The Media Monopoly
                       Madison, Wisconsin, April 21, 1989
BEN BAGDIKIAN is one of this country's most distinguished
journalists. He is the author of The Media Monopoly, published by
Beacon. He is a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and professor and
former dean of the School of Journalism of the University of
California at Berkeley.
Henry Watteson was editor of the Louisville Courier Journal after
the Civil War and made that paper one of the most respected
through his powerful editorials. He was an imposing man with
white hair, Kentucky Colonel's goatee, and a ferocious temper.
After a hard day's work at the office, he liked to spend his
evenings in his combined hobbies: fervent political arguments and
fervent absorbing of good Kentucky bourbon. At the end of each
day, Mr. Watteson would go to the bookkeeper's office at the
paper, open up the till and take out a fistful of money to
finance his evening's eating, drinking and arguing. One evening
he went to take the money and there was a plaintive note from the
bookkeeper. The bookkeeper, in very apologetic language, said,
``Mr. Watteson, of course you are entitled to any amount of money
that you would like. But please, leave a note on how much you
take out so we can make our books right the next morning.'' The
next morning, the bookkeeper, knowing Mr. Watteson's temper,
opened the cash drawer with trepidation and was relieved to see a
note from Mr. Watteson. He opened the note. The note said, ``I
took it all.'' [laughter]
The modern owners of our news media seem to have taken their
lesson from Mr. Watteson. Today a small number of multinational
corporations control most of our media, including printed and
broadcast news. There are taking it all, but what they mean by
``all'' makes Mr. Watteson look quaint. The major owners of our
media mean three things by ``all'': First, each is trying to
collect as many outlets as possible in any one media. For
example, of our 1600 daily newspapers, about a dozen corporations
now control more than half of all national daily circulation. Of
our 11,000 magazines with individual titles, a half dozen
corporations have most of the revenues. Of our four television
networks and 900 commercial stations, three corporations have
most of the audience and the revenues. There are at least 2500
book publishing houses, but a half dozen corporations have most
of the sales in the book industry. Three major studios have most
of the movie business.
The new owners have something else in mind when they drive to
take it all. They're also trying to buy control or market
domination not just in one medium, but in all the media. The aim
is to control the entire process, from an original manuscript or
news series to its use in as many forms as possible. A magazine
article owned by the company becomes a book owned by the company.
That becomes a television program owned by the company, which
then becomes a movie owned by the company. It's shown in theaters
owned by the company and the movie sound track is issued on a
record label owned by the company and the vocalist on the cover
of one of the company magazines. It does not take an angel from
heaven to tell us that the company will be less enthusiastic
about outside ideas for productions that it does not own. And
more and more we will be dealing with closed circuits to control
access to most of the public.
Lastly, ``all'' seems to mean all the profit that can be quickly
and ruthlessly taken from their media properties. Since the
growth of concentration of ownership, average newspaper pre-tax
annual profits, always generous, have risen sharply and now range
between 20% and 40% annually. Affiliated television stations now
make an average of between 30% and 50% annually. Since cable
became dominated by newspapers, broadcasters and movie company
owners and was deregulated, thanks to their combined lobbying,
cable fees around the country have risen radically, approximately
30% to 50% more than the costs of production.
Almost weekly we read of another great media merger. Time/Warner
forms the largest media conglomerate in the world. Rupert Murdoch
adds another major segment to his global empire. They all gobble
up each new medium as it gets popular, like cable and
videocassettes. When you look at it all, including corporations
dominant in more than one medium, you see an extraordinary race
toward monopoly or monopoly-like control which gets more rapid
all the time. In 1982, 50 corporations had half or more of all
the business in all the major media in the United States. Today,
that number is less than 25 and shrinking.
Perhaps that's why our theme asks two main questions: First, who
owns our media?
To name a few names: In daily papers, the leading ones are
Gannett, which owns USA Today and 88 other daily papers, for
about 6 million total daily circulation; International Thompson,
with 116 papers; Knight-Ridder, Newhouse and about 8 others. The
chief owners of magazines in the general news are dominated by
Time/Warner, which controls more than 40% of the country's
magazine business. Other major owners are Rupert Murdoch, Hearst
and Newhouse, although not all issue general news. Newsweek,
which does carry news, is owned by the Washington Post Company.
