East Bay Express: Ben Bagdikian fires an old salvo at a new media

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Origin ally published by East Bay Express Jul 07, 2004

©2004 New Times, Inc. All rights reserved.

Rethinking the Media Monopoly

Renowned press critic Ben Bagdikian fires an old salvo at a new media. Too
bad he misses.

BY WILL HARPER
[email protected]

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.

————————————————————————

It’s windbreaker weather on a June Friday night at Cody’s, Berkeley’s
famous independent bookstore on Telegraph Avenue. About thirty people are
sitting in plastic folding chairs waiting to hear Bagdikian discuss his
latest, The New Media Monopoly. Actually, the book isn’t totally new —
much is recycled from the original — but this version contains seven new
chapters.

The woman who introduces Bagdikian points out that his original work was
widely dismissed as alarmist. Time, she says, obviously has shown
otherwise.

A short, elderly man with big glasses and a prominent nose approaches the
podium, accompanied by the requisite smattering of applause. He wears a
rumpled sport coat with a button-down shirt and no tie — basically, a
reporter’s idea of dressing up. Bagdikian steps to the podium and delivers
an old line about the frantic pace of media consolidation: “Each edition of
this book was obsolete the day it was published.”

Even this new book, released in May, is a little behind the times, the
author admits. General Electric recently bought more media properties, and
that could perhaps transform his Big Five list of media giants into the Big
Six. These are the corporations he says control most of the mass media
today, from broadcasting to book publishing to movie studios to magazines.
None of them, however, has much of a stake in US newspapers.

The Big Five are Time Warner, Viacom, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation,
German book publisher Bertelsmann, and Disney. “Mickey Mouse in a corporate
way,” he quips in his scratchy voice, “is not a Mickey Mouse operation.”

Bagdikian tells the Cody’s crowd of a disturbing incident in which a “media
monopoly”– not one of the Big Five — literally hurt people. It happened
last year in the small North Dakota city of Minot. A 1 a.m. train
derailment released a toxic cloud of anhydrous ammonia. When local police
tried to contact the six local commercial radio stations — all owned by
radio giant Clear Channel Communications — to broadcast an alert, they
couldn’t reach anyone right away. The music and newstalk was being piped in
from a remote location, an efficient way of saving on labor costs. Three
hundred people were hospitalized and some residents were left partially
blind, according to Bagdikian’s source, The New York Times.

Bagdikian confides to his audience that he was reluctant when his publisher
suggested he write a new book. By all appearances, the 84-year-old was
enjoying a comfortable retirement with his wife in their upper-class
Berkeley neighborhood near the Claremont Hotel. His job has been to answer
the calls of reporters, including this one, seeking a thoughtful quote from
an enlightened media critic. But taking the occasional call hardly
compares, as Bagdikian puts it, to plunging “into the tank” and researching
a book. He says he decided to do it because of what he saw as the
“alarming” political shift in the country to the far right: “What we used
to say was the nutty right is now the center.”

His statement inspired no protest from this sympathetic Berkeley audience,
but it did suggest a departure from his original thesis. The Media Monopoly
stressed the economics of the news media — how the pursuit of profits had
led to fluffy or bland “objective” journalism that didn’t offend anyone,
especially advertisers. “American media corporations benefit from the
political sterility of the media,” Bagdikian wrote in 1983. He even noted
that corporate newspapers had ditched their right-wing columnists to make
their product less offensive.

Two decades later, Bagdikian is saying something very different. Instead of
pushing political sterility, he argues that the new media monopoly has
“played a central role” in pushing the country’s politics to the nutty
right.

The trouble is, he doesn’t come close to proving that point. Instead, the
author treats it as a given — a questionable assumption when nearly half
the population, according to a 2003 Gallup poll, believes the media are
“too liberal.” The result is a series of sweeping generalizations and
underreported assertions that lack evidence to support them. For instance,
anyone trying to demonstrate that the media have helped push the country
rightward would certainly dedicate substantial ink to the rise of Rush
Limbaugh and talk radio over the past fifteen years. Bagdikian devotes just
two nonconsecutive pages to the topic.

