autumn of the mouse – updated

“am i still dreaming?” i thought, as i rubbed my
eyes while listening to a breathless

reporter announce that
offered $66 billion for disney
. a few moments later i realized that i wasn’t and smiled at the
perfect timing of the announcement, given the fact that i had spent
the night dreaming about the implications of the thesis put forth
in the

“autumn of the moguls”

, which i had finished before falling asleep – that the
pathological ambitions of moguls have brought about the impending
collapse of the “media business.”

michael wolff makes him his most important point early. the modern
“media business” is collapsing, because it’s not really like any
other business – that the word itself,

, is a made up concept. and that along the way, the morons that
“architected” the aol time warners, the vivendis and the disneys of
the world forgot that the, “…the entire industry is a fluke of
semiotics.” things started to go bad in the fifties when ad
agencies started using the word to describe physical artifacts,
such paper or film. one natural leap later the word became added to
the saleman’s vocabulary, as in “i sell media.” notice the change?
it went from something concrete to something less concrete. and
from there is was twisted to mean all things related, “…to the
abstract function of communication.” (p.34) and on and on, towards
more abstractions such as mcluhan’s mantra on the media being the
message. until in the 70s you had the emergence of something that
hadn’t existed before – media companies:

“This was just inflation. A useful bastardization of an
already obtuse word. It was a Wall Street thing. We’re more
important that we were yesterday becaue we’re no longer a broadcast
company (notice how old fashioned that word sounds), we’re a
fucking media company.

But at no point in the development of the word and the of the
concept of media was there an assumption that the television
business and the magazine business and the radio business and
billboard busines and music business and the movie business were

business – that they should be run by the same person, that they
required the same talents, or would, even, logically have the same
investors or the same stars or the same audience.” (p.

it takes a little while for that to sink in, because we’re so
accustomed to thinking of “media” as an abstract concept that’s
merely packaged in different ways and sent along different
distribution channels – cable or broadcast television, print or the
internet. it doesn’t even strike us that this might be an
overextended metaphor that might be a trick of language. but it
wasn’t so long ago that the idea of a media company was considered
absurd. wolff tells the story of a memo circulating in the
new york times

in the early seventies, “…advising reporters and editors that, in
fact, there was no such thing as the media per se..” and that
basically you were a lazy schmuck for using the word. it still
seems odd, though, you might think. maybe wolff is pulling the old
philosophical trick of “proving” that something doesn’t exist that
you know damn well does, in fact, exist. wolff finally beats you
over the head with a
reductio ad absurdum


“It’s as ridiculous as if someone had come along and
invented the “transportation” business and, within the same company
and under the same management, because they were all somehow
related to the same word, put car companies and train companies and
ship companies and airlines together.” (p.35)

and yet the moguls – murdoch, isaacson, eisner, redstone, karmazin
and diller et al, glossed over this, didn’t understand, or didn’t
care – and went on building dysfunctional, disjointed, hollow,
creaking empires held together only by the inertia of the next big
deal. on and on, it went from one deal to another until things
starting breaking down, with aol time warner and vivendi only being
the most obvious effects of the underlying symptom [ he goes on at
great length about the decaying carcass called disney, waiting to
be devoured by the next big deal, if not for michael eisner’s own
obsessive mogul freakishness ] – that there really isn’t anything
synergistic about a vast media empire. and sooner or later, wolff
believes sooner, the whole charade will come completely and totally
flying apart.

in wolff’s world each bigger deal is not a sign of the strength of
super-consolidated media corporations, but rather the last dying
gasps of an industry based on something that doesn’t even exist. a
giant bubble that has been expanding for over 30 years.

i don’t know if it’s true, and the book certainly has its flaws,
but go read

“autumn of the moguls”

and you’ll find the latest big media deal a whole lot more
interesting. or sad.

updated: while he might not agree with the above reasoning, tim oren more succinctly states the premise in “Comcast / Disney: Dumb and Dumber”:

“Let’s keep this short and sweet. Anyone thinking they are going to merge a content business and a network transport business and add value hasn’t been paying attention for at least ten years. ”

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