New Media Monopoly




B

en
Bagdikian is the winner of almost every top prize in U.S. journalism,
including the Pulitzer. He is the former dean of the Graduate School
of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He is one
of the most respected media critics in the country and has been
a reporter and editor for more than 30 years. The


New
York Times

has called him “an exemplar to a generation
of journalists.” His landmark book

The Media Monopoly

is now completely revised and reissued as

The New Media Monopoly






BARSAMIAN:




How does the new media monopoly differ from the one
you first described in 1983?



 


BAGDIKIAN:
When I wrote the first edition in 1983, the big companies were eager
to get a monopolistic, dominant position in one media, e.g., Gannett
in newspapers and Hearst in magazines. Now, they are dominant in
all media: newspapers, radio, television, books, and movies. 


They
also have joint ventures with each other. So we don’t have
what is considered a usual capitalist method of competing. They
are a cartel: they deal with each other. They control what the great
majority of Americans see and hear in news, movies, and in the formation
of not just public opinion, but public values. 


They
have also dropped the veil of “We just give people what they
want. We are neutral. We respond to what the public desires.”
Their politics are overwhelmingly right wing. When I say right wing,
I don’t mean just conservative. One of the big five—if
you add General Electric, it’s six—is Fox, owned by Rupert
Murdoch. It is very right wing and that was always something that
these people denied. Murdoch thinks that he’s not right wing,
he’s what the whole country should be. That’s their picture
of what the middle will be. 


Secondly,
I think the veil was dropped when Disney, which owned

Fahrenheit
9/11

through its subsidiary Miramax, produced this very effective
movie, which showed the duplicity and the incompetence and the real
goals of the Bush administration, and they refused to show it.  It
is not often that a major company puts millions of dollars into
a film that is guaranteed to appeal to a very large part of the
movie audience and then says, “We aren’t going to show
it.” That was clearly because it would hurt Bush.  




In
the case of



Fahrenheit 9/11

, Michael Moore reports
that Michael Eisner, CEO of Disney, objected to the film not because
of its content, but because Eisner felt that the release of the
film might jeopardize Disney’s economic interests in Florida
where the governor happens to be the brother of the president of
the United States.



 


That
demonstrates something else, i.e., that when a major broadcaster
and moviemaker, like Disney, makes a decision, they aren’t
making a decision just about one program. They are making decisions
about other properties of theirs that might be affected and which
might be huge moneymakers. We see that with every one of the big
media monopolies. General Electric, for example, owns NBC and all
of its affiliates and cable companies and so forth. They also make
nuclear reactors. We haven’t seen a documentary on NBC about
the unsolved problem of nuclear waste and what to do with all of
the toxins that come out of nuclear reactors. So with the scale
of properties that are owned by these big companies, what they put
out is influenced by things that have nothing to do necessarily
with the programs, but with what is not seen. What is most harmful
to the U.S. public is the information they do not see and therefore
cannot react to.





You
begin



The New Media Monopoly

with an interesting incident
that happened in the small North Dakota town of Minot. Why did you
select t



hat? 


It
was such a tragic demonstration of unregulated media power. Minot,
North Dakota, has six radio stations. They belong to an organization
called Clear Channel, which has 1,200 stations and only 200 employees.
The reason they can run 1,200 stations with 200 employees is they
run canned material all day long, including Rush Limbaugh. What
happened in Minot was that a train was derailed with tank cars carrying
anhydrous ammonia. Anhydrous ammonia is terrible stuff. It causes
blindness, it causes clothing to stick to your skin. The police
said, “We’ve got to let the whole community know. Keep
everybody inside. Schools, don’t let the kids out. Shut your
windows, shut your doors.” They said, “We have six stations.
Beautiful. We will go to them and ask them to announce that immediately.”
They went to all of these stations that were broadcasting and found
the doors locked. Their signals were from more than 1,000 miles
away. That’s Clear Channel, which dwarfs all other radio and
is run by a very reactionary organization that makes lots of money.
It’s bigger than any other radio broadcaster. Even the wretched
1996 Telecommunications Act, which gave the big media people exactly
what they asked for, says they’re supposed to operate in the
public interest. Where else would they show their public interest
except in the communities where they have their studios? Here was
a dramatic case, when people died, they were hospitalized, they
were blinded because the station disobeyed the law, with the blessings
of the majority of the Bush FCC. 




