Media Monopoly Essay, Research Paper
In this book report, the book that I read was The Media Monopoly, the Fifth Edition. This book was written by Ben H. Bagdikian, who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and dean emeritus of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. Bagdikian originally published this book in 1983.
Author Bagdikian explores the way in which the media fuctions. His particular area of interest is the way in which the media is controlled. His exploration details various forms of information dissemination, including television, radio, and print; both newspapers and magazines. His goal is to explore the significance of the meida to us, the consumers, and to look at how the media outlets themselves function.
I read this book because it was one of the requirements I had to fulfill for my Mass Communications 101 class while I was a freshman at Purdue University 2 years ago. Another reason I chose this book to review was because I found myself both enlightened and frightened by this book as Bagdikian takes his readers on a historical journey which illustrates the problems caused by the vast changes that have occurred in media ownership.
Bagdikian begins with the complex question of who owns any given media outlet. At the time of his research, all major US media sources were owned by 50 companies. Ironically, Bagdikian predicted that if media mergers were to continue at the then current rate, the 50 company figure would drastically drop. His prophecy was correct, and today only six companies control most of the media outlets. The companies that control the media therefore have a vested interest in two things: ensuring that the parent company is never negatively reported on, and finding ways to plant positive news items about the parent company. Bagdikian details several examples in which journalists were fired and stories held simply because the subject was in some way injurious or partially injurious to the parent company. And, says Bagdikian, some of these companies are so huge that in they control a large number of assets and a large number of other, smaller companies. The little corner bank whose management is embezzling funds could easily be owned by one of these large companies; the story will never be reported on. Bagdikian gives the example of Gulf Western, a company so huge that in addition to the media outlets it controls, it manufactures enormous numbers of household goods bought by the average consumer. Therefore, negative stories regarding Gulf Western are not published, while positive stories are.
Bagdikian basically tries to give out the message that Americans receive extremely biased news and information from today’s mass media. Often, the public does not receive information at all about key events which are definitely news. Because of the few corporations that control America’s newspapers, books, magazines, movies, television and radio, the public is only exposed to the viewpoints and opinions of those corporations.
For instance, Times-Mirror newspapers did not report critical events surrounding a controversial project in the Los Angeles area. The Times-Mirror Company owns newspapers, cable systems, book publishers, agricultural and urban real estate, commercial printing plants, and other ventures. Due to their land interests, the company had regularly advocated for subsidies for agricultural water. This particular project called for a $2 billion, tax-paid canal system to be installed which would directly benefit one of the Times-Mirror subsidiaries. This was definitely a news item of interest to tax payers, yet the Times-Mirror newspapers did not report on it because they claimed it was not newsworthy.
In fact, a survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors “found that 33 percent of all editors working for newspaper chains said they would not feel free to run a news story that was damaging to their parent firm”. With that much news being withheld from the public, it is overwhelming to consider the vast quantity of news of which we are not aware.
Bagdikian moves on to explore the demise of the city newspaper. At the turn of the 20th century, there were several daily newspapers in every major American city. Competition for the reader had the pleasant by-product of keeping the news coverage accurate and quick. But the 70’s and 80’s saw the demise of the independent paper as huge conglomerates such as a company named Gannet gobbled them up. When one company owns most of the daily newspapers in the country, the news will certainly be biased toward them. The lack of competition will remove any incentive for excellent coverage as well; the paper will sink toward mediocrity.
The next issue Bagdikian discusses, progressing naturally from newspapers, is the issue of advertising. The cost of a magazine or newspaper subscription does not cover the cost of manufacturing the publication. We are not charged any fee for network television. Yet all of these endeavors are highly lucrative because of the dollars that advertisers pay for the opportunity to publicize their products. This is a problematic situation.
