Navigating the Media
Ben Bagdikian is a respected critic of the media. He is
winner of almost every top prize in American journalism, including the Pulitzer. His
career as a reporter and editor spans more than 50 years. He is former Dean of the
Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. His memoir is Double Vision. His classic book The
Media Monopoly is now in its fifth edition.
BARSAMIAN: You say in
the preface to your memoir, Double Vision, that you were struck at how much your work as a
journalist was shaped by your heritage, your early life and those who influenced you. That
seems kind of obvious.
BAGDIKIAN: I confess that I
was pretty dumb about that. I grew up in New England. I was an Armenian and very conscious
of that heritage. I loved my grandfather and my uncles, but I thought of myself as being
an American. I found out that wasn’t strictly true. In my family we were all trying
to be 200 percent American while at the same time knowing we were the “other.” I
didn’t think about this until pretty late in life, when some misguided graduate
student at Stanford said he was going to do his master’s thesis on me. In the
process, he said, “Do you think that your covering civil rights and doing things
about the poor had anything to do with your own family background, being a persecuted
minority in Turkey?” As I thought about it, I thought that’s quite possible.
What drew you to
Instinct and the greater
concentration of intelligence in my feet than in my head. I was a pre-medical student in
college. In pre-medicine, they fill you up with chemistry and some physics, very little
about human beings, because after all, what does medicine have to do with human beings?
This was a long time ago, just before World War II. By my senior year, I had become editor
of the campus paper and had got used to the idea of writing editorials calling the
president of the university an idiot, which of course is the obligatory stance of all
college campus papers. But liking journalism, I decided when I was a senior I didn’t
want to be a doctor. But the only marketable skill I had was chemistry. I had an
appointment to go to the Monsanto Laboratories in Springfield, Massachusetts. I appeared
in my best and only suit. The man was out. I was told I’d have to come back in a
couple of hours. So I was walking through Springfield killing time and saw a sign on a
building that said Springfield Morning Union. Without thinking, I went up and said,
“Do you need a reporter?” They did, and I never went back. Then came the war.
After the war I spent a year in New York. I wrote for a year, saying I’m going to
make a life as a reader-writer. I did get a piece in The New Yorker once, but that
isn’t enough to keep a family alive for a year. A paper in Providence wanted me to
take a job, and I did. It turned out it was a good job. I got to do what I wanted to do,
long series, in-depth. I was there for a long time. I was a foreign correspondent for them
for a year, then I became chief of their Washington bureau. I had a Guggenheim Fellowship
and I spent a year in the Library of Congress reading the history of American journalism,
doing nothing but studying, having a desk and an alcove. I learned a great deal. It was
the backbone of much of what I did afterward. At the end of that time, I wrote a piece
about the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the thick of the civil rights
fights in the South for the Saturday Evening Post. I traveled with Bob Moses, Chuck
McDew, and Jim Foreman, lived in their safe houses and spent months with them. I did a
long piece. So the Saturday Evening Post said, We’d like you to write
regularly for us. I said, I don’t want to join the staff. This was during the
“social conscience decade” of the Post, before it went broke.
So I had a wonderful
contract with them. I was an independent writer. I did six pieces a year. I could do
almost anything I wanted. It occurred to me that there was this problem of poor people and
yet we were supposed to be in the middle of prosperity. I read a couple of books by Wilbur
Cohen, a statistical book, and one by Michael Harrington, which was a wonderful polemical
book. Those led me to think that we know what it was like to be poor in Dickensian England
but I wasn’t sure we knew what it’s like to be poor in a modern, technological,
highly prosperous society. So I went to the Post, and they said, Sure. I said, I
want to live with major categories of the poor. I had studied what they were: the rural
poor, the urban poor, the aged poor and the various other kinds. So I lived with some of
them. I picked beans in Florida. I lived in a flophouse on the West Side of Chicago. The
piece I wrote for them was the longest non-fiction piece the Saturday Evening Post
ever ran. It became a book, In the Midst of Plenty: The Poor in America. From then
on I was spoiled. I wanted to do only the things I wanted to do, and the Post let
me do it.
There’s a story
that you tell from your experience during World War II, a flight over New Mexico, I
I became an aerial
navigator. I had been a pacifist my whole life up until that time. Then I decided
it’s no time to be a pacifist when Hitler is killing people by the millions. So I
decided it would be more interesting to be a navigator than a pilot. I regretted that,
because being a pilot you have some control over your life. Being a navigator you depend
on whether you’ve got a good pilot or a bad pilot. I became an instructor navigator.
