Business/Finance

Bagdikian was right: Don’t allow media to concentrate

Journalism should serve the public, he argued, no one else.

Ben Bagdikian, one of the nation’s foremost media critics, died in 2016 at age 96. He left behind warnings about concentration in media ownership. We should have paid more attention.

head shot of human being

Ben Bagdikian

Beginning in 1983 with the publication of “The Media Monopoly” and again in 2000 with “The New Media Monopoly,” he railed against the growing power of ever fewer owners of media — big fish swallowing little fish, then still bigger fish swallowing those big fish. In the 2000 edition, he called the most monstrous fish “The Big Five” — Time Warner, The Walt Disney Company, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, Viacom, and the German firm Bertelsmann. He argued these corporations had “more communications power than was exercised by any despot or dictatorship in history.”

That was only 18 years ago. The world of media has dramatically changed — and, thanks to a federal judge’s decision this week in the merger case of AT&T and Time Warner, more change in media ownership and concentration lies ahead. AT&T (which provides the conduit) and Time Warner (which provides the content) argue they must be allowed to merge to compete with the new generation of media titans — Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google.

Bagdikian would have none of this. He’d continue to argue the media concentration underway for more than a century has consequences on how we the people see ourselves, see others, and govern ourselves.

In the 1997 edition, Bagdikian issued this warning:

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. … No American citizen can vote intelligently without knowledge of the ideas, political background, and commitments of each individual candidate. [emphasis added]

It’s hard to argue the majority of citizens voting in elections — national, regional, or local — do so intelligently based on adequate information about candidates.

Why? Perhaps the throw weight of national broadcasters and news corporations drowned out competing voices. Perhaps the ideological formation of tribes among media — Fox over there and MSNBC over here and CNN dashing back and forth between them as NPR watches aristocratically — denied the majority of voters sufficient, factual information about candidates. Perhaps the media failed in general to ferret out in greater detail and prominence the role of the über-wealthy’s massive but hidden money that infused candidates and campaigns. Perhaps because the concentration of media along the coasts left too little journalistic horsepower between the coasts to deliver well-reported facts for the majority of Americans who live there.

That’s Bagdikian’s basic premise: Concentration of media harms democracy.

The inappropriate fit between the country’s major media and the country’s political system has starved voters of relevant information, leaving them at the mercy of paid political propaganda that is close to meaningless and often worse. It has eroded the central requirement of a democracy that those who are governed give not only their consent but their informed consent. [emphasis added]

I don’t know how the merger of AT&T and Time Warner — in this new era sans net neutrality — will lead to more informed citizens.

Consider today’s media monoliths and their market capitalizations (brought to us via CNN’s Pacific newsletter edited by Dylan Byers):

Apple:                         $939.9 billion
Amazon:                     $819.6 billion
Alphabet:                   $788.6 billion
Facebook:                  $554.4 billion
AT&T:                          $207.75 billion
Time Warner:             $74.59 billion
Verizon:                      $203.2 billion
Netflix:                        $156.74 billion
Disney:                       $154.98 billion
Comcast:                    $147.62 billion
Fox:                             $73.73 billion
Charter:                      $65.93 billion
T-Mobile:                    $48.95 billion

Sprint:                         $20.70 billion

CBS:                            $19.39 billion
Viacom:                      $11.44 billion

Writes Byers: “Ten years from now, half of these companies may have been acquired by the other half. The Elite Eight, most likely: Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, AT&T, Charter, Comcast and Verizon.”

Bagdikian believed in an antidote for all the sins media concentration can accumulate — more and better journalism. Journalists, he said, should “never forget that your obligation is to the people. It is not, at heart, to those who pay you, or to your editor, or to your sources, or to your friends, or to the advancement of your career. It is to the public.” [emphasis added]

Bagdikian lived long enough to see tens of thousands of journalists kicked to the curb by their corporate owners. He saw the erosion of the very workforce he argued is necessary for democracy to prosper in the Republic.

I’m 72. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to live long enough to see a resurgence in the size of the cadre of daily newsroom journalists sufficient to return it to Republic-saving strength. The Midwest will remain a virtual news desert for the remainder of my lifetime.

Decades of media concentration delivered this mess to us. Bagdikian warned us repeatedly. But massive amounts of money and various editions of Congress as well as a few presidents weakened laws against media concentration.

It’s probably too late to stuff that foul-tasting toothpaste back into the tube. But you might ask any politician seeking national office if she or he would try.

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