you kind of half-close your eyes, you might think that advertising is disappearing, because the fact is that traditional forms of advertising -- the minute-long spot; the 30-second spot; the split 30s, [which are] two 15-second ads, and so on; the magazine ad; the newspaper ad; the billboard -- it might seem that many of them are being phased out.

But they're not being phased out in favor of plain old civic space. They're being phased out in favor of a kind of advertising, a kind of propaganda, that's far more profound. It's far more deeply rooted. The aim here is not so much to find a show that people like and then get your ads on it. The aim here is for the advertisers to create a show that is itself an extended ad. In a curious way, we're moving back in time to the days when advertisers actually presented radio shows and TV shows. But this is far more sophisticated than that.

Formerly, when an advertiser would produce, say, a musical show, the music had to be paramount. The music had to be good; it had to be popular. That would then, presumably, make a difference to the advertisers. Commercials would benefit from the association with that nice music. Nowadays, when an advertiser envisions a show that's just right for his product, you don't really have content that's very easy to tell apart from a commercial for the product itself.

It's hard for many of us to remember, and impossible for the younger of us to know, that advertising was for decades always regarded as a bit of an intrusion, a nuisance, an interruption: "Don't go away; we'll be right back." And then they'd pitch something -- you know, Bufferin or Chevys or whatever. The same with ads in print media: You're going to have to skip over the pages of ads to get to the text.

Well, as long as ads struck people as interruptive, as long as they struck them as a kind of momentary detour away from the road you wanted to be taking, the story you wanted to be following, they were also strangely candid about what they were. They were commercials. That came with the territory. You had to listen to a commercial in order to hear the music on the radio. You had to sit through two or three commercials in order to keep watching the episode of The Fugitive you were watching or whatever it was, you see? Now that paradigm of the ad as an explicit interruption, as a departure from the thing you're watching, that whole paradigm is giving way to a kind of programming that's already like an ad itself. There's no need to interrupt it, because it's selling things all the time anyway.

I have a very good example. In the '50s, Philip Morris was the sponsor of the top-rated TV show in the United States, I Love Lucy. Everybody loved I Love Lucy. Everybody watched it. Philip Morris advertised on it and was the sponsor. All of a sudden -- I believe it was in 1955 -- Philip Morris dropped the show. Now, why on Earth would they do that? Well, they discovered that the show was often so funny, or at least struck its audience as so funny, that people were still wiping the tears from their eyes and squeezing out the last few chuckles while the commercials were running. [The] experience was too intense, you see?

What we've done is we have moved from I Love Lucy, which was over-the-top farcical, but at its best hilariously funny, funny just for the sake of being funny, we've moved from that to the paradigm of shows like Friends, which can be clever, which is often very witty. I don't mean to take away from Friends, but Friends is a much more subdued experience than I Love Lucy. We also don't tend to see the same kinds of shows about the uncanny that used to be quite popular on TV in the '60s, say, like The Twilight Zone and Thriller, because these shows were really frightening, really suspenseful. They had an intensity that today's advertisers would really prefer not to compete with their own messages.

But then we move even from advertising-friendly shows like Friends to shows as advertisements, like, say, The Restaurant, which is basically an American Express Small Business Card advertisement masquerading as a program; or Sex and the City, with an entire plot line sponsored by Absolut Vodka. So isn't that an intrusion on a somewhat sacred space?

Well, what's most worrisome about this is that advertising, being a form of propaganda, wants no contradiction. So that means we have to ask ourselves, what is the kind of content that makes advertisers feel better? What is the kind of content that makes an ad not seem jarring?

A certain kind of intense experience, an intense dramatic or aesthetic experience, tends to make advertising look like what it is, which is trivial; which is just a pitch, just trying to sell you something. What advertising is doing is trying to addict us to products, trying to get us to see consumption as the only way to live and ourselves as consumers as the only way to be. So the problem with an advertising-friendly cultural environment is that anything that's intense in any way is at risk of being erased, so that the usual smiley face of advertising, with all of its special effects, can dominate your consciousness.

Is there a problem with the fact that the plots and characters of our dramas are now built around the products within them?

