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Bagdikian: A new political twist to the old media monopoly

Ben Bagdikian

"News," says Ben Bagdikian, has become "a tiny item in a huge spider web-like table of organizations." Top executives are so far removed from journalists and the consumers of news, they have lost any sense that their products -- journalism among them -- are supposed to be a public service.

While Mr. Bagdikian is not the only one saying this, he was the first. A generation ago the unrivaled dean of American media criticism predicted that corporate concentration of media companies would speed up if unchecked by political forces, strangling news and creative culture.

His seminal 1983 work, The Media Monopoly, first described the danger of having most of the media in the hands of just 50 corporations. The second edition four years later noted just 29 companies, and over the years, each subsequent edition of his book has seen the number dwindle.

With the seventh edition, published last month by Beacon Press, mostly rewritten and re-titled The New Media Monopoly, Mr. Bagdikian laments that the consolidation could hardly get much worse: five companies now control America's broadcasting, newspapers, publishing, music and film industries. His original title may have been hyperbolic 21 years ago. Today, it's sounding prescient.

For practicing journalists, reporters and editors, it takes an extraordinary public spirit and feeling for ordinary people to overcome the bureaucratic pressures created by our new media monopoly.

-- Media critic Ben Bagdikian

"Every edition of this book was obsolete the day it came off the press," he said. "The process was accelerated. Even as one wrote, more and more of our media disappeared into ever larger organizations."

In launching the rewrite of his book, Mr. Bagdikian spoke to a gathering of enthusiasts Thursday in San Francisco, a lecture sponsored by the politically active telephone company Working Assets. His talk reflected part of the change in his book: It's become more political.

Mr. Bagdikian has a long list of journalism credentials: winner of the Pulitzer Prize; the former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley; former assistant managing editor of the Washington Post at the time of the Pentagon Papers. (He is also an advisory board member at Grade the News.) The original book was an important structural critique of why corporate domination of newspapers and broadcast outlets compromised the integrity of journalism.

He reserves his deepest scorn for the heads of the five media conglomerates -- one of which, Time Warner, actually had the gall to copyright the song, "Happy Birthday." (The other four companies are Viacom, Bertelesmann, the News Corporation and Disney. General Electric is a contender for No. 6, he said.) He said his own political perspective has been trumped by the media moguls. Because the heads of the major media conglomerates are conservative and all subscribe to a pro-big-business philosophy, other points of view get crowded out.

"In retrospect," Mr. Bagdikian writes in the introductory chapter of the new edition of the book, "the awesome power of the contemporary mass media has in one generation been a major factor in reversing the country's progressive political, social and economic momentum of the twentieth century. As a result, in the United States, the twenty-first century inherited a new, more extreme brand of conservative politcs."

Equally responsible for the constricting political culture, he said, is the current presidential administration. He railed against Attorney General John Ashcroft's intrusions into personal privacy and other civil liberties in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

It's no wonder, Mr. Bagdikian added, that the neo-conservative advisors to George Bush had blinders on when they decided to invade Iraq last year without a plan, only to face the possibility of ignominious defeat in a manner presaged by Tolstoy in War and Peace. But where were the big media conglomerates when the media were called to question the administration's plans?

The answer, he said, is looking after their stockholders, not minding the democratic process. The larger the companies become, the more distant their leaders get from the media they produce, and journalism becomes treated just like any commodity. The media nowadays want "magazine articles that can become books, that can become screenplays, that can then create celebrities promoted on the same radio talk shows.

"For practicing journalists, reporters and editors," he added, "it takes an extraordinary public spirit and feeling for ordinary people to overcome the bureaucratic pressures created by our new media monopoly."

Mr. Bagdikian starts his book with the story of a rail car spill in Minot, N.D., on Feb. 20, 2003. With a deadly cloud of anhydrous ammonia spreading, the police were desperate to inform townspeople to stay indoors. They found that six of the local radio stations, all owned by another corporate giant, Clear Channel, were locked, empty, broadcasting content piped in from out of town and unavailable for emergency announcements.

The consolidation of the media in the town, Mr. Bagdikian said, became a public hazard: "That was, to me, unforgivable, but a sign of how there is not just a loss of abstract constitutional and necessary democratic information, but what I regard as something close to criminal activity."

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A project of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University, Grade the News is affiliated with the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University and KTEH, public television in Silicon Valley.

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