H. BAGDIKIAN: JOURNALIST FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE
Ben H. Bagdikian
has been a reporter and editor, author of books, former
assistant managing editor for National News of the Washington
Post, and former Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism
at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author
of several books, three of them published by Beacon Press:
In the Midst of Plenty: The Poor in America,
The Media Monopoly, and Double Vision: Reflections
on my Heritage, Life, and Profession. His life deserves
our celebration for its dramatic disclosure of thousands
of pages of top-secret Pentagon Papers revealing the years
of official lying about the Vietnam War. He is likewise
the unstilled sounder of astounding facts about the dangerous
concentration of the power of the media monopoly in our
Ben H. Bagdikian
I have lived
a life of perpetual education aided by my journalism career,
deepened, of course, by living through most of our traumatic
Though it was never a conscious choiceas I look back
from the start of my adult work as a journalist, an author,
and an academicthe core of my work has been a concern
with social justice issues. At the time it seemed accidentalcertainly
no special endowment in nobility or intention to save the
world. Most of the crucial decisions in my life have been
the result of impulse and intuition rather than rational
I came to the United States as a four-month-old refugee
from terror, grew up in the Great Depression, and when confronted
with Hitler, abandoned my adolescent devotion to pacifism
and survived World War II. I am the beneficiary of an ongoing
education by continuing to report, write, and struggle to
maintain my hope for the future through my university students
and my surrogate grandchildren.
is circa 1952 in the newsroom of The Providence Journal
That much of
my work has focused on the struggle for social justice probably
came from many sources. One source seems obvious. My parents,
four older sisters, and I were all born in Turkey, an Armenian
minority in the old Ottoman Empire. My father was a professor
of chemistry in an American college in Tarsus where there
was a strong influence of Boston Congregationalists. They
implanted in him much of the Yankee ethos of duty and hard
work, and in the process they transferred to me a pervasive
sense of undefined guilt in which Calvinism is so cleverly
I was born during a massacre of Armenians and as an infant
was carried by my father, mother and four older sisters
through an excruciating escape over frozen mountains. Once
in this country, my father accepted an invitation to become
the pastor of a large Armenian Congregational Church in
Cambridge, Massachusetts. We lived in Stoneham, at the time
a pleasant town of mixed neighborhoods, orchards, fields,
brooks, and a varied population of "Yankees" (meaning
seventh generation Americans), Irish, Italians, Jews, and
Poles. Boston was only a trolley ride away, and we all went
there often to shop, visit with relatives and my father's
parishioners and relatives and, for my older sisters, to
work and attend college.
A powerful impact on me was my Uncle Fred, my mother's youngest
brother. My mother died when I was three years old, and
after that Uncle Fred visited us often. He was a talented
baritone, knew the best loved opera arias as well as popular
songs of the day, and on his visits we would gather around
our piano and sing. I went as often as possible to his home
in Dedham to visit and become a fumbling assistant as he
miraculously extended the life of my father's incurable
cars. He was a tour bus driver, truck driver, and a master
mechanic. At times I sat beside him when he drove a truck
all night down the New England coast, and we sang and talked
as I fought off sleep. I loved him and learned two important
lessons from his life.
Fred had the talent of enjoying life regardless of his circumstances.
And it was my closeness to him and his working colleagues
in the toughest parts of Charlestown that led to my realization
that the distribution of inherent talent, decency, inventiveness,
and intellectual skillas well as brutality, greed,
and "invincible ignorance"are distributed
through every level of society. I learned early that there
are cads and heroes up and down the social and economic
scale. Uncle Fred was a hero, and I held his hand as he
died in 1991.
1957 I took a journalistic trip to the Antarctic where,
at the U.S. base on McMurdo Sound, reporters registered
I learned also
from my father, lessons that emerged forcefully only in
my adulthood. Born in a peasant family in Marash, Turkey,
he took the initiative to attend a high school run by American
missionaries, did his graduate work in the American College
in Beirut, and later joined the faculty of a college in
Tarsus also operated by Congregationalists from Boston.
