Reading: Who Owns the Press? | Essay | Chicago Reader

Reading: Who Owns the Press? 

If freedom of the press belongs to those who own one, we are rapidly becoming a nation of slaves.

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Those of us in the press love to say things like "Those of us in the press." It makes us feel worthy and important and part of something. Ask those of us in the press--and that's "press," not "media," the latter including the TV networks and their low-budget radio cousins--what the hell we're about and most of us, after some languid, Front Page-ish cynicism, will eventually get around to a modest mumble about "giving the republic the information it needs to govern itself." I would, anyway. The phrase was drilled into me in a class on First Amendment law by a professor who besides being smart as hell had the jowly mien and sarcastic drawl of a well-schooled W.C. Fields. ("Wyman, gimme the facts in Virgil v. Time," he'd say, with rather the same intonation as Fields saying, "Water? Never drink the stuff. Fish fuck in it.") He loved the Socratic method and had a simple faith in the press's ability to balance the excesses of governmental power. One day in class, a student made a not-too-sophisticated remark about certain of the powers that be, including the press, being "all in it together," and the professor pounced.

"Hey, Hallinan, know what I do every New Year's Eve?"

"Sir?"

"Hallinan, do you have any idea what I do on New Year's Eve?"

"No, sir."

"I have a big party. Wanna know who comes?"

"Who?"

"I'll tell you, Hallinan. I'm there, and Ben Bradlee's there, and Katharine Graham's there; and Abe Rosenthal and Nelson Rockefeller and Margaret Thatcher and Bill Paley and Leonid Brezhnev's there, and so're the heads of Exxon and GM and General Electric, and they all stand over in the corner with Otis Chandler and Henry Kissinger and Ronald Reagan and Jesse Helms and Tip O'Neill and the ghosts of Stalin and Tito. We have a grand old time.

"And ya wanna know what we do? We stand around and drink a lot and plan out how the year's gonna go, me and Leonid Brezhnev and Tip O'Neill. And some of the big stuff actually happens, but a lot of the little stuff doesn't. Wanna know why, Hallinan?"

"Why?"

"Because to do that we'd have to meet every day. Wanna know why we don't meet every day?"

"Why?"

"Because we don't have the goddamned time," the professor exploded. "We've got kids to get to school and work to do. We're tired, Hallinan, really tired, and we just don't have the energy to make sure everything goes according to schedule. We're just too goddamned tired."

Scenes like that are important for their prevalence as well as their meaning. In one sense, they represent merely the innocent sarcasm of the deluded, but, as Ben Bagdikian points out in his impressive and topical book The Media Monopoly, when it's the press that's deluded there's something larger at stake. I can live with all of America's 7-Eleven franchisees getting together for a huddle and exiting with the unanimous and pleasurable feeling that the average 7-Eleven's floor plan is infinitely superior to that of the competition; that's a harmless delusion--if you're not a shareholder, you're in the clear. But with the press, delusion is more important, on about three levels. The first is that it's the press's job not to be deluded: all that cynicism is at once a cover-up and an example of the heavily romanticized but still very real worldview that its practitioners use as a crucial grounding device. ("You were a little soft there on X" remains a slur in all of the mainstream and, interestingly, most of the alternative press.) Second, a press deluded about itself is dangerous--given its all but codified place in our makeshift balance of powers, a press that doesn't know itself is close to the political equivalent of a driver who's lost his way.

The third level is more abstract. If the press is deluded about itself, it can be deluded about other things--other industries, other institutions--as well. The joke, of course, is that the press is the only mechanism by which we might find out about these delusions: we'd not only be deluded, we wouldn't know that we were--or even could or might be. We'd be running blind--as if that driver, rather than lost, were drunk.

What gives offense in my professor's obviously rehearsed routine is not that it dismisses the potential of an international government-press conspiracy, but that it ridicules the idea at the same time it ignores the steps we've already taken down that path. In the U.S., at least, it is not unreasonable to worry about the ever-more-concentrated, ever-more-uniform, and ever-more-powerful position of the press in society. When institutions are concentrated, uniform, and powerful, they don't have to meet every day, or even once a year, to be sure that everyone is with the program. It's amazing how similar the economic and political philosophies are of the people who control our institutions--government, the press, industry, labor, the political parties--and after a while you get the feeling that it all just comes naturally to them. How can the press balance the excesses of government power when it essentially shares it? When its corporate boards have interlocking directorates with gas and steel companies, with IBM, or with defense contractors? When a defense contractor owns a TV network--as GE does NBC? When media corporations become so big--own so many papers, so much land, so many TV stations--that issues like corporate tax rates become not items of political debate, but matters affecting millions and millions of stockholder dollars?

