1. The Great Media Reaganism

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

Source: Mother Jones 1663 Mission Street, 2nd Fl. San Francisco, CA 94103 Date: May/June 1992 Title: “Journalism of Joy” Author: Ben H. Bagdikian

SYNOPSIS: During the 1980s, the big me­dia owners had reason to celebrate­ Reaganism ushered in the era of giant, monopolistic media empires.

Take, for example, the big three net­works-ABC, CBS and NBC. Each was ac­quired by corporations that might have been deemed unqualified under earlier FCC standards. In return, big media dis­pensed relentlessly positive news about Reaganism and the great trickle-down dream. The FCC also relieved broadcast­ers of traditional public service require­ments, made it almost impossible for citi­zens’ groups to challenge station license renewals and lifted limits on the number of stations a single corporation can acquire.

Newspapers enjoyed the Reagan era as well. In 98 percent of U.S. cities, the daily news business was already controlled by monopolies. But the administration fur­ther sedated anti-trust laws to permit the biggest newspaper chains to sweep up local monopolies. In addition, the National Labor Relations Board, stacked with pro-management members, gave the me­dia giants permission to go on a ten-year union busting spree. And, like all big busi­ness, the broadcasters and print publish­ers benefited from Reagan’s shifting of corporate taxes onto the middle class and the poor-but Americans did not see much coverage of that on television or in print media.

During this self-satisfied climate of comfort the normal restraint, traditionally exercised by most media owners, over inserting corporate propaganda into the news crumbled, leading to some startling changes in the industry. For example, top editors were made part of the business­ management team, responsible for keep­ing up advertising lineage as well as over­seeing editorial content. Many Time, Inc., editors received stock options; not surpris­ingly, many editors started to think more like stockbrokers than journalists.

Another disturbing management prac­tice that evolved out of that era was the policy of conducting systematic screen­ings of new reporters to keep out journal­ists who might not readily comply with corporate wishes or who might join news­room unions. Some major news compa­nies, including Knight-Ridder (the nation’s second largest newspaper chain), do such screening through mandatory, lengthy psychological questionnaires of potential new reporters. Others, including some papers in Gannett, the largest newspaper chain, order editors to be deliberately blunt in interviews so that applicants know the company wants only “team players” who won’t rock the boat and who aren’t in favor of unions. Hiring reporters who are not inclined to question authority is one sure way to control the news.

Ben Bagdikian observes, “During the degradation of the 1980s, government ly­ing was too willingly supported by the media; high crimes and misdemeanors by the president of the United States became an acceptable public boast; looting the public treasury and cheating the citizens were treated by most editors as necessary for liberation of the marketplace. For al­most ten years, the media remained silent on the obvious-that Reaganite politics were taking a frightful toll in human suffer­ing and crippling the economy.”

Ominously, Bagdikian warns, “From that kind of public morality neither the country nor journalism will soon recover.”

SSU Censored Researcher: Amy Cohen

 COMMENTS: This story about the capitu­lation of the nation’s watchdog press dur­ing the Reagan/Bush administrations is the appropriate top Censored story of 1992 since it cuts to the core of Project Cen­sored.

In brief, it confirms that the nation’s major news media have overlooked, under-covered or censored information about high crimes and misdemeanors on the part of the administration, in return for “permission” to create giant, monopolis­tic media empires. In other words, news today is defined more with an eye on the bottom line than with a concern for the public’s right to know.

This extraordinary charge can be traced back to 1982, when Ben Bagdikian completed research for his book, The Media Monopoly. At the time, he found that some 50 corporations controlled half or more of the media business in the U.S. By December 1986, when he finished a second edition of the book, the 50 corpo­rations had shrunk to 29. By June 1987, when Bagdikian wrote an article for EX­TRA!, the number was down to 26. In the fourth edition of The Media Monopoly, published in 1993, the number has dropped to 23.

“The Information Monopoly,” by Bagdikian, was the top Censored story of 1987. It warned that the media’s prevailing concern with the bottom line, coupled with traditional publishers’ tendencies to avoid controversy, fosters widespread self­-censorship among writers, journalists, editors and news directors.

The threat of a media monopoly took on global implications by 1989 when Bagdikian wrote “Lords of the Global Vil­lage” for The Nation (June 12, 1989). Se­lected as the #1 Censored story of 1989, it warned about the big five international media corporations that dominated infor­mation dissemination in the global village. The corporations cited by Bagdikian were Time Warner, Inc., the world’s largest media corporation; the German-based Bertelsmann AG, owned by Reinhard Mohn; Rupert Murdoch’s News Corpora­tion, Ltd., of Australia; Hatchette SA, of France, the world’s largest producer of magazines; and the U.S. based Capital Cit­ies/ABC Inc.

At the time, Bagdikian warned that the basis for all liberty-freedom of informa­tion is in danger of being polluted by a new mutation of that familiar scourge of the free spirit: centrally controlled infor­mation.

And now, more than ten years after Bagdikian first tried to warn us about the dangers of monopolization, he’s back with the top Censored story of 1992, revealing how some of those dangers have now taken their toll.

Bagdikian reports that his Mother Jones article was referred to or quoted or excerpted in some of the alternative me­dia, and that the response there was fairly active for a time. But, he adds, “So far as I know it was neither quoted nor excerpted in any of the standard, mainstream me­dia.”

He also points out the dangers of ignoring the threats to a free flow of infor­mation: “If the flaws I pointed to had not occurred in the major media, we might have avoided the worst of the savings and loan disaster, the weakening of the rest of the banking system and the general self­-destruction of corporate America, with its subsequent unemployment and reces­sion.”

Further, he says, “If the main media’s blind eye toward the accumulating wreck­age of Reaganite policies while he was in office had been broken during the 12 years of Reagan-Bush, it might have changed the political support of leaders who pushed these policies-Reagan and Bush them­selves-and it would have shown the vul­nerability of the media and of other large corporations to destructive greed.”

Bagdikian notes that the limited cov­erage given his warnings benefited the “main media, whose corporations made unprecedented profits under the programs whose consequences on the economy they did not report accurately, all of corpo­rate big business, and the politicians like Reagan and Bush who opened the flood­gates to them.”

PLEASE NOTE: Despite its criticism of publishing monopolies, the 4th Edition of Ben Bagdikian’s The Media Monopoly, published in 1993 by Beacon Press, is now supposed to be in bookstores across the country. Or, as Ben says, at least in discriminating bookstores across the country. If all else fails, check a college book­store or ask your local bookstore to order it.