In broadcasting, despite some loss of audience, the three
networks - ABC, CBS and NBC - still have most of the television
audience and business. In books, some of the major owners are
Gulf & Western, which owns Simon & Shuster, Time/Warner, Reader's
Digest Association, Bertelsmann, a German firm, Maxwell, a
British firm, Hachette, a French firm, and Thompson, a Canadian
That gives some idea of the major owners of the news and of
books, which are an important source of knowledge about public
Our second question is: How well do they serve the public? Well,
as with life in general, there's good news and bad news. The good
news about American reporting is that in some technical matters
it is the best news in the world. It's journalists are the most
highly educated in the world and far better educated than any
earlier generation of American journalists. We sometimes make the
mistake of comparing our average with other countries' elite. But
our average in terms of preparation and care of journalists is
better than the average anyplace else. They operate under higher
professional ethics than journalists elsewhere and higher than at
any time in the past. They lie less than journalists elsewhere,
fictionalize less, and on the whole take seriously their
individual duty to provide the public with accurate information.
Collectively they issue daily an extraordinary volume of daily
news items. But if things are so good, why are they so bad? Or at
least, as troublesome as I believe they are?
The problem lies, I think, mainly with the institutions and the
conventions of standard American journalism. Most reporters in
the standard media can say correctly, ``No editor ever tells me
to lie.'' And I think that is correct. There are exceptions, but
I think they're rare. But most reporters are told every day what
to write about. There are 50,000 print journalists in this
country and 50,000 broadcast reporters. Each day, each week, each
month, they are pointed toward particular tasks, particular
stories, particular personalities, particular government
activities, particular foreign scenes, and particular series in
some depth. In the resulting mass of stories there are often
articles of importance and sometimes of distinction. There is a
daily volume of routine, factual and important local and national
information. The problem lies in something beyond the mass of
useful items. Each day editors necessarily select some stories
for emphasis and some for de-emphasis, some for the wastebasket.
Certain kinds of stories, certain public figures, certain social
data, certain analysts of social and political events are
regularly on the network evening news and the front page, while
others stories, other spokespersons and analysts are mentioned
obscurely, if at all. This kind of selection is a legitimate and
necessary part of the news process. But when we look at the
selection process over time, how often is the result a serious
departure from the realities of our social, economic and
political life?
I believe that there is a disturbing pattern of the missing
realities. It is the main media sin, but we may have a archaic
way of looking for it. We tend to look for the sins of the past.
We look for the screaming headlines and the blatant politics of
William Randolph Hearst. We remember that when Hearst wanted the
United States to go to war in Cuba against Spain, he sent
Frederick Remington to Cuba to send back sketches of the
atrocities which he said were being committed in a war which he
said was being fought in Cuba. When Remington wired back, ``There
is no war here.'' Hearst wired back, ``You furnish the pictures
and I'll furnish the war.'' Which he did.
Today the problem lies with something far more subtle, more
difficult and, in some ways, more harmful. For one thing, in
Hearst's day, every city had many competing newspapers with
competing political orientations. Some papers regularly refuted
Hearst and printed information contrary to Hearst's information.
Today, of American cities with a daily paper, 98% have a monopoly
paper. And in the major source of most people's news, the network
news, the three major networks are so similar and brief in their
news content that they could almost be one outlet without the
loss of much information. So there are almost no seriously
contending approaches among our mainstream newspapers and
broadcast news.
Furthermore, today very few publishers would think of putting
those words of Hearst in a telegram or memorandum. Exposure of it
would be a national scandal in the public and also among
professional journalists. Today the departures from reality
happen quite differently: less clumsily, more insidiously and
often more unconsciously. It is done more by omission than by
commission. The main problem in the news today is not what is
false, but what is missing. The pattern begins when owners
appoint executive editors and producers. Owners seldom appoint
someone who is likely to be interested in emphasizing those
events and interpretations that undermine the owners' political
and economic interests. Some editors do so, and there is a steady
record of their being fired or resigning or being otherwise
penalized. In 1980 members of the American Society of Newspaper
Editors were asked if they would feel free to publish news
harmful to the parent corporation of their newspaper. One-third
said they would not feel free to do so. It should be said that
many of these companies that own newspapers and broadcast news
operations are also owners of industries that are very sensitive
to the news. General Electric owns NBC and it produces nuclear
reactors and guidance systems for hydrogen bombs and many other
things that are dependent on government policy and public
opinion. This is true of many of the large news media companies.