————————————————————————

Media-bashing has become America’s favorite new pastime. Bagdikian says
there are now more than one hundred media-reform groups around the country,
which sounds like a low estimate. The Bay Area has a handful, including
Project Censored, a progressive critique of the media that originates at
Sonoma State University; ChronWatch, a conservative watchdog that monitors
the San Francisco Chronicle and other media for liberal bias; and the more
thoughtful and neutral Grade the News, an adjunct to Stanford’s graduate
journalism program for which Bagdikian acts as an adviser.

Both the left and the right have legitimate points: Surveys have shown that
reporters are indeed more socially liberal than most of America, and media
owners tend to be conservative, or at least pro-business. But no one has
ever been able to clearly demonstrate how that affects news coverage, with
the exception, perhaps, of Fox News, which substitutes opinion for
newsgathering, a formula copied by its rivals because two-bit opinions come
a lot cheaper than serious reportorial journalism.

Al Franken — does it really take a comedian to understand this? —
suggests that the more relevant biases in the mainstream media (which
Franken distinguishes from “right-wing” media such as Fox) are the
get-the-story-first bias and the profit-motive bias. He sums it up nicely
in his best-seller, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: “Asking whether
there is a liberal or conservative bias to the mainstream media is a little
like asking whether al-Qaeda uses too much oil in their hummus. The problem
with al-Qaeda is that they’re trying to kill us.”

————————————————————————

Bagdikian’s original book transcended the bias debate by calling out an
undeniable trend — media consolidation — and using solid journalistic
research to demonstrate how it was transforming the news business. While
The New Media Monopoly isn’t simply a bias polemic, it definitely is framed
in that tired genre. In the opening passage, the author writes: “In the
years since 1980, the political spectrum of the United States has shifted
radically to the far right.” On the next page, he argues, “The major mass
media have played a central role in this shift to the right.”

In an interview, Bagdikian elaborated on that idea. Media owners, he said,
are rich and often conservative. Men like Rupert Murdoch, who owns the Fox
Network, hire commentators who reflect their views. “There are very few
millionaires who are left-wing. Rupert Murdoch is [very] conservative and
he regards that as normal. … These are people who are concerned with
getting government that is friendly to big business.”

No argument there. But the same was true twenty years ago when media owners
preferred “political sterility,” as Bagdikian then argued, to appease
advertisers who didn’t want controversy. Plus, bigger didn’t always mean
more conservative back then, and it doesn’t now.

The Contra Costa Times is a case in point. Before the Knight-Ridder chain
bought the paper in 1995, it was owned by the superconservative Dean
Lesher. Lesher’s staff members sometimes leaked stories about their boss to
other papers, such as the time he scolded his editors in 1989 for putting
the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade on the front page. His wife,
Margaret, hosted a religious show on a Christian TV network. Lesher also
crusaded for new development, and successfully sued to overturn a
slow-growth initiative approved by Walnut Creek voters. The Times under
Knight-Ridder, the nation’s second-largest newspaper chain, is
comparatively liberal. This year, the paper has editorialized against
sprawl development.

Or consider the case of the Oakland Tribune. When the Trib was family
owned, it was a bully pulpit for the influential and archly conservative
Knowland family, which sent two Republicans to the US Congress: Joseph R.
Knowland to the House of Representatives, and William Knowland to the
Senate, where he eventually rose to the post of majority leader. Corporate
ownership of the Trib has resulted in a decidedly less biased and more
moderate newspaper.

Meanwhile, across the bay, the editorial pages of the Hearst-owned San
Francisco Chronicle are significantly more liberal than in the days when
the DeYoung family owned the paper and consistently endorsed Republicans.

