A double-take on media & democracy

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This double review appeared in the webzine The American Reporter
on Sept 14, 1997.

Some Things Considered

by Jane Wardlow Prettyman,
American Reporter Correspondent


Ben H. Bagdikian. The Media Monopoly, Fifth Edition. Boston; Beacon Press, 1997. 289pp. Index. $16.00 paper.)

Peter Phillips & Project Censored. Censored 1997: The News that Didn't Make the News. New York; Seven Stories Press, 1997. 370pp. Index. $16.95 paper.)

SANTA BARBARA, CA, Aug 15, 1997 -- It's intuitively obvious to most of us that something is amiss with the news media. Ben Bagdikian began articulating the complex logic behind our gnawing discomfort back in 1983, in the first edition of "The Media Monopoly."

Just as Eisenhower spoke of the ominous power of the military-industrial complex, Bagdikian, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former dean of the graduate school of journalism at Berkeley, has warned of a growing media-industrial complex potentially threatening to our free democracy. He was called an alarmist then. Now he's called a seer.

In 1983, 50 corporations owned most of the media, including trade and textbook publishers and movie studios. Over the next four editions, Bagdikian's book rode the wave of rapid technological change and deregulation that nears a crest in 1997 when only 10 corporations control most of everything we see, hear and read. In terms of media possessions and resources, the dominant top 10 include Time-Warner, Disney, Viacom, News Corp Ltd (Murdoch), Sony, Tele-Communications Inc (TCI, John Malone), Seagram, Westinghouse, Gannett and General Electric.

First, the bad news: Bagdikian is not clear how he arrived at this list and doesn't indicate whether they are ranked #1, #2, etc. The narrative spilling out of these ten is probably deliberate. Admittedly it's a complex and somewhat generalized assessment, but this is the first question most people ask me about the list.

One wishes he had outlined the "media possessions" and all the other holdings, of each corporation so that we could hunch around for ourselves as to the significance of each corp's influence in various spheres.

The book's five editions are an archeological history of corporate media. This means it takes an editorial archeologist to dig out exactly when some chapters or entries were written, although the notes at the back offer clues. Because the book's updates haven't been organized into eras or dated sections you think you're reading about 1987 and discover by a reference that you're in 1992.

The good news is that "The Media Monopoly" is worth enduring these minor narrative quirks in order to gain major insights into the miasma of modern media, including specific suggestions on what we can do to take back the news.

"The Media Monopoly" offers a cumulative indictment of the corporate media world. However, Bagdikian argues that the threat does not lie in the commercial operation of mass media. He admits this is probably the best method, with all its faults, so long as there exists a financially healthy alternative non-commercial media. This reviewer notes that this cannot easily be said if we consider the vulnerability of PBS to corporate underwriting and the dropping of C-SPAN from cable systems to make room for commercial programming. Nothetheless, Bagdikian believes that narrow control by a few corporations, accelerated by last year's Telecommunications Act, is where the danger lies. In 1997, he says, we are rapidly approaching centralized corporate control of the news reminiscent of government ministries of information in other nations in history.

"The capacity to propagate information and ideas is at the root of political power, and political power is essential to modern corporate ambitions. So is the power to suppress information and ideas," says Bagdikian. "To give citizens a choice of ideas is to give them a choice of politics. If a nation has narrowly controlled information, it will soon have narrowly controlled politics."

Bagdikian cites the truism among political scientists that the media may not be able to tell the public how to think, but they do tell the public what to think about. His core premise is that since our free democracy depends upon the flow of ideas and information debated in depth (not by media pundits but by public citizens), "the answer is not the elimination of private enterprise in the media but the opposite. It is the restoration of genuine competition and diversity."

Thus he comes to the nub issue of anti-trust divestiture of news media units from large corporate conglomerates and the breaking up of media cartels. In 1983, Bagdikian thought this was a pipe dream. By 1997, he believes that the negative effects of media mega-mergers are becoming so obvious that divestiture and prevention of further merging may have the support of almost every political and social segment of our society, except the media owners themselves.

Bagdikian's observations about media conglomeration are sometimes familiar, sometimes novel, almost always a confirmation of our intuition. One example is the practice of acquiring a news outlet in order to turn it into a cash cow. Squeezing news budgets for profits in newspapers, magazines and broadcasting creates the sausage factory of uniformly shallow news content we've all come routinely to expect. The pressure for profits has also blotted out quality local news coverage with cheaper non-local newswire stories and "soft news" features.

Another practice Bagdikian describes is "synergy" by which subsidiary companies complement and promote one another--often a major motive for merging in the first place. When one of the subsidiaries is a news division, some serious synergy can be arranged.

The Big Media corporations don't have to play to the news media or suffer having their activities reported on; they own the news media. Through interlocking directorships, banking partners and outright ownership, most media moguls have financial connections with defense, banking, insurance, gas, oil, and nuclear power.