Given the fact that it is now embarrassing professionally for an
editor to say that he would keep news out that he would otherwise
think was significant simply because it might damage the parent
firm's business, it's so embarrassing, I think we're safe in
assuming that that 33% who said they would keep it away is a
conservative figure.
So I think the patterns, when you look back, are clear. In
foreign affairs the main news of the country follows official
national policy. This does not mean that there's never any
reporting contrary to officialdom, but it does mean that
information that contradicts government versions gets into the
news with greater difficulty and only briefly compared to the
official view. It is not done by official censorship but by self-
censorship. If journalists are as much improved as I think they
are, it's fair to ask what causes this self-censorship. I think
there are a number of reasons. One is the awareness of the top
editors and executive producers that stories seriously affecting
their owners' interests will cause the editors some problems. So
they put in such stories but do so infrequently, and usually with
those developments that seem to be unavoidable.
There is a kind of generic experience that gets built into the
subconscious of every journalist. For example, recently a new
editor and several sub-editors at the Atlanta Constitution and
Journal were brought in to make their paper the best one in the
country, to be fearless and without restriction. As happens with
many of us, we take such marching orders literally. The Atlanta
Constitution and Journal began writing stories about the problems
of race in Atlanta and about some of the more harmful effect of
high downtown development and some flaws in the Georgia corporate
establishment. That editor is now out. He was one of the more
respected, better-known editors in the country. I think every
journalist in the country read about that, and I think it's
stored in the memory.
Several years ago, in the Dallas Morning News, a financial
reporter of considerable experience discovered that one of the
major banks in town was filled with federal examiners and the
business community was talking about it fairly openly. It turned
out that that bank was in really serious trouble. He did a rather
careful story on the fact that it was under examination by the
Feds. That reporter was fired. The editor who passed that story
was fired. The next week the bank closed. It was going to close
anyway, the Examiner said. That, too, gets filed away, and not
just within that organization. For years afterward it becomes
accepted as somehow an edict coming down from the heavens that
one does not write stories about banks in trouble. Something we
are now inheriting in the number of our banks in trouble. There
are various other events which have a far-rippling effect which
do not require any memo from an owner.
The self-censorship also comes from a basic strategy of American
news, one that has many strong points in it. Since most of the
revenues in the news media come from advertising E80% for
newspapers and almost 100% for broadcasting Ethere's a desire to
maintain an audience of as many affluent people as possible. The
newspapers aren't terribly interested in non- affluent people or
people who are over 50 because they aren't buying lots of
furniture and things of that sort. Therefore they aren't good
targets for the mass advertisers. There is a desire in the news
organizations not to offend too many people who are good
advertising targets. This is done in two ways: One is to
attribute everything to as high an authority as possible, so that
no one can argue that the newspaper or the broadcast organization
had any special interest in quoting this particular person or
this particular set of facts. If you have a high enough person,
whether it's the sergeant at an intersection accident or the
President of the United States on some foreign policy statement,
very few people can argue that it was not justified to print that
information. The other method is to give American news a kind of
political tone-deafness, an appearance of neutrality without
political, economic or social context for its facts. When you
give the context of events, you begin to be political. Accurate
reports of events with interpretation by high officials become
safe. But the result of this is not neutral, though it seems to
be neutral. If you strain out independent political and economic
contexts, if you do not pursue the likely causes and consequences
of events as they affect the average person, if you emphasize or
use exclusively the words and ideas of the highest officials,
public and private, and when you add to that the Cold War and
anti-communism and its effects throughout our whole life, it is
safer to swing to the right than look to the left, and it is
safer to quote the words and information from the centers of
power than from more independent but perfectly credentialed other
sources. The status quo in politics and corporation life is, of
course, sharply skewed to the conservative side. It resists
significant change in society.
Finally, self-censorship in the standard news media comes from
twenty years of accusations against American journalists by neo-
conservative intellectuals and academics and from conservative
political leaders who have said that the American journalist is
biased against the established order and conservative politics.
