Published on July 30, 2009
STEVE STEIN, M.SC FH KAISERSLAUTERN. STANDORT ZWEIBRUECKEN. DEPARTMENT OF COMPUTER SCIENCES / DIGITAL MEDIA * AMERIKASTRASSE 1, 66482 ZWEIBRÜCKEN, GERMANY * HTTP://WWW.STEVE-STEIN.DE/FH_KL/ BEN BAGDIKIAN Ben Bagdikian is emeritus professor and dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. He is a former assistant managing director for national news at the Washington Post. He received almost every prize in journalism, including the Pulitzer Prize. Ben Bagdikian is one of the most respected media critics an a veteran of more than 50 years as a reporter and editor. His became famous for his book: The Media Monopoly that is now a classic and in its sixth edition. His other books include: The Shame of the Prisons, Information Machines : Their Impact on Men and the Media, Caged : Eight Prisoners and Their Keepers, The Effete Conspiracy, and Other Crimes by the Press, Trumpet to Arms : Alternative Media in America, and Second Front : Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War. THE MEDIA MONOPOLY : THE NEW COMMUNICATION CARTEL The New Communications Cartel from the Preface to the Fifth Edition (1997) of the book: The Media Monopoly by Ben H. Bagdikian Published by Beacon Press, 1997 In the last 5 years, a small number of the country's largest industrial corporations has acquired more public communications power-including ownership of the news-than any private businesses have ever before possessed in world history. Nothing in earlier history matches this corporate group's power to penetrate the social landscape. Using both old and new technology, by owning each other's shares, engaging in joint ventures as partners, and other forms of cooperation, this handful of giants has created what is, in effect, a new communications cartel within the United States. At issue is not just a financial statistic, like production numbers or ordinary industrial products like refrigerators or clothing. At issue is the possession of power to surround almost every man, woman, and child in the country with controlled images and words, to socialize each new generation of Americans, to alter the political agenda of the country. And with that power comes the ability to exert influence that in many ways is greater than that of schools, religion, parents, and even government itself. Aided by the digital revolution and the acquisition of subsidiaries that operate at every step in the mass communications process, from the creation of content to its delivery into the home, the communications cartel has exercised stunning influence over national legislation and government agencies, an influence whose scope and power would have been considered scandalous or illegal twenty years ago. The new communications cartel has been made possible by the withdrawal of earlier government intervention that once aspired to protect consumers and move toward the ideal of diversity of content and ownership in the mass media. Government's passivity has emboldened the new giants to boast openly of monopoly and their ability to project news, commercial messages, and graphic images into the consciousness and subconscious of almost every American. Strict control of public information is not new in the world, but historical dictatorships lacked the late twentieth century's digital multimedia and distribution technology. As the country approaches the millennium, the new cartel exercises a more complex and subtle kind of control. Because each of the dominant firms has adopted a strategy of creating its own closed system of control over every step in the national media process, from creation of content to its delivery, no content-news, entertainment, or other public messages-will reach the public unless a handful of corporate decision-makers decide that it will. Smaller independents have always helped provide an alternative and still do, but they have become ever more vulnerable to the power of the supergiants. As the size and financial power of the new dominant firms have escalated, so has their coercive power to offer a bothersome smaller competitor a choice of either selling out at once or slowly facing ruin as the larger firm uses its greater financial resources to undercut the independent competitor on price and motion. In the process, consumers have become less influential than ever. THINKING * CONSULTING * WRITING * SPEAKING * INVESTING FHKL@STEVE-STEIN.DE
Perhaps the most troubling power of the new cartel is its control of the main body of news and public affairs information. The reporting of news has always been a commercial enterprise and this has always created conflicts of interest. But the behavior of the new corporate controllers of public information has produced a higher level of manipulation of news to pursue the owners' other financial and political goals. In the process, there has been a parallel shrinkage of any sense of obligation to serve the non-commercial information needs of public citizenship. The idea of government interceding to protect consumers is contrary to the ideology of most of the media cartel's leaders, who with few exceptions, pursue the conservative political and economic notion of an uninhibited free market that operates without social or moral obligations. ... earlier, it was possible to describe the dominant firms in each separate medium-daily newspapers, magazines, radio, television, books, and movies. With each passing year ... the number of controlling firms in all these media has shrunk: from fifty corporations in 1984 to twenty-six in 1987, followed by twenty-three in l990, and then, as the borders between the different media began to blur, to less than twenty in 1993. In 1996 the number of media corporations with dominant power in society is closer to ten. In terms of media possessions and resources, the newest dominant ten are Time Warner, Disney, Viacom, News Corporation Limited (Murdoch), Sony, Tele-Communications, Inc., Seagram (TV, movies, cable, books, music), Westinghouse, Gannett, and General Electric. The magnitude of the new media cartel's power is reflected m the simple dollar size of recent transactions that produced it. At the time of the first edition of this book, in 1983, the biggest media merger in history was a $340-million matter, when the Gannett Company, a newspaper chain, bought Combined Communications Corporation, an owner of billboards, newspapers, and broadcast stations. In 1996, when Disney merged with ABC/Cap Cities, it was a $19-billion deal-fifty-six times larger. This union produced a conglomerate that is powerful in every major mass medium: newspapers, magazines, books, radio, broadcast television, cable systems and programming, movies, recordings, video cassettes, and, through alliances and joint ventures, growing control of the golden wires into the American home- telephone and cable. But the quantity of money involved is the least disturbing measure of events. More ominous is how this degree of concentrated control translates into the power to shape the country's political and economic agendas, to create models of behavior for each generation, and to achieve ever more aggressive, self-serving access to every level of government. A prime exhibit of the cartel's new political power is the Telecommunications Act of 1996. This act was billed as a transformation of sixty-two years of federal communications law for the purpose of "increasing competition." It was, with some exceptions, largely described as such by most of the major news media. But its most dramatic immediate result has been to reduce competition and open the path to cooperation among the giants. The new law opened the media field to new competitors, like the large regional telephone companies, on the theory that cable and telephone companies would compete for customers within the same community. In practice, the power of one company in television was enlarged to permit a single firm to reach 35 percent of all American households. The act made it possible, for the first time, for a single company to own more than one radio station in the same market. A single owner was now permitted to own both TV stations and cable systems in the same market. License periods for broadcasters were expanded. