Ben Bagdikian's Memoir
April 26, 2000
Double Vision: Reflections on My Heritage, Life, and Profession; By Ben H. Bagdikian; Beacon; 241 pp 24.Maybe, as Art Buchwald foresaw in 1966, we're headed toward an America in which every company west of the Mississippi River has been merged into a single corporation, Samson Securities, and every company east of the Mississippi has been acquired by the Delilah Company. They seek to unite. "'But if you merge,' someone pointed out, 'there will be only one company left in the United States.' 'Exactly,' said the president of Delilah. 'Thank God for the free enterprise system.'" The Attorney General coupled his approval of the merger with an announcement: "The Samson and Delilah Company is now negotiating at the White House to buy the United States. The Justice Department will naturally study this merger to see if it violates any of our strong antitrust laws." The provider of the information that enables citizens to exercise intelligent sovereignty is supposed to be a free and responsible press. Today the idea of such a press faces converging threats, many of them deriving from the relentless greed of owners. A three-part danger is the sharp decline in the number of newspapers (lately and lamentably including New York Newsday), the shrinkage of news staffs at surviving papers and the consequent fear of unemployment in the journalists remaining. On day I am writing, The New York Times reported that at the Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where cuts had already shrunk the newsroom from sixty-two to forty, the new owner, Media News Group of Denver, will cut salaries and reduce the newsroom to twenty-nine. Yet another threat is what Ben Bagdikian accurately diagnoses as "the desire of new editors to look like hard-boiled realists insisting that nobody is really interested in serious news, that readers want only to be entertained." But the gravest threat, inseparable from the rest, is the rapidly increasing concentration of ownership by the national and multinational corporations that, as Bagdikian wrote in the first edition of The Media Monopoly (1983), "control what America sees, hears and reads." At the time the number of these corporations was down to fifty. In the fourth edition (1992) it was twenty. Recently, Walt Disney acquired Capital Cities/ABC, owner of the network and seven newspapers. Two other empires competed for CBS, where Laurence Tisch decimated the news division. One was Westinghouse, long significant in broadcasting, which recently defeated Turner Broadcasting System. Voting control in Turner, which is the biggest cable TV programmer, was held by cable giant Tele-Communications. And in a mega-mega-merger announced on September 22, Time Warner bought Turner. Lest ye forget: General Electric, which has a criminal record as long as your arm, owns NBC. And Wells Fargo International Trust is not only the biggest institutional shareholder in G.E., as Representative Marcy Kaptur pointed out in The Nation [September 11], it is also the third-largest shareholder in Disney, the fourth-largest in Time Warner, the fifth-largest in Capital Cities and the seventh-largest in CBS. Wells Fargo isn't unique. Kaptur named three other investors with "substantial holdings in each of these giants." The Gingrich-Dole Congress, rising to the challenge of concentration, passed a bill permitting a single corporation to own a town's newspaper, two of its TV stations, all of its radio stations and its cable company. Suppose Ben Bagdikian had confined his elegantly written reflections to the story of a large family of Armenian emigres who narrowly escaped Turkish genocide and somehow made it to New England: his strict Protestant preacher father, his noble mother dying of tuberculosis, his loving sisters, his Americanized Uncle Fred, his career as a vacuum-cleaner salesman, his pre-med education, his impulsive entry into reporting. Even if so confined, his book would have been lovely--compassionate, funny, gripping, warm, wise. Fortunately, though, the heritage and life permeate Bagdikian's reflections as a superb journalist, and an invaluable critic of journalism, on his profession. One of his most depressing comments is a five-word aside: "Today, I wouldn't be hired." The growing concentration of ownership of news and information corporations can only worsen the present situation, in which so-called conservatives constantly complain of "liberal bias in the news." Thus do they not accidentally conceal reality:All of broadcast and printed news is pulled by a dominant current into a continuous flow of business conservatism.... The main news mostly ignores or obscures the true "other side," the social and economic realities that most Americans live with.... The result is that American news is overwhelmingly the world as seen from the top down.... Whole sections of newspapers and entire broadcast programs are devoted to possibilities for a quick killing or a safe bet on Wall Street.... But there is no speculation or broad spectrum of opinion offered about the causes and cures of unemployment, homelessness, and the continued long-term poverty of millions of Americans.Bagdikian documents his analysis. Consider the public statement issued in 1989 by 127 economists that was the subject of Congressional testimony by Nobel laureate and economist James Tobin. They argued that it was urgent for the country to improve "the public infrastructure--repairing schools, roads, bridges--and to allocate more money for children's education and health. The repairs were necessary but they would also provide needed jobs and housing, which would be the only permanent way to increase the tax base." When Bagdikian searched the standard news data banks,I found only brief and indirect references to Tobin's testimony in the back pages of two newspapers. If those answers had been given half the airtime and front-page headlines the ups and downs of the Dow Jones Industrial Average receive, they might have cast doubt on the standard dogmas that favor corporate life. Instead of asking "why the homeless now and not before?" our main news in the 1980s was full of speeches and headlines about politicians and economists singing the familiar hymns: "get government off the back of business" and "taxes will hurt business and cost jobs," as though both were immutable natural laws that only fools would question. Bagdikian offers numerous other distressing examples of such putatively "objective" news judgments. One involves the bitterness unionists justly feel about "the sparse and largely negative" press treatment of American workers as contrasted with the "generous positive treatment of American employers": The imbalance changes--if the workers and employers are far away. In 1989, for example, 1,700 members of the United Mine Workers...went on strike for nine months over the withdrawal of benefits in mines in Pittston, Virginia. Over that period of time, the three major networks gave the event a total of twenty-three minutes of news coverage. At about the same time, miners in the Siberian coal mines also went on strike and the three networks devoted thirty-seven minutes to the Siberian strike. Both CBS and ABC dramatically depicted the bitterly degrading living and working conditions of the Siberian miners in contrast to the lavish comforts of their bosses. No union official could remember any American network ever reporting on American workers on strike for better working conditions, and simultaneously comparing their personal lives with those of their employers. Bagdikian obtained the Pentagon Papers for The Washington Post. His account of the in-house struggle over whether to print them is riveting, and his praise of Katharine Graham for going ahead is unstinting. This account is but one reason why Double Vision should prosper, but some nits need correction. In the Pentagon Papers episode, it was then-Washington Post reporter Murrey (not "Murray") Marder, then-Solicitor General Erwin (not "Irwin") Griswold and then-director of the National Security Agency Noel Gayler (not "Gaylor") who were involved. David Kraslow was then with the ,Los Angeles Times not The Miami Herald. Elsewhere, Walter Lippmann is said to have likened the press to the beam of a "flashlight"; it was a searchlight. The title of the Donald Barlett and James Steele book is given as What Went Wrong?; it was America: What Went Wrong? In 1988, while on a flight to San Francisco, Bagdikian had a heart attack. In the ambulance on the way to the hospital, he recalls, "I somehow knew with greater clarity that almost all human beings are potentially decent and unselfish--if their society stresses those qualities as truly important.... I wish American journalism could share those ambulance perceptions. I do not wish it a heart attack, but I do wish it an attack of heart." The great reporter and press critic George Seldes had an attack of heart and lived to be 104. I hope Ben Bagdikian's will enable him to report and criticize until he's 208. He's a national treasure.