Even if you agree that American politics have grown more conservative, you
have to ask whether the media is really responsible, or whether news
outlets are merely reflecting broader changes in our national political
culture that are out of their control.

America’s political temperament is inherently cyclical. That the nation’s
political culture has swung to the right since the 1980 election of
President Reagan is without dispute, just as it is true that the election
of John F. Kennedy in 1960 served to set the nation on a more liberal
trajectory after the two decades of cautious conservatism that preceded it.
Likewise, the 1932 election of Franklin D. Roosevelt brought a swift end to
a decade-long bender of pro-business excess that in hindsight seems to have
served as the model for our own dot-com bubble.

Bagdikian goes on to criticize today’s media for lapping up junk fed to
them by conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation while
treating left-leaning and environmental groups as fringe curiosities. No
doubt the right has shrewdly financed a rich network of intellectuals to
push its views in the press over the past twenty years. But Bagdikian goes
too far when he says the political content projected by the media giants
has given the United States the “most politically constricted voter choices
among the world’s developed democracies.” Europhiles often make this
argument, but fail to make the crucial distinction that many European
democracies are parliamentary systems with proportional representation. The
United States’ winner-take-all elections produced a two-party system that
existed long before any media monopoly. Ask your local Whig Party activist
for details.

Even as far as the bias wars go, however, The New Media Monopoly fires only
mild salvos. After all, Bagdikian has a real war to talk about.

————————————————————————

Remember Wag the Dog, the 1997 movie starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert De
Niro? If not, here’s the gist: Shortly before an election, the American
president is facing a scandal at home. To distract the public, his
propagandists launch a fake war with images supplied by a Hollywood
producer.

Citing this film, Bagdikian argues that the Bush administration chose to
deflect attention from domestic problems such as the sagging economy,
rising unemployment, and reports of corporate corruption by announcing its
intent to attack Iraq prior to the 2002 midterm elections. This is pure
conjecture. Still, Bagdikian describes the mass media as the tail that
obediently wagged.

By the end of the chapter on Iraq, the critical reader is left wondering
why it’s even in the book. While the author correctly argues that the press
blew it in the months leading up to the Iraq war, that’s hardly a unique
view. Even people who work in the mainstream media concede that most news
outlets blew it. But the fatal flaw is that Bagdikian fails to demonstrate
any link between lousy prewar coverage and consolidation of media
ownership. He even notes that it has always been the media’s habit to rely
on authority figures and not question them, especially before and during a
war. But that’s hardly news. Bagdikian made the same complaint twenty years
ago.

The American press has a long history of being manipulated by the nation’s
leaders during times of manufactured crisis. Lyndon Johnson used a
fictional account of an unprovoked attack on a US destroyer in the Gulf of
Tonkin to persuade Congress to let him escalate the war in Vietnam. The
media went along with the official version of events. In The New Media
Monopoly, Bagdikian further undercuts his thesis by describing other
significant instances — such as the McCarthy era and Communist witch hunts
of the ’50s — in which the premonopoly news media danced to the
government’s tune.

In an interview, Bagdikian argued that the difference between early
coverage of Vietnam and Iraq is that, with Iraq, the mainstream media had
critical information that would have dissuaded the public about going to
war, but didn’t report it. He writes, for example, that in October 2002,
shortly before Congress gave Bush the green light to invade, Democratic
Senator Robert Byrd gave a speech in which he gave a detailed account of
Iraq’s known weapons program and the role the United States played in
arming Saddam Hussein during the ’80s. The media, he says, chose to ignore
those details and instead showed Byrd as a melancholy, elderly senator
making his last stand.

It’s hardly a given that the American people, especially after 9/11, would
have resisted the invasion had they known their country backed Hussein in
the 1980s. Indeed, any literate person already knew it, since the US
government’s military support of Iraq in its war against Iran was widely
covered during the 1990s. But for the sake of argument, let’s take at face
value Bagdikian’s assertion that the media failed to seriously report
Byrd’s historical critique of the administration’s position.