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 swept away even the minimal consumer and diversity protections of the 1934 act that preceded it. Though this was an intricate bill of 280 pages that would transform the American media landscape, its preparation and passage did not meet the standards of study and public participation that ordinarily would precede an historic transformation of a major influence on society. ... Of the 1,500 daily newspapers in the country, 99 percent are the only daily in their cities. Of the 11,800 cable systems, all but a handful are monopolies in their cities. Of the 11,000 commercial radio stations, six or eight formats (all-talk, all-news, variations of rock music, rap, adult contemporary, etc.), with an all but uniform content within each format, dominate programming in every city. The four commercial television networks and their local affiliates carry programs of essentially the same type, with only the meagerly financed public stations offering a genuine alternative. Thus, most of the media meet the tongue-twisting argot of Wall Street in J being oligopolies that are collections of local monopolies. This means few choices for citizens looking for genuine differences. Almost all of the media leaders, possibly excepting Ted Turner of Turner Broadcasting, are political conservatives, a factor in the drastic shift in the entire spectrum of national politics to a brand of conservatism once thought of as "extreme." ... most conservatives consider news bias to be any news that departs from the promotion of conservatism and corporate values. Domination of corporate values lies behind another profound imbalance in the news. Almost every metropolitan paper in the country has a whole section devoted to "Business," which, with rare exceptions, combines service to financiers and investors with presentation of corporate leaders as heroes or exciting combatants. There is no such systematic section for consumers, though most of the country's readers are not investors but consumers. When Time Warner and Turner merged, the New York Times devoted a full page to the story, but not one sentence was devoted to what the merger might mean to the national audience of viewers and listeners. "The News Hour with Jim Lehrer," broadcasting's centerpiece of non-commercial news, also ran a major segment on the merger with no mention of its probable impact on the audience. The daily, even hourly, pursuit of corporate and stock market information by the standard news outlets is in stark contrast to their faint concern with the finances and economics of the majority of American families. From 1987 to 1994, the purchasing power of the minimum wage dropped 35 percent. Only years later when a political battle erupted over a move to increase the minimum wage was there any reporting in the standard news that noted the hardship this represented for the most needful American workers. If the Dow Jones Industrial Average had dropped 35 percent in
seven years it would have been an ongoing and urgent issue in newscasts and on page one in newspapers, with insistence that official action be taken. Another zone of near silence has led to ominous signs in the economy and a threat to social peace. In the United States, maldistribution of income-the growing gap between rich and non-rich-is among the worst among developed countries. Years of systematic silence on the matter in the news media has permitted an accumulation of public distrust, anger, and frustration. Economist Lester Thurow has said of the widening gap, "Probably no country has ever had as large a shift in the distribution of wealth without having gone through a revolution or losing a major war." But the minimal appearance in the news during the years when this maldistribution was clearly developing has kept both its cause and possible solutions largely invisible - and therefore out of the political arena. As always, the public's lack of good information during a time of duress has led to finding scapegoats, and to increasing domestic right-wing terrorism of a sort once thought limited to the Third World. In an era of headlines on cutting welfare to the poor, there has been no counterpoint emphasis on the $86 billion a year in taxpayers' subsidies (welfare) to American corporations, some of which help support the relocation of their operations to other countries, resulting in massive employee layoffs within the United States. Commercial television broadcasting's treatment of children and their needs continues to be a national disgrace. In 1951, when far fewer television channels existed, there were twenty-seven hours a week of children's programming. By the l990s, with far more channels, there were only three or four hours a week on all networks. The role of children in modern commercial television is that of targets-targets for commercials that sell snacks, soft drinks, fashionable clothes, and toys. The idea of the child as future responsible citizen seems not to exist on commercial TV. That role seems to be left to public television, whose appropriations conservatives and commercial interests have done their best to kill, and which in response has itself become dependent upon corporate advertising. In the reign of the new media cartel, the integrity of much of the country's professional news has become more ambiguous than ever. The role of journalists within news companies has always been an inherent dilemma for reporters and editors. Reporters are expected by the public and by reportorial standards to act like independent, fair-minded professionals. But reporters are also employees of corporations that control their hiring, firing, and daily management- what stories they will cover and what part of their coverage will be used or discarded. It is a harsh newsroom reality that never seems to cause conservative critics to speculate why their corporate colleagues who own the news and have total control over both their reporters' careers and the news that gets into their papers would somehow delight in producing "liberal bias." The new media conglomerates have exacerbated the traditional problems of professional news. The cartel includes some industries that have never before owned important news outlets. Some of the new owners find it bizarre that anyone would question the propriety of ordering their employee-journalists to produce news coverage designed to promote the owner's corporation. Seeing their journalists as obedient workers on an assembly line has produced a growing incidence of news corporations | demanding unethical acts. There are more instances than ever of management contempt and cruelty toward their journalists. the daily newspaper business ... remains one of the most profitable in the country. Profit level of daily newspapers is two to three times higher than average profits of the Fortune 500 top corporations, according to John Morton of Morton Research, an authoritative source on newspaper economics. According to Standard and Poor's Media Industry Survey, in 1994, not a banner year in the news industry, the average profit for publicly traded news companies was 20 percent. Letting advertisers influence the news is no novelty in less respected papers, but in the past it was usually done by innuendo, or quiet editing, reassignment, or firing. It has seldom before been so boldly stated and practiced in ways that typify the new contempt that some news companies feel for the professional independence of their journalists-and for the news audience. The trend typifies a growing attitude that reporting the news is just another