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The Media Consolidation Beat Goes On

The imperial union of media and government is the most important story of all, the one that determines what other stories get told.
 
 
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Editor's Note: This is an expanded version of an essay that will air on a special edition of NOW with Bill Moyers airing on Friday, November 28, 2003 at 9pm on PBS devoted to media issues. Tune in to watch the complete interviews with Jim Bouton and John Leonard.

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I am often asked why, as a journalist, I keep coming back to the story of media and democracy -- how newspapers, radio stations, television and cable are being swallowed up by huge conglomerates. One answer comes from the former Yankee pitching star, Jim Bouton, who told me in an interview this week exactly what can happen when there's only one newspaper in a town and it's owned by a media conglomerate far from home.

Bouton, you may remember, jolted the baseball world back in 1970 with his truth-telling diary of a season in the big leagues. Lo and behold, as "Ball Four" revealed to a shocked -- shocked! -- America, that the "boys of summer" were just that -- adolescents with overstuffed hormones who, when they weren't making double plays, home runs, and leaping catches, liked to drink, smoke, and run around with, ahem, "girls who do." "Ball Four" may well be the best baseball book ever, but it's more than that: the New York Public Library recently chose it as one of the l00 "Books of the Century." Whatever is meant by the word "classic," "Ball Four" fits.

Now Bouton is back with another truth-teller that deserves to be a bestseller. Media conglomeration, like baseball after Bouton, will never be the same. Turns out the newspaper in the town near where Bouton lives -- Pittsfield, Massachusetts -- wanted to use $l8.5 million dollars of taxpayer money to build a new baseball stadium on property it owns. Turns out the property is polluted, although the newspaper didn't bother to disclose the fact, and that the new stadium was a way of passing off the liability to the public even while enhancing the value of the newspaper's property.

Turns out the newspaper, which Bouton thought was locally owned, is owned by MediaNews Group, based in Denver, Colorado, which counts among its 100 "media properties" the Salt Lake Tribune and the Denver Post. When Bouton and his partner went to the local publisher with a proposal to renovate the existing -- and historic stadium -- at no expense to the taxpayer, they were told: Out of our hands; check it with Dean (Dean Singleton is the mogul who runs MediaNews). They tried; Singleton didn't bother to answer, even when Bouton sent him a signed copy of "Ball Four."

Turns out the conglomerate wanted its own stadium, on its own property, at public expense, despite the fact that the public voted down the proposal -- three times. But, hey, what's a little democracy when the only daily newspaper and the largest law firm in town, and -- hold on to your hat -- General Electric (yes, that GE, which has title to its own media universe) want the indulgence of taxpayers for their little profit-making schemes. The local newspaper publisher, Bouton tells me, "was being controlled by his boss in Denver. And the local politicians were being controlled by the local publisher. So there was a sort of puppeteer controlling the decisions that were made by the local government."

I'm not going any further to give away a crackling good story except to say that when his book publisher received a call from somebody close to GE, the big league publisher caved and wouldn't publish the book. Bouton says he was told he could keep half the advance if he remained silent about the whole affair; he refused and published "Foul Ball" himself. Rush out and buy a copy and read for yourself how every monopoly is a tyranny lying in wait. The only daily paper in Bouton's town didn't want the public to know what was going on, and there was no competitor to throw a light on the shenanigans taking place between its publisher and the politicians. As the old saying goes, freedom of the press belongs to the fellow who owns one.

What happened in Bouton's town happens all over the country, alas; two-thirds of the newspaper markets in America are monopolies. Oh, by the way: When their side of the story was distorted by the paper, Bouton and his partner got their story out through the radio stations in town. If Dean Singleton and the FCC have their way, such insubordination by mere citizens won't happen again. Singleton was last seen in Washington making the case for the FCC decision to enable him to own more media properties -- broadcasting and print -- in one town. Talk about silencing the lambs! Truth is, when the big broadcasters and publishers lobby Congress, the FCC, and the White House for the green light to merge, consolidate, and eliminate the competition, they don't bother to report to their readers or viewers what they're up to. They prefer to keep us in the dark.

John Leonard gives us another insight into why it's important to keep coming back to this story of media conglomeration. John Leonard may be our most prolific social critic. He's everywhere -- Harper's, the New York Times Book Review, The Nation, the New York Review of Books, "CBS Sunday Morning." Most recently he has edited a wonderful array of writers who have produced for Nation Books a reminder of just how much we need our maverick voices.

"These United States" is a series of essays, articles, reports -- they fit no neat description -- by some wondrously talented writers and journalists commissioned to describe the sights, smells, and politics of America in each of the 50 states. But I bring John Leonard up here because in preparing to interview him this week, I re-read a brilliant essay he wrote some years ago about what happens when reporters, editors and critics become caged birds singing the company tune in the information-commodities racket. When they begin to have more in common with the chairman of the board than with the working stiffs who read and watch, journalism turns to slush; pretty soon they figure out it doesn't pay to cover the working stiffs standing out there with their noses pressed against the window.

So, yes, I keep coming back to the subject of media conglomeration because it can take the oxygen out of democracy. The founders of this country believed a free and rambunctious press was essential to the protection of our freedoms. They couldn't envision the rise of giant megamedia conglomerates whose interests converge with state power to produce a conspiracy against the people. I think they would be aghast at how this union of media and government has produced the very kind of imperial power against which they rebelled. So, yes, media conglomeration has become a beat for my colleagues and me. We think this is the most important story of all, the one that determines what other stories get told -- and how.