One major problem relates to advertiser happiness: because the media is so dependent on the advertisers for their livelihood, this creates yet another layer of companies they feel forced to pander and pacify in their news coverage. If a negative story breaks out about a major advertiser, it will cost the media outlet money. And to attract advertisers, positive stories about particular companies are often run, even if they are not newsworthy. This was sharply illustrated by Bagdikian in the story of the charlatan doctor who had a large advertising contract. When he was an advertiser, the publication wrote positive articles about his unproven medical techniques. It wasn’t until he had cancelled his advertising that the publication wrote a story criticizing his medical practices.
These mass advertisers wield a disproportionate amount of political power due to their financial success. They form political action committees, lawyers, and lobbyists to help influence public policy in their favor. The media share in that level of power also, for the same reasons and because politicians fear the media due to their power to print whatever they want.
The benefit of mass advertising to the media is clear. In 1981, newspapers, magazines and broadcasters collected “$33 billion a year from advertisers and only $7 billion from their audiences”. No wonder the media are quick to repress or kill stories that are anti-advertiser.
The truth of advertising also comes into question. Few Americans can afford luxury cars or fabulous clothing. These things, and their like, are advertised showing beautiful, smiling people. This implies that if someone were only to have enough money to buy a certain car or watch or coat, they will become young, happy, and beautiful. As the person who can afford such luxury items soon discovers, this is simply not true.
In survey after survey, Americans report that they want publications to report more hard news. Yet with every passing year, the amount of advertising goes up and the amount of throwaway entertainment ( comics, crossword puzzles ) goes up, but the amount of hard news continues to drop. There are more lifestyle sections and more inserts having to do with home and fashion, subsequently encouraging people to spend their money on those things. When a shortage of newsprint forced papers to cut their folios, they cut news-not advertising.
This means that the resulting decline in hard news stories also results in the decline of quality of the media. A study was conducted where news coverage was analyzed for three full days for 25 chain papers (who were now a monopoly) and 25 papers that had failed due to the competition posed by the chain paper. In every case, the quality of the competitive papers was shown to be superior to the monopoly papers.
Another decline in quality is due to the media toning down its political statements. This appeals to large advertisers who don’t want to be linked to radical positions that the paper may hold. For instance in 1996, Malcolm Forbes, Jr., admitted that his magazine Forbes favored advertisers by scheduling or altering editorial articles.
Bagdikian sums up with a look at what the media monopoly has done to the supposed foundations of America. In politics, he points out, it is television commercials that win races. The average man on the street who runs for office, supposedly the hallmark of the democratic system, has no chance of winning without expensive advertising to build name recognition. And without advertising, magazines, newspapers, and television news shows will not acknowledge the average-guy candidate at all. Bagdikian’s final caution is this: by creating a narrow monopoly of media owners we have also create a narrow realm of coverage.
In addition to the points described above, I would like to emphasize a few good points made by Bagdikian in this book, such as:
Government apathy causing media monopolics. The American government has consistently turned a blind eye to the mergers that have resulted in a few corporations owning most of America’s media. Instead of questioning the value and ethical drawbacks of having all media controlled by so few, the government has left media alone. Part of the reason is that politicians fear the damage an angry media corporation can do to them.
Political control by the media. Bagdikian gave an astonishing example of the power the media has over politics. Richard Berlin, who was president and chief executive officer of the Hearst Corporation in New York, wanted the Richard Nixon administration to exempt a group of newspapers from a law that forbids competing firms to agree on prices, while looking like they are competing. Berlin wrote two strong letters, one to Richard Nixon and the other to Nixon’s assistant attorney general in charge of antitrust. By using his powerful influence, along with his large peer corporations, Berlin was successful. For his cooperation with the major media, Nixon was awarded the highest percentage of newspaper endorsements of any modern candidate.
The public’s decreasing access to important information. Since the media are controlled by a few corporations, they can perpetuate myths in the public’s minds. For instance, media continue to blame labor unions for causing wages that damage productivity and drain the economy. The media also continuously claim that taxes on corporations are too high and threaten the economy. Both of these claims are untrue, but kept alive by the media.
