(Not) All the News That's Fit to Print

All the News That Fits

Rebellion and Remedies

excerpted from the book

The New Media Monopoly

by Ben Bagdikian

Beacon Press, 2004


By 2003, more than 160 million Americans were using the Internet.

In the 1980s and afterward, the United States underwrote twenty-four American corporations so they could sell to Saddam Hussein weapons of mass destruction, which he used against Iran, at that time the prime Middle Eastern enemy of the United States. Hussein used U.S.-supplied poison gas against the Iranis and his Kurdish minorities while the United States looked the other way. This was the same Saddam. Hussein who then, as in 2000, was a tyrant subjecting dissenters in his regime to unspeakable tortures and committing genocide against his Kurdish minorities.

In some ways even more disturbing was the failure the major media to make clear to the public the meaning of crucial news reported by the news media themselves but treated as an interesting but ordinary news item. It was admitted by White House aides that the timing of the war announcement was calculated for maximum political effect on the approaching midterm elections. Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff coordinating the effort, was asked why, if the White House knew during the summer that it would go to war in the fall, it had waited until the September election campaign season. Card replied, "You don't introduce new products in August.""

In a democracy, it should no longer be the case that "when war comes the first casualty is truth."" It is even worse that, when war is proposed but not yet begun, the news media fail to clarify the known facts and limit their main information source to the government, which is not, of course, going to display what it wishes to do.

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... most of the country's major media, constitutionally and popularly expected to be the nation' s primary truth tellers, became the first casualty. And while the proposed war was not yet a military engagement, the main media demonstrated that they could still be coerced, even at that crucial stage, into abandonment of their democratic duty and journalistic integrity when high officials challenge their patriotism and wave the American flag at them.

The major news media present the public with unnecessarily incomplete news because, with rare exceptions, they take their news from governmental and private power centers and shun important contrary information because it is considered "too liberal" or "left."

Fifty years ago, the most crucial media, with the exception of only a handful of newspapers, failed to examine the available truth during Senator Joseph McCarthy's six years of national hysteria that destroyed individuals and damaged institutions and important agencies of government. His bombastic accusations of communist spies in government agencies exposed not one subversive who had not already been identified and dealt with by government agencies.

An end to the McCarthyist rampage came with the help of a historic incident in American journalistic history. in 1953, Edward R. Murrow broadcast another brutal televised destruction of an innocent. Murrow ended his damning review by confronting the entire American population with Shakespeare's line, "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves. 1114 In the aftermath, CBS cancelled Murrow's program and from then on had him do relatively uncontroversial interviews with celebrities.

For more that a decade, from 1954 to the early 1960s, the main media failed to report the futile tragedy of the Vietnam War; the war news seen by most of the public was based almost entirely on official military and governmental briefings. Not until thirteen years after the United States officially entered the war in Vietnam did the truth about that tragic war come to most Americans when The New Yorker began publishing articles by independent American observers, a striking new voice among its best-known peers. The New Yorker continued to report the truth about the war even though the magazine, for the first time in its history, lost its place among the top publications in advertising revenue. Angered or frightened corporations stopped buying ads in what had once been the most profitable and most elite of popular magazines. The New Yorker stories were a dash of cold water on years of official illusion and the refusal of presidents to accept the political penalty risked by admitting that they knew that the entire Indochinese military campaign was a tragic mistake. The mistake caused 212,000 U.S. casualties and the deaths of more than 2 million Indochinese.

The inherent stupidity of war is peculiar to the human race.

Throughout the 800,000 words of his War and Peace, Tolstoy keeps asking why 10 million men would march toward the west to meet 10 million men marching toward the east for the sole purpose of slaughtering as many perfect strangers as possible. He concludes that the quest for power is unquenchable.

The clearest case of a media-inspired war-the 1898 Spanish-American War to get the Spanish out of Cuba -was pretty much an invention of William Randolph Hearst, aided and abetted by Joseph Pulitzer.

U.S. citizens generally are at a disadvantage in understanding foreign policy. Some is due to indifference because of its two protective oceans. Some arises from the extraordinary fact that the United States, the world's only superpower, has fewer correspondents permanently stationed in foreign capitals than any other major Western nation. The result for U.S. media is a remarkably small pool of expertise on foreign culture and politics within their own organizations. Britain, France, Germany, and Japan, for example, have far more foreign correspondents with depth of service in important global locations. Because of this, many other governments understand the impressions the United States makes on the leaders and populations of other countries far more readily than do U.S. news services and, consequently, the American general public.

Even Americans' impression of our largess to the downtrodden of the world is faulty. U.S. foreign aid is large in dollar numbers, but among all industrial democracies its foreign aid is the smallest percentage of its gross domestic product. The Council for a Livable World Education Fund reports that most U.S. aid is for the military of the recipient nations and that 90 percent of all American foreign aid has gone to the Middle East, with most of that to Israel or regimes like Egypt's, which keep their restive Islamic masses under control. When groups in foreign countries, including the Islamic countries, march in aggressive protest and are fired upon by their police and militias, most of the time it is with U.S.-supplied weapons. Whatever most Americans may think about the nature of their country's aid to other nations, most of the unhappy populations of those countries see the United States as the source of the tear gas, water cannons, and bullets that knock them down or kill them.

Though the United States was not alone in commiitting unsavory foreign acts, it had something more precious at risk. The USSR was a communist dictatorship. The United States is a democracy. The Soviet Union ruthlessly controlled its news media. The United States takes pride in the First Amendment of the Constitution that forbids such control. In the cold war, both the Soviet Union and the United States used lies as weapons (their intelligence agencies created the now standard euphemism, "disinformation"). But a democracy cannot lie to another nation without telling that lie to its own people. Democracies aren't supposed to lie to their citizens.

