Media critic takes his lumps Profile: Mark Crispin Miller insists he had no idea what lay ahead when he helped with Baltimore a documentary critical of Mother Teresa.

Catching up with ... Mark Crispin Miller

June 24, 1996|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

True story: Media critic Mark Crispin Miller has just begun to eat a gourmet take-out salad in The Sun lunch room when he finds a flat, round piece of cardboard among the tuna and greens.

"It looks like a communion wafer," he says, studying the foreign object, then putting it aside. "They're always trying to get me."

In this one wry moment, Miller, 46, has neatly encompassed the general charge that he's a conspiracy buff, as well as his continuing difficulties with the Baltimore archdiocese.

It seems some Baltimore Catholics did not appreciate his role in screening a critical documentary on Mother Teresa as part of a film series on religious fundamentalism. Miller wanted to show the film, "Hell's Angel," because it had been largely suppressed in this country. But he was taken aback to find 25 protesters at the June 12 showing -- that's about one protester for every minute of film.

"No one believes me now, but I never saw it coming," says an unchastened Miller, who is bringing the film and its writer-narrator, journalist Christopher Hitchens, back to Baltimore tomorrow night for Round Two.

So that's his response to the town's angry Catholics. As for those who think he sees media conspiracies everywhere: "That's a very glib way to try to discredit my critique," says Miller, a writer, radio commentator and professor in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.

"In reply to people who say conspiracy theory, conspiracy monger, I always say what I'm talking about is not conspiratorial, it's quite open. It's business practice. If Jack Welch of General Electric calls an NBC News executive just after the stock market crash in 1987 and says, 'Lighten up' [as documented in the Village Voice], that's not a conspiracy. It's business. If I were Jack Welch, that's what I would do, too."

Such incidents inform Miller's essay in the June 3 issue of The Nation, accompanied by a much-discussed chart, "The National Entertainment State." The glossy fold-out shows four corporate octopi -- General Electric, Time Warner, Disney/Cap Cities and Westinghouse -- and their corporate kin. Each company has considerably more than eight tentacles, reaching into local radio and television stations, cable TV, book publishing, financial companies, nuclear power, transportation and -- yes, Benjamin Braddock -- plastics.

The chart caused quite a bit of buzz -- Miller even made Liz Smith's gossip column -- although some critics bristled and said: Tell us something we don't know. Miller maintains most people aren't aware of the vast, sometimes conflicting concerns living together under corporate roofs.

"That is, if I may say so, a disingenuous pose of journalistic knowingness," Miller says. " 'Oh yeah, we knew this.' Well, I heard from journalists who didn't know who owned their own workplace. Why should someone know that?"

Well, if one chooses the life of a media critic, one must expect some criticism from the media. And one also must expect to become an expert, a person called on by newspapers and television shows to explain the media to the media. The Nexis database of major newspapers shows 221 references to Miller, an unthinkable number for the English professor he started out to be.

Reared in Chicago's northern suburbs, Miller graduated from Northwestern University in 1971, then continued his studies at Hopkins, which he chose for its "monastic rigor." A Renaissance literature scholar, he wrote his dissertation on courtliness.

But while teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, he began offering a course in film, a life-long interest. "To look critically at film is to begin to look critically at other visual artifacts, like TV commercials," he says. "And from there it was natural that I would start to think about propaganda generally."

His academic colleagues were not impressed.

"At Penn, their attitude was one of amused contempt, I think," he says when asked how traditional academics viewed his work. "That this was all very well, but of course, it's secondary, they would say to me. Of course, this is not your real work, your main work. And I actually thought more and more that it was."

Then the University of California at Berkeley offered him a job, making it clear that his Renaissance scholarship would take precedence over media. "Luckily, John Irwin offered me a job back here, but at the Writing Seminars, where, he said, I could write whatever I wanted and it would be regarded as legitimate."

Since then, Miller has taken on advertising (the makers of Shield soap were not amused by his assertion that their ads featured a castration image) and the coverage of the Persian Gulf War. Six years ago, he received international attention for a wide-ranging Atlantic essay on films, a book-length article subsequently boiled down to "that piece on product placement" -- the practice of using movies to showcase commercial products like soft drinks or candy.

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