Documentary on media monopoly

By Jerry Tallmer

Former NYU student with film at Angelika

It’s a profession I hadn’t heard of before. Place-holder. Not like when you’re in a block-long ticket line at the movies and you want to see if your date is already there, someplace way up front, and you say to the lady behind you: “Would you mind holding my place a moment? I’ll be right back.” Not like that. But yes, like that — sort of.

These other place-holders can be discovered in a quick shot in a documentary movie called “Orwell Rolls in His Grave” that opened last week at the Angelika. Here they are, it looks like 30 or 40 of them, very very decrepit looking people, street people, wending their way slowly in a long, straggly line toward the doorway of a committee hearing of the United States Congress.

What gives? Well, each of these hired hands — “like a police lineup,” says the soundtrack — is holding a place for some lobbyist or other. A lobbyist who doesn’t want to stand in line waiting to get into the hearing room where he or she needs to lobby.

I wonder if there’s a minimum wage in the District of Columbia.

“It was either the House Banking Committee or the House Telecommunica-tions Committee, I don’t remember which,” says Robert Kane Pappas, the onetime NYU film student who made the documentary.

“Bernie Sanders’s assistant, a very nice young woman, took me all over the place, and we came across that line. I was completely shocked,” says Pappas. “It looked like a scene from Tompkins Square. If it was the Banking Committee, that’s why your credit-card rates go all the way up.” And if it was the Telecommunications Committee, that’s why the Rupert Murdochs of this world will sooner rather than later make Orwell’s “1984” look like yesterday’s mashed potatoes.

Bernie Sanders is the gutsy, free-spoken sixth-term U.S. Congressman-at-large from Vermont, neither a Democrat nor, God save us, a Republican, but an Independent. He has a lot to say throughout the Pappas film about monopoly control of the press, or what’s now called the media; and, as a matter of fact, about Rupert Murdoch — “one of the smartest and most dangerous people in this country.”

Gresham’s Law: Bad money drives out good. Bad journalism drives out good. Bad thinking — or no thinking — ditto. From the day Rupert Murdoch purchased the New York Post from Dorothy Schiff, the Murdoch version of Gresham’s Law, long applied to Aussies and Brits, has been smashing the brains of a great many Americans

One day up in Burlington, Vermont, Bernie Sanders said to Robert Kane Pappas, and Pappas caught it on camera: “The issue is whether ideas [ITAL] matter.”

“I did not know what he meant when he said it,” says Pappas today. “I didn’t realize till days later how unbelievably important that line was.”

Indeed, that ideas do matter — and do increasingly matter as information gets more and more processed to us through the giant sausage machines of monopoly media — is what “Orwell Rolls in His Grave” is all about. There are many more targets than Murdoch in this documentary, but most of them have names like Clear Channel and Sinclair Broadcasting.

And yes, “Orwell Rolls in His Grave” consists largely of talking heads scattering anti-establishment buckshot in all directions, but when the buckshot includes pellets like NYU prof Mark Crispin Miller’s reminder: “Goebbels said that what you want in a media system — he meant the Nazi media system — is to present the ostensible diversity that conceals an actual conformity,” you sit up and (see above) think.

The most dangerous word in the whole media picture of the past 20 years has been “deregulation.” Where the hinges started coming off the system — not just the media system, but many systems — was under Ronald Reagan. What is crucially needed now, say several of the talking heads including NYU’s Miller, is renewed, reborn, rigorous antitrust activity.

Quite the opposite is what is currently being exercised under Bush’s FCC Commissioner Michael Powell, or what the decommisioner has been trying to exercise until the Congress — including many libertarian conservatives — stopped him. Michael Powell is the son of Colin Powell (and thus brother of the actress Linda Powell, which should have made him know better).

Manhattan-born, Westchester-raised Robert Kane Pappas, whose papa was in the fur business, was a 26- or 27-year-old in graduate film studies at NYU in 1980, a year when the news was dominated by the gasoline shortages and Iran hostage crisis that doomed Jimmy Carter’s reelection.

“Every day, every day, for a whole year, the New York Post ran a little icon of a blindfolded hostage. I took it into my head,” says Pappas, “to walk into The Post with my video camera. The Post was down on South Street then. Right next to it was a little joint called the Post Mortem Lounge. I wondered: Is this where they put the bodies?”

No, but it’s from where Pete Hamill would one day edit the paper when short-term publisher Abe Hirschfeld barred the door against him, but that is another, later, funnier story.

Back in 1980, Pappas wandered into the newsroom with his video camera and encountered a gracious, prematurely white-haired man who turned out to be city editor Peter Michelmore. Michelmore (one of the rare good guys of that early Murdoch regime, this New York Post alumnus can testify) talked with young Pappas at length about journalism, ethics, headlines, the hostage crisis — “he was very up-front” — and we see some of that interview in graying, grainy old video footage.

At the end, Michelmore says that the Post is “incompatible” with journalistic principles and “not my kind of newspaper any more.” Shortly thereafter he in fact quit, and Pappas has at the present time been unable to find any trace of him.

Uniformity is all. Everything else goes down the memory hole. If they don’t print it, does it exist? If a tree falls in the forest and there’s nobody around, is there any sound?

In January 2003, as Iraq War 2 was looming ever nearer on the drawing board, Pappas called a friend who worked at Fox TV and asked: “What’s going on?” His friend at Fox replied, wise-cracked: “It’s the Super Bowl.”

George Orwell didn’t know from Super Bowls, but he knew what Big Brother knew, and Goebbels knew: The bigger and more repeated the lie, and the more you can control the news, the more it is taken as truth.