Advertising has become the point. The TV shows are made not just to make ads look good but to function as enhancements or repetitions of the ad. The TV shows themselves are ads. The radio playlists now are themselves ads. More and more you've got newspaper sections that are nothing but articles about new kinds of products or new kinds of vacations and so on.

The same thing has happened in the world of news. Decades back, the TV networks would themselves, at times, produce extremely powerful documentaries. CBS, in its heyday, did this great documentary about migrant farmworkers called Harvest of Shame. In the early '70s, they did this very powerful documentary about the military-industrial complex called The Selling of the Pentagon. Well, no advertiser wants to have his ad come up in the middle of or after a show like that. It's too sobering; it's too much about reality; it's too troubling; it's too much of a bummer. So the news, too, becomes increasingly magazine-like. The stories are more and more tacitly censored -- not necessarily explicitly censored, but they just don't seem to play properly -- so that the news has to become an adjunct to advertising as well. This is no way to have a functioning culture in a democratic society. It's a way that turns all the content of all the culture industries into [a] mere continuation of advertising.

Some of the people we've talked to have argued that the level of choice offered to consumers today is basically a form of democracy. In other words, consumption is democracy because we're giving consumers choice and giving consumers information. What's wrong with that? What's wrong with people achieving their meaning by relating to brands?

Well, the fact is that this is an old argument, the argument that we're giving the people what they want. They're voting with their dollars -- what could be more democratic than that? It's an old argument. It goes back to the '30s at least.

Well, it's profoundly skewed. This argument is deeply wrong in a way that some of the greatest founders of this republic would have understood immediately. The political realm and the realm of consumption are two very different things. Take a look at advertisements. What is their ideology? What is their message? What do they value? What do they ask of us? Commercials say to us endlessly: "You come first, and you can only be empowered if you use this, you buy this. You come first."

Now, what republican democracy requires is what some have called civic virtue; that is to say, a willingness to sacrifice anything, any advantage, any pleasure, even life itself, for the greater good. This is an old, old ideal that comes from the Roman republic. There is a contradiction between that notion of service to the greater good, that kind of patriotism, that kind of self-effacement, that kind of self-sacrifice and the sort of sociopathic self-gourmandizing, the constant feeding, constant acquisition. The fact is, there's an antisocial dimension to aggressive consumption.

And that, I think, points to the key flaw in that claim by the champions of advertising that this is a form of democracy. It's not. It only has to do with a very narrow realm of daily life. I don't mean to say that material life is unimportant, but which product you buy is a fairly trivial question. In the political realm, democracy involves a lot more than going shopping. It involves participation; it involves dissent; it involves trying to improve the world you live in; it involves taking your civic responsibility seriously. So you can't really say that there's anything truly democratic about advertising.

Moreover, there's a flaw in the argument in that advertising can't be democratic, because it can only appeal to the people who can afford to buy the things that they're selling. So it's already addressing only that sector of the population that has a certain amount of disposable income. All those people who can't afford to buy personal computers, long-distance phone service, cable TV, you name it, what, they're not a part of the democracy? Well, according to the advertisers they're not, because the democracy is a big shopping excursion where we all get to buy whatever we want.

That said, what happens as the techniques of marketing and advertising spill over into politics?

Advertising, like all propaganda, tends to work despite your will and reason. It wants to work around your reason. It's not persuasion. Sometimes people in advertising like to say they're in the business of persuasion. It's not persuasion. They want it to work on a much more visceral level than the persuasive level. They're not arguing with us. They're trying to push our buttons. They're trying to bring a tear to the eye, trying to give you a hunger pang, trying to make you mad.

Now, these same tricks are used routinely by political handlers and by political parties. The Republican Party, for example, seems to trade in almost nothing but resentment and anger. That's what it's about. There's nothing coherent or logical about it. How can you have a democracy, a, when all the stuff you're taking in about the outside world actually is kind of subjugated to the purpose of selling products? You're going to get a very poor picture of reality that way. And b, what kind of a democracy can you have when those who should be rational citizens acting in their own best interests and acting for the good of all [are] constantly being bombarded by stimuli that are intended to get around [their] reason? They want couch potatoes that will simply emote in response to the stimulus. You can't have a democracy that way.