In navigation at that time, relatively crude compared to now, you could do two or three
different types of navigation. One of them is called dead reckoning, unfortunately, in
which you simply look at your speed and your compass headings and make all kinds of
theoretical corrections, and based purely on that you figure out where you are. Well,
you’re in an airplane, first of all, and the instruments are not always accurate.
Secondly, an airplane is moving in an air mass that has its own motion and direction. We
call that “wind” on the ground. You have to guess at that. So at the end of a
very long flight, I think it was one of those six-hour flights, as we were approaching, we
were within about half an hour of our target, I handed back notes saying, “Tell me
where we’re going to be at X hours.” The trainee hands up a note and says,
“Albuquerque, New Mexico.” By this time, about 11:00 PM at night, everybody was
watching because it was mostly darkness, suddenly, at just the right time, a big city
looms up. The student was ecstatic. We go over this big city at just the right time. So we
land to refuel. We’re on the way to operations. The student is elated. He says,
“Zero-zero, right, sir?” I said, “No, sorry.” He said, “What do
you mean?” I said, “We’re not in Albuquerque. We’re in El Paso,
Texas.” He said, “That’s impossible.” I said, “I’m sorry,
that’s where we are.” He dug his log out of his briefcase and said, “But
sir, I’ve got the figures to prove that we’re in Albuquerque.” To me
that’s a nice metaphor for a lot of our news.
News says it’s facts.
Kenneth Starr, the sex prosecutor in Washington, says he’s just going by the facts.
Well, there are facts, and there are facts. Some facts are important and some are
unimportant. You can prove you’re in Albuquerque, what people wish, or you can prove
you’re in El Paso, the harsh reality. Much of what our standard news media tell us
proves that we’re in Albuquerque when we’re really in El Paso.
You decry the shift from
issues to personalities in media coverage, yet the editors and news anchors say
they’re giving the public what it wants.
That’s a lot of
baloney because when people vote, when people react to the things in their own lives, they
show great intelligence. And there’s something else that’s going on now. The
newspapers and broadcasting, just to speak of what’s going on at this particular time
as you and I are talking, the big news is about impeachment of the President because he is
alleged to have had sexual contact with a young woman in the White House, with august
media disquisitions on the nature of sexual contact. It has become the huge issue in
national politics. It is an inconsequential issue. If one assumes it’s true, it is an
inconsequential issue in terms of the priorities of this country and what needs to be
done. What do we see when they do the public opinion polls? A majority of the American
people say, “He may have done it, but there are more important things.” A
different kind of majority, made up of different components, say, “We don’t
think he did it.” So what do we have? A majority say he may or may not have done it,
but in any case, enough already. There are more important things. The media are going
crazy about this. That’s the so-called stupid public. The question now is, Which side
is stupid, the media or the public?
This is not the National
Enquirer. It’s the front page of the January 22, 1998 New York Times. The headline
is: “Clinton Denies Report of an Affair with Aide at White House. Secret Recordings.
Friendship of Two Women Slowly Led to Crisis.” There are color photographs of the
President, Monica Lewinsky, and Linda Tripp. What accounts for the newspaper of record
engaging in this kind of journalism?
If you had shown me that
after I had been at the Antarctic for a year, I would say, Stop kidding. That’s a
combination you’ve just put together between Mad Magazine and the National
Enquirer. Because it’s nutty. It’s going to be the downfall of American
culture. It’s a kind of craziness. What has happened is that it’s a confirmation
of Bagdikian’s law of the density of journalists. Bagdikian’s second law—I
have a lot of second laws, someday I’ll think of a first law—is that accuracy
and importance of reports of an event are inversely proportional to the number of
reporters who are present. Washington is crammed with journalists. There are more
journalists there than legislators. A big part of that consists of television and radio
reporters. They are desperate to be first with the most sensational news. That adds to the
dynamics of everything else. So in the last 20 years the news has been steadily degraded
from issues to personalities, creation of celebrities and then the gossip about the
celebrities that have been created. It’s not done accidentally, not out of the
small-spiritedness of journalists, though that sometimes is not a small thing, it comes
because large media corporations have taken over news, broadcast, and print, and they live
by the stock market. The ghost in every standard newsroom in America is Wall Street.
The papers and their
executives are judged by the stock increasing its value, by the dividends. The top
executives have huge stock options issued to them like monopoly money, for nothing,
almost, and day by day they become millionaires. Their top editors have stock options, and
they watch the stock tickers more than they do the news tickers. They have to produce big
results right away. Their idea is the public is not interested in issues, they are
interested in people, in celebrities. Pretty soon you’re looking at everything in our
society in terms of private lives. It serves two purposes.