What Bagdikian fails to note is that, during the debate over the war
resolution, the Associated Press — whose stories appear in hundreds of
prominent daily papers around the country — ran an article, citing Byrd,
about how the United States helped start Iraq’s biological weapons program.
And Newsweek, the influential news magazine that boasts a readership of 21
million, ran a 3,500-word article in its September 23, 2002 issue about our
country’s role in arming Hussein and how the US turned a blind eye to the
dictator’s excesses. The secondary headline: “America helped make a
monster.”

Matter of fact, Senator Byrd read that entire Newsweek article into the
Congressional Record the week it came out.

————————————————————————

It’s understandable how Bagdikian might have missed those stories in the
sea of media we’re drowning in. Stories that don’t make it into the 24-hour
cable news cycle or get debated by the radio and television pundits can
easily be lost amid the media noise. And therein lies the paradox of
today’s media monopoly: Thanks to new technologies such as cable,
satellite, and the Internet, there are fewer owners of major media outlets
but far more choices and, arguably, far more independent sources of
information than ever existed before.

Using a conservative count that excludes weeklies, Bagdikian concedes that
there are 37,000 media outlets now, 12,000 more than when he wrote his
original book. But he concludes that, because there are fewer media owners
“with only marginal differences among them,” this “leaves the majority of
Americans with artificially narrowed choices in their media.” He makes the
accurate point that a lot of content in the different media is highly
duplicative, “the result of reruns, syndication, and synergy.”

At the same time, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that the wonderfully
subversive “fake news” of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
is the same as the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather simply because Viacom
owns both of them. Even though it’s a comedy program, The Daily Show is
willing to say things that “real” newscasters are afraid to. For instance,
while the mainstream press has shied away from calling the abuses at Iraq’s
Abu Ghraib prison “torture,” Stewart did just that following Donald
Rumsfeld’s tortured testimony before Congress, in which the defense
secretary bristled at using the T-word. “As a fake newsperson, I can tell
you, what we’ve been reading about in the papers, the pictures that we’ve
been seeing — it’s f***ing torture,” Stewart told his audience.

The one-newspaper town, another widely lamented consequence of
consolidation, has been partially offset by the growth of the nonmainstream
press, which plays an important role in keeping Big Media accountable.

Except for a throwaway sentence, Bagdikian ignores the increasing
prominence of alternative weeklies (like the one you’re reading now) over
the past decade. Between 1990 and 2002, the combined circulation of
alt-weeklies in the United States more than doubled, from 3 million to 7.5
million, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Alt-weeklies have become such a staple of urban life that a growing number
of big cities now host competing papers. In San Francisco, the Bay Guardian
competes with the SF Weekly (a New Times paper). In Seattle, The Stranger
has given the more staid Seattle Weekly a run for its money. The Boston
Phoenix is taking hits from Boston’s Weekly Dig, and in Portland, the
Mercury (spawn of The Stranger) is stealing readers from both Willamette
Week and the Portland Phoenix (daughter of the Boston Phoenix). Some of
these challengers are best described as alt-alt-weeklies, with an edgier
style that appeals to the elusive younger reader. The Stranger, for
instance, has spoofed standard alt-weekly conventions such as the
ubiquitous “Best Of” issue by running a “Best of Our Advertisers” issue.

Bagdikian also pays no attention to the insurgent growth of free daily
newspapers, despite Berkeley being one of the epicenters of this hopeful
phenomenon. The Berkeley Daily Planet, San Francisco Examiner, and Palo
Alto Daily News are all local examples of a trend that already has brought
free dailies to many of the major cities of Europe.

Bagdikian glosses over the alternative dailies and weeklies, community
weeklies, and the ethnic press to focus solely on mainstream mass media.
“This book deals with the media — daily newspapers, nationally distributed
magazines, broadcasting, and motion pictures — used by the majority of
Americans, and their influence on the country’s politics and policies,” he
writes.

