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Navigating the Media
An interview with Ben Bagdikian
Ben Bagdikian is a respected critic of the media. He is winner of almost every top prize in American journalism, including the Pulitzer. His career as a reporter and editor spans more than 50 years. He is former Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. His memoir is Double Vision. His classic book The Media Monopoly is now in its fifth edition.
BARSAMIAN: You say in the preface to your memoir, Double Vision, that you were struck at how much your work as a journalist was shaped by your heritage, your early life and those who influenced you. That seems kind of obvious.
BAGDIKIAN: I confess that I was pretty dumb about that. I grew up in New England. I was an Armenian and very conscious of that heritage. I loved my grandfather and my uncles, but I thought of myself as being an American. I found out that wasnt strictly true. In my family we were all trying to be 200 percent American while at the same time knowing we were the other. I didnt think about this until pretty late in life, when some misguided graduate student at Stanford said he was going to do his masters thesis on me. In the process, he said, Do you think that your covering civil rights and doing things about the poor had anything to do with your own family background, being a persecuted minority in Turkey? As I thought about it, I thought thats quite possible.
What drew you to journalism?
Instinct and the greater concentration of intelligence in my feet than in my head. I was a pre-medical student in college. In pre-medicine, they fill you up with chemistry and some physics, very little about human beings, because after all, what does medicine have to do with human beings? This was a long time ago, just before World War II. By my senior year, I had become editor of the campus paper and had got used to the idea of writing editorials calling the president of the university an idiot, which of course is the obligatory stance of all college campus papers. But liking journalism, I decided when I was a senior I didnt want to be a doctor. But the only marketable skill I had was chemistry. I had an appointment to go to the Monsanto Laboratories in Springfield, Massachusetts. I appeared in my best and only suit. The man was out. I was told Id have to come back in a couple of hours. So I was walking through Springfield killing time and saw a sign on a building that said Springfield Morning Union. Without thinking, I went up and said, Do you need a reporter? They did, and I never went back. Then came the war. After the war I spent a year in New York. I wrote for a year, saying Im going to make a life as a reader-writer. I did get a piece in The New Yorker once, but that isnt enough to keep a family alive for a year. A paper in Providence wanted me to take a job, and I did. It turned out it was a good job. I got to do what I wanted to do, long series, in-depth. I was there for a long time. I was a foreign correspondent for them for a year, then I became chief of their Washington bureau. I had a Guggenheim Fellowship and I spent a year in the Library of Congress reading the history of American journalism, doing nothing but studying, having a desk and an alcove. I learned a great deal. It was the backbone of much of what I did afterward. At the end of that time, I wrote a piece about the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the thick of the civil rights fights in the South for the Saturday Evening Post. I traveled with Bob Moses, Chuck McDew, and Jim Foreman, lived in their safe houses and spent months with them. I did a long piece. So the Saturday Evening Post said, Wed like you to write regularly for us. I said, I dont want to join the staff. This was during the social conscience decade of the Post, before it went broke.
So I had a wonderful contract with them. I was an independent writer. I did six pieces a year. I could do almost anything I wanted. It occurred to me that there was this problem of poor people and yet we were supposed to be in the middle of prosperity. I read a couple of books by Wilbur Cohen, a statistical book, and one by Michael Harrington, which was a wonderful polemical book. Those led me to think that we know what it was like to be poor in Dickensian England but I wasnt sure we knew what its like to be poor in a modern, technological, highly prosperous society. So I went to the Post, and they said, Sure. I said, I want to live with major categories of the poor. I had studied what they were: the rural poor, the urban poor, the aged poor and the various other kinds. So I lived with some of them. I picked beans in Florida. I lived in a flophouse on the West Side of Chicago. The piece I wrote for them was the longest non-fiction piece the Saturday Evening Post ever ran. It became a book, In the Midst of Plenty: The Poor in America. From then on I was spoiled. I wanted to do only the things I wanted to do, and the Post let me do it.
Theres a story that you tell from your experience during World War II, a flight over New Mexico, I believe.