These accusations, when they are based on anything real, are
based on surveys of journalists who, when asked whether they tend
to be Democrats or Republicans, say that they tend more to be
Democrats than Republicans or tend to be more liberal than
conservative. That happens to be precisely the pattern of the
American electorate, but that seems to make no difference. While
recent Presidential elections have gone Republican, country-wide
voting for Congress, state office, and local office continues
heavily Democratic. But the accusations by conservatives have had
the effect on so many journalists of leaning over backward to be
favorable to conservatives to show that they are not biased
against conservatives. They follow my rule of journalistic
gymnastics that you can lean over so far backward that you can
fall flat on your face.
There is more than coincidence, I think, in these factors to
produce support of the status quo and conservatively skewed
selection of news. It happens to conform with the politics and
economics of the major owners of our news media. If there is
noticeable embarrassing news for conservatives and it is pursued,
there is regularly asked within news organizations that I know of
and that I have been involved with whether that reporting is
really being fair. I have never heard similar questions being
asked about the treatment of Ralph Nader, Common Cause, labor
unions and forces on the other political side. When we look back
it seems to me there are large events that show this rather
consistent skewing.
For example, the Cold War began with very real fears of Stalinist
Russia. But it was quickly converted in this country into a holy
war, partly hysterical and partly cynical. The main body of the
news was an enthusiastic pursuer of the irrational version, even
though there was obvious evidence that the hysteria was damaging
our society, our government and even our armed forces. That same
kind of widespread press hysteria did not occur in the democratic
press of Western Europe, even though Western Europe really was
under the shadow of Stalin's armies and even though many of the
countries had significant domestic Communist parties. When Joseph
McCarthy paralyzed the government and much of civil society, the
fact that he was lying or faking and never uncovered a single spy
who had not already been detected was known to reporters but
seldom reported until he fell, for other reasons. Our involvement
in the war in Vietnam was more than 10 years old before a handful
of reporters, like David Halberstam and Malcom Browne, were able
to break into the standard news with the truth about the national
Not much has changed in the interim. Public knowledge of actual
events in Nicaragua and El Salvador has suffered from an
astonishing failure of the mainstream news media to do continuous
reporting from the field, despite the fact that Central America
has remained the center of White House attention and activities
and the closest we have been since Vietnam to being actively
engaged in a foreign war. The main body of the news seldom
checked out assertions about events in those countries in any
systematic way, and for years the news took official declarations
at face value, often when there was overwhelming evidence to the
contrary. There are other events which have their ripple effect
in this way. For a time, the New York Times had a reporter,
Raymond Bonner, in El Salvador, who reported in what was
considered professionally a sound way the fact that the war in El
Salvador was in fact a civil war that had many ugly aspects to it
on the government side as well as others and that the death
squads of the military were still active. He was recalled by the
New York Times and replaced by a reporter who was much more
influenced by the press releases from our embassy in San
Salvador. No memo needed to be posted that reports from places
like Nicaragua and El Salvador that ran contrary to the official
view would produce pressure which would probably be acceded to.
The Iran/contra exercise in violation of the Constitution and
contrary to the word of our highest officials was exposed fairly
early by the alternative press of this country and finally was
blown open by an obscure publication in Beirut, not by a
mainstream American news organization.
In domestic affairs there is a steady pattern of looking the
other way, of avoiding obvious causes and consequences whenever
doing so might seriously weaken the status quo. President
Reagan's economic program of supply-side economics, with huge
military spending accompanied by large tax cuts, had enormous
support in corporate life, but it was seen from the start by
people with perfectly respectable expert credentials as a formula
for disaster. Nevertheless, for years, most of the judgments
reported in the news came from organizations and individuals who
were beneficiaries of those economic policies, like specialists
at Drexel-Lambert, junk bond purveyors, administration
economists, Milton Friedman, and others who truly believe in
class warfare. Even after David Stockman, one of the architects
of the idea, went on record to say that it was all really a cover
to take money from the poor and give it to the rich, the main
media continued to quote almost exclusively these same
beneficiaries, as though Stockman and serious economists had
never spoken. If there was a bow in the news to the nay sayers,
it was usually in the seventeenth paragraph.