Well, Frank Luntz told us that people responding and behaving emotionally are happier than people responding cognitively and with their reason.

Well, by the same token, when you're severely mentally retarded, you're happier than when you can think. Babies are happier than adults. [To] suggest that happiness somehow --

They model the individual, even. They go down and figure out [that] this person's going to respond well to this ad. Republicans seem better at it than Democrats. Is that because Republicans' issues are more hot button-y, or because they've had more practice or better infrastructure?

Well, the Republicans are better at propaganda than Democrats for a number of reasons. First of all, I think the Republicans are more cynical by and large than Democrats. Not that there aren't any cynical Democrats, but Republicans are, I believe to some extent, consciously trying to distract the electorate from a number of actual issues, facts and realities.

Those who benefit from the Republican agenda are really very few. It has no real grassroots appeal. So in order to conceal that fact, in order to flip the picture upside down and inside out, the Republicans have been very diligent about depicting the Democrats as the party of elitists, as the party of snooty college-educated types who don't understand the NASCAR dads and all that. It seems like mere foolishness, but it's really a very brilliant propaganda move, because what you do is take the party that represents the elite and you have it cast its opposition as elitist, only on the basis of certain cultural signifiers, like you drink Chablis or you went to Harvard. So there's a kind of fake populism at work here.

This necessitates understanding how to get under people's skin, how to make people angry, how to make them resentful. Fox News Channel has brilliantly managed to appeal 24 hours a day, seven days a week to mass resentment, resentment that criminals get coddled and immigrants are pouring over the borders and so on. This is actually an ideological necessity for the Republicans, because they don't want people asking questions about jobs moving overseas, middle-class income declining, all those real issues, because if people asked those questions and thought about those things, they wouldn't vote Republican. They may not vote Democratic either, but the fact is that the Republicans thrive at this kind of scapegoating and have, really, since the Nixon days, in part because of the nature of their message, which is one of distraction.

Well, then how do you fight hot-button stimulation with facts?

Well, anyone who wants to do effective propaganda -- and any political or religious movement has to use it -- has to understand that there's an important difference between treating a subject with all its nuance and in all its complexity and treating it in a way that will have the requisite impact on the people you're trying to reach.

Now, Republicans are very good at propaganda. They happen to be very good at "propaganda," as we use that word negatively. We often think "propaganda" is a synonym for "lies"; we often think that "propaganda" is a synonym for "manipulation." Well, as a matter of fact, the word, when it was coined by the Vatican in the 17th century, was all about spreading the truth. In fact, any systematic attempt to move large numbers of people to some action is propaganda. Trying to get people to quit smoking, propaganda; to wear their seat belts, same thing.

Now, it is possible to have good propaganda that is good not only in that it's effective, but it's good in that it's promoting worthy ends and doesn't lie. One of the greatest works of propaganda in our history is Tom Paine's Common Sense. The Declaration of Independence is pithy, moving, portable, sells an ideology and so on. It's a work of propaganda, among other things. The truth that's out there about all these issues is dramatic enough. The trick is to find ways to simply convey the magnitude of the problems, and to do it without resorting to trickery or distraction.

As the political parties get more successful at using their tools to play on our emotions, what does that do to the democratic conversation?

As political parties become increasingly adept at pushing our hot buttons, they necessarily destroy what you might call the democratic conversation. You're not having a conversation. You're not communicating with anybody. You're not discussing anything. You're not trying to reason your way through a position and contend with an opposing point of view. You're not engaged in conversation at all. You are part of a big, pullulating mass of emotional meat is what you are. You're just basically feeling the rage they want you to feel.

It usually is rage. It's easier to piss people off than it is to bring them to other kinds of emotional high points. Freud says hate is more binding than love, and there's something to that. So what we're talking about really is a politics that's turned into nothing but demagoguery. We tend to think of a demagogue as a guy in a sweat-stained shirt and sleeves rolled up banging on a podium, [but] you can be much cooler and more subtle and still be a successful demagogue, just by using the right visual images.

Do you think the much-heralded red-blue phenomenon -- the polarization of the country, the lack of intercourse between the two sides -- is partly a response to this? Do you think there's any link to the rhetoric and the devices that the political parties use?