I became an aerial navigator. I had been a pacifist my whole life up until that time. Then I decided its no time to be a pacifist when Hitler is killing people by the millions. So I decided it would be more interesting to be a navigator than a pilot. I regretted that, because being a pilot you have some control over your life. Being a navigator you depend on whether youve got a good pilot or a bad pilot. I became an instructor navigator. In navigation at that time, relatively crude compared to now, you could do two or three different types of navigation. One of them is called dead reckoning, unfortunately, in which you simply look at your speed and your compass headings and make all kinds of theoretical corrections, and based purely on that you figure out where you are. Well, youre in an airplane, first of all, and the instruments are not always accurate. Secondly, an airplane is moving in an air mass that has its own motion and direction. We call that wind on the ground. You have to guess at that. So at the end of a very long flight, I think it was one of those six-hour flights, as we were approaching, we were within about half an hour of our target, I handed back notes saying, Tell me where were going to be at X hours. The trainee hands up a note and says, Albuquerque, New Mexico. By this time, about 11:00 PM at night, everybody was watching because it was mostly darkness, suddenly, at just the right time, a big city looms up. The student was ecstatic. We go over this big city at just the right time. So we land to refuel. Were on the way to operations. The student is elated. He says, Zero-zero, right, sir? I said, No, sorry. He said, What do you mean? I said, Were not in Albuquerque. Were in El Paso, Texas. He said, Thats impossible. I said, Im sorry, thats where we are. He dug his log out of his briefcase and said, But sir, Ive got the figures to prove that were in Albuquerque. To me thats a nice metaphor for a lot of our news.
News says its facts. Kenneth Starr, the sex prosecutor in Washington, says hes just going by the facts. Well, there are facts, and there are facts. Some facts are important and some are unimportant. You can prove youre in Albuquerque, what people wish, or you can prove youre in El Paso, the harsh reality. Much of what our standard news media tell us proves that were in Albuquerque when were really in El Paso.
You decry the shift from issues to personalities in media coverage, yet the editors and news anchors say theyre giving the public what it wants.
Thats a lot of baloney because when people vote, when people react to the things in their own lives, they show great intelligence. And theres something else thats going on now. The newspapers and broadcasting, just to speak of whats going on at this particular time as you and I are talking, the big news is about impeachment of the President because he is alleged to have had sexual contact with a young woman in the White House, with august media disquisitions on the nature of sexual contact. It has become the huge issue in national politics. It is an inconsequential issue. If one assumes its true, it is an inconsequential issue in terms of the priorities of this country and what needs to be done. What do we see when they do the public opinion polls? A majority of the American people say, He may have done it, but there are more important things. A different kind of majority, made up of different components, say, We dont think he did it. So what do we have? A majority say he may or may not have done it, but in any case, enough already. There are more important things. The media are going crazy about this. Thats the so-called stupid public. The question now is, Which side is stupid, the media or the public?
This is not the National Enquirer. Its the front page of the January 22, 1998 New York Times. The headline is: Clinton Denies Report of an Affair with Aide at White House. Secret Recordings. Friendship of Two Women Slowly Led to Crisis. There are color photographs of the President, Monica Lewinsky, and Linda Tripp. What accounts for the newspaper of record engaging in this kind of journalism?
If you had shown me that after I had been at the Antarctic for a year, I would say, Stop kidding. Thats a combination youve just put together between Mad Magazine and the National Enquirer. Because its nutty. Its going to be the downfall of American culture. Its a kind of craziness. What has happened is that its a confirmation of Bagdikians law of the density of journalists. Bagdikians second lawI have a lot of second laws, someday Ill think of a first lawis that accuracy and importance of reports of an event are inversely proportional to the number of reporters who are present. Washington is crammed with journalists. There are more journalists there than legislators. A big part of that consists of television and radio reporters. They are desperate to be first with the most sensational news. That adds to the dynamics of everything else. So in the last 20 years the news has been steadily degraded from issues to personalities, creation of celebrities and then the gossip about the celebrities that have been created. Its not done accidentally, not out of the small-spiritedness of journalists, though that sometimes is not a small thing, it comes because large media corporations have taken over news, broadcast, and print, and they live by the stock market. The ghost in every standard newsroom in America is Wall Street.
The papers and their executives are judged by the stock increasing its value, by the dividends. The top executives have huge stock options issued to them like monopoly money, for nothing, almost, and day by day they become millionaires. Their top editors have stock options, and they watch the stock tickers more than they do the news tickers. They have to produce big results right away. Their idea is the public is not interested in issues, they are interested in people, in celebrities. Pretty soon youre looking at everything in our society in terms of private lives. It serves two purposes.
