Ben Bagdikian, The Media Monopoly (Beacon Press, 1983)
Sixth edition published by Beacon Press in 2000.
The Media Monopoly (now in its sixth edition) examines the consolidation of media outlets and its effect upon how and what news we receive. Bagdikian, himself a press historian and media critic, is a writer and editor who served as dean of UC Berkeley's journalism school. Though the book was published nearly two decades ago, and its message may seem obvious now, in our present era of Viacom, Time Warner, and other media empires, Bagdikian's urging that we as citizens keep our eye on those capable of dictating content disseminated by their media holdings (which can number in the hundreds) remains cogent.
The sixth edition of the book features an introduction addressing the Internet and what Bagdikian refers to as "Telecommunications Cartels," a term the author probably didn't intend to be as funny as it sounds. Still, the advent of the Internet certainly bears up under Bagdikian's analysis as another mode of communication also prey to the interests of large corporations. Its very nature, Bagdikian argues, means convergence between media and telecommunications outlets, further crunching the possibility of independence in either content or service providers.
As far as Bagdikian is concerned, "media power is political power." He describes how newspaper owners - once hailed for the spareness of their own personal finances, kept low in the name of funneling all their resources into the papers they produced - have given way to the moguls we read about in society pages today. Gone is the nobility of newspapering, from the executive level, and here to stay is the profit-mongering causing newspaper companies to acquire more diverse holdings like television and cable stations, book publishing imprints, and Internet service providers.
Bagdikian is still on point, even 20 years later. He points to the paucity of competing newspapers within single cities, citing "large regional and national merchants (who) aim at an audience over wide geographic areas" as "death to newspaper competition." In effect, the global village that gives a website like the New York Times a larger international readership than its domestic one, is responsible for smaller, local papers getting crowded out of their more niche markets, to make room for fewer, broader papers without a specialized or local feel. Bagdikian holds advertisers' sway over newspapers responsible for this gradual demise of local papers. Additionally, the overall complacency of readers and viewers, leading to their disenfranchisement with media, and causing reduced consumption of news, is attributed to the one-note news most readers and viewers receive, as a result of the media's overwhelmingly corporate framework.
Bagdikian refrains from blaming the messenger: newspaper journalists. Without citing particulars, he estimates that today's newspapermen (and women) share "a devotion to accurate facts (that is) a high priority in American reporting." But we're prey to the larger, more insidious interests of the outlets who employ us, according to Bagdikian. He blames the dependence upon official and corporate sourcing within stories (and given recent examples, like the Bush administration's suppression of anti-message images from the ongoing Iraq conflict, Bagdikian's still right) for a stacking-up of facts and stories that tilt toward the interests of corporate bodies that govern media.
Bagdikian does remain within the mass media's current, corporate framework, since its reach extends to so many viewers and readers all at once. He stipulates that while "the integrity of news and other public ideas depends on corporate self-control," "the threat does not lie in corporate control of the mass media," but rather that "narrow control, whether by government or corporations, is inherently bad." To combat this, Bagdikian advocates the beefing-up of public institutions, like libraries, schools, and arts ornganizations, so that they might spawn media outlets to diversify the mainstream offerings, if not compete with them directly. He also advocates a one-to-one correlative between papers and owners, since papers owned singly would consolidate their reporting and business efforts within that one periodical, and focus upon building a relationship with their own, local, reading community. Bagdikian urges "severe limits upon cross-ownership of the media," extending to magazine and book publishers, and even to movie studios.
What's fascinating is Bagdikian's evolution of ideas between editions. The stuff of the book is largely unchanged, but his notions of how to handle the congealment of ideas within the mass media is of note. He self-corrects from the preceding edition, acknowledging that he was wrong not to advocate divestiture of media giants, explaining, "what is logical and good ought to be expressed, even if it is unachievable at the moment." This is exactly why Bagdikian's book should be read by any journalist, as we all labor within the same system, and it behooves us to know which forces are at work upon our work.
PBS Interview with Bagdikian
Excerpts from The Media Monopoly