My father also was a hero, a characteristic invisible to
me until later in my own adulthood. He had undergone seismic
eruptions in his personal and family life without losing
his vigor and ability to create a fulfilling life. In "the
old country," living in a dangerous and hostile environment,
he had become a respected man of affluence and social position.
When we were all threatened by death, he saved us all in
the terrible exodus. We arrived penniless on Ellis Island.
Three weeks after we reached the safety of the United States,
my mother was diagnosed with tuberculosis that kept her
in sanitariums until she died three years later.
My father was left with a three year old and four teenage
daughters. He changed his profession, remarried, and lived
the economically precarious life common to most ministers,
especially during the Depression.
Surrounded by a large and growing family, he was usually
puzzled by their "American" social mores. But
he moved easily among his friends, close relatives, dependent
parishioners, and they held large dinners in which relatives
and cronies recounted nostalgic tales and funny stories
about the old country. The horrors most had suffered seldom
covered the 1956 Egyptian-Israeli War and accompanied
an Israeli tank crew, we were at a position about 10
kilometers from the Suez Canal, which the British and
French were bombing after President Gamal Abdul Nasser
of Egypt nationalized the Canal."
To the very end,
my father surrendered nothing in his habit of unrestrained
activity, maintaining our old house and his huge gardens.
His psychic life seemed undistorted by older traumas and,
like Uncle Fred, he found joy in his circumstances until
the end of his life. Typically, he regarded doctors' warnings
about his heart as challenges, refused to slow down, and
died at age 75, ten years longer than his doctor had predicted.
I suffered from the usual "preacher's kid syndrome,"
overdosed with the mandatory attendance at sermons, prayer
meetings, and "being a good example." At home
I groaned silently through the interminable Bible readings
after every evening meal. I disliked the avenging God of
the Old Testament and was outraged when Abraham was prepared
to obey the order to sacrifice his son as a gesture of faith.
(Like Isaac, being the firstborn son may have jaundiced
Despite all my impatient resistance, two elements of the
Bible readings stayed with me. One is the beautiful and
compelling cadence of the King James Version (the only great
book written by a committee). The other has been the enduring
influence of the morality episodes like the Beatitudes,
the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus challenge in the
scene of a woman caught in adultery, "Let him who is
without sin cast the first stone." Years later, when
I taught an ethics seminar in the Graduate School of Journalism
in the University of California at Berkeley, the last paper
I assigned each class was to think how each had developed
a sense of right and wrong. I was struck at how often, year
after year, so many of the studentsProtestants, Roman
Catholics, Jews, an occasional Buddhist and Muslimhad
come from their religious upbringing without retaining much
of the theology but with a strong sense of social and personal
ethics imbedded in their parents' religion.
1971 I did a series of reports for the Washington Post
on national prisons and jails, and after my research,
was permitted by the Director of Prisons of Pennsylvania,
who was one who wished to reform prisons, agreed to
let me be committed (while awaiting murder trial) as
a prisoner without either the warden or prisoners knowing
I was a reporter. I was in prison for something over
In the end, all
this background plus undeserved good luck has given me a
sufficiently happy professional and personal life to endure
the inevitable times of tragedy and anger. Some portion
of my father's ability to land on his feet may have been
an unexpected inheritance, certainly in my professional
I graduated as a premedical student from Clark University
in Worcester, Massachusetts, where I also edited the campus
paper. I was on my way for an appointment interview at a
laboratory when, on an impulse, I walked into a newspaper
office, was hired as a reporter and never turned back.
World War II intervened and after 3 years as an aerial navigator,
I worked as a reporter in Providence, Rhode Island. It's
possible that the examples of my father's congenial formality
and Uncle Fred's spontaneous joy and his working-class friends,
made it easy for me to deal with a wide range of personalities
and social positions. I covered courts, police, politics,
fires, floods, and in the process learned the dynamics of
a community. It was here that I became a member of the beautiful
First Unitarian Church of Providence where, for the first
time, I could listen to sermons without mentally dismissing
half of what was preached. Bob Schacht's sermons needed
no mental editing. When I went to Washington as a correspondent,
I found the dynamics of the federal government not unlike
that in Providence, only at a higher level of energy and
power. Once you saw the President (JFK, Johnson, Nixon)
as a big mayor and Congress as an industrial strength City
Council, it was easier to perceive the skeleton and musculature
of national forces.