Clear
Channel has 12 radio stations in Los Angeles, 8 in Denver, 4 in
Eugene, Oregon, and 6 in this town in North Dakota. Clear Channel
has also been implicated in organizing pro-war rallies around the
country. 



That’s
one of the things I mean when I say they’re dropping the veil.
They have right-wing politics and they display them openly. The
majority of the FCC, which is appointed by the president of the
United States, believes that we don’t need to regulate these
corporations, they can regulate themselves. They know best what
the public wants. 


There
are real consequences for this kind of media monopoly. People live
and die by it. They do other things, too. They have to function
in a world that is falsely portrayed in what they see and hear in
their broadcasting and in most of their newspapers. 




Ted
Koppel is a senior TV journalist, longtime host of ABC’s “Nightline.”
In early 2004, he attempted to produce a program where he would
name the names of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq. In some instances,
he would show the photographs as well, with no commentary. It was
a roll call. Nevertheless, a group of TV stations owned by Sinclair
decided that this was inflammatory and hostile to the interests
of President Bush and refused to carry the broadcast. 



It
doesn’t get more explicit than that. So there is evidence that
the Bush people are denying people the fruits of democracy. No matter
how much they complain, how much they demonstrate, how much the
polls show that they feel differently than what the government is
doing, the Bush people have the power. They are using it both in
Orwellian terms in their propaganda and they are using it to favor
those corporations which are useful to it. Halliburton is an obvious
case, the vice president’s former firm. It got all of these
contracts without bidding. It overcharged the United States Army
and the soldiers that they’re supposed to feed. There are shameless
ways in which the people in the White House can ignore what is legal
and humane.







In
the epigraph to your book



The New Media Monopoly

,
you quote the chief justice of the United States Court of Appeals
in the District of Columbia, David Bazelon. He says, “In this
job, you have to ask the questions that tend toward greater fairness.
Without the right questions, you’ll never get the facts that
will lead you to better answers.” How do you get to the right
questions? 



You
will get it by having the media people who put on programs raise
the questions and you do it by an opposition party that is free
to openly ask questions. The Democratic Party for years has been
dominated by the Democratic Leadership Council, whose policy has
always been, move toward the center, move toward where the Republicans
are and that way we will get more votes. That way what we have got
is more Republican-like legislation and representation. The Internet
has some independent outlets. In addition to MoveOn, there are alternet,
tompaine, buzzflash, commondreams, znet, and many others. They are
making a difference in the information flow. 


You
have to ask the right questions in order to get the answers. For
example, before we went to war, Senator Robert Byrd gave a speech
in the Senate in which he said that he grieves for his country because
it is doing something so dangerous and irrational. He gave the history
of what happened to Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, of
how there were these shifty deals that subsidized 24 U.S. corporations
in the 1980s to supply Iraq with these weapons. Iraq used them against
the Iranians, who were our enemy number one at the time and the
poison gas to kill their Kurdish minority. Byrd put that whole history
on the record. 


What
did the TV news show? They showed a picture of this elderly, white-haired
senator saying he grieved for his country. They treated it as a
kind of comical little episode. 




What
accounts for the plethora of journalists who have been exposed for
plagiarism? Is this just one of the things that happened in the
trade or has there really been an increase? There have been some
very well publicized affairs at the



Washington Post

,
the

New Republic

, the

New York Times





It
was always kind of true, but now it is a national obsession. Get
what you want any way you can. What happened in the early 2000s
and late 1990s when JP Morgan and our biggest investment houses,
like Merrill Lynch, were robbing people of their money by under-the-table
deals, hundreds of billions of dollars? Not just the Enrons and
the Tycos. Those were bad enough. But these are the big institutions.
These temples were crooked. Winning is everything. You can lie and
you can cheat and as long as you know the government isn’t
going to do anything about it, why not? And I think that’s
what happened. 