Well, to some extent, the notion of a profound red-blue divide is a propaganda construction. The idea that the country is split evenly down the middle is a propaganda construction, because it actually isn't. It's a propaganda construction because it's usually a model that's invoked by the right as a way to suggest that half of us are passionate about American things and half of us are a bunch of effete pseudo-intellectuals. The fact is that there are a lot of people in the so-called red states who don't buy the agenda that the Republicans have constructed for the red states. There are a lot of people in the blue states who don't buy the agenda that the Democrats would have them follow.

By dividing us into little categories, what does that do to the overall democratic conversation?

Democracy requires, first of all, participation by the people -- a very quaint idea, but it does. It requires participation, and it requires reason. People have to be able to reason things through. They have to be able to tell the difference between truth and lies, between fact and fantasy. Now, when you inhabit the political universe where you're always and only the object of highly charged and very well-planned stimuli that are calculated to get you nodding, you have no opportunity to engage in that kind of necessary democratic conversation which involves reason and thinking and so on. You can't. You're only responding to stimuli that you'd respond to like that under any circumstances. It has nothing to do with reality, ultimately.

And finally, politics as a realm of experience becomes stale and irrelevant in just the way that many movies and TV shows become stale and irrelevant, because they've been based entirely on market research. No creativity [or] inspiration has gone into them. On those few occasions when somebody gets on TV and tells the truth without trying to jerk you around, when you get the kind of Bulworth effect occasionally, it's like a revelation. It cuts across party lines, too. There's no substitute for reason, and by the same token there's really no substitute for telling something like the truth.

Is there a difference between being a citizen and being a consumer?

Citizens and consumers are two entirely different things. They have nothing in common. I mean, we happen to be citizens, and we happen to be consumers. But citizens are participants in government. Citizens are equals. Citizens are the equals of politicians. Citizens have to be taken seriously because they theoretically have the power in a democracy. Consumers are feeders. All consumers do is consume. All they do is munch grass. They're like sheep or lambs. They are not equal to the politicians. They're not equal to the politicians' handlers. They're being manipulated necessarily. They're being manipulated to think only about the grass that they're chewing and nothing else, and manipulated into thinking about ways to get more grass. They're not operating on a sufficiently high level to participate in a democracy, at least as it was envisioned by Jefferson and Adams and those people.

Tell us about the rise of partisan journalism and what its effect has been on nonpartisan journalism.

Well, the history of partisan journalism is very interesting. Once upon a time, all journalism was partisan. When this country began, there was no notion of journalistic objectivity. It was a foreign idea in the 18th century. All journalism was advocacy journalism. All journalism was partisan. All journalism was written by people who had an ax to grind. And that was the kind of journalism, interestingly, that the founders believed should be encouraged and subsidized. The Congress provided printing subsidies to all newspapers in this country. And they made it possible to bulk-mail things so that postage wouldn't prevent opinions from circulating and observations and arguments from getting around.

Now basically what happened is -- and I'm putting this very simply -- in the Progressive Era, late 19th/early 20th century, you had a sudden explosion of what actually turned out to be the greatest journalism in American history. It was the era of the so-called muckrakers. These were people who weren't interested in saying he said/she said. These were people who frankly intended to make change. These were people who frankly intended to outrage readers by telling them the things about the system that they didn't know. The muckrakers were extraordinarily gifted at digging up the dirt about industries, about church, about schools, about government. They were unrelenting. And the fact is that there were a lot of magazines at that time that didn't depend on advertising. They actually made their way through newsstand sales or subscription fees.

So for about 30 years you had journalism that would tell the truth about Standard Oil, that would tell the truth about big beef trusts and so on. This led to a reaction, and it's a reaction we're still living with today. In reaction against this kind of highly charged investigative reporting, there developed a notion of journalism as objective, as almost something like a science, as a highly professional enterprise. At the end of the 19th century, beginning of the 20th, you got the establishment of the major journalism schools in this country. And there developed a new ideology of journalism that was basically "Just the facts, ma'am" -- who, what, when, where and why. Now, this has its advantages, I'm sure, but it served the purpose of basically protecting advertisers against news that would constitute a bad neighborhood. The more restrained, the more muted, the more apolitical, the less critical the news became, the more the advertisers liked it. And this became a kind of religion that most journalists now at least purport to live by. They're terribly objective.