business. Local alternative news weeklies have always been publications that monitor their local dailies and broadcast stations and provide alternative information and opinion. They still do. But even this field has seen the growth of chains, the franchising of weekly papers, and the creeping influence of impersonal corporate management. Only fifteen years ago, it was possible to cite specific corporations dominant in one communications medium, with only a minority of those corporations similarly dominant in a second medium. Today, as noted, the largest media firms have an aggressive strategy of acquiring dominant positions across every medium of any current or expected future consequence. Known and admired on Wall Street as "synergy," the policy calls for one company subsidiary to be used to complement and promote another. The process has helped produce a quantum leap in the power of a dominant media corporation to create and manipulate popular culture and models of behavior (or misbehavior) - and to use this power for narrow commercial and political purposes. In 1987, cancellation of the Fairness Doctrine made another new antidemocratic phenomenon almost predictable. Talk radio has become an overwhelming ultraconservative political propaganda - machine. The most influential propagandist, Rush Limbaugh, has nineteen million listeners, and there is no right of reply to his extra- I ordinary record of lies, libels, and damaging fantasies. Almost from the start, national communications law has been based on the concept that the public owns the airwaves. For their part, broadcasters insist on government policing and penalties to prevent unlicensed operators from willingly or unwillingly jamming the frequencies of established stations; otherwise there would be a chaos of static on radio and screens full of "snow" on television. But federal law also mandates that those who hold licenses must
maintain local studios and operate "in the public interest ' which, given the local nature of studios, has meant significant access to the airwaves by community groups. Holders of broadcast licenses have no right to licenses beyond their term limits and presumably may renew them only if they have fulfilled their community obligations. Despite the law, in recent years both the major media operators and the Congress have acted as though its "public ownership" phrases are not there or can be safely ignored. The Congress, the White House, and the Federal Communications Commission have steadily relaxed standards to permit the growing exclusion of community voices on the country's 11,000 local commercial radio stations, I 1,500 television stations, and 11,800 local cable systems. There are basic measures to be taken if the public is to regain access to its own media and guarantee choices that have some relationship to the varying needs and tastes of the population. Many of these will require mandatory actions: the broadcast industry has an almost unrelieved history of cynicism and evasion in its promises of self-reform. [Proposals] * It is time for a new, nonpartisan, nongovernmental commission I to study the present and desired future status of the country's media. In 1947, Henry Luce donated the money for the influential Commission on Freedom of the Press, headed by Robert Maynard Hutchins. It dealt with the printed press and gave the country a fresh look at modern needs of news and public information in a democracy. It was important following, as it did, the catastrophes of pre-war dictatorships' controlled media. These were still live memories at a time when most of American news was still strikingly narrow and parochial. We need a modern commission to examine the more complex and compelling contemporary need-to remind the American public and the media industry itself of the new power of modern media technology and is obligations to democratic life. Such a commission must avoid the flaws of other important study commissions in which industry influence resulted in a final report that was either vague generalities or a watery support of the status quo. * The National News Council that existed from 1973 to 1984 is needed today more than ever. Supported by foundations, the Council heard serious complaints about specific cases of national news media performance, studied the known facts with all parties free to be heard, and issued a report in each case. While none of is recommendations were mandatory, it provided the public with a voice and the news media with a forum for the recognition, admitted or not, of existing weaknesses. But when the foundations, after having created the Council and proved is feasibility and need, said it was time for the industry itself to support the idea, as is done in some other democracies, no major media organizations came forward to support the effort, and the Council died. It is worth trying again, now that the public is more aware of problems in the media than it was twenty years ago. * The Telecommunications Act of 1996 needs to be replaced by a new law that can begin to break up the most egregious conglomerates, reinstate mandatory local community access, and put teeth in the requirement that stations demonstrate their record of public interest programming when they apply for renewal of their licenses. License challenge procedures have to be made more accessible to civic groups dissatisfied with their local radio and TV broadcast stations. (Networks are not regulated, but their local affiliates are.) * Public broadcasting must be financed through a new, nonpolitical system, as is done for the best systems in other democracies. Today, non-commercial broadcasting depends on appropriations by federal and state legislatures that themselves are heavily beholden to corporate interests. A small surtax on all consumer electronic equipment-computers, VCRs, TV and radio sets, and the like-is minuscule at the individual retail level but could provide funding for a full- fledged multi-channel radio and TV non-commercial system, and for a substantial national broadcast news and documentary operation. Ignored for so long that they now sound radical and remote are earlier proposals for funding public, non-commercial broadcasting. In 1967, a Carnegie Commission proposed a tax on television sets to finance non-commercial television. That year the Ford Foundation financed the Public Broadcasting Laboratory, which paid for an historic and popular one-hour program every Sunday that awakened for many Americans the possibilities that commercial broadcasting lacked. * The Federal Communications Commission has succumbed to what seems to be the natural history of too many consumer protection agencies, which over time has been to shift from their original purpose of protecting consumers against unfair or dangerous industry behavior to an opposite role of protecting industries from their consumers. The agency needs to be reconstituted to include specified representatives from nonpartisan groups like the Parent Teachers Association, as well as presidential appointees. It has been a generation since 1961 when the new chairman of the FCC, Newton Minow, startled the convention of the National Association of Broadcasters with the statement that they operated "a vast wasteland" and were "squandering the public airwaves," and warned, "There's nothing permanent or sacred in a broadcast license." * The Fairness Doctrine and equal time provisions desperately need to be restored. In 1987 broadcasters promised that their repeal would increase serious public affairs programming. In fact, that kind of programming has been largely abandoned in favor of more advertising and violence. The answer to the Rush Limbaughs is not censorship but a restoration of the public right of timely reply on the stations and at the times the Limbaughs and others now broadcast. From the inception of commercially licensed broadcasting in 1927, the Fairness Doctrine required broadcasters to devote a reasonable amount of time to discussion of controversial issues of public importance, and to permit reasonable opportunities for opposing views to be heard. It included special provisions to oblige stations to provide reasonable time for response by those attacked in discussions. Beginning in 1979 and continuing through the deregulation campaign of President Reagan in the early 1980s, broadcasters pushed for repeal of these regulations, and for all practical purposes the broadcasters won. An equal time provision in essence said that in the forty-five days before an election, stations must make time available to opposing candidates on roughly the same basis, whether for paid time or public service campaign discussions. * End auctioning of broadcast frequencies to stations. The process implies license ownership. The public still owns