We have had massive deregulation of our economy, with some good
results and some bad. But for more than ten years, the news was
close to silent on the bad results. One is tempted to say that
some of the serious negative effects of deregulation finally
broke into the standard news only when corporate officials
themselves began to worry about the safety of airplanes they were
riding in. To this day there is close to a zone of silence on the
negative effects of mergers, acquisitions, leveraged buyouts,
ominous levels of corporate debt, and monopolistic levels of
market domination including and especially the news business. We
have turned our economy on its head by eliminating the
progressive income tax, the only sane and fair way to build our
public institutions and get our way out of our present problems.
The media have turned a deaf ear to those who say so and an open
ear to those who say it cannot be used. The causes and
consequences of some public acts are seldom made clear. Usually
there are clear sources of events or certainly sources that make
sense and a spectrum of relevant opinion on consequences. For
example, in the miles of newsprint and the hours of television
reporting on fantastically high real estate prices for the middle
class and the millions of homeless, how often have a few
incontrovertible but relevant facts been repeated as giving some
help to the public on how to solve this problem? For example, in
the 1970s there were 200,000 low-cost housing units built each
year with federal help, in the 1980s only 17,000. Another fact:
The increase in the homeless can be directly related to that
reduced federal housing support and to reductions in Social
Security and other benefits during the 1980s. It is clearly the
fact that there is growing separation in this country between the
poor and the rich. In our so-called prosperity of recent years,
the lowest third in family incomes have lost purchasing power.
Another reason has been what comes from almost every municipality
of any size taking advantage of tax support for commercial
building, even if much of it remains vacant, and not into
residential building to an equal degree. A regular story on the
economy is the need for greater productivity in the workplace in
order to compete with foreign firms and with countries with low-
wage labor. This has been accompanied by dramatic coverage of
strikes and union activities with corporate and governmental
sources regularly accusing the unions of causing our reduced
productivity. How often have you seen in such stories the
established data, true for years, that productivity has increased
in unionized activities and decreased at managerial and
administrative levels? In the last Presidential election we had
no lack of serious issues with which the next President has to
grapple: nuclear arms and disarmament, upheaval in the communist
states, global warming that is melting the polar icecaps,
explosions waiting to happen in the Middle East, and at home our
public sector, like schools, libraries, roads and bridges are
deteriorating. There is a growing housing crisis, of which the
homeless are only a small manifestation, a growing gap between
the rich and poor, ominous instabilities in our banking system,
drug addiction that is destroying whole generations in some
neighborhoods and corrupting civil life.
Now it's true that candidates always prefer to wave flags and
repeat slogans, as candidates always do. But occasionally in
fact, even in this election, they did discuss some issues
seriously, and on those occasions they received very little
attention in the next day's news. Instead, they and we were
inundated with examinations of candidates' sex lives, their
ability as dramatic actors, daily footage of their symbolic
gestures, like saluting in a flag factory or riding in a tank,
journalistic judgments of the Presidential debates, using the
word ``debates'' loosely made issues subsidiary to endless
articles about a candidate's effective use of hands, of fingers
pointed accusingly, of zingers of wisecracks, as though these
were auditions for Studio One instead of the Oval Office. The
whole society, including government and corporations, suffer in
the long run because accountability and correction of faulty
policies require good information. Damaging or ineffective
policies continue longer than they should, and positive
opportunities are lost. The spectrum of allowable context for
facts and news runs in our main media from right to center. The
other day on the network news the White House made a policy
statement on the economy. On the major network I was watching,
they had three pieces of commentary reaction. The original
newscast of what was said was 15 seconds. There were about 12
seconds with words as interview with the Chairman of the House
Committee, about 13 seconds with a spokesperson from the American
Enterprise Institute, a conservative thinktank, and about 12
seconds with a spokesperson from the Heritage Foundation, a
right-wing thinktank. That was the spectrum of commentary and
context. That was the extent of it. But even that does not
describe adequately the narrowness of the news, because much
historical or interpretive background to the news are not left or
right but cut across partisan lines, like the environment or
health care. By keeping the news tone-deaf but weighted heavily
towards facts as spokespersons from the centers of power, the
national discourse becomes more sterile each year. Ideas for
solutions to problems, alternatives to present policies fade, and
the status quo seems unchangeable. Yet we see how suddenly
energized a whole portion of the electorate could be when someone
like Jesse Jackson began addressing directly problems of that
part of the electorate, who heard no one else talking about their
particular problems.
