» NOTES ON A NATIONAL DISORDER: An interview with Mark Crispin Miller

Brian Awehali interviews Mark Crispin Miller

Mark Crispin Miller’s writings on film, television, advertising and rock music have appeared in numerous journals and newspapers, including The Nation and The New York Times. He has worked to focus public attention on the growing problem of excessive concentration in the U.S. culture industries, and on the oligopolistic sway of just a few giant players over television news, book publishing, popular music and cable TV.

Just after the publication of his book, The Bush Dyslexicon: Notes on a National Disorder, Miller sat down to discuss his diagnosis of the problems that allowed George Bush Jr. to capture the presidency.

Some people might think from the title that the Dyslexicon is an example of “laughing propaganda”—a cheap partisan shot attempting to paint George Jr. as an inept bumbler. But you actually argue that such propaganda, however entertaining, ultimately aids and abets George Bush and the interests he represents, don’t you?

Yes—It may feel good to laugh at Bush for his supposed stupidity—a laugh is always fun, especially if it makes you feel superior to what you’re laughing at. But such laughter is in fact a bad idea. Indeed, it’s actually more stupid than our President—who only benefits from such derision. He has tremendous intellectual limitations, to put it mildly, but he’s smart enough to use such ridicule to his advantage.

First of all, he is a master at the common pose of “self-effacing humor,” which only makes him appear “likeable,” just as it’s made countless other famous evil-doers look “likeable.” And in this case, it also helps confirm the myth that he’s a sort of Andrew Jackson-type—not book-smart, but a Man of the People.

Actually, Bush’s inability to speak clear English is a sign not of his commonness but of his brattiness. Every time he opens his mouth, he demonstrates how casually he treated his expensive education. But his propaganda team was very good at spinning his illiteracy as folksy unpretentiousness, and the major media gladly bought the pitch—an absurd one, given how rich and powerful the Bush family really is. Just to laugh at his grammatical mistakes plays straight into that winning misimpression.

In any case, his illiteracy per se is, by and large, much less appalling than the things he says, or tries to say. My book points out what Bush has really said, often without meaning to.

Some of the quotes you’ve compiled in the Lexicon would be funny if they weren’t so tragic.

But rather than talk about Bush, I want to focus on what you’ve characterized as our “national disorder.” You compare Bush’s unique mental…tics…to the state of our current system, focusing in particular on the influence of television…

In denying that he has dyslexia, Bush has actually admitted having it. This matters not because dyslexia per se disqualifies him from high office—many great people have been dyslexic—but because his impulse was to lie about it, and the lie betrayed itself: “That woman who knew I had dyslexia. I never interviewed her.” Everyone was much amused by the fact that that denial was itself dyslexic. What no one noted at the time was its casual admission that the charge was true—”the woman who knew I had dyslexia,” Bush said, and not “the woman who claimed I had” the problem.

And yet it isn’t Bush’s own dyslexia that is the point of the Dyslexicon, but what I take to be dyslexic character of TV news. Just as a dyslexic cannot read written symbols, so the great neural network of TV personnel—the producers, anchors, correspondents, pundits, et al.—cannot read the graphic evidence that they themselves deliver to the public through the medium. They either cannot or will not see what’s right before our eyes—that Bush is unfit to be President, and that he took the White House through a coup effected by Bush/Cheney and the Supreme Court. Such facts were there for all to see, and yet the telejournalists kept playing them down, as if they were all directly working for the Bush campaign.

But what do you think they’re really working for? How do you explain, for instance, the vastly different media coverage—and depth of analysis—given to Clinton? Clinton was clearly more telegenic than Bush, and it’s not like Clinton was unfriendly to big media or big business. I think you even mention in the Dyslexicon at one point that Clinton would be considered a good Republican in almost any other era. Go down the list on issue after issue and, to an overwhelming extent, Clinton was in agreement with the Republicans. He, Al Gore and Joe Lieberman all came out of the Democratic Leadership Council, which, according to Christopher Hitchens, got its start as Democrats for Nixon…So why do they receive such different treatment from the media?

Clinton was a victim of the most sophisticated propaganda drive in presidential history—a smear campaign more dogged, vitriolic and sustained than anything we’ve ever seen in the Republic, even during FDR’s administration. This clicked with the major media, in large part because its personnel are gun-shy— absolutely terrified that someone might charge them with “liberal bias.” As flakey as they were (by “they” I mean Richard Mellon Scaife and all his tools, as well as Clinton’s ancient racist enemies in Arkansas), those smear artists had great advantages over any of their liberal counterparts. For one thing, liberals basically don’t have it in them to mount hate campaigns like that; and liberals tend not to make the media people nervous, since anti-liberal bias won’t get anyone in trouble with the higher-ups. Thus we’ve seen telejournalists whole-heartedly show rightist bias (think of John Stossel, as well as all the big-time rumor-mongers throughout Clinton’s long ordeal), but never “leftist” bias, contrary to the paranoid fantasy sold by such media kingpins as Rush Limbaugh and his tribe.

This telejournalistic tendency has been much worsened by the concentration of the media. The news divisions now belong to a quintet of vast transnationals whose captains don’t care anything about the rules of proper journalistic craft, and therefore have no qualms about what their star correspondents say or do. This marks a subtle change. Back in the ’40s, and for a short while in the ’50s, even William Paley left his news division more or less alone. (That didn’t last.) Now, however, market logic has taken over absolutely. Even those big media CEOs who were pro-Clinton—Michael Eisner, for example—did not interfere with the big show, which kept the ratings high—which, of course, was all that mattered. The Lewinsky scandal was a perfect TV story: it was titillating, and so kept viewers tuned in; and it cost nothing to pursue, since all those yakkers had to do was float the rumors they’d been fed by Clinton’s enemies. It was also a perfect story for the non-stop cable “news” machines—CNN, Fox, MSNBC—which need exactly such cheap goods to keep themselves alive.

