It's a small world after all--oppressively small, in fact.
The announcement that the Magic Kingdom would be purchasing Capital Cities/ABC for an estimated $19 billion, instantly transforming the Magic Kingdom into the largest media conglomerate on the planet, shook the entertainment industry last week in ways that Westinghouse's purchase of CBS a scant 24 hours later did not. Because, frankly, Westinghouse--an old-style manufacturing behemoth--probably won't have a clue what to do with it, just as General Electric doesn't have any earthly idea what to do with NBC. Information is a very tricky product; when cleverly and malevolently shaped , it can influence consumers in ways they'll never realize.
Disney, an information-age company through and through, understands this principle with frightening clarity. Let's think about how this will affect the news--and how the increasing concentration of media ownership affects the news in general.
A few years ago, a day-care center innocuously painted images of Disney cartoon characters on its windows. Disney's swift retaliation--including freakishly excessive legal threats that would sound more appropriate spewing from the mouth of an anti-Mafiosi district attorney--was given big play on TV newscasts and in newspapers nationwide. Coverage of the incident was as informative as it was appal-lingly funny; it illustrated to shareholders and average citizens why many Disney employees refer to the company's management style as "Mouse-schwitz." More recently, we've seen stories about teenagers who died mimicking a stunt they saw in the Disney film The Program; about the company's push--aborted following public protests--to build a Disneyfied history park in Virginia; and about the near-hysterical hatred many French citizens feel toward the culture-despoiling EuroDisney.
The next time a Disney public-relations disaster happens, do you think you'll read an aggressive, provocative story about it in The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, which is owned by Cap Cities--even a wire story? Do you think you'll see a fair story about it on the ABC Evening News, or the nightly newscast on WFAA-Channel 8, an ABC affiliate? Do you really believe the normally skeptical Dallas Morning News TV critic Ed Bark when he parrots the official company line--that Disney's self-interested agenda and brutal reputation won't intimidate anybody working in any division of the media company it just swallowed up?
Anybody who does believe it probably thought The Lion King was a documentary.
--Matt Zoller Seitz (email@example.com)
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