The directors of all these entities share unified attitudes towards basic issues that uniformly affect their interests. Regulation and tax policy are obvious examples. They can synergize their operations to make sure certain topics never reach the news desk and in various ways shape the consensus of popular thinking in favor of their interests. Thus, over the recent years of merging, they have multiplied their power to influence public opinion and government policy.

It sounds like a conspiracy theory and it is. It's the natural conspiracy of the synergized monopoly doing exactly what it's designed to do which is to control the variables--especially the news--to its advantage. Bagdikian, fortunately, does not indulge in the paranoia or political stridency that haunts other works on the media game. He writes like a doctor dictating a medical report, cooly observing a (nearly) terminal illness that afflicts our system of public communications. Bagdikian doesn't delve into the cultural ruination caused by the blanketing of commercial values in advertising and mind-numbingly shallow news reporting. He sticks to the nuts and bolts of media ownership, but this alone is a remarkable contribution.

Who owns what can be a factor in tailoring (some would say censoring) the news information. For example, Westinghouse and General Electric, two of the largest corporations with defense contracts and nuclear interests, own CBS and NBC respectively.

Direct relevance is a surmise but it's no surprise that neither of these networks--nor any other major news outlet in broadcasting or print --has yet (as of mid August 1997) reported in depth on the risks of NASA's Cassini probe scheduled to launch this October with 72.3 pounds of deadly plutonium on board. Westinghouse-owned media, in fact, have reported only that children are being invited to sign a plaque inside Cassini.

This brings us to the second book in a matched set on the effects of media monopoly, "Censored 97: The News that Didn't Make the News," in which the Cassini project is ranked the #1 under-reported item of the year. Project Censored was launched at Sonoma State University in 1976 as an annual review of the systemic withholding of public access to important news facts by the mainstream media. The review team is composed of student media researchers and seasoned veterans of media analysis, including Ben Bagdikian, who annually select and publish what they believe are the 25 most important under-covered news stories from hundreds of nominations. They view top-down attempts to tackle the problem of media consolidation as hopeless and prefer "bottom-up solutions stimulated by an informed citizenry that can have results at the local level to reawaken First Amendment fervor."

Almost every under-reported story listed in "Censored 97" rocks the boat of corporate interests, sheds light on ultra-conservative and militia activities and racism, or reveals suppression of human rights. Did somebody say the media are "liberal"?

The top 25 under-reported stories are listed on the Website of Project Censored (, along with stories going back to 1989. The book itself is worth getting because it includes follow-ups on missing stories, lots of related articles on media, and reviews of other books on media. The book also features a reprint of the dramatic four-page spread produced by The Nation in June 1996, showing the full spectrum of everything owned by four mega-media corporations: Westinghouse, GE, Disney and Time-Warner. Too bad the holdings of John Malone's gigantic TCI and Rupert Murdoch's gigantic Fox/News Corp are not diagrammed, but you'll get the idea.

Bagdikian's book outlines a dozen specific steps towards media reform, most of which are on the usual wish lists, but his discussion of each one enlivens them as real possibilities to be achieved.

First he calls for a non-partisan, non-governmental, non-corporate citizens' commission to study the present and desired future status of the country's media. This may sound like a punt, but Bagdikian believes that public airing of the facts about media monopolies and centralized control of information will catch a lethargic public's attention and frame the monopoly problem for pursuit of specific steps for change.

These include rolling back the 1996 Telecom Act; waking up the somnolent FTC and Justice Dept anti-trust divisions; restoring the Fairness Doctrine; reconstituting the FCC to include more representatives from non-partisan groups like the PTA; non-political financing of public broadcasting, possibly through a small surtax on radios, TV's, and VCR's; ending the auctioning of broadcast frequencies (auction erroneously implies private ownership when in fact, Bagdikian firmly reminds us, the public owns the airwaves); banning paid political advertising; reinstating mandatory local community access; community-wide voting to approve renewal of local monopoly cable licenses; licensing inexpensive, low-power city- and neighborhood-range radio and TV stations such as exist in Japan; and teaching serious media literacy in schools.

Others might add to Bagdikian's initiatives the drastic limiting or elimination of commercials during newscasts. With this ambitious list, which most citizens relate to, we would not be surprised to see political candidates run for office on the issue of media reform.


Jane Wardlow Prettyman served on the editorial staff of (the old) Esquire Magazine and currently edits American Review, formerly known as The Real News Page, on the Web.

To assist in filling in the hole in the news about the Cassini mission and the controversy over its plutonium power source, AR (then TRNP) ran a special edition sub-site "The Cassini Debate--and Beyond" which featured both sides of the debate and an editorial position: "Send the Cassini debate to Congressional hearings where NASA's theory that plutonium is safe on spacecraft can be competently reviewed in public."

A double-take on media & democracy

What's New? ||| Media Criticism ||| Activism ||| Media Reform ||| The News Examiner
Books ||| Special Editions ||| Media Addresses ||| Links ||| Contents ||| Intro