The effective homogenized narrow spectrum of news and context is
profound. A country whose major news media are homogenized and
confined to a narrow spectrum of ideas and information oriented
around the centers of power will soon have national politics also
homogenized around the centers of power, and that, I'm afraid, is
what we have today. Today our national political discourse is
sterile in ideas for necessary change, deficient in its
confrontation with the realities of social justice and therefore
narrow in plausible alternatives held out to the public. When
masses of people are bedeviled by problems but see no possibility
of significant change, the result is hopelessness and apathy.
Many who have no hope become destructive. It is not surprising
that each year since 1960 the percentage of eligible voters who
actually go to the polls has declined. When the cause of
suffering remains mysterious, people will find scapegoats. When
we look for scapegoats, we move to the right and to race hatred.
What can we as individuals do? Most useful information about
public affairs appears in the standard news media sooner or
later, though too often obscurely and infrequently. It means that
on subjects that each of us cares about we have to become
assiduous clippers and filers because the mainstream news on
these basic economic and political issues seldom pull it all
together for us. We need to depend on alternative and specialized
publications and broadcast sources for the information, ideas and
possible remedies for problems and possible opportunities for
improvement coming from academics and others who are independent
of officials in positions of power. And I think we all need to
complain more. I preach it, I don't always practice it, but I
think that's one of the things we have to learn to become better
at is complaining to the media, to Congress, to the White House,
letters that are clear, direct and unbombastic sent to editors
and broadcast news producers have a greater impact than you might
imagine. The White House and Congressional offices still count
But if we want to change the structure of the main media, I think
it will take a change in our electoral process. Because few
members of Congress and almost no President is going to offend
the mass media owners who control the politicians' access and
image before the public. The only thing politicians fear more
than media owners is being voted out of office. So when members
of Congress proposed measures about the media you agree with,
organize and write. When your particular members of Congress
oppose such measures, organize and write. Legislators who try to
change things for the better are very lonely in that effort,
frequently. Organize around those issues you most care about and
then make trouble for your political party if it does not
conform. The electoral process is now in a scandalous state. Our
selection of Presidents is mainly dependent on 20-second
political commercials in contrived daily propaganda. The cost of
running for office is exorbitant, and the amount of money
flooding into incumbents makes it very difficult to change
legislatures and the Congress. Political action committees have
almost guaranteed semi-permanent membership. Only intense public
service lobbying will bring real change in financing of
candidates for office. I think the FCC should forbid paid
political campaign commercials. [applause] Instead, every
broadcast license holder should be required to give substantial
free time, in substantial chunks of time, not measured in
seconds, for two months before the elections, and to make it
available to representatives of parties that have polled five
percent or more in the previous election. [applause] Schemes of
this sort exist in some other democratic countries; it is unheard
of in this country.
The Anti-Trust Division of the Department of Justice should be
awakened from its long sleep. It will be hard to undo the
conglomerates already in being, but it is time to stop further
aggrandizement by the giants and uncontrolled mergers and
takeovers. The further disappearance of independent information
and ideas for our democratic society should not be left to the
tender mercies of junk bond manipulators. I think professional
news staffs should elect their own editors and put some more
separation between church and state, between the corporate
interests of the news organization and the news reporting
function. That is done in some of the more distinguished papers
in Europe. There is increasing involvement of the editors of our
newspapers in the profit function of their newspapers. Until they
are made responsible for the amount of advertising, they get
generous bonuses on the basis of the levels of profit. There is
one chain that gives its top editor 50% of every cut he makes in
their news and editorial budget. Our standard news media need to
expand the display of all thoughtful ideas and information in our
society, not just those issued by those in power. Even people in
dictatorships have the power to vote for the status quo. What
distinguishes the electoral process in a democracy is not an
election, because almost every country has an election sooner or
later. It is a national discourse that argues true alternatives
month by month between elections and talks about contending
programs and alternative roads to improvement. Only when our main
news media pursue a wide spectrum of ideas and relevant
information will elections present voters with candidates and
ideas that represent genuine choices. A democracy that has no
clear choices presented in its regular news will not have clear
choices presented in its elections.
Let me conclude with a parable that happens to be true but which
I think is an analogy of what I'm talking about.
