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Bagdikian, Ben H. (1920-2016)

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Ben H. BagdikianBen H. Bagdikian was 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 was 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 was likewise the unstilled sounder of astounding facts about the dangerous concentration of the power of the media monopoly in our electronic epoch.

An Autobiographical Reflection

by 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 20th century.

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 analysis.

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.

Ben H. Bagdikian This is circa 1952 in the newsroom of The Providence Journal
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 effective.

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.

First, Uncle 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 skill—as 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.

Ben H. Bagdikian In 1957 I took a journalistic trip to the Antarctic where, at the U.S. base on McMurdo Sound, reporters registered their names.
In 1957 Bagdikian took a journalistic trip to the Antarctic. Here, at the U.S. base on McMurdo Sound, reporters register their names.

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 entered conversations.

Ben H. Bagdikian "I 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."
“I 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 my view.)

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 students—Protestants, Roman Catholics, Jews, an occasional Buddhist and Muslim—had 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.

Ben H. Bagdikian "In 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 a week."
“In 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 a week.”

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 career.

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.

Ben H. Bagdikian This 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.
This 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 names.

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 rooms—all 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 detonate‚Äîthe 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.

Merger Mania and Creativity

What is Achieved and What is Lost

by Ben Bagdikian

Ben H. Bagdikian This 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
This is somewhere in an Appalachian coal mining town, then in semi-starvation after the mines closed down.

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 House.

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 corporations.

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 kinds‚—high culture, middle, and low‚—that 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.

Ben H. Bagdikian After my imprisonment, a Washington Post photographer was permitted to photograph my cell block from which I had been released.
After my imprisonment, a Washington Post photographer was permitted to photograph my cell block from which I had been released.

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 populations.

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 power‚—the classic battle over market share.

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.

Maximum market 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 quality unnecessarily.

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 venture—to 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 stock.

Ben H. Bagdikian
With 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 produce and 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 contacts.

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.
On 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.

Ben H. Bagdikian On 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.
On 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 economic development.

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 domination.

— From the WAN World Meeting in Hanover, Germany in June 2000.