Finally, there was also an important demographic factor to the media’s take on Clinton. I actually believe that there was simple snobbery motivating much of the hostility—class bias, and a certain regional antipathy. Who was Bill Clinton to be so high and mighty? That he was a Rhodes Scholar, and a successful politician, made some of the media’s baby boomers envious—while George W. Bush’s privilege didn’t bother them at all, since he was, in their eyes, to the manor born.

I say all this as someone who was not a Clinton supporter, by the way. I strongly disapproved of his positions on “free trade,” media and banking deregulation, the drug war, the death penalty, and on and on. But those issues bore no relation to the right’s long attack on him.

I guess it’s no wonder, then, that Ralph Nader’s candidacy got such limited media exposure. There just aren’t many “perfect TV stories” you can spin out of an issues-based campaign.

Which leads me to my next question. In your book, you map out a detailed diagnosis of our national disorder, and contend that the media’s basic goal is to preserve the status quo, in the process getting everyone to forget the democratic possibilities. So what can be done about it? Do you think there are any real levers people can use to pressure the television news networks into changing their coverage, or do you think attempts at reforming them are in vain? And where do you see “community” news networks, like National Public Radio and Pacifica in this struggle?

It’s a dark time—but the bright side of that judgment is that the darkness is so thick as to be visible to quite a lot of people. It’s no longer necessary to make a labored case against the media. The problem’s there for all to see, what with the presidential consequences.

Reform is not in vain. Reform is crucial, if we’re to save American democracy. The heart of the whole problem is, however, that the very means of such salvation—the media system—is itself badly compromised; and this includes both NPR and PBS, which are little more than upscale versions of the other networks. (Meanwhile, Pacifica is going through its own peculiar agony, thanks to the perverseness and pig-headedness of its own management.)

While there’s nothing we can necessarily do right now, we must work toward reform at once—media reform, as well as campaign finance and electoral reform. We need, first of all, to draft a major piece of legislation, comparable to the ERA, that will give us all something to rally around. It should entail anti-trust measures, strict re-regulation of the broadcast media, radical enlargement and enrichment of our public media system, and the creation of new mechanisms to enable citizen participation in the making of media policy, [such as, for example] the establishment of state and/or municipal versions of the FCC, comparable to state EPAs. This will also mean a serious intellectual struggle with the notion of “commercial free speech”—a recent and anomalous innovation in constitutional theory.

This may sound lame, but let me recommend the new Web site of the Project on Media Ownership. Its purpose is to tell the people who owns what throughout the culture industries, and to offer thorough analyses of the various consequences of media concentration. It’s just a start, of course—but it’s absolutely true that knowledge is power!

In the book you include a great quote from James Madison that bears repeating:

“The fetters imposed on liberty at home have ever been forged out of the weapons provided for defense against real, pretended, or imagined dangers from abroad.”

And this speaks to another argument you make in the book. Namely, that the collapse of the Soviet Union and “communism” greatly increased the domestic danger of our national security apparatus and caused various factions formerly concerned with fighting communism to cast around for a new enemy. You argue that instead of finding a new country or national ideology to pit themselves against—and in spite of valiant attempts to identify “terrorism” as the new enemy—they’ve found something else.

While it is obviously something we should all be thankful for, the abrupt end of the Cold War has also proven very dangerous—far more dangerous to our democracy, in fact, than the Soviet Union ever was. When wars end, they leave a lot of undischarged aggression in the domestic atmosphere, as after World War I (which saw the Red Scare suddenly descend on our society) and after Desert Storm (when the Al-Sabahs carried out a bloody purge of Palestinians and others in Kuwait).

What has been true of such hot wars has, I believe, also been true of our long Cold War—which, as I point out in the Dyslexicon, left our nation with “a boiling residue of paranoid anxiety” that now had no external object, and that therefore had to turn against ourselves. This, I believe, may help explain the otherwise anomalous jihad against the Clintons—a campaign that started up almost as soon as the Cold War ended, and that very nearly tore the USA apart.

I think we’re all still living with this danger, which has found expression in the Limbaugh cult, the militia movement, the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, and the anti-Clinton movement, as well as in the wild shenanigans of the aroused GOP.

So to wrap up, given the problems you identify in the Dyslexicon, let me ask you a loaded question: Do you believe we are we living in a democracy, or are we living in an oligarchy, where a small group exercises power, primarily for selfish reasons, aided by a lapdog corporate media and a generally complacent and ill-informed public, all essentially colluding for the purposes of controlling—and obviating, in political terms—the majority of the U.S. citizenry?

In very general terms, that is the case; but I resist that formulation, which is too apocalyptic—so overwhelming as to paralyze the will, and thereby help to bring about the very plight that it decries.

We do live in a sort of plutocratic oligarchy, wherein the major institutions are arranged to anti-democratic purpose; and that crackdown has lately been accelerated by the Supreme Court, whose new majority is, as it were, radically reactionary. But—crucially—I don’t think people are complacent. Many are, of course; but many always have been. Many were complacent even at the moment of our founding revolution, and many are today, what with the great narcotic of TV and all its visions of Toyotas, Whoppers, Britney Spears and N’Sync dancing in our heads.

There is, however, a plurality of thoughtful, worried people—of all classes—who are lacking not in will or interest but in basic information, and in clear political alternatives. That plurality must rouse itself, and grow back into power. It won’t be easy, but not trying it is simply not an option. My hope is that The Bush Dyslexicon may help a little, by reconfirming people’s doubts about this system, giving them some background on our current situation—and, also, through dark flashes of satiric humor, to cheer them on their way as they attempt to reclaim our democracy.

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