First of all, it serves the demeaning view of human intelligence held by top media people. Then it also avoids serious issues which would disturb the corporate status quo. If you look at our serious issues, there is no way you can approach them effectively without diverting money from, lets say, weapons to building up our social infrastructure, instead of our military infrastructure, which already is overwhelming, even increasing taxes, If you divert attention from those things by juicy gossip wherever you can find it and inventing someone that you can gossip about if you cant find it, then that serves that purpose.
Are you saying that this is a conscious process that editors are engaged in?
No. Ive worked in a newsroom for a long time. Most of the things that sociologists have written about the inner dynamics in a newsroom arent very convincing. But theres one that was done in the 1950s by a sociologist named Warren Breed called Socialization in the Newsroom. He describes it exactly. What happens is that there is a culture that is created in a newsroom by all kinds of things: inheritance from the past, the personalities and values of the publisher and the top editor. Its a day-by-day thing. The newsroom is filled with individuals who put out what is an individual product, an intellectual, journalistic product. They do their stories, but it is a hierarchy. It has to be. Someone has to decide. At deadline time you cant have a committee meeting. So theres a selection. So the selection of every day predetermines what the next days selection is going to be. Once you have selected some things to be news, suddenly you have created what is news. The next day you have to follow up on that news. First thing you know, you have established an agenda for public thinking. A few papers, the better ones in the country, were built that way when they were owned by individuals who took that seriously and wanted to be well thought of in history and knew how to do it. Now its, Youve got to make money fast and youve got to make money thats going to show up in the stock market. You get socialized by that. You follow up yesterdays news. Pretty soon the reporters dont feel that they have made a bad choice, because its news. The journalists dont have to do it consciously. It is something that becomes part of their self-induced definition of news.
Much is made of freedom of the press. A.J. Liebling said, Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.
Of course. If you work for a newspaper or a news magazine or a broadcasting company, you, the individual reporter, have no First Amendment rights while you are doing your work. The company has First Amendment rights.
James Fallows, in his book Breaking the News, criticized journalists whom he called buckrakers, obviously a pun on the old muckrakers. They are people like David Gergen of the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS, Margaret Carlson of Time, Cokie Roberts of NPR and ABC, Sam Donaldson of ABC. Theyre getting $20,000 or $30,000 a talk, and often theyre talking in front of organizations that they ostensibly cover.
They are equal opportunity speakers. Theyll speak before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, but theyll also speak for the Dallas Garden Club if the fees are right. I dont agree with the politicians who say to the journalists, You want to know about our finances; we think we ought to know your finances. I think its an interesting idea to raise, but it would not be a very good practice, because I can foresee that the wrong kinds of journalists would be harassed. I think that once someone begins to make that kind of fee, it would take an extraordinary individual not to have that out of mind as that person does reporting. So if Sam Donaldson suddenly became a quiet, thoughtful member of the presidential press conference who had careful questions, asked with the usual decorum and had perhaps a better toupee than he has now, really asked serious questions as though he were not on camera, and if he worked for, lets say, a very good local community radio station, like KGNU, he wouldnt get those fees. Hes got those fees because hes a performer.
In all fairness, if youre on television, its intelligent to be able to project and speak well. But you also become a performer. There are enormous financial rewards for the performers, the personality people who have what they call a signature. Some people developed it quietly and I think unconsciously. Ed Murrow had it, Cronkite had it. They knew that they had a microphone persona. But they were essentially news people. They were respected for the way they handled the news. They could be trusted. They may not have had all the news. Cronkite did not have all the news, but the news he did have was not sleazy news. He didnt take personal advantage of sleazy news. Now the idea is, You become a personality. Thats one of the inventions, the constructs of our media environment now, something called the personality. As your figure and voice and behavior become publicized, you become a personality. Once you do that, there is a commodity in the U.S., which is name recognition.
Donaldson owns a sizeable sheep ranch in New Mexico, for which he receives a good deal of public subsidies via the Department of Agriculture. How might he report on corporate welfare, being a recipient himself?
You have to be an extraordinary person to be in the upper-income brackets and still identify in a serious way with the needs of the majority of the population. After 15 years in Washington, when you spend time with the movers and shakers, or if you are reporting on the corporate community on Wall Street, you get to know them. Its, Hi, Jack, Hi, Mary. Theyre nice people. Theyre nice to you. They think youre wonderful. Very few of us are willing to put up a big argument when a powerful person says youre wonderful, except to say, Aw, shucks. You get used to dealing with the great, the powerful and the rich. You get to know them and you get to like them. They give you tips. They tell you information. Theyre nice to you. You cant imagine that they arent really an important and beneficial part of society. I know that, because its something that every reporter who works in Washington is confronted with.