the airwaves and frequencies should be granted as in the past-on credible promises made and kept of public service. Restore local voting on monopoly cable franchises instead of the present backroom deals. Let the FCC or its replacement do what basic public ownership of the airwaves implies-give stations licenses for a limited time, conditional on their general performance as good citizens in their communities. Make it routine to notify all citizens of local market broadcast license renewals-all stations in a state have their renewal come up in the same year. As that date approaches, existing holders of licenses asking for renewal should be required to show public evidence of what they have done in the past. * The country needs easy, inexpensive licensing of low-power, city- and neighborhood-range radio and TV stations. Japan has them and so can the United States. As it is, local communities and ordinary local businesses have been effectively excluded from the air by national broadcasters and advertisers. * Paid political advertising should be banned from American broadcasting, as it is in most democracies. In the two months before elections, every station should be required to provide prime time hours for local and national candidates, with fifteen-minute minimums for presentations to avoid the slick sound biter without content that now dominate broadcast election campaigns. * Teach serious media literacy in the schools, using independently created curricula. Some already are available and others are being developed. The average American child will spend more time in front of a TV set than in front of a teacher. The young are targets for slick materialism. They need to know how this important element in their lives operates and how it can be analyzed. * More citizens need to join and contribute to the various media reform groups like the Cultural Environment Movement, the Center for Media Education, FAIR, and the Institute for Alternative Journalism. There are other groups, but these can lead interested citizens to specific action and to other action groups. The domination of private money in public politics, which has subverted so much public policy, also prevents legal solutions to problems in the mass media. Most media proprietors show little or no evidence in their programming of any sense of obligation to treat the American audience as citizens of a democracy. Campaign finance reform and media reform are directed at the same societal sickness- the influence of private money that improperly negates civic need and public choice. Linked to the same problem, they have become linked in the ultimate remedy. At stake is the- accountability of politics and with it the media's socialization of American children and the nation's culture. DEMOCRACY AND THE MEDIA The bond between communities and their news has been strong from the beginning of the American experience. In the eighteenth century, pioneers pushed inland from coastal cities, followed closely by itinerant printers who assumed that every settlement should have its own newspaper. Early radio stations were not limited to national centers like New York and Washington but broadcast in places like Medford Hillsides, Mass., and Stevensville, Mont. To this day newspapers take the names of their cities, and radio and television stations are required to operate in a specified community, with local studios to produce programs about local issues. It is not a quaint eccentricity. It is central to the special nature of governance in the United States. Most developed countries set all important public policy in their capital. But not the United States. Voters in communities across the United States regularly elect 500,000 local officials to run 65,000 local governmental boards and committees. Local officials govern schools, courts, zoning, water, fire, police, and other vital functions. Even the national government has a locally based democracy in the House of Representatives, with 435 local districts, some consisting of only a few urban neighborhoods. It is a system appropriate for a country with extraordinary diversities of population, local culture, economy, and geography. But it is a formidable responsibility for voters. Unlike other developed democracies, the United States does not have a parliamentary political system in which voters cast their ballots for parties. Parties in most countries have distinct commitments to differing national programs, differences easily discerned by voters. Citizens voting in those countries know that when they cast their ballots for a party's candidate they are voting for particular policies. In the United States, voters cast ballots for individual candidates who are not bound to any party program except rhetorically, and not always then. Some Republicans are more liberal than some Democrats, some libertarians are more radical than some socialists, and many local candidates run without any party identification. No American citizen can vote intelligently without knowledge of the ideas, political background, and commitments of each individual candidate. No national paper or broadcast station can report adequately the issues and candidates in every one of the 65,000 local voting districts. Only locally based journalism can do it, and if it does not, voters become captives of the only alternative information, paid political propaganda, or no information at all. There was never a precise pattern of each voting district with its own journalistic media. But there was once something like it. In 1900, for example, there were 1,737 urban places and 2,226 daily papers. This came close to an average of a paper for every city; most cities had competing dailies and weeklies. Papers were based in a single city, and most papers pursued the intense interests of their particular readers within that city. It meant greater detail of information and political analysis. Readers had strong loyalties to such papers and they provided a greater proportion of those papers' revenues than readers of the 1980s pay for their more bland dailies. In the past it meant more, smaller papers, and smaller papers meant it cost less to start new dailies. If existing papers ignored the interests of a significant part of the community there was a greater likelihood chat an entrepreneur or politically oriented publisher would start a new paper to capitalize on the untouched audience. As a result, turn-of-the-century papers more readily reflected changes in the needs and desires of the body politic. Pursuit of advertising changed the versatility of American print media. It reduced the media's responsiveness to reader desires. Publishers became more dependent on advertising revenues than on reader payments. Ads swelled the size of the paper each day, requiring larger plants, more paper and ink, and bigger staffs, with the result that it was no