Now what's happened over the last three decades is that a significant sector of American journalism has become totally politicized. The right has been smart enough and rich enough to create what are ostensibly news organs that basically do nothing but deliver Republican Party talking points, right-wing propaganda of various kinds. Interestingly enough, these highly biased sources, Fox and so on, are the ones that accuse all other journalists of being biased in the liberal direction. Well, there is no liberal bias. The fact is that for millions of Americans, their daily intake of news is basically a daily intake of right-wing fantasy. So the news is custom-made now to fit a certain ideological point of view. …

…Our media is wholly compromised -- I would say corrupt beyond redemption -- for a number of reasons. It has absolutely failed to fulfill its constitutional obligation to inform us. That's what the First Amendment is about. The First Amendment has to do with our right to know what's going on. It does not have to with some art museum's right to put on an edgy exhibit. It doesn't have to do with some media company's right to put on an obscene rap video. It's not a license to offend. That kind of thing was foreign to the founders. The real purpose of the First Amendment is to allow the press to keep us abreast of what our government is doing. They don't do that at all. Why? There are a lot of reasons for this, many factors at work.

First of all, the press has long since disappeared in this country. The press has long since disappeared into "the media." We don't have independently owned newspapers. We don't have independently owned networks, as large as they may have been. We now have networks, newspapers and magazines and radio stations and so on that are part of far larger media conglomerates. Now, what this means is that the views of management -- the views of those at the top of this huge cartel -- are usually the ones whose views prevail, no matter how individually liberal or moderate a reporter may be. So when you're talking about NBC and CNBC and MSNBC, you're talking about General Electric, which owns all or part of each of those.

Secondly, we are at a disadvantage because our journalists are far too close to the people they cover. Now, this is partly a function of the fact that they all work for these enormous corporations whose managers and major shareholders are very close to politicians. But it also has to do with the fact that the cream of the crop, the top journalists, the most recognizable faces, are extremely wealthy as well as well-connected, and therefore disinclined to make waves.

I discovered, to my amazement, that Donald Rumsfeld co-owns a ranch in New Mexico with Dan Rather. Now, that's something that would have been unimaginable a few decades ago. But now they all go to the same dinner parties and they hang out together, and they basically feel more loyalty to one another than they do to the population of the country.

American journalism is source-dependent. American journalists, more than their European counterparts, have to get a statement from the man in charge -- got to get your statement for the day from Rumsfeld; got to get your statement for the day from Karl Rove. If you don't have the statement, you don't have a story to file. In such a system, if you don't play ball with those at the top, they're not going to give you any of those statements, and you're screwed, basically.

Does the entrance of Fox News onto the landscape create an imperative for CNN and the formerly more neutral news sources to start to move to the right?

Fox has already pushed CNN to the right. When Walter Isaacson was the head of CNN, he set about, for example, trying to recruit Rush Limbaugh for CNN. But CNN already has Bob Novak as a ubiquitous presence on its network, and William Schneider, who belongs to the American Enterprise Institute. There's nobody on the left -- if "left" has any meaning -- who appears frequently on CNN. And aside from the political complexion of the on-air personalities, their choice of stories, the things they choose not to report, the things they choose not to cover defines them already as embracing the same basically right-wing view that Fox embraces. There's not a whole lot of daylight between them.

What about the extra-governmental right-wing think tanks or the left-wing think tanks? Have they learned how to prime the media?

That's a good question. The media landscape that we now inhabit is a result of some very deliberate decisions made by rightist interests 30 years ago, interests that were much shaken by the war in Vietnam, the resignation of President Nixon and so on, horrified by the extent to which the news media was taking a kind of objective view of the conflict in Southeast Asia. They are interests convinced that the media had a liberal bias and that that liberal bias led to all the tumult of the '60s and early '70s.

So this is when the landscape began to be developed, self-consciously and with tremendous skill and wealth, by entities set up precisely to do that. The Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institute, the Manhattan Institute, the Carthage Foundation, the Olin Foundation -- these entities were all set up so as to begin to exert control over the whole national conversation. They would determine, through their influence, the direction that the national conversation would take.