His focus makes the media seem more monolithic than they truly are. From a
consumer standpoint, at least, the mass media are in fact a lot less
massive than they used to be.

The networks still control prime time, but certainly not the way they once
did. In his book, What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News,
Eric Alterman, a columnist for The Nation, reports that the four networks
— ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox — boasted of having a 43 percent share of all TV
viewers during the roughly five-month period ending in March 2002. But two
decades earlier, before viewers had dozens of cable or satellite channels
to choose from, the Big Three networks had more than twice that audience,
percentage-wise.

Media consolidation has arguably affected radio more than any other medium
thanks to one company, Clear Channel, which owns more than 10 percent of
the 11,000 commercial stations in the country, including eight in the Bay
Area. Yet, despite Clear Channel’s stunning rise, there were 4,659 more
commercial radio stations on the air at the end of 2003 than existed in
1970.

In radio today there are 47 different recognized formats. A lot of baby
boomers fondly remember the early FM revolution, but even then Top 40 radio
stations ruled the airwaves. Local boy and KFOG DJ Rick “Big Rick” Stuart
acknowledges that the radio biz has changed a lot over the past decade —
there are fewer people working in radio now, he says. “But ironically I
think there is more diversity of sounds on the air in radio now, more than
ever,” he said in an e-mail. “More than when I was growing up and nobody
really knew about FM. More than when I was in college, when KFRC still had
a lot of listeners tuned to their tight Top 40 playlist. … I hear and
read the knocks against the big radio ownership groups. Some of it is true.
It is staggering how much companies like Clear Channel, Viacom, Vivendi
Universal, and the others own. But are they part of an evil plot to control
the world we live in? Nah, that’s a little tinfoil-hat thinking.”

The number of magazines in print, meanwhile, has grown 24 percent since
1990, according to numbers from the National Directory of Magazines. During
that period, the number of “news magazines” has grown 146 percent, from 46
to 113. Most of the recent growth has been in publications tailored to
specific interests. Of the 440 new consumer magazines launched last year,
the biggest growth categories, each with 45 new titles, were
“Crafts/Games/Hobbies/Models” and “Metro/Regional/State,” according to the
Magazine Publishers of America, which got its data from Samir Husni’s 2004
Guide to New Consumer Magazines. Just last month, in fact, Oakland finally
got its own glossy city magazine.

————————————————————————

New technologies have in many ways mitigated the power of the “mass media.”
This is especially true with the Internet, a decentralized medium where
someone with nothing more than a computer and an opinion can profoundly
alter the course of national affairs.

Trent Lott would likely still be the majority leader of the US Senate had
it not been for those meddling bloggers. “Blog” is short for “Weblog,” an
online journal of an individual’s rants and raves about current events and,
just as often, the media’s coverage of those events. In December 2002,
bloggers were ranting and raving about Lott’s praise for Senator Strom
Thurmond at his hundredth birthday party, which was televised on C-SPAN.
Thurmond, a former Dixiecrat, ran for president in 1948 on a segregationist
platform. Lott took the podium to deliver what sounded like an endorsement
of segregation, saying that if voters had made Thurmond president fifty
years ago, “we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years.”
The mainstream press generally gave Lott a pass.

But the bloggers weren’t so forgiving. They blasted Lott, the Republicans,
and the media for days. On his blog (TalkingPointsMemo.com), writer Joshua
Micah Marshall pondered “why this incident is still being treated as no
more than a minor embarrassment or a simple gaffe.” Eventually mainstream
journalists, many of whom regularly read blogs, jumped on the bandwagon and
began pressing the issue. In the end, Lott was forced to resign his
leadership post.