longer easy for newcomers to enter the newspaper business. As the country's population grew and new communities arose, the old pattern disappeared. Instead of new papers to meet changing political forces, existing papers pushed beyond their municipal boundaries to the new communities and, increasingly, reached not for all the new citizens but for the more affluent consumers. Soon each metropolitan paper was pre-empting circulation in thousands of square miles with hundreds of communities and voting districts. The newly captured populations were inundated with ever- larger quantities of regional advertising, but the papers, and later the radio and television stations, could not possibly tell each community what it needed to understand its own problems and needs. From 1900 to 1950 the American population doubled and the number of urban places almost tripled, to 4,700. But the number of daily newspapers dropped from 2,226 to 1,900. The citizens of the new towns and cities, unlike those of an earlier time, learned almost no systematic information about their own communities, and those of older cities learned less than before as their newspapers and broadcast stations turned their attention outward to wider areas. The vast territory of each metropolitan newspaper and television station intensified a basic change in the country's urban geography. After World War II, affluence and automobiles led many families to the suburbs. "Urban renewal" programs converted downtowns from coherent residential and local commercial centers to regional corporate headquarters. The change removed a major source of newspaper sales. A new interstate highway system encouraged the sprawl of residences, factories, and offices, further diluting the politics and news audiences of the inner cities. Ironically, the programs that destroyed central cities as living complexes were encouraged by metropolitan newspapers, oriented as they were to the desires of real estate and other developers, but all the changes were destructive to the traditional daily sales of newspapers. Demographic changes also hastened the demise of locally owned retail enterprises in favor of ever- larger national and multinational corporations, which, in turn, pushed newspapers and broadcasting farther beyond their community orientation. After World War II, mass advertising steadily destroyed competitive dailies; monopoly became the norm. In the new l suburbs there were new dailies, but far from the number that had grown in American cities of the past. The new monopoly corporations in the central cities pushed outward to the suburbs, pre-empting the best advertising that might otherwise have supported a new local daily. Existing papers did not cover the new communities journalistically. In 1920 there were 2,722 urban places and 2,400 daily papers in the country. By 1980 there were 8,765 urban places and only 1,745 dailies. Today more than 7,000 American cities have no daily paper of their own. The new pattern after World War II had a profound impact on the way news was reported. One change was a new category of "news" that was not really news. It was that gray area "fluff," part entertainment of interest to readers but mostly light material designed to create a buying mood as bait for more advertising. The addition of fluff made newspapers larger and drastically reduced the proportion of each paper devoted traditionally to its heart-the breaking news and commentary. The priorities of newspaper companies were quietly rearranged away from the reporting of important political events toward advertising-centered editorial matter. The new emphasis changed staffs, administrative operations, and leadership. The new form of papers affected the attitude of readers. In 1900 newspaper subscribers paid twice the percentage of their personal incomes for their daily papers as do subscribers of the 1980s. In 1900 each paper meant more to its readers because the news dealt more closely with the reader's community and because each paper was more likely to meet its readers' political and social interests. The responsiveness of earlier papers to their particular readers represented sensitivity to social evolution; as social forces changed, papers were more likely to change with them. Papers in 1900 were more accountable to their readers because their financial fate rested on reader loyalty. The news, which, among other things, meant intense concern with politics and social change, was a more involving experience for individual citizens. Responsiveness of each paper to its own social group was not an unmitigated advantage for society. It was easier for different segments of the community to see the world differently. Papers' special orientations often increased divisions within the community. But it is not clear that this was worse than the apathy resulting from a bland news system that avoids partisanship in a society whose political system is designed to be partisan. Nor is it clear whether the homogenized news for large areas serves citizens who are asked to make basic political decisions on a specific, local level. The growth of monopoly and mass advertising diminished the amount of information about each community contained in newspapers. This changed newspapers long before broadcasting became a major news system, though radio and television soon adopted the same doctrine to meet their even greater dependence on advertising. Newspapers neutralized information for fear that strong news and views pleasing to one part of the audience might offend another part and thus reduce the circulation on which advertising rates depend. Where once it was profitable to pursue particular issues and ideas of interest to the newspaper's particular group of readers, such pursuit now became a threat to larger profits. Newspapers, and later broadcasters, wanted all potential affluent consumers regardless of their personal political interests. Consequently, if a group as a whole were poor, as was true of some minorities, papers wished to avoid news of them and their issues. Problems affecting lower-income communities generally did not become news until they exploded and therefore affected affluent consumers. Blandness in the basic politics of the media became standard. Socially sensitive material of interest to one segment of the population might offend those with different opinions who, regardless of their differences, might possess the relevant quality of interest to newspapers-money to spend on advertisers' products. News became neutralized both in selection of items and in the nature of writing. American journalism began to strain out ideas and ideology from public affairs, except for the safest and most stereotyped assumptions about patriotism and business enterprise. It adopted what two generations of news-people have incorrectly called "objectivity." The standard version of "objectivity" holds that it was created to end nineteenth-century sensationalism. To a large extent it did, and that alone made it appealing to serious journalists. "Objectivity" demanded more discipline of reporters and editors because it expected every item to be attributed to some authority. No traffic accident could be reported without quoting a police sergeant. No wartime incident was recounted without confirmation from government officials. 'Objectivity" increased the quantity of literal facts in the news, and it did much to strengthen the growing sense