The press sets our mental agenda: it determines the way we think about things. It creates issues, buries them, invents symbols and destroys them. It matters who is setting that agenda, because, again, we have little recourse to another agenda or even to knowledge that there might be another agenda. Here is one example: As far back as 1947 (and it certainly has a longer history than that), A.J. Liebling was charting newspapers' enormous interest in welfare cheaters, a case in point being the "Lady in Mink," who was put up in a welfare hotel by the city of New York despite--it was alleged in even the Times--several articles of mink clothing and $60,000. It turned out a few days later that the "mink clothes" was only a coat, and a tattered one at that, and that the $60,000, which apparently never existed anyway, was at any rate long gone. "There is no concept more universally cherished by newspaper publishers than that of the Undeserving Poor," wrote Liebling. "The governing factor in most newspapers' attitude toward the mass of people out of luck is the tax rate. One way to rationalize the inadequacy of public aid is to blackguard the poor by saying that they have concealed assets, or bad character, or both."

For the past eight years our public life has been dominated by a man who has skillfully used the press's interest in such tomfoolery. The result? Rolling Stone recently carried the findings of a two-year poll of the Baby Boom generation. Buried at the end of ten pages of analysis and extrapolation came a series of questions about issues that the next president should address. There were four categories--economic, domestic, foreign policy, and social issues--and about 40 different responses given. (Respondents were asked to give their top two concerns in each area.) Far more important than world hunger, a cure for AIDS, and help for the homeless or the unemployed--and only a smidgen less important than slowing the arms race--came the choice of 46 percent of the respondents: "Stop[ping] people from abusing the welfare system." Now, there are some things we can't know--whether the phrasing of the questions ("Are you for or against welfare abuse?") prompted that response. But there is one thing we can know, and that is that of all the responses made or even conceivable, "stopping welfare abuse" is not only the silliest, but the most wrongheaded--in the sense that if what people were really getting at was waste in the federal budget, there are several other places to start: the level of defense-contract scamming alone is phenomenal, and income tax cheaters, corporate and personal, cost the U.S. a. lot more than the ghetto AFDC recipients who are hiding their husbands. And if you really have it in for the social-service budget, you should look into the enormous spread of civil-service pensions, all of them, courtesy of Republican Richard Nixon, tied to the cost of living index.

Creeping dumbness stalks the land not because kids don't read Tacitus anymore but because they're not taught to think. Newspapers could help, but most don't, because having a thinking and well-informed readership has little to do anymore with their chief interest. There was hardly a sign in Rolling Stone's survey that anyone was concerned about the massive transfers of wealth and power and the widening class gaps we've seen in the last ten years, the scary cracks in our economic system, the almost complete dissolution of the country's antitrust laws, or any other of the almost infinite number of issues that are demonstrably more important than what we're going to do about those welfare cheaters. The reason is that people don't think about issues like that, because even when the press does treat them it doesn't with the same zeal or frequency, and even then it's careful to have its objectivity antenna out, and working. Corporations have press offices; welfare recipients don't. There really isn't an "other side" to corporate despoliation of the environment, the fact that cigarettes cause cancer or that Pintos used to kill people, or that the "economic violence" Jesse Jackson talks about ranges from political arm-twisting to murder, but newspapers readily quote people who defend such things, usually people who are paid to lie. What's scary is that over the last 5, 10, or 15 years the corporate press seems to have become more efficient. People used to read Republican but vote Democratic, Liebling noted. It's not that way anymore: now we seem to read Republican, vote Republican, and think Republican. Are taxes to be avoided? Of course they are. Is regulation bad? No doubt about it. Are unions destructive? Increasingly so. Twenty years ago we laughed at the contention that "the business of America is business." Is there anyone today who doubts that the values of America are corporate?