The
Securities and Exchange Commission has rules, which they chose not
to enforce. What happens when most American working people discover
that they’ve been robbed and cheated, have lost their pensions,
and the economy becomes the economy of the poor and the rich is
very frightening to me, because I don’t think the Bush people
have any hesitation in using police methods that are well known
in what we used to think of as banana republics and third-world
countries, where tyrants ran things, of breaking up crowds, making
them suffer. I think we are heading directly into that kind of situation
with a second Bush administration. 




Since
Vietnam, every Administration has tightly controlled news reporting
of war, starting with Grenada, Panama, the first Gulf War, and now
in the Iraq war, there are embedded journalists. Did you ever think
in all your years as a journalist that you would encounter a phrase
that is so freighted with the boudoir?

 


I
think it would be an interesting semantic analysis for this term
“embedded,” as in bed with. What we were not told is that
in this famous embedment, which I agree is a term that exposes itself,
these people were not with the front-line troops.





The
best Pentagon reporter I know, George Wilson, who writes for the

National Journal

, went to Iraq. He was not embedded and he
told me that after the first few days, “Something is fishy,
something is very strange.” We’ve been telling Iraq for
months that we were going to invade them. There were no tank traps,
there were no big mounds of earth to stop vehicles, there were no
highly concentrated mine fields where the troops would have to go
through. There was this cakewalk into Baghdad and no Republican
Guard. It was perfectly obvious the Republican guard took off their
uniforms and went back and formed a civilian militia. 




What
accounts for the timidity of most of the corporate media when it
comes to critical issues like war and peace? 



When
you look at the boards of directors of the big media companies and
you look at the benefits that they get from a permissive government
regulatory structure, you begin to understand why they are not going
to take a strong position against the Bush policies because Bush
is giving them everything they want. I think it’s an alliance
of our biggest, most highly organized conglomerates that cover news
and background with the kind of antediluvian economics of the Bush
White House, so that it favors the big corporations, of which the
media conglomerates are a part. They aren’t going to disturb
this great gift to them. 




Going back to the journalists, many of them in surveys say that
they are liberal, yet they work in structures that are hierarchical.
Wouldn’t it be a great way for a young journalist getting into
the field to make a name to debunk some of the propaganda that comes
from the Administration? For example, just go back to a period you’re
very familiar with, around the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, when
two young guys at the

Washington Post, W

oodward and Bernstein,
went up against the Nixon administration. You don’t see those
kinds of young journalists out there today. 



I
think it’s because increasingly these big conglomerates, which
include the news media, don’t want to rock the boat. The Pentagon
Papers case would not be supported the way it was if it were repeated.
Woodward and Bernstein would not be supported if they were going
to rock a whole Administration because the owners have too much
of an interest in what the government  provides for them. 


Journalists
live and die by what gets into the paper, what gets on the evening
news and on TV. If you write stories that either don’t appear
or are on page 23 or are maybe 15 seconds at the last item on the
radio or TV report or not at all, you quickly learn a lesson. 


Periodically
we have waves of losing our best journalists. They leave news reporting
and go into writing books and writing magazine articles. For example,
every time a newspaper has done what the

LA Times

did and
what other papers have done, which is let the advertising department
have a voice in what will be printed as news, they lose their best
reporters. 


There
was a seminal essay in 1954 by Warren Breed called “Socialization
in the Newsroom.” He shows how reporters are socialized. If
you write a story about the abuses of used car salespeople, it’s
not likely to get in the paper because they are major advertisers.
If you do a story on a huge new housing development that is in fact
on unstable toxic ground, it may not get into the paper because
the developers are huge advertisers. Pretty soon you learn that
if you step on the wrong toes, you’re not going to get in the
paper. As a matter of fact, you will begin to be looked at as a
troublemaker. You disappear. 


It’s
a simple way of socializing journalists into the doctrine of the
organization they work for. Two things happen. Most of them conform—they
have families, they have mortgages, they have kids who are going
to college—or they quit. Both things are happening, and they’ve
happened for some time. They’re happening more readily now
because the news media have so many other interests besides informing
the public.





David Barsamian
is the founder and director of Alternative Radio. (www.alternativeradio.org).
His most recent book is



Louder than Bombs

. His forthcoming
book with Tariq Ali is

Empire and Resistance

.