So in order to do this, for example, they would encourage certain scholars to write particular books, like The Bell Curve by [Richard J. Herrnstein and] Charles Murray, which is a book questioning the very basis of affirmative action. There's a whole network of rightist scholars whose work is subsidized and created for media attention by the very powerful, corporatized, rightist interests that understand the necessity of dominating the media conversation.

In a sense, the right has had to take over the media for a particular reason, and that is that they don't actually have tremendous grassroots support. Their agenda -- not raising the minimum wage, cutting Social Security, sending everybody's jobs overseas -- that's not a particularly popular agenda. So what they do is obfuscate, largely by determining the direction that the national conversation takes in the media. They cultivate figures such as Charles Murray, who take a right-wing line on affirmative action. They cultivate the likes of Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter, order their books in bulk. What it is is a minority masquerading as a majority.

The other interesting thing that they've done to the media is sort of replaced fact-based journalism with the argument show. What's the real effect of that? On the surface it looks like: "Great. We've got a lefty and a righty, and they can argue it out. Isn't that all fair?"

The problem with these shows is that they're primarily theater. You can have an argument on the radio that's a real argument because you have the space to speak, develop your points, and if you have a host with any integrity, he'll shut up the one side that keeps trying to talk over you. TV is different. TV is for short attention spans. TV is short bits in between commercials. TV is about one-liners. So even if you do get an articulate person from the so-called left -- an articulate opponent of the administration or of the right -- on the air, that person's at a disadvantage. It's an uphill struggle to be constantly cut off either by a commercial or an overzealous host. It's entertaining, because people fuming at each other is always entertaining, but it's not at all edifying. It doesn't tell us anything that we need to know.

Insofar as we're stuck with the system of screaming heads, kind of gladiatorial conversation, you might as well have some interests that are taking a contrary position. What we fundamentally need, though, is media reform, a program of media reform that is radical beyond the imaginings of anyone so far. We need to break down these huge media corporations. We have to make the commercial sphere competitive again. We have to enable families to continue to own newspapers by revising the tax laws. We have to create a genuinely independent and well-resourced public broadcasting sphere -- and that should be local as well as national. There should be public TV stations in every state and municipalities as well as coming out of Washington, D.C., and a system that's not intimidated by Congress and dependent on advertisers, which they call underwriters. We need to have media reform itself become an issue. It should be a Cabinet-level position: Media Policy. It is that way in other democracies.

What's your suggestion to the viewer? What are we to do, as individuals, to wake ourselves up, to experience a bit of autonomy in the face of a branded, coercive universe?

In the absence of a really functioning, independent press, I'm afraid we are each obliged to make individual effort to inform ourselves, at least about the true range of stories out there; about the news that doesn't get covered by our local stations and our local paper or our national dailies. We are each obliged -- and the problem is that many of us do not know this -- to go use the Internet, which is a fantastic resource, to see what the press systems in other nations are reporting. See what they're reading in Britain, see what they're reading in Japan, India, France, Germany and Scotland, and we'll discover that the people in those countries actually know more about our own country than we do, because so much stuff just doesn't get reported here that is reported abroad.

Until we have a viable, truly diverse and largely independent media system that's not just a kind of adjunct to the federal government, we are obliged to use whatever technological means we have at our disposal to inform ourselves and to go well beyond what's at the top of the hour on CNN and what's on the front page of The New York Times, because the differences between what other people receive about us and what we receive about us are staggering. I would say that at this point, our media system is comparable to the media in the old Soviet Union.

Aren't we as American citizen-consumers complicit in this, in the fall of this great empire?

It's tempting to spread the blame for this great civic breakdown and say that we're all at fault; we're all decadent; we all want to drive the Humvee and eat the Whopper, and we don't care about the truth, and we don't care about this nation's founding ideals.

I will say that the right has certainly not gotten where it's gotten entirely on its own. The Democratic Party has been largely passive, has been unduly intimidated, has been compromised by the same large donors that basically own the Republican Party. And the media -- the corporatized, hypercommercial media -- is obviously to blame as well for failing in almost every instance to step up to the plate and say, "No, what the president is saying is not true -- here are the facts." We could also go beyond that and say that the people are at fault, but I am reluctant to do that because it seems to me to be a kind of blaming-the-victim [mentality].