During World War II I was an aerial navigator and for a time
instructed new aerial navigators. One exercise was to pick a
distant target, without informing the student, and after four or
five hours of flying the night to ask about where we would be in
about half an hour. One night, about half an hour from the
target, I asked on the intercom for one of the students to tell
me where we would be in half an hour. A note came up with a time
and the notation: ``We will be five miles north of Albuquerque,
New Mexico.'' Sure enough, in about half an hour, a large,
lighted city appeared underneath us, right in time. The student
navigator was elated. When we got on the ground, he couldn't
contain himself and said, ``Right on the button, zero-zero,
right, Lieutenant?'' And I had the painful task to inform him
that unfortunately we were not in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but in
El Paso, Texas. The student was stunned. He reached into his
briefcase and took out his navigator's log and shook it in
desperation and said, ``But, sir, I have here figures to prove
we're in Albuquerque.'' But the sign on the air base said El
Our mainstream news media too often have found figures to prove
what the world looks like from the standpoint of policymakers in
Washington, from the interplay of loyal lobbyists and legislators
and regulators, from the opinions of conservative thinktanks,
from executive boardrooms of corporations and from the floor of
stock exchanges. But that is a long way from the compelling
realities that most of our citizens live in. There's another
reality in our streets, where millions sleep in doorways, where
most children can no longer expect to live in families with one
income or buy a house or go to a university, where the poor are
getting poorer and the rich richer, where ever more lavish
skyscrapers and luxury hotels cast shadows on deteriorating
schools and libraries, where air and water is increasing
unhealthy, where 37 million people have no health coverage, where
millions of children in hopeless neighborhoods with hopeless
schools and hopeless prospects for jobs are killing themselves
with drugs, drugs often imported from countries we favor because
they call themselves anti-communist. All this in a rich country,
still full of vitality and with millions willing to work for
policies that will improve their lives. But the ideas for the
plausible policies of this kind of vitality and change to take
effect must enter into our national discussion, must be the
subject of elections at every level. This cannot happen unless
these ideas and possible solutions enter into our mainstream news
media, not as abstracted verbiage in the dialogue between Wall
Street and Washington, in the 10-second slogans of campaigns, but
directed clearly and primarily at the realities of our cities and
towns. That, in essence, is what is missing in our main media and
therefore in our politics. [applause]
You mentioned in your talk several concrete suggestions for how
the public might influence the mainstream media, the major
networks and newspapers, to do a better job of including diverse
opinions and perhaps reporting on the kinds of events that they
usually exclude now. However, something implicit in your talk is
how one gets informed about these kinds of diverse opinions and
issues now, that is, the alternative press. Another strategy, it
seems to me, that I'd like your comments on, is a rededication of
liberal and progressive thinkers to creating alternative media
and supporting existing alternative media and that in doing so,
and in encouraging constituencies for those media, that is
supportive communities, the mainstream media will see that as an
incentive to begin to do a better job because they'll find
essentially that their audiences are turning away from them and
are finding this as a concrete sign that they are no longer
trusted. Could you comment on that alternative strategy for
influencing the mainstream press?
I agree with you completely. I think one of the things I should
have mentioned, except by recommending support of them, was the
role of alternative publications and alternative radio like
Pacifica and the public stations. Because I think it is from them
that we frequently get the ideas that we need and there's a
pretty good track record of that. Every year at Sonoma State
University in California there's an exercise called Project
Censor. What it really is is a series of stories that appeared
briefly in minor publications or only fragmentarily in the major
publications that should have been covered by the major media in
substance but were not. There is a series of judges that picked
the ten most, one of them is Nick Johnson, I've done that too,
and there are many others. If you look at that, it turns out to
be regularly true that many of the important stories which the
media began reporting a year or so later were first reported in
some of the alternative media. So I think that's true, and I
think that acts as a goad and as a information conduit to those
who are exposed to those alternative publications. I think that
one should support whatever publications make sense to you.
Unfortunately, the majority of voters and people don't have or
get access to that. I think they would be better off if they did.
