On June 3 The Nation showed in a foldout chart how most of the U.S. media are now owned by a handful of corporations. Several attractive octopi decorated the usually chaste pages of this journal. The most impressive of these cephalopod mollusks was that headed by Disney-ABC, taking precedence over the lesser Time Warner, General Electric-NBC and Westinghouse Corporation calamari, from which dangle innumerable tentacles representing television (network and cable), weapons factories (G.E. aircraft engines and nuclear turbines) and, of course, G.N.A. and other insurance firms unfriendly to health care reform.
As I studied this beast, I felt a bit like Rip Van Winkle. When last I nodded off, there was something called the Sherman Antitrust Act. Whatever happened to it? How can any octopus control so much opinion without some objection from…from whom? That’s the problem. Most members of Congress represent not states or people but corporations—and octopi. Had I simply dreamed John Sherman? Or had he been devoured by Dragon Synergy? Little did I suspect, as I sighed over this latest demonstration of how tightly censored we are by the few, that, presently, I would be caught in the tentacles of the great mollusks Disney-ABC and General Electric-NBC, as well as the Hearst Corporation, whose jointly owned cable enterprise Arts & Entertainment had spawned, in 1995, something called The History Channel.
“It all began in the cold,” as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. so famously began his romantic historical novel A Thousand Days. Only my cold was London, where, for Channel Four, I wrote and narrated three half-hour programs on the American presidency, emphasizing the imperial aspects latent in the office from the beginning, and ending, currently, with our uneasy boast that we are the last great global power on the…well, globe.
The programs were well received in Britain. The History Channel bought the U.S. rights. In ninety-minute form it was to be shown just before this summer’s political conventions. But then, from the tiny tentacle tip of The History Channel, synergy began to surge up the ownership arm, through NBC to its longtime master General Electric; then ever upward, to, presumably, the supreme mollusk, Mickey Mouse himself, Lord of Anaheim. Lord Mouse, this program attacks General Electric by name. Attacks American imperialism, which doesn’t exist. Bad-mouths all that we hold sacred. Oh, to have been a fly on the castle wall when word arrived! The easy solution, as Anaheim’s hero-President, R.M. Nixon, might have said, would have been to kill the program. But craftier minds were at work. We’ll get some “experts” like we do for those crappy historical movies and let them take care of this Commie.
So it came to pass that, unknown to me, a G.E. panel was assembled; it comprised two fly-weight journalists from television’s Jurassic Age (Roger Mudd, Sander Vanocur) and two professors, sure to be hostile (one was my old friend Arthur Schlesinger Jr., about whose client, J.F.K., I am unkind, the other someone called Richard Slotkin). I was not invited to defend myself, nor was anyone else. As a spokesperson for The History Channel put it, “Vidal is so opinionated that we had to have real experts on.” The Nation’s recent warning about the danger’of allowing the corporate few to make and control mass opinion was about to be dramatized at my expense.
Fade in: Roger Mudd. He is grim. He wears, as it were, not so much the black cap of the hanging judge as the symbol of his awful power, Mickey Mouse ears. He describes my career with distaste. Weirdly, he says I had “social ambitions at the Kennedy White House and [non sequitur] ran for Congress” but lost. Actually, I ran for Congress before Kennedy got to the White House. Also, in upstate New York, I got some 20,000 more votes than J.F.K. did as head of the ticket. During my campaign, Bobby Kennedy came to see me at Saugerties Landing. It was, appropriately, Halloween. “Why,” he snarled, “don’t you ever mention the ticket?” “Because I want to win,” I said, imitating his awful accent. That started that feud.