Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 10, 1997

Miller Focuses
Critical Eye
on Publishing

Steve Libowitz
Twenty years after TV newsman Howard Beale shouted in the film Network, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more," Hopkins media critic Mark Crispin Miller is shouting it for real.

Beale railed against the increasing domination of the news business by a rapidly shrinking fictional cabal of powerful multinational corporations. Miller goes him one better.

For the second time in less than a year, Miller, chairman of the Writing Seminars, has penned a cover story for The Nation about the problem of conglomerate ownership of the media in general and, in the March 17 issue, on book publishing specifically.

The essay, and one published in June 1996, are part of the work of the Project on Media Ownership, a Hopkins-based initiative to focus public awareness on how too few companies are controlling the majority of the country's channels for news, information and entertainment. Through the project, Miller will write subsequent pieces on media ownership and oversee the construction of a Web site and the publication of brochures, books and any other communication pieces he can get funded.

"People tend to see the media as wholly natural, like the wind or the stars," Miller says. "And that encourages them to believe, or at least to accept, what they take in. But the media are owned, and their content often skewed, by certain powerful interests. We can't fully participate in this democracy unless we know exactly what those interests are."

Miller's essays grew out of his countless hours on radio as a commentator on WJHU-FM with former announcer Lisa Simeone. "On the air I'd list the owners of the networks, book publishing, cable channels," he says "And even though it was not exhaustive, it generated local interest, and it clearly served a civic need."

With the project's senior researcher, Janine Jacquet--one of Miller's former graduate students--Miller set about to flesh out the details. The research has been included not only in Miller's essays in The Nation but also in foldout maps, which graphically illustrate the interconnectedness and the sway of the giant corporations that control the world's major media.

In the March 17 issue of The Nation, Miller describes the vast holdings of the eight media giants that control book publishing: Hearst, News Corporation, Pearson PLC, Viacom, Advance Publications, Bertelsmann AG, Time Warner and Holzbrinck. For each of these companies, with 1995 revenues listed at anywhere from $2 to $14 billion, Miller writes that "books are, literally, the least of their concerns." What troubles Miller perhaps most is that once the trade was based on love of books; today it's based on profits.

"Publishers of an earlier era also sought profits," Miller says, but their work was considered a low-yield industry. "Today," he writes, "[the giants] expect profits way too steep for publishing." This demand has led "to 'lite' as opposed to heavy, simple as opposed to complex, comforting as opposed to challenging, stupid as opposed to smart. It's a dangerous bias toward the most easily digestible bites," Miller says.

He adds that TV shares a big part of the blame for the current state of the book business. Selling books on such programs as Oprah pressures publishers mired in marketing strategies to think of putting out fewer titles that will "rarely blow your mind, since TV likes friendly monosyllables and authors with great hair." A mention on Oprah's "Book Club" can increase sales by more than 1,000 percent," he says.

Miller is not pining for some "golden age" in which all the books were great, nor does he contend in the current corporate climate that all books are bad. He argues, rather, that the overemphasis on profits has given us more trash--worse trash-- than the independent houses used to do. He also notes a falling off of the craftsmanship of books.

Unlike the book-loving publishers of the past, today's corporate giants do not "prize the subtle labor of their editors," Miller writes. "They want their staff not poring over prose but signing big names over lunch."

The result, Miller writes, is that "countless books are incoherent and obese" and often are riddled with typos and other technical errors. For the owners of the independent houses, "the product, as such, was the payoff," Miller notes. "As book lovers and businessmen, they did the high-yield trash so as to subsidize the books they loved." The media corporations today have a different aim, he says.

Looking over a current bestseller list, he notes that three of the top 10 nonfiction bestsellers are about O.J. Simpson, and five are inspirational and self-help books.

"I'm not arguing that there is no place for such books," he says, "just that the concentration of media ownership is giving us way too much of the same old thing. There is a general overemphasis on certain products--psycho-babble, diet books, celebrity bios--to the exclusion of other kinds of writing."

"The most frightening possibility is that the public will not know what they are missing," Miller says. "If people are consistently fed garbage, soon they will lose the taste for better fare." Others agree. Norman Lear, Paul Newman and Bill Moyers, as well as local supporters like Jim and Patty Rouse, have contributed to the Project on Media Ownership. Miller says existing and anticipated future funding will allow him and assistant Jacquet to continue to encourage people, dissatisfied with their cultural choices, to fight back.

"This is not a matter of censorship," he insists, "It's not about burning record albums or boycotting advertisers. Rather it's a matter of reminding people that the culture ought to be their own. The people own the airwaves, for example, and they have a right to something more than schlock."

Miller foresees a potential filing of an antitrust suit against the Federal Communications Commission for colluding with the media giants in their corporate move against the public's First Amendment rights. But "right now, what we need to do is tell the people who owns what," he wrote in the June 3, 1996, issue of The Nation. "Before we raise the proper legal questions ... we need simply to teach everyone, ourselves included, that this whole failing culture is an oversold dead end and that there might be a way out of it."

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