of discipline and ethics in journalism. But the new doctrine was not truly objective. Different individuals writing about the same scene never produce precisely the same account. And the way "objectivity" was applied exacted a high cost from journalism and from public policy. With all its technical advantages, "objectivity" contradicted the essentially subjective nature of journalism. Every basic step in the journalistic process involves a value-laden decision: Which of the infinite number of events in the environment will be assigned for coverage and which ignored? Which of the infinite observations confronting the reporter will be noted? Which of the facts noted will be included in the story? Which of the reported events will become the first paragraph? Which story will be prominently displayed on page 1 and which buried inside or discarded? None of these is a truly objective decision. But the disciplinary techniques of "objectivity" have the false aura of a science, and this has given almost a century of American journalism an illusion of unassailable correctness. "Objectivity" placed overwhelming emphasis on established, official voices and tended to leave unreported large areas of genuine relevance that authorities chose not to talk about. It accentuated social forces as rhetorical contests of personalities, with the reporter powerless to fill obvious gaps in official information or reasoning. It widened the chasm that is a constant threat to democracy-the difference between the realities of private power and the illusions of public imagery. "Objectivity" tended to keep news superficial because too deep a pursuit of a single subject might bore or offend some of the audience. It strained out interpretation and background despite the desperate need for them in a century wracked by political trauma. Recitations of facts about world wars, genocides, depressions, and nuclear proliferation are useful but inadequate; mere recitations imply that all facts are of equal value. The safest method of reporting news was to reproduce the words of authority figures, and in the nature of public relations most authority figures issue a high quotient of imprecise and self-serving declarations. Physical crime, natural disasters, and accidents were politically safe, which accounts for the peculiar American news habit of reporting remote accidents regardless of their relevance to the audience. News became more official and establishmentarian. Perhaps the most powerful influence of the doctrine on working journalists was unconscious: It obscured and therefore made more palatable the unprofessional compromises with managerial imperatives and corporate politics. The subtle workings of the doctrine over the years and its rationalization of avoiding judgments made it easy for serious writers to remain silent about social ideas and political forces and to concentrate on contests of personalities. It produced the circular answer to the perpetual question "What is news?"-"News is news." By mid-twentieth century "objectivity" had achieved the status of a received truth. The first major crisis that "objectivity" created for journalists in this century centered on Senator Joseph McCarthy, who was created largely by the assumption that journalists are not obligated to write what they can demonstrate as true and significant unless it comes from the mouth of authority. McCarthy paralyzed much of government and created hysteria throughout the country from 1950 to 1954 with lies and distortions. He made increasingly wild claims about Soviet agents in high places, including in the offices of the president of the United States, among generals of the U.S. Army, and in the Department of State. In the vast political wreckage McCarthy left in his wake, the senator did not disclose a single Soviet agent that had not already been exposed. Many competent journalists had evidence that McCarthy's statements were lies or clever distortions, some of it in the private admissions of the senator himself during his jocular drinking bouts with journalists and editors. But most journalistic organizations held to the doctrine that required use only of "official" statements by the most dramatic authority figure, and McCarthy was a United States senator. Years of reappraisal within journalism after the debacle of the McCarthy years have not prevented subsequent failures of "objectivity" in an apolitical press. Race relations after World War II underwent powerful ferment, politically and socially, but not until they exploded in massive demonstrations and riots did they become major news, reported afterward mostly as police actions rather than as a profound change in the American scene. The same reluctance to report social forces made the persistence of structural poverty in a rich society an unreportable phenomenon until it became a physical phenomenon. Emergence of broadcasting in the 1920s did not create an alternative news system that might have broadened the spectrum of coverage and provided genuine competition in generating news and analyzing ideas. Instead, broadcasting, with minor exceptions, simply read the printed news in truncated form. Radio and television newscasts, at their longest, provide less information than half a newspaper page. Some distinguished reporting from Europe immediately before World War II was an exception, although the radio journalism staffs that produced it were quickly dismantled. The vivid immediacy of television added a powerful dimension to news but shrank even the narrow spectrum of print. Television's chief impact on newspapers was commercial, not journalistic. Its stunning ability to sell goods and its inexpensive transmission over thousands of square miles led to a competition between printed and electronic media to reach ever wider groups of potential customers, the reaches so broad that it was impossible to report news about the specific communities exposed to the ads. Television has obvious advantages over newspapers in immediacy, motion, color, and convenience. But it has one enormous disadvantage: Each station can transmit only one message at a time. If that message is too long or too controversial for some viewers, those viewers will turn to another channel or commit that terminal horror that haunts television entrepreneurs -turn off the set. Whenever a viewer turns a television dial, a television station loses a customer. Newspapers do not have that problem. If they choose, they can run a long story that will fascinate a particular set of readers. Other readers can move their eyes to the next column or turn the page, where they may find material more to their liking. Moving the eyes or turning the page does not mean that the newspaper publisher has lost a customer. Television entrepreneurs found from the beginning that they had to maintain maximum attention among a wide disparity of consumers. Far more than in print, TV presentations-in regular entertainment, public affairs, news, or commercials- could not dwell too long on any one subject, and they could not be socially or politically controversial. Television found the answer early in its history. It was the twin sovereigns of attention-getting in history-sex and
violence. Sex had to be used obliquely, given the national public morality, so it permeated television by innuendo, in themes of entertainment, in selection of actresses and actors, in double meanings in commercials, and in sophisticated appeals to the subconscious. Violence was easier to stress, given the prevalence of crime as a standard ingredient in printed news and the place of guns and violence in the mythology of the country. Violence could be politically safe in programs of cops and robbers, in which cops won by violence, or spy dramas, in which selected foreign enemies were defeated by violence. Nothing in the history of public complaints has lessened the combined incidence of sex and violence. Some social scientists, as well as the Surgeon General of the United States, have measured the high incidence and concrete social consequences of sex and violence on television. If television producers momentarily reduce one in the face of organized criticism, they raise the level of the other. The social and psychological costs of these television twins are incalculable. The Surgeon General's studies have shown that television violence increases actual violence and acceptance of violence in children. Other studies have shown that children who watch a great deal of television are more cynical than are children