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The New Media Monopoly

Author: B.H. Bagdikian
Publisher: Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2004
Review Published: November 2004

 REVIEW 1: Ali Unlu

Ben Bagdikian's thorough, twelve-chapter text explores the ways in which the media function. As one of the most vocal critics of concentrated media ownership, he is especially interested in how the media are controlled. By giving detailed and noteworthy cases as examples, Bagdikian focuses on various forms of information dissemination, including television, radio, and print, newspapers and magazines. Bagdikian tries to highlight the importance of media in our lives and the social and political ramifications of the decreasing number of corporations that are in control of the mass media. Each chapter has outstanding features and these features make The New Media Monopoly an essential reference book for communication practitioners interested in the mass media.

Bagdikian, dean emeritus of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, argues that Americans receive extremely biased news and information from today's mass media. The public usually does not receive enough information about major events that can be described as "real news." Bagdikian justifies his argument by investigating each medium thoroughly while taking readers on a historical journey that illustrates the problems caused by the enormous changes that have occurred in each medium. While describing the historical transformation, Bagdikian discusses the arguments that lay behind the vital issues of dishonest and biased news reporting.

Bagdikian begins with a discussion of the challenging question of who owns which media outlet. In 1983, there were 50 companies that owned nearly all of the major US media sources. Today, only five corporations, "The Big Five," absorb the lion's share of the 37,000 different media outlets (daily newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations, book publishers, and movie companies) in the United States. According to Bagdikian, the number of media companies dropped drastically due to many recent mergers and acquisitions. In 1983, the biggest media merger in history was a $340 million deal involving the Gannett Company, a newspaper chain, which bought Combined Communications Corporation, whose assets included billboards, newspapers, and broadcast stations. Then, during the 1990s a small number of America's largest corporations purchased more public communications power than ever before. In 1996, Disney's acquisition of ABC/Capital Cities was a $19 billion deal -- 56 times larger than the 1983 deal. In 2001, AOL's acquisition of Time Warner dwarfed even this deal at $182 billion, ten times the price of the 1996 Disney deal and 537 times the price of the Gannett merger.

These companies, Bagdikian contends, have built a communications cartel within the United States. In this case, the group controls not just industrial products such as gasoline, refrigerators, or clothing, but the words and images that help to define and shape the culture and political agenda of the country. Essentially, the public is only exposed to the viewpoints and opinions of five corporations who have similar interests. Messages that do not fit within the attitudes, values, or revenue goals of these corporations get little, if any, exposure. Also, any information that is damaging to The Big Five or to other large corporations that they sympathize with may be repressed or given so little exposure that the public does not even notice it.

According to Bagdikian, the giant companies that control the media, therefore, have a great desire to do two things: (1) ensure that the parent company is never cast in a negative light, and (2) find ways to plant positive news items about the parent company. Bagdikian details several examples in which journalists were fired and stories killed simply because the subject was in some way injurious or potentially injurious to the parent company. For instance, a survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors found that 33% 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. And, Bagdikian argues that some of these companies are so huge that they control innumerable assets in all areas of the media.

Bagdikian further notes that 99.9% of the 1,468 daily newspapers in the United States are the only daily in their cities. As Bagdikian explains:
    That 99.9 percent of morning papers are monopolies in their own cities understates the problem. Owners exchange papers with each other or buy and sell papers so each can have as many newspapers as possible in a geographic cluster. This permits individual owners to have something close to a monopoly for daily printed advertising in that region and in many cases to use one regional newsroom to serve all their papers in that cluster. (122)
Bagdikian also provides striking figures concerning other media. For example, in 2001, there were 17,694 consumer and business magazines published in the United States, but the 10 largest ones reported 26% of the industry's $27 billion in revenues that year. Time Warner alone owned magazines with 12% of national magazine industry revenues. Significantly, the major commercial television networks and their local affiliates carry programs of essentially the same type all across the country. Bagdikian refers to this system as a media oligopoly, or a marketplace in which media ownership and diversity are severely limited and the actions of any single media group substantially affect its competitors, including the content and price of media products for both consumers and advertisers.

In Chapter 8, Bagdikian highlights the significance of advertising. According to the author, Americans are receiving inadequate quality or quantity of news due to the impacts of mass advertising. On the one hand, mass advertisers are large conglomerates that want to reach the largest audience possible. They reach this goal by advertising through chain media. On the other hand, these gargantuan media companies are all aware of the fact that the cost of a magazine or newspaper subscription does not cover the actual cost of manufacturing the publication. Also, Americans are not charged any fee for network television like in the United Kingdom or Japan. Yet publishing is highly profitable because of the dollars that advertisers pay for the opportunity to publicize their products. The interconnectedness between the publishers and the advertisers is a problematic and challenging situation. One major problem relates to advertiser satisfaction: because the media are dependent on the advertisers for their livelihood, media companies feel forced to gratify and pacify their advertisers with their news coverage. If a negative story breaks about a major advertiser, the media outlet will lose money. To attract advertisers, positive stories about particular companies are often run, even if they are not newsworthy.

The complex problem mentioned above is persuasively demonstrated by the story of Dr. Brandreth in Chapter 12. Dr. Brandreth was portrayed as a charlatan doctor who had a large advertising contract. When he was an advertiser, the publication in question wrote positive articles about his unproven medical techniques. After he cancelled his advertising, the publication wrote a story criticizing his medical practices.

Bagdikian summarizes his arguments with a look at what media monopoly has done to the public institutions in the United States. In politics, Bagdikian points out, television commercials win races. The average person on the street who runs for office has no chance of winning without extensive advertising to build name recognition. Without a candidate paying for advertisements, magazines, newspapers, or television news shows will not cover "dark horse" candidates.

Bagdikian deserves credit for publicizing the troubling trend of consolidated media ownership by huge mega-conglomerate corporations. Bagdikian shows that the media have sold out to the will of advertisers. Indeed, most forms of media make far more money from selling ads than from the members of the public who consume their offerings. But the problem is currently worse than ever as the focus is no longer on the public interest, but on boosting short-term profits, which has almost eliminated the availability of "balanced" news coverage.

Bagdikian's book also has some weaknesses. Bagdikian's predictions are overly pessimistic on the issue of change. While Bagdikian holds out little hope for people reforming the media system, I think that it is possible to educate people about real news versus the so-called real news that the media expose us to. An educated reader or viewer can learn to be aware of what valid coverage is and what is not, and can ultimately demand quality.

Regardless, The New Media Monopoly is mostly important for both its investigation into inequitable corporate control of the media, and also Bagdikian's great insights into the ensuing political and cultural effects on society. Overall, Bagdikian makes a clear and effective case demonstrating how this media concentration subverts democracy. The New Media Monopoly is an important and useful book that deserves to be read by anyone who thinks that our 500-channel cable universe and the internet mean that we are living in a fully informed, democratic society. His general thesis, that media consolidation is antithetical to viewer interests, is beyond serious debate.

The New Media Monopoly gives a good overall perspective and history of media in the United States and it critically looks at the dangers inherent in the current monopolistic system, where so few decide what the masses will know.

Ali Unlu:
Ali Unlu is pursuing his master's degree in the Communication and Information Studies program at Rutgers University in New Jersey. His research interests include the dynamics of communication occurring in the hierarchical organizations, and he is currently researching leadership styles and how leadership affects organizational decision making processes.  <AUnlu@Eden.Rutgers.edu>

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