First of all, it serves the
demeaning view of human intelligence held by top media people. Then it also avoids serious
issues which would disturb the corporate status quo. If you look at our serious issues,
there is no way you can approach them effectively without diverting money from, let’s
say, weapons to building up our social infrastructure, instead of our military
infrastructure, which already is overwhelming, even increasing taxes, If you divert
attention from those things by juicy gossip wherever you can find it and inventing someone
that you can gossip about if you can’t find it, then that serves that purpose.
Are you saying that this
is a conscious process that editors are engaged in?
No. I’ve worked in a
newsroom for a long time. Most of the things that sociologists have written about the
inner dynamics in a newsroom aren’t very convincing. But there’s one that was
done in the 1950s by a sociologist named Warren Breed called Socialization in the
Newsroom. He describes it exactly. What happens is that there is a culture that is
created in a newsroom by all kinds of things: inheritance from the past, the personalities
and values of the publisher and the top editor. It’s a day-by-day thing. The newsroom
is filled with individuals who put out what is an individual product, an intellectual,
journalistic product. They do their stories, but it is a hierarchy. It has to be. Someone
has to decide. At deadline time you can’t have a committee meeting. So there’s a
selection. So the selection of every day predetermines what the next day’s selection
is going to be. Once you have selected some things to be news, suddenly you have created
what is news. The next day you have to follow up on that news. First thing you know, you
have established an agenda for public thinking. A few papers, the better ones in the
country, were built that way when they were owned by individuals who took that seriously
and wanted to be well thought of in history and knew how to do it. Now it’s,
You’ve got to make money fast and you’ve got to make money that’s going to
show up in the stock market. You get socialized by that. You follow up yesterday’s
news. Pretty soon the reporters don’t feel that they have made a bad choice, because
it’s news. The journalists don’t have to do it consciously. It is something that
becomes part of their self-induced definition of news.
Much is made of freedom
of the press. A.J. Liebling said, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those
who own one.”
Of course. If you work for
a newspaper or a news magazine or a broadcasting company, you, the individual reporter,
have no First Amendment rights while you are doing your work. The company has First
James Fallows, in his
book Breaking the News, criticized journalists whom he called “buckrakers,”
obviously a pun on the old “muckrakers.” They are people like David Gergen of
the “NewsHour” with Jim Lehrer on PBS, Margaret Carlson of Time, Cokie Roberts
of NPR and ABC, Sam Donaldson of ABC. They’re getting $20,000 or $30,000 a talk, and
often they’re talking in front of organizations that they ostensibly cover.
They are equal opportunity
speakers. They’ll speak before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, but they’ll also
speak for the Dallas Garden Club if the fees are right. I don’t agree with the
politicians who say to the journalists, You want to know about our finances; we think we
ought to know your finances. I think it’s an interesting idea to raise, but it would
not be a very good practice, because I can foresee that the wrong kinds of journalists
would be harassed. I think that once someone begins to make that kind of fee, it would
take an extraordinary individual not to have that out of mind as that person does
reporting. So if Sam Donaldson suddenly became a quiet, thoughtful member of the
presidential press conference who had careful questions, asked with the usual decorum and
had perhaps a better toupee than he has now, really asked serious questions as though he
were not on camera, and if he worked for, let’s say, a very good local community
radio station, like KGNU, he wouldn’t get those fees. He’s got those fees
because he’s a performer.
In all fairness, if
you’re on television, it’s intelligent to be able to project and speak well. But
you also become a performer. There are enormous financial rewards for the performers, the
personality people who have what they call a signature. Some people developed it quietly
and I think unconsciously. Ed Murrow had it, Cronkite had it. They knew that they had a
microphone persona. But they were essentially news people. They were respected for the way
they handled the news. They could be trusted. They may not have had all the news. Cronkite
did not have all the news, but the news he did have was not sleazy news. He didn’t
take personal advantage of sleazy news. Now the idea is, You become a personality.
That’s one of the inventions, the constructs of our media environment now, something
called “the personality.” As your figure and voice and behavior become
publicized, you become a personality. Once you do that, there is a commodity in the U.S.,
which is name recognition.
Donaldson owns a
sizeable sheep ranch in New Mexico, for which he receives a good deal of public subsidies
via the Department of Agriculture. How might he report on corporate welfare, being a
You have to be an
extraordinary person to be in the upper-income brackets and still identify in a serious
way with the needs of the majority of the population. After 15 years in Washington, when
you spend time with the movers and shakers, or if you are reporting on the corporate
community on Wall Street, you get to know them. It’s, Hi, Jack, Hi, Mary.