The single chapter of The New Media Monopoly dedicated to the Internet
makes no mention of such things. Bagdikian does dutifully inform us that
“WWW” stands for “World Wide Web,” and he discusses spam at some length.
Yet nowhere in the book’s index do the words “Matt Drudge” or “blog”
appear. Drudge, of course, is the former retail clerk who broke the Monica
Lewinsky story on his Web site, the spark that led to Bill Clinton’s
impeachment. Bagdikian does give the Internet a nod as a political
organizing tool — albeit without mentioning MoveOn.org, Indymedia.org, or
Howard Dean — but seems unsure how it fits into the mass-media milieu.
“The Internet remains ambiguous as a ‘mass’ medium because of its multiple
functions and individualistic usage,” he writes.

When Bagdikian’s first book appeared, there was no such thing as the
Internet. Hell, very few people even owned personal computers. But since
then, advancements in digital and information technologies have led to a
media revolution that has given the public more choices than ever, both
mainstream and independent. A.J. Liebling’s once-apt observation that
“freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one” has become
obsolescent as the barriers to entry into the media world have fallen.
Producing and making public an indie documentary nowadays takes little more
than time, talent, and a few thousand bucks. Meanwhile, the Project for
Excellence in Journalism estimates there are 100,000 active bloggers
online.

And while it’s true that big corporations own the bulk of the most popular
news and information Web sites, alternatives are everywhere. It’s not as
though anyone is hiding these options from the public. Don’t like the US
media’s war coverage? Then seek out a foreign newspaper or Aljazeera.net
for another perspective. Don’t trust a news report? Try going straight to
the source for firsthand information — as a titillated America did en
masse after the Starr Report was made public. The point is that anyone
seeking an antidote to the media monopoly can now find it with ease.

In an interview, Bagdikian made the point that not everyone in America has
access to the Internet. Most Americans, he says, still rely on the
mainstream mass media. Yet the day when everyone is connected is not far
off: An estimated 162 million Americans had access to the Net last year,
according to the US Census Bureau’s Statistical Abstract of the United
States, and 41.5 percent of US households had Internet access as far back
as 2000, according to a Commerce Department study.

A seductive appeal of the kind of Big Brother Media argument that Bagdikian
advances is its rhetorical simplicity. Americans love a good conspiracy,
and they love to think of themselves as fighting that conspiracy. But in
this age of information overload, the same critics who accuse Big Media of
hiding information get their information from the media in the first place.
The New Media Monopoly is a perfect example. Bagdikian and his researchers
relied heavily on the mass media and the Internet.

————————————————————————

Big Media can indeed be a dangerous thing. Bagdikian reports on the absurd
extent to which the giants have gone to own everything they can: Time
Warner now owns the rights to “Happy Birthday,” thereby forcing some
restaurants to sing alternatives for their customers’ birthday
celebrations. Bagdikian estimates the conglomerate earns $2 million a year
in license fees from the song.

The media giants’ gobbling up of smaller competitors is reminiscent of
other business trends. Everyone drinks Starbucks — from San Francisco to
Newport, Rhode Island. Quirky local independent booksellers have been
replaced by Barnes & Noble and Borders. Wal-Mart killed the little grocery
stores. Chain stores, in general, have killed local flavor, even as they
bring Americans more goods than ever before.

The same is true for today’s media. We have far more variety and choices
than we did twenty years ago, even though five or six media giants own much
of the content we consume. Rather than seriously examining how the media
landscape has changed over the past twenty years, Bagdikian seems content
to say I told you so. His all-too-predictable conclusion — fewer owners
mean fewer choices — is simplistic.

The most profound failure of The New Media Monopoly is that its author
completely fails to address the paradox his argument poses in this day and
age: How can we be suffering from “narrowed” media choices (as suggested by
the concentration of media ownership) when, at the same time, people
complain about information overload in today’s media-saturated world?

Attempting to solve that riddle would have made for a fascinating book.

http://www.eastbayexpress.com/issues/2004-07-07/fe

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