What we need is a press about the press, but we've had that, alas, only to the extent that we've had an effective press in the first place. Until The Media Monopoly there was but Liebling, a razor-sharp journalistic polymath whose The Press, a collection of his New Yorker columns on newspapering, is the definitive work of press criticism. Liebling was a genial hard-liner who came out of a very short line of antiestablishment press critics, including Upton Sinclair and (I didn't know this either) Albert Camus, who once put forth a proposal for a "control newspaper" that would provide ratings and background information on journalists and different newspapers so that readers could ascertain the extent to which a particular article diverged from the truth. Liebling's precepts were very simple: that company presidents could be as stubborn as union leaders during a strike; that covering a war from Washington as opposed to its front was certainly easier but nonetheless problematic; that newspaper owners, being human, might be motivated by some of the same desires as you or I, but that their power made it much more likely that they would get what they want; that the declining number of newspapers and the concurrent consolidation of ownership were de facto bad things. He also monitored the ever-growing number of one-newspaper towns and the sorry journalistic performance of the cash-cow papers that remained. Best known for the dictum "Freedom of the press is guaranteed to those who own one," he also wrote, "Money is not made by competition among newspapers but by avoiding it."

Bagdikian's The Media Monopoly takes up where Liebling left off. In a postscript to the 1963 edition of The Press, Liebling wrote that the march to private monopoly and the concurrent dilution of the news--"an economic process like the displacement of oranges from 'orange drink'"--had, if anything, accelerated since the collected columns had first been published in the 40s and 50s. Bagdikian, writing 25 years later, can only note the same thing. His book was originally published in 1983; in that edition he calculated that 50 corporations controlled most of the business or circulation in the major media (newspaper and book publishers, the networks, TV and radio stations, the motion picture studios). Five years on, the number had shrunk to 29. "The acceleration surprised me," writes Bagdikian, "and certainly must have surprised some reviewers who considered my earlier edition alarmist."

Bagdikian is a longtime press critic and a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter (he was part of a group that won in 1953 for the Providence, Rhode Island, Journal and Evening Bulletin). Currently he's the about-to-retire dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Berkeley (where, for the record, I did an independent study with him five or six years ago). He has tended to write about the "hard" subjects, like poverty in America, or the prison system (for that one, The Shame of the Prisons, he actually had himself incarcerated). This subject's even harder, because here he's analyzing the way the press has shaped our value systems; when someone attacks that shaping, he's also implicitly attacking the value system, and that cuts close to the bone. This is perhaps why Bagdikian comes across as a radical at times, why, perhaps, he was attacked as alarmist when the first edition came out.

Is he alarmist? What's wrong with consolidation? Aren't a lot of papers that are part of media conglomerates--the Philadelphia Inquirer (Knight-Ridder), the New York Times, the LA Times--quite good? And doesn't corporate ownership help, in a way, by bolstering the strength of the press in the place it needs it most--i.e., in opposition to the government? Isn't all this concern over ownership just a bunch of leftist hand wringing? It's possible, I guess, but I think Bagdikian's and Liebling's central premise--that consolidation is de facto a bad thing--is sound.

Consolidation certainly isn't good; of the papers cited above, only the Inquirer was created by a chain. The others--and, indeed, every other first-rate newspaper yesterday and today--was the creation of an independent owner. And these are only the big metropolitan dailies: where the consolidation drama is really played out is in the suburbs and smaller cities, and this is where the power matters and the journalism suffers. The Ingersoll chain didn't buy the Independent, in the bombed-out, severely depressed city of Richmond, California, because it was shocked at the condition of the city's schools or because it felt that the local police force's all-out assault on the town's kids had gone on long enough (a black youth was killed, it seemed, almost weekly). The chain bought it to make a buck. They didn't, as it turned out, but not for want of trying. And except for their failure to make money, this is a scenario enacted dozens and scores of times across America. Bagdikian cites several. (It seems that the great secret about newspaper ownership is that most papers are delivering a 15 percent return, on average, and that it has been proven again and again that a little kowtowing to advertisers, along with some judicious staff and spirit-trimming on the editorial side, can easily produce a 25 to 30 percent return.)