A colleague of mine, when we did an investigative piece for the Saturday Evening Post in the 1960s on conflicts of interest in Congress, had trouble limiting our story. We looked into lawmakers who had interest in law firms that dealt with the government, interest in projects that they pushed through. Unfortunately we sent one Congressperson to jail. He was a nice man. I kind of liked him. But he had sponsored a number of bills for developments in his district in the South where it turned out that his sister, his cousins, and his aunts were officers. He was so indiscreet as to be a stockholder in one of them in the South, which at that time happened to be a felony. The poor man was going to go to jail. They did that back then. This was back in the 1960s. We interviewed him and showed him our papers. He admitted it all. When it got out, my collaborator and I said, I liked that guy. He had no false pretensions. Its true what he said, Everybody does it but he got caught. My collaborator said, You know, his eyes reminded me of my grandmother. That was sentimental. But if you spend all your time among the powerful and the famous, they get to be the people in your circle. There are very few who can resist that and not think well of them.
Herbert Schiller has written a book called Information Inequality. Its a very interesting title, because it certainly suggests that news and information are commodities and should be discussed the way income is talked about or wealth.
His thesis, as I recall, is that if you have the right kind of information, if you have access to the right kind of information, you have enormous advantages over your fellow citizens. Thats one of those self-feeding power processes. If you are an insider to crucial information, or even non-crucial information, you have the best indications of whats going to happen in the immediate future. It goes all the way from knowing which aircraft manufacturer is going to get the big contract and knowing where to buy stock to which people you know are going to be important or not important and which ones can make decisions advantageous to you and which cant. Theres no question that its true. This is pretty much the property of those people who hold power and decide to disclose it to others who have power. Its like the stock market. The people who know about those things say, If you see it in the paper, its too late. The people who know whats going on take advantage of it and then after a while you leave something for the sparrows.
The first part of The Media Monopoly is titled, The Private Ministry of Information. Why?
Because in an authoritarian society there is a ministry, or a commissar, or a directorate that controls what everybody will see and hear. We call that a dictatorship. Here we have a handful of very powerful corporations led by a handful of very powerful men and women who control everything we see and hear beyond the natural environment and our own families. Thats something which surrounds us every day and night. If it were one person wed call that a dictatorship, a ministry of information.
The Wall Street Journal asked in an article, What industry has the most powerful lobby in Washington? It answers the question, its not the tobacco industry, not the military, not some other powerful interests, but the telecommunications industry.
The telecommunications industry, which now includes a very large part of corporate life, can get almost anything it wants. It got everything it wanted in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which is an abomination and which was announced by the media as an act to increase competition. In fact, it was an act to enhance monopoly. I think that we will suffer from that for a very long time. Theres some move now to ameliorate some of it, but I think its going to be a long time before we unglue, for example, the radio chains that just galloped into collusion. It was necessary in order to legitimize the Disney-ABC-Cap Cities merger. There were going to be serious problems with that until the 1996 Act was passed.
Before that was passed, the telecommunications industry contributed $4 million to key people in the 1994 association of anarchists who took over the House of Representatives. One of the first things that class of 1994 under headmaster Gingrich did was have a meeting with telecommunications executives and say, What do you want? This is literally true. They practically said, What do you want? What do you expect? And the telecommunications people told them what they wanted. The 1996 Act gave them what they wanted. It was one of those events that dramatized how far we have gone into unconcealed control of Congress by corporate America.
The public needs a constant reminder, you write in the Afterward of The Media Monopoly, that the airwaves do not belong to broadcasters. They do not belong to the advertisers. The owners by law are the people of the United States.
Ill bet if you gave a questionnaire to a stratified sample of Americans and asked Who owns the airwaves?, 80 percent would say, the broadcasters. The reason people dont know is that as recently as 40 years ago, the FCC used to have a requirement that before you got a broadcasting license, you had to tell the FCC what your community needed and what you were going to do to meet those needs. Then, when renewal time came, which used to be three years, now they have stretched that out to semi-eternity, you were supposed to go through what you had done to keep your promises. The FCC never monitored it very carefully. But it was a time in which if some civic group didnt like the answers, or didnt like what had happened, they could ask for a hearing and they could get it.