I soon left daily reporting in favor of political stories
and years of stories from the Deep South for national magazines.
My 13 years of covering civil rights and poverty in the
Deep South were both rich and frustrating. I admired the
courage of the oppressed people I came to know, moved by
their private pride, integrity, and humor while struggling
for survival and equality, and frustrated by a nation that
kept them invisible.
These were years of explosive events in the postwar American
South that attracted crowds of national reporters and network
cameras, most of whom limited themselves mainly to physical
melodrama and official statements of people with titles.
I formed my Second Law of Journalism: the accuracy of news
reports of an event is inversely proportional to the number
of reporters on the scene. (My First Law is true for all
reporters, myself included: no newspaper was ever so good
as when I worked for it.)
In years of reporting and writing I developed a pattern.
I read the most authoritative books and journals on the
subject at hand. I interviewed women and men in academia,
service agencies and government who knew the data and their
intricacies. Once that was done, I did my reporting in the
field. I talked to the power brokers in the communities
or the states involved, but then spent generous time with
the people and the communities affected by the decisions
of these remote policy makers.
For example, for a story on the extraordinary mass migration
of black sharecroppers in the Deep South in the 1960s, when
cotton fields were mechanized, I spent extended time with
families and one in particular that lived in an unpainted
shack on the usual "house without a number on a street
without a name." I moved with them when they went north,
in a relative's car. Uncounted others followed them on the
Illinois Central Railroad or Trailways bus, the passengers
with straw suitcases tied with a length of clothesline.
is the cover of a pamphlet The Providence Journal
put out reprinting the account of the paper's black
reporter and me, testing the Deep South in the depth
of the Little Rock crisis to record differences in treatment
of blacks and whites.
I watched the
painful transformation. The migrants had learned how to
survive in their Southern shacks with a garden and hog in
back, making meals of greens and every part of the pig.
Their families and relatives were tightly knit, somehow
finding joy under the shadow of The Man who controlled their
lives. But once in Chicago or Cleveland or Detroit, I watched
their shock as they found themselves freezing in miserable
tenements with broken windows and fallen plaster no landlord
had ever bothered with, alleyways dangerous for their kids,
and a complex public transit system with strange destination
As a society, we dealt unintelligently with these massive
transformations. The city and state governments did little
or nothing to orient the new migrants, help them find jobs,
master complex bus and trolley systems to get to where the
jobs were, and to make landlords repair decayed roomsall
measures requiring money invested at the start but saving
billions in later welfare, crime, and compacted bitter racial
and ethnic tensions.
Frustration at the sins and omissions in our news media
during these periods led me to do parallel reporting and
criticism of our standard reporting. A Guggenheim Fellowship
permitted me to spend a year in the Library of Congress
reading the history of American journalism. It enriched
my knowledge and affected my views as a media critic. Knowing
journalism from the inside and observing the mainstream
press and broadcast news led to articles and books about
our mass media.
I knew from both journalism and covering politics that mainstream
news has a powerful influence on the actions of political
leaders. The agenda in the news and the national agenda
dance around each other. But the news concentrates on the
words and actions of people with titles, the view from the
top. Only lately have a few of the better newspapers and
standard magazines begun to see the view from ordinary homes.
When I stopped covering Washington politics and concentrated
on people and places beyond the Potomac, Washington increasingly
seemed a one-dimensional company town. I moved to Berkeley,
always having been in love with the San Francisco Bay Area
where I wallowed in its beauty, its life of the arts, and
its contrarian impulses.
I continue the undeserved good luck that has buoyed my life.
My wife, Marlene Griffith, and I are close to the generations
below us, our surrogate grandchildren, and their wise parents.
