Oversimplification as a Way of Life

Miller and Ferguson

Oversimplification as a Way of Life

Miller and Ferguson

Oversimplification as a Way of Life
New books dissected over email.
Oct. 13 1998 6:49 PM

Miller and Ferguson

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Dear Tim,

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I hear you: You're talking only about Disney's theme parks/movies/TV shows per se--"the strict and idealized Disney brand that Eisner has so carefully cultivated." And I understand as well that, while you're not particularly keen on them yourself, you see the good in all those "places and productions where [it appears] that coarseness and violence and dissoluteness are held in check." It's nice, you say, that "families" can spend a day or week in such spotless temples of the Disney magic (although you're not sure that you'd want your own hypothetical rug-rats to succumb to it).

Well, I won't argue with you there. A guy would have to be a total crab, or tiresome snob, to pooh-pooh a day or two of rides and snacks and shows of expert stunt-work. I don't take such a puritanical position. My argument is, rather, that the Disney Empire is not just a few huge theme parks and a big production company (etc., etc.), but one great component of a vast commercializing force that aims to tame and market the whole world. By narrowing your focus as you do, it seems to me, you understate the problem--and you actually misrepresent the book, in which Eisner makes quite clear that Disney aims to have the Seven Continents as its sole franchise.

As Eisner tells us, he got hired in the first place because of his firm grasp of this imperative, which he seems to stress as often and as fervently as Marx himself. (E.g., "Standing still was not an option. Either you take calculated risks to grow, or you slowly wither and die.") This impetus has had Disney getting into everything from radio to retail, from Broadway theater to book publishing and TV news, from urban planning to the World Wide Web--and with a deep faith in, and formidable knack for, "synergy," whereby the Disney Empire has become not only huge but also endlessly, obsessively self-advertising. (Eisner tends to sound excited only when he's riffing on the possibilities of "cross-promotion.") And it is not, of course, just Disney that is operating at the global level, but its few giant rivals/partners, too. Tellingly, on having "landed" ABC, Eisner quickly "spoke not just to our own key people at Disney, but to other CEOs, including Jerry Levin at Time Warner; Sumner Redstone at Viacom; Jack Welch at GE; and the founders of DreamWorks, with whom ABC still had a major prime-time production deal."

And so what's finally worrisome is not that Disney's product is too bland or juvenile, but that the corporation's shadow is too big--a sway with consequences economic, ecological, and socio-political, of course, as well as cultural. Certainly the corporation has sufficient power to make the culture generally that much blander and more juvenile. (Thus there is considerable wisdom in--and broad relevance to--your qualms about the Disney influence on New York City.) This is what makes Eisner's many stark omissions quite exemplary: As he suppresses inconvenient or unpleasant truths throughout his book, so does Disney in the world at large, through its multifarious holdings, oversimplify the story.

Wow. I've gone on way too long, so I'll put off getting into the specifics, and will await your next with interest.

MCM

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Mark Crispin Miller is professor of media studies at New York University and author of Seeing Through Movies. Tim Ferguson is an assistant managing editor of Forbes magazine. He is based in Los Angeles. This week they discuss Work in Progress, by Michael Eisner with Tony Schwartz (Random House; 464 pages; $27.95).