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The News According To Big Business

The Media Monopoly
Ben H. Bagdikian, published by Beacon Press,
distributed in Canada by Fitzhenry &
Whiteside Limited, 282 pages. $20.50

Reviewed by Dan Westell


The muckraking journalists who took on the major corporations in America in the early years of this century would not recognize the business landscape today. What has changed is not so much the players, nor the form of the contest, but the very rules of the game. For example, it took more than a year for the New Haven Railroad to close down Hampton's magazine after the journal published a series on corruption in railroads controlled by New York banks. A New Haven executive boasted that he would close the magazine in 90 days, but Hampton's, with 440,000 paid circulation and solid financing, took a year to kill.

The story about Hampton's and the New Haven is contained in Ben Bagdikian's The Media Monopoly, and is one of the anecdotes he uses to illustrate his thesis that corporate control of the media poses a threat to journalism, society and ultimately democracy. But the real tragedy of the Hampton's story is in the changes that have occurred between 1910 and today. Then, magazines and other media were not generally part of larger business institutions; today it is the rare media outlet which does not belong to a chain or conglomerate, an integral part of what Bagdikian calls the military-media-industrial complex.

The extent and negative consequences of corporate control, one of Bagdikian's two main themes, is identified in the subtitle: "A startling report on the 50 corporations that control what America sees, hears and reads." The anecdotes, and there are many of them, are the most startling thing about the book. The business-media relationship that Bagdikian carefully and convincingly outlines is not news to Canadians, given our penchant for repeated Royal Commissions, but apparently is news to Americans. (This may simply be a reflection of the differing degrees of concentration. A study of the 50 top media companies in Canada would end up including the corner copy shop, so concentrated is our media.)

But lacking the benefit of Royal Commissions, Bagdikian not only tells the stories that give his book a lively tone, but he also delves into theoretical and empirical work to buttress his argument. If the media is corporate, and it has become so, it must serve corporate ends, he argues. "The major media speak with clarity and persistence about the sins of the powerless, but they do not speak with clarity and persistence about the sins of private power," he first asserts and then demonstrates.

But corporate media have other fish to fry than simply maintaining the political status quo. Rupert Murdoch's airline needed a U.S. government loan, which was denied; Murdoch meets Jimmy Carter for lunch; Murdoch's New York Post endorses Carter; the government loan agency reverses its position, to the tune of $270 million at 8.5 per cent interest — all within eight days. And during the first Nixon regime, 44 U.S. dailies, many belonging to chains, were on the verge of running afoul of antitrust laws. A letter to Nixon from the publishers, pointing out that the papers had been Republican supporters, did the trick. Bagdikian notes that without the support of the chains which owned some of the 44 papers, Nixon would have had very low media support. As it was, he had the highest newspaper support of any U.S. candidate ever, all achieved through the exchange of favours.

It is usual in rebuttal of this type of book to ask the unanswerable question: "When was the last time Ken Thomson killed a story in The Globe?" As an experienced newsman, however, Bagdikian realizes that it is both physically impossible and unnecessary for owners to exercise story by story control. Much more effective, and practical, is the system actually used the appointment of senior managers and control over spending. With these two arms, an owner, or corporation, can rest assured that nothing will appear which might be found offensive.

Bagdikian's second theme, however, suggests there is an even greater business restraint on the media than the whims of owners. The terrain here — advertising — is familiar, but he brings some new aspects to light. The first point is well documented in the Kent report, and deals with the role of advertising in creating one-newspaper towns.

Advertisers flock to the more successful paper because it is a cheaper medium per reader reached, which weakens the weaker and makes the stronger even more attractive, and so on until the weak paper closes. But Bagdikian also addresses a more common journalistic bugbear, the influence of advertisers on content. Again, the examples, such as a Proctor and Gamble memo about just what was permissable content, or an anecdote about how the New York Times did not cave in to pressure, are very interesting.

There is nothing new in the theory that the profusion of specialized sections designed with advertisers in mind reflects media companys' drive for profit, not demands from any reader. Bagdikian, however, casts these in a new light, identifying them as part of the problem because they turn readers off, and not part of the solution, as some publishers seem to feel. He also identifies these sections as part of a larger trend in American business, the sacrifice of longer term goals for profit now. This is a standard theme in the context of U.S. vs. Japanese business management methods, but Bagdikian is, I believe, unique in applying it to newspapers.

Having researched, analyzed and written about the problem in depth and with insight, Bagdikian proceeds to offer some solutions. This, unfortunately, is the most depressing chapter in the book, because most of the solutions "require that the giants relinquish their giantism. That is not in the nature of giants." This leads him to identify corporate structures as the problem, which is fine except that those who control the media's contents are the beneficiaries of the current structures.

Ultimately, all Bagdikian can offer is hope for change from some as yet unknowable historical force. The present is a "discouraging time," but there have been other periods of U.S. history that have begun in despair and ended otherwise, and maybe this is one such period.

Published in Sources Winter 83/84


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