One of the things you didn't talk about was the role of
journalism schools and journalism students. I suspect that there
are some professors and students here. Would you talk to them
about what they should be doing in order to counter the
There's not much that journalism students or journalists can do
to counter a monopoly without being born heir to a publishing
empire, but it's a serious question and I agree with it. What
happens in our journalism schools that could be useful in this
way? I don't know what happens in all of them because there are
hundreds of them. I think we have one of the better ones, and
there are a lot of good ones. I think in the better ones students
do come out of journalism school with a sense not only of their
responsibility to do good and accurate reporting, but of their
role in a democracy in letting people know what they need to
know. But I think that what happens afterward is that journalists
are very quickly socialized, because the only definition that
makes any news operationally of what news is is what appears in
the newspaper on page 1 and what appears on the evening broadcast
news, because that is the model which every reporter follows if
he or she wants to get into the news. After a while it gets
internalized into a convention of what is news. Even though there
are many socially conscious and responsible journalists who are
working for major news organizations, they don't very often have
the power or the ability to do things in any substance in those
areas that are not covered properly, and when they don't, it
isn't as though they do meaningless or empty tasks, because there
are many interesting things to cover. I think what happens to the
best new journalists, with many exceptions, thank goodness, is
that they quickly get absorbed into the conventions and then
pretty much conform to those.
In the search for good information upon which to base our
political opinions, do you have any recommendations in the
country today which media you think are most thorough, less
biased and perhaps less influenced by the preservation of the
status quo?
One of the things that is difficult is that how well you get
served by a newspaper or broadcast station is pretty much a
matter of luck. If you happen to be in a city where the owner has
a greater sense of responsibility than, say, the city next door,
you might get better information. Commercial broadcasting is
fearful of words, talking heads, and only can give one message at
a time, so they tend to keep everything very brief. That's why I
think that people who have a deep interest in a particular
subject find themselves increasingly dependent on specialized
publications and sometimes, where its available, specialized
broadcasting on the special public radio stations. It's a little
hard for me to say specific things as I find that there's a whole
spectrum of things that address themselves to the problems I'm
interested in: legislation, things like Common Cause, Ralph
Nader's publications, and things of that sort. But I think that
one has to concentrate on those things that they care most about.
In the environment, there are a number of publications that are
very useful. I'm afraid that what it does do is the fact that so
much of urgent questions that require substance does not appear
in our main media often enough forces all of us to resort to the
specialized publications of our choosing depending on our
interests. I think those cover a very large range, and I think it
would be useful if someone put out an index based on political-
social subject matter: environment, pollution, legislative
reform, etc. of all the publications available. I find that
there's a kind of liberal Reader's Digest called Utne Reader
which is useful. It does excerpts from various publications that
are off the mainstream but frequently very interesting. But I'm
afraid that this is a search that each of us has to do on the
basis of our own interests.
I'd like to know to what extent you think political and social
agenda setting occurs consciously among major media outlets, that
is, do you believe that there's cooperation among major media
outlets, or do you think that there's a follow-the-leader effect?
About agenda setting: There's something to John Kenneth
Galbraith's formulation, in which he said that in Washington
politicians solemnly get together and put together a misleading
statement which they issue to the news media. The correspondents
solemnly read this and reproduce it. Then the same politicians
read it and believe it. [laughter] He said it's the only
successful system yet devised for the recycling of garbage.
[laughter] I think there is enough of that to be true to be
disturbing. But I don't think there's any question that there's a
kind of interacting, mirror-like cooperation on agenda-setting
between the media and political people. I think it is true that
if the media reported substantially and emphatically on those
political speeches that dealt with substance on central issues,
that's what the political people would be forced to respond to,
because they don't like to speak to an unlistening audience. Part
of what they assume about the audience is what they see on
television and what they read in the papers. When I covered
campaigns, every Presidential, Vice-Presidential, statewide
candidate made five or ten stops a day and inevitably made the
same speech. It made sense. They'd stop at an airport and talk
for ten minutes about how they were glad to be in this beautiful
county in this beautiful setting, and we were filling in the
blanks each time, and then usually once a day, or every other
day, they would introduce one new statement, maybe a policy
statement, and they'd see how it played in the media. If it
didn't play, they dropped it and tried something else. So while I
think the media don't have a unitary, exclusive power to create
the public agenda, they are a very powerful part of the
interaction that does, between what politicians say and what gets
reflected to the general public in the media. When these things,
when the media lose their independence of social and political
view, they begin reflecting the same things, and I think that's
the state we've increasingly been in the last 15 years.
For information about obtaining cassette copies or transcripts of
this or other programs, please write to: David Barsamian 1814
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