I have no personal complaints.
But I see a future for the human race that requires a level
of official and corporate wisdom and intelligent self-interest
that is lacking. We survived the Cold War when the United
States and the Soviets made one of the most profound basic
decisions in human history: they hated each other, but they
decided not to destroy each other and the rest of the planet
though they had the power to do it.
The planet is not yet safe. It suffers from the kind of
greed that ignores not only global warming but an even more
immediate bomb ready to detonatethe terrible gap on
the globe between the rich and the poor, the technologically
proficient and the majority left behind, the overfed and
the starving, and the arrogance of our only superpower,
my country, that sees only as far as the next election or
tomorrow's Dow Jones Industrial Index.
The British Empire for more than 200 years could ignore
the same problem. It is no longer the British Empire's 19th
century obedient Indian servants or disease-ridden gold
miners in South Africa. That time has passed. Modern communications
is the fuse to our bomb. People in the most desperate circumstances
can see television and know that there are privileged places
in the world where, unlike their own lives, most babies
don't die in their first year of life, most diseases have
adequate medicines, food and housing in excess. Britain
once ruled the world, or the vast areas it cared about.
Today no one really does. We think we do, but we are wrong.
I await our surrogate grandchildren to take over. I only
hope the world is willing to wait for them.
MANIA AND CREATIVITY
What is Achieved and What is Lost
is somewhere in an Appalachian coal mining town, then
in semi-starvation after the mines closed down. It became
part of a Beacon Press book, In The Midst of Plenty
New forces are
rearranging the industrial world with extraordinary speed.
Formerly independent firms are being merged into conglomerates
of a size and power we have never seen before. The question
we are asking about this process, "What is Achieved
and What is Lost?" is better answered by asking another
question: "Achieved by Whom, and Lost by Whom?"
Already, the world suffers from the growing divide between
the economically rich and poor. We do not wish to make it
worse by creating a dangerous gap between the information
rich and the information poor. That task is complicated
by the emergence of very large media firms that have acquired
not just dominant positions in a single medium, like newspapers,
books, broadcasting or the cinema, but in every mass media
field, both old and new.
These same corporations are also acquiring the means of
transmitting this content to the public by acquiring telephone,
cable, and satellite channels. Furthermore, the ease of
conversion into digital form has made it easier for our
leading firms to spread their products over the entire world,
thus creating another impetus for ever larger dominant corporations.
Digital forms blur lines between the traditional media.
For example, books printed on paper also appear on the internet
and can be downloaded into hand-held computerised books.
It is not surprising that such a great leap has been made
by four very large firms Microsoft, AOL Time Warner,
Viacom's Simon & Schuster, and Bertelsmann's Random
In the 1980s, when all three US television networks at the
time were bought by outside corporations, the first thing
they did was close most of their networks' foreign bureaus
and most of their domestic bureaus. Andre Schiffrin, former
director of the distinguished Pantheon Press, has said that
in their major book subsidiaries, three of our six largest
conglomerates have not published any work on history or
literary criticism in the last three years. In all these
developments, the crucial question is whether such concentrations
of media power will make accessible the diverse information
needed for democratic life throughout the world.
Corporate activity and social justice can live and thrive
together, but historically that has not always been the
case. We need to attend to the lessons of the past. Already,
media control has been gathered into very large merged corporations.
If I may, permit me to describe such media concentration
in the United States. The country has 1500 daily papers,
more than 10,000 commercial radio stations, 1200 television
stations, and 11,000 cable systems. The vast majority of
these are included in the possessions of a handful of giant
The country has uncounted thousands of book publishers,
but the lion's share of revenues is collected by the handful
of leading media firms. Each of these firms has gained ownership
in almost every medium, from newspapers to motion picture
studios. These six, based on their parent firm's revenues,
are AOL Time Warner, General Electric, Viacom, Disney, Bertelsmann,
and Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. There have been positive
achievements. Our new age has achieved levels of knowledge,
enhanced education, outlets of creative efforts of all kindshigh
culture, middle, and lowthat spreads around the world.
