Not long ago, in a land of indeterminate location, a broadcaster interviewed one of the most influential media critics of our time. Before they went on the air, the host asked his esteemed guest to abide by a few rules: Don't mention where we are, don't say what day of the week it is, and don't talk about the weather. He explained that the network would air the syndicated program in other cities. "We like people in all those cities to think they're listening to a local program," the host said.
Ben Bagdikian was the esteemed guest that day. To him, the episode illustrates how localism gets lost in Big Media. "It has reduced the amount of local information that you get out of the big radio stations, the big TV stations, because when you own 150 stations around the country you would like to get something you can use in all of them," he says.
Bagdikian knows a lot about Big Media. The former dean of UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and dean emeritus of media criticism wrote the bible on media consolidation 21 years ago in his groundbreaking book, The Media Monopoly. His book is still regularly listed as required reading on many a journalism, poli-sci, or sociology professor's syllabus; its publisher, independent book-house Beacon Press, has rereleased the title and updated it five times.
When Bagdikian wrote the first edition in 1983, before media criticism became a cottage industry, what few media critics there were tended to be conservative. One of the most prominent watchdogs of the time was Accuracy in Media, a right-wing group devoted to finding examples of liberal bias in the press.
The Media Monopoly took on the press from a different angle. Whereas the conservative critique focused on the politics of those who worked in the newsroom, Bagdikian took aim at the big corporations that owned the newsrooms, in the process creating what would become a key component of leftist media criticism for the next generation. Unlike fellow critics such as linguist Noam Chomsky, Bagdikian could call upon his journalistic experience to inform his arguments. He spent thirty years working as a newsman and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for local reporting. An article he wrote for Esquire in the mid-1960s led the Louisville Courier-Journal to become the first newspaper in the nation to hire an ombudsman, or readers' representative. Bagdikian later held this role himself at the Washington Post, where he also played a key role in securing the Pentagon Papers for his employer.
As its title suggested, Bagdikian's book identified an alarming trend in media ownership: Mergers, buyouts, and attrition had left fifty corporations controlling most of what Americans got to read, see, or hear about the world via the nation's then-25,000 media outlets. The owners of these media giants sat on the boards of oil, timber, agricultural, and banking companies -- creating conflicts of interest for their news divisions on a colossal scale. Meanwhile, family-owned newspapers were being bought up by publicly traded national chains that had to turn a profit to appease Wall Street.
Bottom-line pressures were affecting news coverage more than ever; media outlets peddled fluff, relied too heavily on authority figures for information, and short-changed the poor. Afternoon papers were on their deathbeds and most cities had become one-newspaper towns. The diversity of voices in the press was effectively being homogenized, he warned, by the trend toward consolidation of media ownership into fewer hands.
This trend accelerated in the years after the book's publication, thanks to broadcast deregulation in the '80s under President Ronald Reagan and later with passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. By 2003, Bagdikian says, just five big conglomerates had come to control the mass media. And, although he doesn't address it, consolidation is also a trend among alternative newsweeklies. The Express, for instance, is one of eleven papers owned by Phoenix-based New Times, a private company -- and Village Voice Media owns six alt-weeklies, including The Village Voice, OC Weekly, and LA Weekly.
"Bagdikian saw what was coming," says lefty media critic and syndicated columnist Norman Solomon, who cites the author as an important influence. He recalls amply referencing Bagdikian's work in his research for Unreliable Sources, a book Solomon co-wrote with Martin Lee in 1990. "Our book ended up quoting and paraphrasing The Media Monopoly more than a dozen times in various chapters," he says. "I remember going through [the book] with a highlighter, and many pages were streaked with color. The Media Monopoly has been path-breaking -- with long-term profound impacts -- and you can't say that about many books."
Yet much has changed in the two decades since Bagdikian's book first appeared. Besides the continued shrinking of big-media ownership, we've witnessed an explosion of talk radio. The rise of cable television and the 24-hour news cycle. Satellite TV and, more recently, satellite radio. The Internet. Who better to dissect what all the changes mean than the man who correctly predicted where the media were headed twenty years ago?
Ben Bagdikian has stepped out of retirement to rejoin the debate with a new book that, in his words, "deals with a new media in a new world."
What's mystifying is how someone who was so right back then could be so wrong now.
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