They’re nice people. They’re nice to you. They think you’re wonderful. Very
few of us are willing to put up a big argument when a powerful person says you’re
wonderful, except to say, Aw, shucks. You get used to dealing with the great, the powerful
and the rich. You get to know them and you get to like them. They give you tips. They tell
you information. They’re nice to you. You can’t imagine that they aren’t
really an important and beneficial part of society. I know that, because it’s
something that every reporter who works in Washington is confronted with.
A colleague of mine, when
we did an investigative piece for the Saturday Evening Post in the 1960s on
conflicts of interest in Congress, had trouble limiting our story. We looked into
lawmakers who had interest in law firms that dealt with the government, interest in
projects that they pushed through. Unfortunately we sent one Congressperson to jail. He
was a nice man. I kind of liked him. But he had sponsored a number of bills for
developments in his district in the South where it turned out that his sister, his
cousins, and his aunts were officers. He was so indiscreet as to be a stockholder in one
of them in the South, which at that time happened to be a felony. The poor man was going
to go to jail. They did that back then. This was back in the 1960s. We interviewed him and
showed him our papers. He admitted it all. When it got out, my collaborator and I said, I
liked that guy. He had no false pretensions. It’s true what he said, Everybody does
it but he got caught. My collaborator said, “You know, his eyes reminded me of my
grandmother.” That was sentimental. But if you spend all your time among the powerful
and the famous, they get to be the people in your circle. There are very few who can
resist that and not think well of them.
Herbert Schiller has
written a book called Information Inequality. It’s a very interesting title, because
it certainly suggests that news and information are commodities and should be discussed
the way income is talked about or wealth.
His thesis, as I recall, is
that if you have the right kind of information, if you have access to the right kind of
information, you have enormous advantages over your fellow citizens. That’s one of
those self-feeding power processes. If you are an insider to crucial information, or even
non-crucial information, you have the best indications of what’s going to happen in
the immediate future. It goes all the way from knowing which aircraft manufacturer is
going to get the big contract and knowing where to buy stock to which people you know are
going to be important or not important and which ones can make decisions advantageous to
you and which can’t. There’s no question that it’s true. This is pretty
much the property of those people who hold power and decide to disclose it to others who
have power. It’s like the stock market. The people who know about those things say,
If you see it in the paper, it’s too late. The people who know what’s going on
take advantage of it and then after a while you leave something for the sparrows.
The first part of The
Media Monopoly is titled, “The Private Ministry of Information.” Why?
Because in an authoritarian
society there is a ministry, or a commissar, or a directorate that controls what everybody
will see and hear. We call that a dictatorship. Here we have a handful of very powerful
corporations led by a handful of very powerful men and women who control everything we see
and hear beyond the natural environment and our own families. That’s something which
surrounds us every day and night. If it were one person we’d call that a
dictatorship, a ministry of information.
The Wall Street Journal
asked in an article, “What industry has the most powerful lobby in Washington?”
It answers the question, it’s not the tobacco industry, not the military, not some
other powerful interests, but the telecommunications industry.
industry, which now includes a very large part of corporate life, can get almost anything
it wants. It got everything it wanted in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which is an
abomination and which was announced by the media as an act to increase competition. In
fact, it was an act to enhance monopoly. I think that we will suffer from that for a very
long time. There’s some move now to ameliorate some of it, but I think it’s
going to be a long time before we unglue, for example, the radio chains that just galloped
into collusion. It was necessary in order to legitimize the Disney-ABC-Cap Cities merger.
There were going to be serious problems with that until the 1996 Act was passed.
Before that was passed, the
telecommunications industry contributed $4 million to key people in the 1994 association
of anarchists who took over the House of Representatives. One of the first things that
class of 1994 under headmaster Gingrich did was have a meeting with telecommunications
executives and say, What do you want? This is literally true. They practically said, What
do you want? What do you expect? And the telecommunications people told them what they
wanted. The 1996 Act gave them what they wanted. It was one of those events that
dramatized how far we have gone into unconcealed control of Congress by corporate America.
“The public needs a
constant reminder,” you write in the Afterward of The Media Monopoly, “that the
airwaves do not belong to broadcasters. They do not belong to the advertisers. The owners
by law are the people of the United States.”
I’ll bet if you gave a
questionnaire to a stratified sample of Americans and asked Who owns the airwaves?, 80
percent would say, the broadcasters. The reason people don’t know is that as recently
as 40 years ago, the FCC used to have a requirement that before you got a broadcasting
license, you had to tell the FCC what your community needed and what you were going to do
to meet those needs. Then, when renewal time came, which used to be three years, now they
have stretched that out to semi-eternity, you were supposed to go through what you had
done to keep your promises. The FCC never monitored it very carefully. But it was a time
in which if some civic group didn’t like the answers, or didn’t like what had
happened, they could ask for a hearing and they could get it.
