The New Media Monopoly

The New Media Monopoly

The New Media Monopoly describes the cartel of five giant media conglomerates who now control the media on which a majority of Americans say they most rely. These five are not just large — though they are all among the 325 largest corporations in the world — they are unique among all huge corporations: they are a major factor in changing the politics of the United States and they condition the social values of children and adults alike.

These five huge corporations — Time Warner, Disney, Murdoch’s News Corporation, Bertelsmann of Germany, and Viacom (formerly CBS) — own most of the newspapers, magazines, books, radio and TV stations, and movie studios of the United States.

These Big Five (with General Electric’s NBC a close sixth) do not manufacture automobiles, or clothing, or nuts and bolts. They manufacture politics and social values. The media conglomerates have been a major force in creating conservative and far right politics in the country. They have almost single-handedly as a group, in their radio and television dominance, produced a coarse and vulgar culture that celebrates the most demeaning characteristics in the human psyche — greed, deceit, and cheating as a legitimate way to win (as in the various “reality” shows).

It is not just national economics that is at stake — though their power has led to the government’s somnolence of anti-trust action. Nor is it just the neglect of broadcast media giantism by the government agencies that by law are still required to operate “in the public interest.” The public interest is to have the country’s largest broadcasting system in the world provide diversity in news, opinion, and commentary that serves all Americans, right, left, and independent, as well as access to their local stations as well as true choices in national programs.

What is at stake is American democracy itself. A country without all the significant news, points of view, and information its citizens need to be informed voters is risking the loss of democratic rights. Voters without genuine choices and without the information they need to choose what meets their own needs and wishes has produced something alarming: on Election Day our voters are forced to vote for what is the narrowest political choices among all industrial democracies of the world.

The New Media Monopoly, by Ben Bagdikian, describes these dominant media giants, how they cooperate with each other in the manner of a cartel, who runs them, and how this all came to pass in such insidious ways. It reminds a whole generation that has forgotten, for example, that the public owns the air waves, not the broadcasters. The book describes how all our media grew, including the Internet (and intriguing information like the first time in history that a computer crashed).

This book is designed to inform, to raise the alarm, and at the same time be readable in the living room and classroom.

The New Media Monopoly can be purchased at local bookstores or ordered directly from Beacon Press, 25 Beacon Street, Boston, MA.

. . . Excerpts

How This Book Came About in the First Place:
Preface to the 1st Edition

As a young reporter in Providence, R.I., I used to drop by for tea in the back room of a secondhand bookstore run by Mary and Douglas Dana. Douglas, a rosy-cheeked Scot, would pull out his latest find in first editions and Mary would predict that he would keep the book and never sell it. One Saturday afternoon, Douglas showed me a first edition that made a difference in my reportorial life. It was The Letters of Sacco and Vanzetti, edited by Marion Denman Frankfurter and Gardner Jackson.

I knew that there had been a “Sacco and Vanzetti Case.” I had been seven years old when the two men were electrocuted at Charlestown Prison in Boston. I never heard anything except certitude that the two Italians were murderers and that when the switch was thrown on their electric chair there was such a powerful flow of electricity that in my hometown of Stoneham, fifteen miles away, and in all of eastern Massachusetts, the electric lights blinked. I had no childhood reason to doubt their guilt and I remember no seven-year-old’s reservations about the death penalty. But I was awed by the phenomenon of thousands of homes where a flicker of darkness recorded the deaths of two criminals.

That was all I knew about Sacco and Vanzetti when I first saw Douglas Dana’s book, with its good, clear type and solid binding. As I flipped through the pages my eye caught the recurring name of Alice Stone Blackwell. A feminist editor and writer, daughter of Lucy Stone, Alice Stone Blackwell, it was clear from the book, had befriended the two prisoners. I remembered seeing a poem my mother wrote and dedicated to her friend Alice Stone Blackwell. I was interested in Alice Stone Blackwell, so Douglas Dana reluctantly sold me the book.

Reading the letters of Sacco and Vanzetti started a reportorial pursuit that took much of my spare time for the next several years. It let me to a tantalizing brush with a definitive solution to the crime for which Sacco and Vanzetti were falsely convicted and killed. I learned that it was untrue that the lights blinked anywhere when the men were electrocuted. But from endless readings of the trial transcript, post-trial affidavits and appeals, official reports, interviews with principals still living, and the books that even now, sixty years later, are still being written about the case, I also learned something about the social role of newspapers.

Sacco, a shoe repairman, and Vanzetti, a fish peddler, were arrested for the killing of a paymaster and his assistant in South Braintree, Mass., in 1920. It was a cold-blooded murder on a sidewalk in daylight by five men who drove off in a car. Sacco and Vanzetti were Italian immigrants and anarchists. Their arrest came during a national hysteria, whipped by fear of the Russian Revolution a few years earlier, by an endemic bias against all “foreigners,” by an uninformed public notion about anarchists, and by A. Mitchell Palmer, attorney general of the United States, who used the Department of Justice to attack all radicals in mass arrests known as “the Palmer Raids,” which had become almost a national sport.

At the time of the arrests, most newspapers supported the Palmer Raids and, despite the overwhelming evidence of gross improprieties of justice, were enthusiastic about convicting Sacco and Vanzetti. The press is a mirror of sorts, which might account for its reflection and promotion of the hysteria. But in its great numbers and variety, it is also supposed to be a kind of balance wheel, bringing reason and diversity of opinion to its reporting and commentary. The balance wheel had failed.