Another example is the fact that American voters cast ballots for specific political candidates, not for parties as voters do in many other countries. Therefore, the voting public needs to be given the information it needs to differentiate between candidates and issues. In this day of chain media, the voters are getting less information than ever.
Under-representation of certain groups in the media. There are large groups of people who are regularly ignored and routinely shown in a bad light. These are minorities, blue-collar workers, the lower middle class and the poor. Other groups like universities and government are often criticized. The positive representations are showered on those with money, like famous public entertainment figures and the corporate elite.
Content control by large advertisers and corporate executives. In the years after 1970 there were occasional criticisms of bad corporate behavior in the media. Public anger was high over blatant misbehavior of corporations, such as the defective gas tanks in Ford Pintos. Some of that anger found its way into the media, with stories about the criminal charges brought against Ford for neglect in the Pinto case. However, this coverage of corporate irresponsibility outraged corporate leaders. They criticized government leaders and the media. They raised the largest campaign funds in history and managed to elect a national administration that would reduce regulation of business. And, through the mergers, they gained power that allowed them to force reporters to get fired for coverage that was hostile to business.
We are dependent on the media for information on world events, and the issues that affect us. We are also dependent on the media to give us this information in the most accurate and informative way possible. Delivery of the information ought to be honest and fair. The reality is, however, that they are not. The recent situation with Elian Gonzales is a perfect example. There should have been no question that the boy was to return to his father. International and custody laws clearly set this precedent. If this was at all in question, it should have been a matter for courts and immigration officials. Instead, with television cameras on the front lawn ready to splash images of screaming children across television sets, the attorney general delayed the removal of the boy from his non-custodial relatives. When at last it did occur, a photographer was waiting to snap a photo of the frightened child being carried out under armed escort. In place of fact and law, we received newspapers full of photos of a smiling Elian reunited with his father, crying Elian leaving his relatives, and Elian’s family in many postures of grief, happiness, anger, and perplexity. In other words, a conscienceless media took the personal problems of a six year old boy and processed them into entertainment.
Bagdikian’s warning is ominous. We cannot rely on the media to tell us what is really going on or to decide what is important for us to know. If we do, we will only know of the Elians and OJ Simpsons of this world and nothing of events which will ultimately influence our very lives and the survival of human society.
However, Bagdikian’s predictions are overly pessimistic on the issue of change. While he holds out little hope for people reforming the media system, I think that it may ultimately be possible to educate people in real news versus news lite. An educated reader or viewer can learn to be aware of what is valid coverage, and what is trash and ultimately to clearly demand quality. Personally, I am well aware from the opinions Bagdikian and others, that I need to carefully barrage through the images thrown at me in order to find little bits of truth and importance. Fortunately, with access to endless books, radio stations, magazines, programs, and internet sites, I have the resources to do so.
After reading and studying this book, I am of the opinion that this book os appropriate for communication students because it is very eye-opening. It reinforced issues and problems with today’s media which communications definitely will cover throughout most of their classes.
Before reading this book I didn’t realize the far-reaching power that some corporations have. They can control not only what you see on television, hear on the radio, and read in the news, but can even have books killed. This book touched me greatly, and made me realize that the information I receive can be so redundant, controlled, limited, and biased. I find this deeply disturbing. How can an individual make informed choices about anything, if they are not truthfully informed?
I am of the opinion that this book would be best used as a textbook or a reference book for communication students because it gives a good overall perspective and history of media in America. Therefore communication students at the University of Pelita Harapan would be able to compare with the perspective and history of media in Indonesia.
Although I highly recommend this book for students majoring in communications, I found the language of this book rather difficult to understand. The grammar used is very complex and the sentences are quite long. I don’t recommend this book be read by beginning students.
Bagdikian, Ben H. The Media Monopoly. (5th ed.). Boston: Beacon Press, 1983/1997.
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