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Entering the Matrix of media gigantism

May 28 2003

By Frank Rich (NYT)

Saturday, May 24, 2003

The Matrix Reloaded” is so dull, so literally ruled by
Laurence Fishburne’s trance-inducing Morpheus, that I had
to reload the “Matrix” DVD to remember why I had been
taken with all those streaming digits the first time around.
But never mind. You can’t argue with a $135.8 million
four-day opening, which in itself validated the movie’s
premise.

It’s the conceit of the “Matrix” films that most of mankind
is plugged into a virtual-reality program conjured up by
all-powerful machines to tease our brains while they loot
our bodies for bioelectric power. AOL Time Warner, the
powerful machine behind the films, pulled off a comparable
feat by plugging the United States into its merchandising
program for “The Matrix Reloaded” to loot our wallets – and
by enormous promotion of the movie abroad, notably at the
current Cannes film festival.

“As of Monday, April 28, there’s 95 percent awareness of this
movie,” boasted its producer, Joel Silver, to Entertainment
Weekly weeks before its premiere. In a country where two-thirds
of the population cannot name any of the nine Democratic
candidates for president, according to a CBS/New York Times
poll, that’s some achievement.

It was certainly helped along by Entertainment Weekly itself,
an AOL Time Warner publication that ran two cover stories on
“The Matrix Reloaded” in a single month.

The genius of the public relations strategy was its
exploitation of the original film’s geeky cult status as a
thinking kid’s kung fu extravaganza. “The Matrix Reloaded” would
not be just another bloated Hollywood sequel but instead would
have the philosophical heft to fuel a new generation of
metaphysical Web sites. And so every puff piece about the film
has emphasized that its creators, the siblings Andy and Larry
Wachowski, do not give interviews – as if behaving like Thomas
Pynchon would give their movie the gravitas of “Gravity’s
Rainbow.”

To second the motion, along came Cornel West, the Princeton
professor who has a cameo in “The Matrix Reloaded” and is not at
all shy about meeting the press. He told Time (for its cover
story) that “the brothers are very into epic poetry and
philosophy, into Schopenhauer and William James” and that “Larry
Wachowski knows more about Hermann Hesse than most German
scholars.” This does not explain why the movie’s multicultural
orgy scene looks like a Club Med luau run amok, but maybe the
inspiration for that was Kahlil Gibran.

So high-minded are the Wachowskis, the publicists assured us,
that they even clamped down on “Matrix” merchandising. They
strictly limited the sequel’s ancillary products to an Enter the
Matrix video game, action figures, sunglasses (featured in another
AOL Time Warner magazine, People) and an animated DVD.
They kept the movie’s product tie-ins to a bare minimum as well:
Powerade drinks, Cadillac, Ducati motorcycles and Heineken.
Lest anyone think that such commerce constitutes a sellout,
we were told that the Wachowskis drew the line by nixing
Matrix-theme burgers at McDonald’s. Siddhartha lives!

And so does AOL Time Warner. It is the most troubled of the media
giants these days – crippled by billions in debt, internecine
warfare and a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation
for fraud. But even in its weakened state, it has the Herculean
resources to fix much of the world’s attention on whatever it
chooses to sell. We are not just plugged into the media giants
matrix to be sold movies and other entertainment products.
These companies can also plug us into news narratives as
ubiquitous and lightweight as “The Matrix Reloaded,” but with
more damaging side effects.

This is what has happened consistently during the U.S. struggle
with Osama bin Laden. During the years when Al Qaeda’s terrorists
were gearing up for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and
Washington, the media giants were in overdrive selling escapist
fare like the Clinton scandals, Gary Condit’s sex life and shark
attacks. They were all legitimate stories. But those entertaining
melodramas drove any reports of threatening developments beyond
U.S. shores to the periphery of the mass-media news culture.

The media giants took the same tack in banding together to push
the administration-dictated narrative of Saddam Hussein – and with
the same results. The networks’ various productions of “Countdown:
Iraq,” though as ponderous as “The Matrix Reloaded,” were so
effective that by the time the war began, 51 percent of Americans,
according to a Knight-Ridder poll, believed that Iraqis were among
the Sept. 11 hijackers. It took the bloody re-emergence of Qaeda
terrorists in Riyadh two weeks ago to recover the repressed memory
that none of those terrorists were Iraqis and that most of them
were Saudis.

And whatever happened to Saddam’s arsenal, all those advanced
nuclear weapons programs and biological poisons that George W.Bush
kept citing as the justification for going to war? Well, sarin today,
gone tomorrow. That laundry list of terrors, none of them yet found,
vanished from the national consciousness.

The power of the five companies that foster this sequential amnesia
is increasing, not declining. In a vote set for June 2, the Federal
Communications Commission is expected to relax some of the few
ownership restrictions meant to rein them in. Companies like Viacom
(which owns CBS and Paramount) and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. (which
owns Fox and is on its way to controlling the satellite giant DirecTV)
are likely to go on shopping sprees for more TV outlets. But who
knows or cares? Though liberal and conservative organizations alike,
from Common Cause to the National Rifle Association, are protesting
this further consolidation of media power, most of the United States
is oblivious to it. That’s partly because the companies that program
America’s matrix have shut out all but bare-bones coverage of the
imminent FCC.

If there’s a hero in our own Matrix saga, it may be Barry Diller,
who is considerably more articulate than Keanu Reeves’s Neo, if
somewhat less schooled in the martial arts. Diller, who now runs USA
Interactive, has been chairman of Paramount, Vivendi and Fox. With
the exception of the semiretired Ted Turner, he is the only show
business mogul who doesn’t buy the argument that the advent of 500
TV channels and the infinite sites of the Internet ensure
alternative entertainment and news sources. He says that the 500 TV
channels will still end up being owned by the same five companies
and that as broadband comes in, the companies that control the fast
cable modems will dominate the Web, too. “We will be in a position
where our society will be harmed,” he said when we spoke last week.

In his view, this concentration of power explains much that has
gone awry in our culture, from the decline of TV news to “why movies
are bad.” They’re bad, he says, because they are now “20 rings of
power removed” from the top decision makers of these vast companies.
“No one cares about them,” he says. “They are just commodities to
deliver returns.” Nor does he buy the argument that these media
goliaths stay sharp by being forced to vie in the marketplace.

“The companies don’t really compete with each other,” he says.
“They accommodate each other. Fox movies have to be sold to HBO.
Warner cable has to take Fox because Fox has sports teams. They
talk only to each other. They don’t have to do anything else for
anyone else alive.”

But neither Diller nor anyone else is likely to stop this
consolidation of cultural power unless the public knows or cares
enough to protest. That hardly seems to be in the cards. We reward
mediocre movies with record grosses. We reward tabloid news epics
with high ratings. We reward dissembling politicians with high
poll ratings. We expect our journalistic media to fictionalize
the truth. One way or the other, we all inhabit the Matrix now.

The New York Times

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“Other News” is a personal initiative seeking to provide information that should be in the media but is not, because of commercial criteria. It welcomes contributions from everybody. Work areas include information on global issues, north-sutrh relations, gobernability of globalization. The “Other News” motto is a phrase which appeared on the wall of Barcelona’s old Customs Office, at the beginning of 2003:â€?What walls utter, media keeps silentâ€?
Roberto Savio

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