By the time Sacco and Vanzetti were to be electrocuted in 1927, most of the serious press had changed its mind. Reporters confirmed that the state had been dishonest and suppressed evidence. Editors had become convinced that there had been a grave miscarriage of justice. It was too late. By that time the pride of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had become attached to the need to electrocute the two defendants. The state, frozen in its attitude, resisted a commutation because, in the words of Herbert Ehrmann, an admirable lawyer in the case, it would have “signaled a weakness within our social order.” In the United States we depend on our mass media to signal, among other things, “weakness in our social order.”

In 1921, when Sacco and Vanzetti were tried, the newspapers failed to send that signal, though there was ample evidence to support one. By 1927, when the men were electrocuted, a significant portion of the press had changed its mind. The change did not save the two men, but it said something about the media.

The lesson repeated itself during my subsequent work as a reporter. The news media are not monolithic. They are not frozen in a permanent set of standards. But they suffer from built-in biases that protect corporate power and consequently weaken the public’s ability to understand forces that create the American scene. These biases in favor of the status quo, like the ones operating during the Sacco-Vanzetti case, do not seem to change materially over time. When Senator Joseph McCarthy gained demagogic power, he did it, as did A. Mitchell Palmer thirty years earlier, with the enthusiastic support of most newspapers. The newspapers had to abandon disciplines of documentation and critical judgment in order to promote McCarthy, but they did it.

During the emergence of the civil rights movement in the 1950s, most of the best regional papers, in the North and the South, would tell me when I dropped in for the traditional “fill-in” for outside journalists, that there was no serious problem in their “colored districts.” Yet in city after city there came racial explosions that surprised even the local media.

When I was reporting on structural poverty in the early 1960s, once again in the newsrooms of some of the best papers I was told that there was no significant problem. But a few years later it was clear that not only was there a problem, but it had existed for a long time.

Yet if I asked these same papers about welfare cheaters, low-level political chicanery, or failings of almost any public agency, their libraries were full of clippings.

There was, it appeared, a double standard: sensitive to failures in public bodies, but insensitive to equally important failures in the private sector, particularly in what affects the corporate world. This institutional bias does more than merely protect the corporate system. It robs the public of a chance to understand the real world.

Our picture of reality does not burst upon us in one splendid revelation. It accumulates day by day and year by year in mostly unspectacular fragments from the world scene, produced mainly by the mass media. Our view of the real world is dynamic, cumulative, and self-correcting as long as there is a pattern of even-handedness in deciding which fragments are important. But when one important category of the fragments is filtered out, or included only vaguely, our view of the social-political world is deficient. The ultimate human intelligence-discernment of cause and effect-becomes damaged because it depends on knowledge of events in the order and significance in which they occur. When part of the linkage between cause and effect becomes obscure, the sources of our weakness and of our strength become uncertain. Errors are repeated decade after decade because something is missing in the perceptions by which we guide our social actions.

My personal associations, professional experience, and research tell me that journalists, writers, artists, and producers are, as a body, capable of producing a picture of reality that, among other things, will signal “weakness in the social order.” But to express this varied picture they must work through mainstream institutions and these institutions must be diverse. As the most important institutions in the production of our view of the real social world-newspapers, magazines, radio, television, books, and movies-increasingly become the property of the most persistent beneficiaries of mass media biases, it seems important to me to write about it.

Chapter 2 Opening

In 1983, the men and women who headed the 50 mass media corporations that dominated American audiences could have fit comfortably in a modest hotel ballroom. The people heading the 20 dominant newspaper chains probably would form one conversational cluster to complain about newsprint prices; 20 magazine moguls in a different circle denounce postal rates; the broadcast network people in another corner, not being in the newspaper or magazine business, exchange indignation about government radio and television regulations; the book people compete in outrage over greed of writers’ agents; and movie people gossip about sexual achievements of their stars.

By 2003, five men controlled all these old media once run by the 50 corporations of 20 years earlier. These five, owners of additional digital corporations, could fit in a generous phone booth. Granted, it would be a tight fit and it would be filled with some tensions.

In this imaginary phone booth would be Richard Parsons, chairman and CEO of AOL Time Warner, who would be cautious about his job, because he was now chief of the world’s largest media firm only because his former co-chiefs, Steve Case and Carl Levin, had been dethroned. Michael Eisner, chief of Disney, would demand his own foot space the way he did after he and his old friend, Michael Ovitz, engineered capture of the vast Mickey Mouse empire by promising co-leadership, whereupon Eisner dumped his old friend on the principle of One Empire, One Emperor. The notoriously irascible Sumner Redstone, ruler of Viacom, formerly CBS, would be all elbows because News Corp’s Rupert Murdoch had bought Hughes Electronics’ satellite-transmitted DirecTV that gives Murdoch financial and technical power that surpasses Viacom. Finally, the fifth occupant would be Reinhard Mohn, patriarch of the 168-year-old German firm, Bertelsmann, as aloof as one can be in a crowded phone booth because he is head of, among other things, the world’s largest publisher of English-language books, but not long before had been caught lying about his firm’s Nazi-era history.

Admittedly, it may be difficult to imagine five of the world’s most influential executives standing in one phone booth, an act usually reserved for college students competing for a place in the Guinness Book of World Records (which says the record is 25 young men at St. Mary’s College, in Moraga, California). It takes a stretch of imagination to think of five corporate executives doing the same thing. On the other hand, it would have been difficult to imagine in 1983 that the corporations that owned all the country’s dominant mass media would, in less than 20 years, shrink from 50 separate companies

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