OK, you say, so maybe consolidation is not good. Does that make it bad? Maybe it's just neutral. Bagdikian says that central control of information is "inherently antidemocratic," but does consolidation of media ownership equal central control of information? On one level, of course, it doesn't. There is a scale of knowledge and level of sophistication on the part of both readers and journalists that prevents a lot of the coarser manipulations of the past. But on another level, I would argue, the mere potential for shenanigans inherent in a centrally owned press is reason enough to avoid it, and I can think of a couple of areas where damage is already being done. The first concerns acts not of commission but omission. Will NBC ever produce a (much-needed, actually) documentary on the extraordinary record of criminality and disgusting behavior racked up by General Electric over the past 50 years? (According to Bagdikian they dealt illegally with the Krupp company of Germany during the Second World War, fixed prices during the 60s, and defrauded the government on a defense contract in the 80s.) Bagdikian doubts it. Another, subtler issue is public confidence in the media. As a people we tend to distrust bigness and power. Is it merely coincidence that respect for the press has been on the decline for decades?

Chapter after chapter of Bagdikian's book is filled with the horrors that have attended the corporate takeover of the press: the about-face of the Nixon administration on the subject of a newspaper antimonopoly bill after pressure from several chains (in '68, Nixon received endorsements from two-thirds of the Cox, Hearst, and Scripps-Howard papers; in '72, in the midst of Watergate, he got 100 percent); the extraordinary pressures that mass advertising puts on metropolitan papers, guaranteeing one winner in each market, with no second place; the ineluctable process by which newspapers came to depend upon advertisers, and not readers, for their sustenance, and the resulting pressure to keep advertisers, rather than readers, happy; how with the disappearance of smaller and competing newspapers, the areas covered by dailies have become much bigger and far less likely to coincide with political boundaries, which phenomenon, combined with a lowest-common-denominator approach to news, makes much less likely the coverage of issues incidental to those old-fashioned boundaries--school board or city council elections in a suburb, for example.

The litany goes on and on; Bagdikian has more than a book's worth here, and along the way he makes sharp sallies at, among others, Al Neuharth, the gross, disingenuous purveyor of banalities who runs the huge, uniformly mediocre Gannett chain. But he never loses sight of that problem, articulating it thusly: "It is normal for all large businesses to make serious efforts to influence the news, to avoid embarrassing publicity, and to maximize sympathetic public opinion and government policies. Now they own most of the news media they wish to influence." Later, he continues, "The history of those who hold great power inhibited solely by self-control is not reassuring. It was the morbid record of absolute power left to its own devices that led to the formation of democracies in general and the United States in particular."

What's to be done? In his first edition, Bagdikian recalls, he left out suggestions that seemed politically impossible. He says now that that was a mistake and offers a few new suggestions for correcting the balance. I don't have the original edition handy, but its list of ideas must have been a pretty short one, because most of the suggestions in the present volume have a fairy-tale aspect to them. Bagdikian calls for divestment by the chains down to around (only!) 30 newspapers apiece in "monopoly" (i.e., one-paper) markets; for broadcasters, radio or TV, he advocates allowing just one. He also suggests a progressive tax on advertising and the election of editors by newspaper staffs. Putting action to words, he told me recently that he was working some members of Congress to introduce a bill toward the first of these suggestions--a bill, that is, that among other things would require the Gannett company to sell off more than 60 newspapers.

I admire The Media Monopoly tremendously; perhaps it is a function of my occupation, but I think it contains one of the most important social analyses of the decade, and it is certainly the most radicalizing book I have ever read. But I found its last chapter curiously enervating: divestment of the chains is one of the most far-fetched ideas my small mind can conceive of, and that's the most practical proposal Bagdikian's got to offer. I wish he'd spent more time speculating on the societal and economic forces that are responding to the media's great and increasing power, from alternative weeklies to desk-top publishing. But more than that I wish more people would read his book and get informed about the problem--as he notes, this is not the sort of national issue that's going to get a whole lot of press attention--before . . . well, before what? Before all the media in the United States are owned by ten, five, one corporation? Before the span of national debate is narrowed down to how much corporate tax rates should be shrunk? Bagdikian's point is not that this has come to pass but that it seems as if it will, and soon. For an ever-increasing number of Americans, the "daily newspaper" is Gannett's U.S.A. Today--the same news, the same colors, the same unremitting cheer from coast to coast. Time was when America floated in a sea of journalism. Robert Benchley, the hard-drinking humorist who did the press column in the New Yorker before Liebling, wrote of the horror he experienced one morning when he discovered at his Manhattan doorstep seven newspapers and a bottle of milk. The milk, it turned out, had been delivered by mistake. The seven newspapers were his standard morning haul.

The Media Monopoly, second edition, by Ben H. Bagdikian, Beacon Press, $10.95 (paper).

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kevin Kurtz.

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