That’s gone by the
board. Now you buy your frequency. The very act of auctioning off frequencies implies
ownership. I think we are drifting toward the time when the broadcasters will own the
airwaves, even though it’s not the law.
Do you favor bringing
back the now-abolished Fairness Doctrine, as well as requirements for public interest
I think it’s
absolutely essential if we are going to save the broadcasting system from being the
Corporate USA broadcasting system. Under the Fairness Doctrine Rush Limbaugh would not be
censored, I’m not in favor of that but those whom he attacked would get equal time.
That was supposed to be basic in communications law. An interesting thing happened when
repealing the Fairness Doctrine came up. I think it was in the late 1960s or early 1970s.
Newspapers overwhelmingly editorialized against repeal. At that time, newspapers were only
light owners of TV and radio. When it came up again in the 1980s, because then we had
media conglomerates in real force, almost every newspaper of any size was in a
broadcasting conglomerate, owned radio and TV stations. They editorialized in favor of
The testimony was, the
Fairness Doctrine inhibits discussion of public issues on the air because if, for example,
you have debate between two candidates for governor, you may have 20 people who want to
run for governor, and then you would endlessly have to have them on the air, excluding
everything else. But that’s already been taken care of. They manage it on the
national networks. There are ways of doing it. Instead, the broadcasters said to the FCC,
if you will cancel that, they told Congress, we will be able to increase our discussion of
public issues on the air. They repealed the Fairness Doctrine. Ralph Nader did a study.
Discussion of public issues dropped 31 percent. So they lied and got away with it.
The Media Monopoly is a
central text in journalism classes and courses all over the U.S. and I suspect elsewhere
as well. I was wondering what you consider as your legacy?
First of all, I’d like
to have been a decent human being and then also a decent social being. While I have to
confess to you the media are not my primary concern in the nature of our nation and life,
I happen to be in it and to have lived through a time when it was changing and changing
radically in directions that I thought were harmful. It’s a little hard to tell, but
I’ve been struck and really surprised but gratified at the number of people who have
said, I’ve had more and more of a feeling that things weren’t quite right, and
the book told me why that was and explained what I had felt was wrong but told me what had
gone wrong and why. I understand better now what I see and hear on our mass media.
That’s as much as anyone could ask for. I’ve been amazed at the number of people
who are in the standard professional media who when they call up for comment say, I read
your book in college. I really am amazed.
I wonder where we are
now in our little journey here navigating between Albuquerque and El Paso?
If you mean, are we heading
toward a politics sensitive to the basic needs of the country and to the need to correct
the maldistribution of income and housing and schooling, I think that we recognize them as
things that can be mentioned, but we have done nothing substantial to move to change that.
I think there are some signs, and I think I would say we are on the way to learning the
harsh reality of El Paso in the sense that our two established political parties are being
seen as empty shells in terms of ideology and ideas. What is just growing are new
political movements, the New Party, the Alliance for Democracy, and civic groups all over
the country who are small in terms of geography, who are making corrections toward a more
desired Albuquerque. I think there’s a chance outside the established system. Now I
think progressives and even some liberals recognize things aren’t going to be changed
by working within Establishment borders. You start on the outside, which the Europeans
discovered a long time ago. You get leverage from a strong minority party which says, We
aren’t going along any longer.
The labor unions are
beginning to realize this. First of all, they’re beginning to grow and beginning to
realize that the old tradition of the AFL, that labor unions are one thing and politics
are something separate, is nonsense. It’s like saying you have no relationship to the
steamroller which is on your back. Those are signs that yes, we may be making a slow turn
toward El Paso. Because the existing parties are such empty shells, it’s conceivable.
So I think we are making a turn. It’s slow, but it’s slow because we’re
doing it the right way. The 1960s was a period when there was a need for change, but it
either was in the civil rights movement, which began to fragment when it hit the cities,
or it was in the elite universities and was thought of in terms of top-down, and that
didn’t work. This time it’s different. It’s basic. It’s bottom-up.
There are people in local communities and progressive parties that aren’t thinking in
big, grandiose ideas beginning at the top. I think that’s sound. I think that’s
a good thing. I think it makes more and more sense, and if the labor unions will stay on
that track, that combination could, within five years or so, begin to make a real
For information about
obtaining cassette copies or transcripts of this or other interviews, contact: David
Barsamian, Alternative Radio, PO Box 551, Boulder, CO 80306; 800-444-1977.