who watch less television. The television commercial is the most expensive and highly skilled artifact in American society, using the most polished producers, actors, and technical reproduction and spending more for the creation and transmission of a series of thirty- second commercials than some school districts spend to educate children for a year. The artful construction of commercials has created thirty seconds as a basic attention unit, ideal for selling marginal goods but with negative psychological and intellectual consequences for the average American child, who, the statistics show,' watches television for twice as many hours as he or she attends school. It is not simple moral perversity that keeps sex and violence on the air and serious subjects off. It is television executives' desire to maintain as large an audience as possible for as long as possible for the purpose of selling goods and services. The same persistence, with more subtlety, has characterized emotional manipulation in television commercials. Commercials, too, have been immune to a variety of serious objections from consumer agencies, social critics, and parents. Cynical manipulation in commercials, like that in television programming generally, comes not from capricious malice but from the power of annual profit statements for both the corporations that advertise and the corporations that own the media. Advertising occupies a powerful place in the American culture. It has become a worldwide symbol of the country's reputation as the land of milk and honey, of endless material possessions for everybody. As an art form, ads are often clever, entertaining, and arresting in their graphics and sexuality. Some are practical and informative. Most ads create a fantasy experience, permitting the national nose to be pressed against the windows of exclusive shops that will never be entered. In all its permutations-as a symbol of national wealth, as a purposeful entertainment, as a guide to useful products, as a clever technique to engage the emotions-advertising has conditioned generations to accept it as an inescapable part of the landscape, as ubiquitous and normal as houses and trees. Confronted with criticism of commercials, media owners say the public likes ads. Some people clearly do like some commercials, often more than they like the less carefully produced programs in which the commercials are imbedded. But whether the public approves of what it gets in advertising is questionable. The American Association of Advertising Agencies found in a ten-year study, from 1964 to 1974, a significant decrease in public belief that "advertising results in better products for the public" or that it helps raise the standard of living or lowers prices. And there was an increase in public feeling over the ten years that ads often persuade people to buy things they shouldn't and that most advertising insults people's intelligence. In 1977 a survey by Louis Harris of public attitudes toward leadership of major American activities found advertising at the bottom of the list. The public seems to be repeating what the March Hare says in Alice in Wonderland: "You might just as well say that 'I like what I get' is the same thing as 'I get what I like."' To counter public resistance to television and advertising, the manipulation of emotions has become more sophisticated. Social science and psychological techniques have been added to television's arsenal for conditioning human behavior. One firm advises advertisers on whether their products should appeal to the left (analytical) or the right (emotional) side of the human brain. The consultant staff attaches electrodes to scalps of volunteers to measure stimulation and types of brain waves evoked by certain images in commercials. They tell advertisers that ads for products like perfume and beer should be pitched to the right side of the brain; ads for cars and insurance should be directed to the left side. Most TV ads appeal to the emotions. The manager of public opinion research for General Electric says that "much of response to advertising is right-brain." Another firm uses infrared eye scans to record rapid eye movement in response to test images in television commercials, advising clients on elements of ads like the most effective juxtaposition of sex objects, for example, a woman in a bikini and the brand name of the advertised product. A Manhattan firm measures involuntary larynx reaction and uses computers to test people's reactions to proposed commercials, often determining that even when people say they dislike an ad, it makes a lasting impression. A Texas firm uses electrodes attached to the fingertips of human subjects to see what symbols in commercials- sex, fire, ocean, forests-create the most arousal in connection with a product. Chuck Blore, a partner in the advertising firm Chuck Blore & Don Ruchman, Inc., has said, "Advertising is the art of arresting the human intelligence just long enough to get money from it." If that is true, it arrests a great deal of intelligence. It is estimated that the average American child has seen 350,000 commercials by age seventeen and, in the words of Billie Wahlstrom of the University of Southern California, these commercials are "the propaganda arm of the American culture." The American Association of Advertising Agencies has estimated that 1,600 advertising messages are aimed at a consumer in an average day. The individual obviously is not struck by most of these and does not even become aware of all of them. The average consumer takes momentary notice of about eighty commercial messages. Only twelve make
a conscious impression. But in order to maintain sanity and coherence in the midst of this clever and insistent bombardment, each individual has to erect a sensory screen that instantly, often unconsciously, detects the incoming signal and rejects it. A car driver, for example, catches a glimpse of a distant billboard and decides in a fraction of a second that it is of no interest and thus does not engage his or her mind with the content of the ad. The advertising creators know this, so to penetrate the screen that every human being erects to protect the senses, ad agencies need a constant supply of new symbols, images, and ideas. The sheep's clothing of sex, beauty, a trusted personality, or a semi-sacred symbol is needed to encase the wolf of the sales pitch. The human being often referred to by ad agencies as "the target"-on the alert to screen out unwanted symbols he or she has already seen, does not recognize a new image and, before it is recognized as the same old message in a new guise, the unidentified Iying object has penetrated the protective screen and made a hit on the deceived mind. When parent groups and others complain to broadcasters about the impact of sex and violence on the young, broadcasters traditionally answer that sex and violence on television do not change human behavior. That answer has been contradicted by extensive studies and surveys by the Surgeon General of the United States. But each year broadcasters sell more than $10 billion worth of commercial time whose only purpose is to change human behavior. Presumably, the most sophisticated corporations would not continue spending billions of dollars if they thought they were not altering human behavior in their favor. Furthermore, it is one thing to show that not everyone exposed to a commercial or to regular programming changes his or her overt, physical behavior. But it is another to suppose that there is no emotional or intellectual change from the experience, any more than it would be to argue that the soldier, at any moment untouched by bullets in the battlefield, is emotionally and intellectually untouched by the experience. The reclothing of ads in ever-new symbols has contributed to the devastating attrition in the lifespan of symbols in modern culture. Advertising