It offers enlarged possibilities not only for writers, composers,
artists, and instrumentalists, but practitioners of new
digitalized arts that seem to bloom almost monthly.
Similarly, it has become more difficult for rigidly controlled
societies to prevent penetration of their boundaries by
new communications, from the protesters' use of telecommunications
in Tiananmen Square, to the uncontrollable internet.
Nevertheless, the majority of mass media in the developed
world is dominated by a small number of very large firms.
Some insist this is not a problem because the giants compete
against each other, and new media have created hundreds
of new products usable on the internet.
The great firms do compete, noisily but marginally. They
compete to acquire new firms that have clever new systems,
or they buy large systems recently released from government
monopoly. But like the nuclear superpowers during the Cold
War, theirs is not total competition because, like the superpowers,
each has too much to lose. In fact, they are interlocked
in joint ventures and shared stock.
my imprisonment, a Washington Post photographer was
permitted to photograph my cell block from which I had
Ever since Gutenberg,
every dynasty, every political leader, every major religion,
has recognized that to control the media is to have a powerful
instrument for controlling the values and behavior of a
population. It is not an accident in countries undergoing
rebellion or revolution, that the first target of the rebels
is to seize the radio and television stations. Perhaps this
dilemma can be summarized in this way: Media power is economic
power. Media power is also political power. And, finally,
media power is the power to socialize the values of whole
Today, we are not concerned that our large firms are going
to storm the government headquarters or send armed militia
to seize television stations. Their goal is not military
power, it is economic powerthe classic battle over
International mergers usually are explained as the inevitable
result of globalized trade. That corporations will enlarge
to engage in that trade is inevitable. But we know enough
about the past to guard against mistakes of the past.
share has always been the natural goal of all business enterprises.
The dilemma, of course, is that maximum market share is
100 percent, or monopoly. Those arrangements have seldom
been in the best interests of their customers. Such firms
have always been less likely to lower prices or improve
No one expects corporations to operate as philanthropic
organizations. But the greater a corporation's power in
society, the greater its obligation to take social responsibility.
Media power is also political power. It is always an advantage
for any large private enterprise to win the sympathy of
government agencies. But media firms have two unique advantages.
They control the news and other information learned by the
public, and they are often found emphasizing the news and
information that encourages the corporations' political
goals and influence both the public and governments.
The second unique political power of large media firms is
that they stand between the politician and the voters that
politician desires. Every political figure I have known
during my career has given a high priority to treatment
in the mass media. And the more powerful the media company,
the more politicians hesitate to offend it. I do not base
this concern in the belief that the men and women who head
our globally merged media firms are evil, though I confess
that I am not yet ready to nominate Rupert Murdoch for sainthood.
The problem is not wickedness. The leaders of our powerful
media firms are simply doing what comes naturally to any
business ventureto increase their market share, to
maximize their revenues, and ultimately to minimize their
costs. In achieving this, they urge legislation and regulations
to their own advantage, even if too often this influence
may not be in the best interests of maintaining the diversity
of choice in a fair marketplace or the full and diverse
information needed in a continuing democracy.
It is also true that the larger the merged corporation,
the greater its ability to use its many subsidiaries to
aid each other, sometimes against public needs. For example,
shortly after General Electric bought the major network,
NBC, a drop in the stock market brought a call from the
head of General Electric, Jack Welch, to his president of
NBC news, saying he did not expect his national network
news to report anything that might depress General Electric
an Israeli tank crewman in the Sinai, 1956
The most popular
and profitable news program in United States television
is "Sixty Minutes," on CBS. The program planned
to report new sins of the tobacco industry, but the program
was killed because tobacco company threats might interfere
with the planned merger of CBS and Westinghouse. The program
was killed, the merger did occur and, incidentally, was
followed by both being merged with Viacom. In corporate
genetics, when giants mate they tend to give birth to supergiants.