Thats gone by the board. Now you buy your frequency. The very act of auctioning off frequencies implies ownership. I think we are drifting toward the time when the broadcasters will own the airwaves, even though its not the law.
Do you favor bringing back the now-abolished Fairness Doctrine, as well as requirements for public interest programming?
I think its absolutely essential if we are going to save the broadcasting system from being the Corporate USA broadcasting system. Under the Fairness Doctrine Rush Limbaugh would not be censored, Im not in favor of that but those whom he attacked would get equal time. That was supposed to be basic in communications law. An interesting thing happened when repealing the Fairness Doctrine came up. I think it was in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Newspapers overwhelmingly editorialized against repeal. At that time, newspapers were only light owners of TV and radio. When it came up again in the 1980s, because then we had media conglomerates in real force, almost every newspaper of any size was in a broadcasting conglomerate, owned radio and TV stations. They editorialized in favor of repeal.
The testimony was, the Fairness Doctrine inhibits discussion of public issues on the air because if, for example, you have debate between two candidates for governor, you may have 20 people who want to run for governor, and then you would endlessly have to have them on the air, excluding everything else. But thats already been taken care of. They manage it on the national networks. There are ways of doing it. Instead, the broadcasters said to the FCC, if you will cancel that, they told Congress, we will be able to increase our discussion of public issues on the air. They repealed the Fairness Doctrine. Ralph Nader did a study. Discussion of public issues dropped 31 percent. So they lied and got away with it.
The Media Monopoly is a central text in journalism classes and courses all over the U.S. and I suspect elsewhere as well. I was wondering what you consider as your legacy?
First of all, Id like to have been a decent human being and then also a decent social being. While I have to confess to you the media are not my primary concern in the nature of our nation and life, I happen to be in it and to have lived through a time when it was changing and changing radically in directions that I thought were harmful. Its a little hard to tell, but Ive been struck and really surprised but gratified at the number of people who have said, Ive had more and more of a feeling that things werent quite right, and the book told me why that was and explained what I had felt was wrong but told me what had gone wrong and why. I understand better now what I see and hear on our mass media. Thats as much as anyone could ask for. Ive been amazed at the number of people who are in the standard professional media who when they call up for comment say, I read your book in college. I really am amazed.
I wonder where we are now in our little journey here navigating between Albuquerque and El Paso?
If you mean, are we heading toward a politics sensitive to the basic needs of the country and to the need to correct the maldistribution of income and housing and schooling, I think that we recognize them as things that can be mentioned, but we have done nothing substantial to move to change that. I think there are some signs, and I think I would say we are on the way to learning the harsh reality of El Paso in the sense that our two established political parties are being seen as empty shells in terms of ideology and ideas. What is just growing are new political movements, the New Party, the Alliance for Democracy, and civic groups all over the country who are small in terms of geography, who are making corrections toward a more desired Albuquerque. I think theres a chance outside the established system. Now I think progressives and even some liberals recognize things arent going to be changed by working within Establishment borders. You start on the outside, which the Europeans discovered a long time ago. You get leverage from a strong minority party which says, We arent going along any longer.
The labor unions are beginning to realize this. First of all, theyre beginning to grow and beginning to realize that the old tradition of the AFL, that labor unions are one thing and politics are something separate, is nonsense. Its like saying you have no relationship to the steamroller which is on your back. Those are signs that yes, we may be making a slow turn toward El Paso. Because the existing parties are such empty shells, its conceivable. So I think we are making a turn. Its slow, but its slow because were doing it the right way. The 1960s was a period when there was a need for change, but it either was in the civil rights movement, which began to fragment when it hit the cities, or it was in the elite universities and was thought of in terms of top-down, and that didnt work. This time its different. Its basic. Its bottom-up. There are people in local communities and progressive parties that arent thinking in big, grandiose ideas beginning at the top. I think thats sound. I think thats a good thing. I think it makes more and more sense, and if the labor unions will stay on that track, that combination could, within five years or so, begin to make a real difference.
For information about obtaining cassette copies or transcripts of this or other interviews, contact: David Barsamian, Alternative Radio, PO Box 551, Boulder, CO 80306; 800-444-1977.