is not the only cause of this attrition. All modern communications has a hand in it. Two hundred years ago the common symbols of society were those of rulers and the church, their flags and icons displayed individually and seen solely by live audiences. Mechanical printing and other mass communications changed that. Contemporary society is filled with images, some in a constant state of change like television, or in continuously altered states, as in radio. Printing reproduces words and illustrations in multiples of billions and can be absorbed by millions. Through electronic devices and modern printing processes, flags, crosses, and other emotionally laden symbols can be mass-produced for huge audiences. But no single force has equaled the merchandising process in its use of all the sacred and semi-sacred symbols to create a culture of material consumption. Advertising is a source of symbol manipulation unknown to earlier generations. The advertising industry spends $1,000 per household in order to break through the resistance of human senses and sometimes of human intelligence. Selling symbols are in continuous flood for six and a half hours of television a day. Printed images are seen on countless billions of magazine pages every week and the four billion newspaper pages printed every day. As viewers and readers get used to the massively displayed symbols, the symbols change to the latest idea or personality or national emotion until it, too, in days or weeks, becomes meaningless, part of the continuous and deliberate slag heap of mass communications. Sponsoring corporations will even use symbols they dislike and then trivialize them, in their voracious appetite for new sheep's clothing. In the 1960s the psychedelic style in art and clothing, created by hippies as antiestablishment statements, was adopted almost at once in advertisements and editorial illustration by the establishment media, not out of sympathy but as a way of placing inviting and novel garments on old sales pitches. Symbols and terms of the intense antiwar movement during the Vietnam War were adopted in ads and programming even by corporations engaged in war contracts. Perhaps the most easily measured damage of the media battle for consumers is inflicted on the American political system. Mass advertising, without intending to, has become instrumental in degrading the basic unit of American government. News distribution is no longer designed for individual towns and cities. American politics is organized on the basis of the 20,000 urban and rural places in the country, which is the way citizens vote. But the media have organized on the basis of 210 television "markets," which is the way merchandisers and media corporations sell ads. As a result, the fit between the country's information needs and its information media has become disastrously disjointed. The average television station sends its signal over more than 10,000 square miles, or about fifty counties. Metropolitan dailies, not by coincidence, cover about the same territory. (The Atlanta Constitution and journal, for example, circulates significantly in fifty-five counties, thirty-nine of which do not have their own daily paper. ) The average county has twenty-six local governments, of which twenty-two have taxing powers and five are school districts. This means that the average metropolitan newspaper and television station dominate the news for an area that contains 1,300 public policymaking bodies and elects large portions of state legislatures and the U.S. House of Representatives. If each policymaking body in the area met once a week and each metropolitan news medium reported only on those meetings and on no other events in the communities, a typical half-hour newscast would give five and a half seconds to each body, and a newspaper would give thirty-eight words. But in fact TV stations, radio stations, and metropolitan papers do not cover each of the policymaking bodies in the areas of their circulation or even the general news in each of the communities. Nor could they if they tried, given the vast areas and the numerous local districts. In other countries with centralized national policymaking, local news coverage is a negligible need. In the United States local coverage is crucial. Though big-city TV, radio, and newspapers do not cover each of the communities they reach, they sell advertising to the major merchandisers for their region and thus remove the economic base for indigenous stations and papers. Many of the communities without daily papers have weekly ones and they often serve important functions; the best ones adequately fill the gap. But most communities either have none or have shopping papers with little or no significant social and political news. In fact, most daily papers issue such news-less advertising sheets in the smaller communities around their central city to further increase their revenues. By collecting local advertising in that way, they further pre- empt the basis for an independent local paper.
There is nothing inevitable in this pattern. In 1851 Horace Greeley, testifying before a committee of the British Parliament, described the pattern in the United States in his time: When a town grows to have as many as 15,000 inhabitants, or thereabouts, then it has a daily paper; sometimes that is the case when it has as few as l0,000. .. 15,000 may be stated as the average at which a daily paper commences; at 20,000 they have two, and so on; in central towns . . . they have from three to five daily journals. If the same pattern existed today, the country would have 4,600 daily papers instead of 1,700. Today 43 percent of the U.S. population lives in counties with no local daily paper. If radio licenses were granted on the basis of political and social needs, each county could have at least three indigenous stations instead of the present concentration of radio and TV stations in a small number of major metropolitan merchandising markets. This disparity between citizens' and merchandising needs has made American elected office the prize of rich men and women or candidates backed by rich men and women. Traditional elective politics demanded that the candidates appear in person before special groups of voters. This produced a generous diet of rhetorical sound and fury, sophistries, cynicisms, and simplistic proclamations. But because the candidate appeared in person, often before groups who had intense interest and knowledge of issues that affected them, the effectiveness of empty rhetoric was limited. Farmers might accept sophistries about urban factory workers but they would have a high level of critical judgment about agricultural economics, and they would not hesitate to press the candidate for details. The same would be true for auto workers, corporate executives, railroad operators, or labor union chiefs. Each would want to pursue in depth the subjects that most concerned them. The mosaic of these interests put together by a candidate would decide success or failure at the polls. But if a candidate could avoid firm positions, it increased the possibility of giving the appearance of being all things to all voters. For this, television seemed a perfect medium. It is an established American habit. Favorite programs are watched by a large, predictable audience. The insertion of emotional commercials into programs had become an accepted practice for a variety of products-perfume, laxatives, toilet paper, automobiles, underarm deodorants, adhesives for dentures, hemorrhoidal ointments. A commercial for a political candidate could fall easily into the accepted brief interval in regular programs. A carefully taped, meticulously edited political presentation with all the immediacy and simulated sincerity of a commercial, but without serious content, could be projected into homes where viewers
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