Media Self-Censorship

Washington –So far the signs are not auspicious for much media coverage of Ben Bagdikian new book (released June 1) “The Media. Monopoly”, (Beacon Press, Boston). As the most penetrating, specific and reflective book on both the electronic and print media in many a year, the industry of journalism should be buzzing over its arrival.

For Bagdikian is no ordinary observer of the fourth estate. Now Professor of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, he was a practicing reporter and editor for’ over 30 years, winning the Pulitzer Prize and becoming the Washington Post’s national editor and later ombudsman in the process.

The book’s thesis is stated in the introduction: “By the 1980s, the majority of all major American media–newspapers, magazines, radio, television, books and movies–were controlled by fifty giant corporations. These corporations were interlocked in common financial interest with other massive industries and with a few dominant international banks…The mass media become the authority at any given moment for what is true and what is false, what is reality and what is fantasy, what is important and what is trivial. There is no greater force in shaping the public mind…”

“Media Monopoly”, in the author’s words, describes “two alarming developments in the mass media in the last twenty-five years. One is the impact of concentrated control of our media by the fifty corporations. The other development is the subtle but profound impact of mass advertising on the form and content of the advertising-subsidized media—newspapers, magazines, and broadcasting.”

While pointing out good developments in journalism during the same period, Bagdikian reports case after case of media self-censorship and the brooding presence of corporate owners who signal tabus. He reports how Walter Annenberg, when owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer routinely banished from the news the names of people he disliked. I experienced the bias of this close friend of Richard Nixon after speaking at a public meeting years ago in Philadelphia.
One of the Inquirer’s prominent columnists covered the session and was busily typing her story in the news room when the editor reminded her that stories on my remarks were not to appear in the paper. She was so outraged that she sent me her half finished story with the explanation.

Bagdikian’s examples of suppression or censorship barely scratch the surface of the media’s largest untold story. Editors and reporters often swap stories about such power plays when they are at social gatherings during professional conventions. I have often heard their complaints mixed with wry humor on such topics. Most often though, the signals are so clear from on high that there is no need to engage in regular plummelling. But when there is resistance, the bias becomes visible.

Right after the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979, I wrote in my weekly column that more facts regarding the hazards 0f that technology will start becoming public as a result. I mentioned that fuller reporting would replace such uncritical apologias for nuclear power as had appeared in Time or Fortune. The Washington Star owned by Time, deleted the column and editor Murray Gart replied to my inquiry saying I should have known how sensitive he, a recent Time editor, would be to such a comment.

Tom Hill, publisher of the Oak Ridger, cancelled my syndicated column in the mid-Seventies became he did not like my very occasional critical articles on nuclear power. Oak Ridge calls itself the “Atomic City” and Hill did not want even one discordant viewpoint in his otherwise very pro-nuclear journal. He also declined to provide any specific criticisms of my columns on that subject. Reread today these articles seem to be models of understatement, given what finally has come out regarding that economically and technically crumbling industry.

Indicative of the little attention the media pays to exploring the corporate world beyond the handout sheet is the number of investigative journalists who cover those regions. Out of the 1,110 members of the organization, Investigative Reporters and Editors, only six cover corporate operations as their beat.

The part of Bagdikian’s book arguing that mass advertising is shaping more and more the editorial content of the magazine, newspaper and TV/Radio will probably be the most controversial. In page after page, he supports his case by showing how the editors themselves are trying to deliver a certain type of audience or readership–the age group that buys the products and services advertised–to its advertisers. The other day I saw a women’s magazine announcing that it was upgrading its “demographics” just for that expected deliverance. All this is not new. It is just more widespread and entrenched.

Bagdikian’s central point is that there is a serious loss of diversity of viewpoints, an inadequate attention to corporate behavior and a rapid trend toward complete commercialization of the media’s public philosophy.

“To reform media power,” he writes, “it is necessary to reform all corporate power. The major media and giant corporations have always been allies: they are now a single entity.”

Bagdikian’s book should generate public debate, if, that is, it is not consumed by the major media’s stony silence.

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