The fact is that you can't know what you can't know. Most people work for a living. A lot of family people out there, they have kids, they come home from a long, tedious day at the computer or whatever else they do -- they basically have the time and energy to focus a little bit on the local news, maybe a little bit on a national newscast, maybe a couple of minutes of CNN, maybe a little bit of the fight on Fox. They might look at The New York Times or USA Today or their local paper, which is just part of a chain, but they can only take in what's most highlighted. That's in the structure of their lives. They're not stupid. In fact, the subjects of every tyranny in modern history have known only what those at the top have wanted them to know. They could not know what they could not know, so that when you start to tell somebody, as the media critics do, "this happened, this happened" -- you start to fill in the history behind Saddam Hussein and the United States, for example -- it sounds impossibly radical; it sounds earth-shatteringly bizarre. So you're accused of paranoia or conspiracy theorizing when all you're doing is reporting what the citizens of the world's other countries know, just from reading the paper. The fact is that people finally can't be blamed if all they know is what's inside the cave they live in.

There has to be some way to break in on that solitude. The media has to be in this democracy the means whereby the official word is shattered so it doesn't any longer surround our consciousness. That's what the media is for. That's what the framers envisioned it doing, precisely that. They understood that power wants to fill your head with itself, so in order to try to break that power down, they created checks and balances, which have now been obviated by one political party, and they also took extreme pains to set up the press as a free agent that would be outside the government. They understood the excesses and the sins of newspapers. They understood them all too well. A lot of that stuff was as bad as it is today. But they still realized that as long as you had some voice speaking from outside the purview of power, you could get people to think. If all you hear is the same thing over and over again -- I don't care whether it comes from the Koran or from the Old Testament or from Republican talking points -- if that's all you ever hear, how are you supposed to know that there's something else to know? So I don't think people should be blamed for that.

Just putting political power to the side, going back to advertising and marketing in the commercial sphere, could you elaborate on your comment on how marketing is pervading the very air we breathe, how it drives out other forms of artistic, political, cultural expression?

If we compare TV today with TV in, say, 1972, or if we compare Hollywood today with Hollywood in the '70s, we can't help but notice that something really terrible has happened. TV has always had a great deal of garbage on it, of course. Most movies have always been mediocre; that's not new. But the fact is that there were, 30 years ago, strikingly high numbers of significant exceptions. You had movies like The Godfather, Godfather II, Chinatown, Nashville -- these were made by major studios, and they would take a critical look at the status quo, and were at the same time riveting, exciting, new, dramatically inventive and so on. They were the kinds of films, in other words, that would never in a million years get made today. Maybe by a fluke one might get made today.

By the same token, all those guys and women who were on the shopping bags of Barnes & Noble could not get published by a corporate publisher today, because there's not enough of a return. The fact is that when everyone is forced to try to meet the inordinate profit expectations of management, when every sector of the culture industry has to turn over a profit of 12 percent, 25 percent, it has a tendency to destroy the possibility of any kind of work that may demand [taking] a chance, that may need to be thought through.

We celebrate their swashbuckling deal making, visionary blah blah blah, but outside of the economic realm, outside of buying up all this and that, when it comes to taking risks on the content, when it comes to taking the risk of offending people, of depressing [them], of confusing them, of enlightening them, of trying something new that nobody's tried before, the minds at the top don't like that one bit. They want to have another version of what seemed to sell two years ago. This has had an effect on just about every sector of culture in this country. It has practically destroyed pop music. It's sapped literary publishers of all their energy. It's really driven Hollywood into a terrible cul-de-sac.

And what I'm saying is stuff that you'll hear from novelists, filmmakers, reporters, musicians -- this is not just me. There's a kind of cultural crisis going on now where people are being forced to make the kind of thing that they weren't ever trained to do. They did not go into the arts or journalism to do this kind of thing. This is the kind of thing that's dictated by corporate interests alone, and it tends to make our air thinner. It tends to annihilate all the gorgeousness and novelty and all the challenges posed by really original, passionate works of art and news.

 

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posted nov. 9, 2004

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