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Thursday, December 23, 2004


Week One—The Calimari

The concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few is the death knell of democracy. No republic in the history of humanity has survived this.

——Garrison Keillior

Columbia Journalism Review has a fascinating list of which companies in America own what. The second half of the twentieth century was a time when we witnessed something very sinister, in which a chart reflecting the various news sources in this country ceased to be a crowded jumble of various, contradictory voices, and started to look like an octopus—el calimari, as Gore Vidal put it— with every tentacle leading, ultimately, to the same few dark and hungry beaks. On the New York Post website, there is a banner that can direct you to papers from dozens of countries—all of them owned by Murdoch. Just before I left Utah, the paper I read as a child, The Salt Lake Tribune, was taken over by Media News Group, Inc., the same company that owns the Charleston Daily Mail, the "local" paper where I now live, half a continent away.

Of course, the big media tycoons and the independent voices have co-existed for a very long time. The Rupert Murdoch's of this country have been driving us into unnecessary, pointless wars since William Randolph Hearst blamed the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine on shadowy Enemies of Freedom and started the Spanish-American War. And those of use with the ability to think for ourselves have always been able to find independent voices, from the Abolitionist newspapers of the 1840's to the indie weekly paper where I was a summer intern the year before I started high school.

And we don't lack voices from either side of the aisle, as Michael Moore and Rush Limbaugh prove. We also have smart people in media, despite Michael Moore and Rush Limbaugh. The problem is that both Michael Moore and Rush Limbaugh are tentacles of the same calimari. The same company that put up the money to make Fahrenheit 9-11 owns Limbaugh's home station. (That company, ironically, is Disney.)

That's a strength of capitalism, right? Certainly Ayn Rand would say so: no matter what your beliefs, if you can get people to watch you, you can get on TV.

Well, here's the sinister part: these eleven companies that own ninety percent of the news sources in America all report the same news. Here's a pop quiz, kids: which enormously influential, wealthy and long-lived leader of an Arab country died in the run-up to 2004 presidential election?

If you said Shiekh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, president of the United Arab Emirates, congratulations—you're from Europe! The number of people I known in this country who knew about Sheikh Zayed's death when it happened number precisely four. The number who knew about his death and have never been American ambassador to Abu Dhabi is just three!

Sheik Zayed was president of the UAE from 1971 until 2004. That's over thirty years. In that time he was one of the most influential and powerful men in the Middle East. He spent decades building hospitals, schools and universities across his country, he was tolerant of Christians, his majlis (a traditional Arab council) was open to the public, he even gave up hunting with firearms to encourage conservation—in short, he was one of the most liberal, democratic leaders in the entire region. He advocated the presence of women in the workplace and allowed a private media; not with as much freedom as we have here, unfortunately, but a thousand times better than Iran or even Russia. In other words, precisely the sort of person we want to be encouraging, supporting and helping.

Yet not one person in the American media have I heard lament his passing. Does Tucker Carlson know who Sheik Zayed was? No. Bob Novak? Hell, no. Does Michael Moore? Michael Moore knows that the Saudi embassy is right next door to the Watergate apartments, an irony I have known and appreciated since I was fifteen.

So we can sit back and listen to the folks on Crossfire or Hardball or Can 'o Whoop-Ass argue about today's scandal, that Yasser Arafat may have owned part of the bowling alley Rudy Giuliani went to—you think I could make that up?—and congratulate ourselves that we have people both red-faced-with-fury and blue-in-the-face-from-yelling on TV. We can sit back and listen to conflicts as scripted and substance-free as the WWF while el calimari gobbles us all up. It would be easy.

The fact that we might do that is the greatest threat to America today.

The above entry may come off as hostile to Michael Moore. I would like to remind readers that Moore wrote and directed one of the better pieces of political satire ever put on film, 1995's Canadian Bacon, with Alan Alda, John Candy, Rhea Perlman, Kevin Pollak, Rip Torn and Wallace Shawn, some of the best in the business. Looking for a documentary? Check out Control Room. Political commentary through the magic of satire? Michael Moore's way funnier than IMAO.

Good post, but I'd just like to point out one error:

The WWF, if you're refering to the World Wrestling Federation, ceased to exist in 2001. After years of battling, they lost a lawsuit to the World Wildlife Fund over the WWF initials. The company is currently WWE, World Wrestling Entertainment(the prior full name of the company was World Wrestling Federation Entertainment, Inc.).

Just a very minor correction from a die-hard wrestling fan. :)
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