My point is that when a corporation is large enough to have
disproportionate power in society, it has corresponding
power for self-protection and self-promotion in its media
properties, and that this can have public consequences.
Finally, when we consider some of the most spectacular mergers
in the media industry, we confront a more subtle but profound
power. It is the power to socialize, to influence the values
and behavior of individuals and of whole societies.
Today, citizens of the industrialised democracies live in
two worlds, one real and one artificially created. What
I call the real world is the world of flesh-and-blood human
contact, with family, friends, classmates, and colleagues.
It is these human interactions that have become major factors
in how personalities and social behavior develop, and how
individuals learn how to interact with other human beings.
These have become the underlying basis for all human cultures.
But increasingly, we also live in a media world. This is
the world of newspapers, magazines, books, radio, television,
telephone, cinema, videocassettes, computers and all their
technological offspring, including advertising.
In the technological euphoria that emerges with all new
and ingenious inventions, we are rightfully impressed by
the digital revolution and its extraordinary convenience,
versatility and assistance in scholarship, science, and
commerce. But we are slowly learning that it is not just
a treasure chest of valuable information, data and wisdom.
It is also a Pandora's Box full of wild rumor, nonsense,
and hate, not to mention viruses. Like all technologies,
it is indifferent about its uses. Whether it has been Alfred
Nobel's achievement of a stable explosive, the Curies' X-rays,
nuclear physicists splitting the atom, or the new digital
world, they are all, in the end, impersonal, two-edged swords.
For example, a large body of social science research confirms
that the media, especially television and motion pictures,
have a measurable impact on individual and social behavior.
Hundreds of studies have proven that violence in television
and motion pictures increases real violence in society.
Yet, media violence prevails because violent acts are classic
ways to fix attention, they are inexpensive to produceand
require little or no talent. So despite perpetual protests
and proof of harm, the political influence of the commercial
broadcasters is so politically powerful that violence continues
undiminished in our cinema and television.
The American Medical Association tells us that by age 18,
the average American child has spent 18,000 hours watching
television and 12,000 hours in a classroom. Consequently,
these artificial media become part of the personality and
culture, side-by-side with the traditional human and social
To be sure, we also have television and cinema that is informative,
pleasant, entertaining, artistic and insightful. More and
more parents limit their children's television watching.
But my point is that the concentrated power of those who
control mass media and its antisocial content possess such
mass influence that they have a special burden of social
responsibility. But with their size has come the political
power to resist public needs.
It is not too late to confront what we know from past history
with very large, merged corporations and the results of
their economic power in the marketplace, their political
power in parliaments and congresses, and their social power
to educate and condition each new generation.
the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey,
I was the speaker at the commemoration held in the chamber
of the General Assembly in the State House in Boston.
We need more
unbiased public education to detect when this concentrated
corporate power has reached the stage of limiting public
choice. Too often the public learns of higher prices and
inferior services that come from oligopolies when it is
too late or extremely difficult to counter corporate and
political power once it is in place.
Fortunately, there are growing number of national and international
citizen groups concerned with such problems which have even
created, on a small scale, public media. But they find it
difficult to avoid being drowned out by louder voices.
I do not expect that leaders of our dominant corporations
will undergo a religious experience and voluntarily divest
themselves of their properties. They will not do it, and
neither would most of us if we were in their place. Neither
they nor consumers are going to be transformed into angels.
But we do have history to guide us. We know from past experience
that it is possible to minimize abuse and stagnation while
maintaining freedom of expression and the creativity of
When many corporations exceed in economic power the economies
of whole nations and commerce increasingly ignores national
and community boundaries, we need stronger international
conventions that moderate the almost inevitable abuses that
arise from unrestrained power. I believe we need international
conventions that encourage and reward diversity and choice
in the world's mass media. We do it already with our international
conventions on human rights, oceanic use, of global environment
in cases like global warming. In all of these, national
and corporate jealousy of total independence was overcome.
Now we deal with a similar need, difficult as it is, to
devise similar conventions on informational and cultural
From the WAN World Meeting in Hanover, Germany in