In Memoriam: Ben Bagdikian

Posted by Mitchell - March 19, 2016 (entry 715)

Two of the past four posts on the Chicago Media Action website have been obituaries of heroes of the media activist movement. Sad to say, we have seen another passing of just such a hero — among the very grandest heroes and intellectual champions of our movement: Ben Bagdikian, who died last week at the age of 96.

Ben's career was storied, and firmly within the major media establishment: Ben was a working journalist and later ombudsman with the Washington Post, who almost resigned from the Post if the paper didn't complete the publication of the Pentagon Papers. Ben was a professor, and dean, at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Ben wrote a number of books, including arguably his most acclaimed book, The Media Monopoly.

The Media Monopoly was one of the great rallying cries for the next generation of media activism in the midst of increasing corporate media consolidation during the Neoliberal period. I summarized the situation and Bagdikian's contribution in a presentation that I gave in 2011, excerpted as follows:

In the 1980s, companies started to build conglomerates across media industries, so that it wasn't just a TV producer or film studio or newspaper publisher -- it was a TV producer and film studio and newspaper publisher, and much more besides. The raison d'etre was, as usually is, profit -- more profit can be generated by producing content once and then redistributing it across all one's channels, so then a race was underway to consolidate media across industries, aided by zealots in government subscribing to supposed "free market" principles but instead aiding and abetting the greatest media monopolies heretofore seen.


The greatest chronicler of this new consolidation trend was Ben Bagdikian…In 1983, Bagdikian published a book called The Media Monopoly which noted that just 50 companies commanded the lion's share of American media and that the trend was to consolidate further, perhaps to as few as six media companies. The book was republished in updated editions seven times in the next two decades to chronicle the continuing changes in the American media landscape; by the time the seventh edition came out in 2004, Bagdikian was wrong in one respect: it didn't get down to as few as six media companies, in that book he listed just five.

Bagdikian and many others also chronicled the negative consequences of such concentration: increased commercialism, less journalism, less independence from the bottom-line, more conflicts of interest, fewer diverse perspectives, and even life-or-death situations, as was the case in the city of Minot, North Dakota, which in 2002 saw a chemical leak from a train derailment cause hundreds to be hospitalized and when local police tried to get on the radio to alert the public, they found six of the seven Minot radio stations controlled from a single Clear Channel office which was unstaffed at the time of the leak.


That activism crystallized with the Media Ownership Uprising of 2003. The New York Times, in its obituary of Bagdikian, wrote the following:

[Bagdikian] was perhaps best known as the author of “The Media Monopoly” (1983), which warned that freedom of expression and independent journalism were threatened by the consolidation of news and entertainment outlets in a shrinking circle of corporate owners. A mere 50 companies, he wrote, controlled what most Americans read in newspapers and books and saw on television and at the movies. By 2004, when he published “The New Media Monopoly,” the last of seven sequel editions, the number of corporate giants controlling much of the flow of information and entertainment had dwindled to five. “This gives each of the five corporations and their leaders more communications power than was exercised by any despot or dictatorship in history,” Mr. Bagdikian wrote. Journalists, scholars, corporate officials and the public still debate the drawbacks and merits of limited media ownership. But the Internet and desktop publishing have extended freedom of speech to anyone with a computer. Cable networks and online news and entertainment choices have proliferated, and some observers contend that the Orwellian perils envisioned by Mr. Bagdikian have receded or become moot.


Two points: Point one — the "debate" that the obituary refers to is about as one-sided as it got, as evident in the Media Ownership Uprising of 2003. The "debate" was for the corporate media and their functionaries at the FCC to ignore all the (considerable) evidence saying that media concentration was bad, and to shut up the opposition long enough until policies could get locked in. The debate even straddled the usual political divide, as right-wing opponents joined forces with their more liberal counterparts.

Point two, "some observers contend that the Orwellian perils envisioned by Mr. Bagdikian have receded or become moot". Meanwhile, other observers contend — with evidence! — that the perils are still quite real. Our major non-internet media — television, radio, and what's left of print — while there has been some shaking up are still highly concentrated. What's more, the internet — that great saving grace and excuse of the corporate media bullhorn — are themselves immensely concentrated, both at the level of the ISP cartel (four firms command more than 60% of connections), and at the level of internet content providers (the big five there are Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo!).

The issues raised by Ben Bagdikian resonate with us still, and his passing should inspire those of us involved in the struggle for a better media and a better society to redouble our efforts. Rest in power, Ben Haig Bagdikian.

There are other tributes for Ben Bagdikian online, including at FAIR, Free Press, and at Democracy Now!.

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