By 2003, there were more than one hundred media reform organizations, a few from the Far Right but most of them moderate or progressive alternatives to the rigid and limited spectrum of the major media. Unlike some past reformers, the new ones possess expertise in not only how the media operate but also the complexities of how these media are linked to the general political system. Skills in new technology have been used for creative, progressive works that are open and surprisingly successful. A generation of mostly youthful Internet journalists and anthologists has bypassed the traditional standard media by providing national and global news not always found in big-media broadcast and printed news.

These emerging workers in the digital media have also mobilized substantial national and worldwide nonviolent protests, almost entirely through the Internet, against some of the traditional centers of world economic power like the World Trade Organization and other financial conferences of global economic institutions. The bankers, powerful controllers of billions and with their counterparts in major governments, once flew to the most prominent and pleasant world capitals, often in their own private jet planes. They now have retreated to obscure and difficult terrain, like alpine villages and Doha, Qatar, to escape the newly sophisticated opposition of the young. Though hardly the final victory of the Davids over the Goliaths, the multiplication of sophisticated Davids, young and old, has made progress in creating possibilities for a more democratic media.

Not Yet Eden

In the new century, progressive reform movements till must deal with a formidable armory of broadcast programs from the Far Right. In 2003, Rush Limbaugh, for example, had an audience Of 20 million for his daily diatribes, which were largely against anything left of his own ultra-right policies and stunningly bizarre fantasies. Daytime radio, dominated by the largest owners, has become a right-wing propaganda machine with crudities and right-wing consistency that shock and puzzle observers from other industrial democracies. As noted earlier, the largest radio chain in the country, Clear Channel, has twelve hundred stations that dwarf all lesser radio broadcasters, with its star talk show, Limbaughs, followed by a similar menu of right-wing commentators specializing in crude diatribes and juvenile vocabularies. The remainder is canned syndicated music censored of any lyrics that hint of social-conscience ideas.

An analysis by the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg Public Policy Center found that 18 percent of U.S. adults listen to at least two political call-in shows a week. About 7 percent listened only to Limbaugh, and 4 percent listened to Limbaugh and others like him. About 2-3 percent of all Americans listen to a conservative host, but 4-5 percent listen to a moderate or liberal show.

Necessary Remedies

The dominant concern is that the five huge media conglomerates, for all realistic purposes, now control what the American public learns - or does not learn - about its own world. It was once possible to consider excessive concentrated control of the mass media as a distinct entity on its own, a formidable force in the national economy and politics. But it is no longer possible to separate the media giants from other major industries. Ownership of media is now so integrated in political orientation and business connections with all of the largest industries in the American economy that they have become a coalition of power on an international scale. Consequently, remedies that might return media to their proper role as a source of the information needed to sustain the American democracy require laws and regulations that apply not only to the unique qualities of the mass media but also to the entire political economy, with which the mass media have dynamic interlocks.

Antitrust Action

The most obvious remedy for industrial giantism of all kinds is antitrust action by the U.S. Department of Justice. There is a need to break up the Big Five media conglomerates. In past decades, government antitrust actions have responded sharply to domestic monopolies but considered it even more egregious when large conglomerates cooperated with each other by becoming partners in the pattern of cartels. As mentioned earlier, joint ventures are now common among all the Big Five, even to the extent of swapping properties by way of lending money to produce mutual profits for the ostensible "competitors."

The globalization of world economy and communications has been an excuse for suspending antitrust action needed to protect the American public from the excesses of their multinational corporations. But monopolies and cartels in foreign countries that make life harder for large American corporations are quick to hear protests from Washington. In 2003, a status report from the Department of justice declared, "Since the mid-1990s, the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of justice has employed a strategy of concentrating its enforcement resources on international cartels that victimize American businesses and consumers." Even though the report includes the word consumers, the context of the statement is clear that, when consumers are U.S. corporations, the government is outraged that foreign cartels allegedly victimize them, and the Department of justice is quick to act. U.S. monopolies and cartels that merely "victimize" individual American consumers seem not to be important.

FCC: Obey the Law

It is urgent to repeal or totally revise the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which provided the law and the encouragement for the creation of overpowering media giants. The 1996 Act was created, according to the Wall Street journal, when the "Gingrich class" Of 1994 Republicans privately asked the industry what it wanted and almost literally gave them the law they asked for. The indiscriminate passion for deregulation of everything by corporate-minded ideologues has produced unmitigated disaster for cities and states throughout the United States, in the economy and particularly in the relationship or lack of it between the mass media and the American public.

Of special concern to the media audience is the recent record of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which controls broadcasting. It flagrantly abandoned its primary legal obligations: to protect the consumer of news and other media, to guarantee cities' access to their own local radio and television stations, and to give each community a voice in approving licenses based on the past performance of their local station.

For decades past, FCC regulations and former broadcast law awarded licenses on the basis of what kinds of programs each applicant for a broadcast license committed itself to provide for the needs of the cities covered by its stations. In contrast, licenses are now granted to whichever corporation has the most money, with no obligations except to operate "in the public interest," a phrase still in communications law, which in recent years has meant less than nothing.

In the past, when a station's license came up for renewal, the station was asked to demonstrate, with its broadcast schedules, whether it had made at least a nominal effort to keep its earlier commitments to the communities in its local market. In addition, any citizens with a serious complaint were able to protest a renewal in a formal hearing.

From 1934 to 198o that system, with all its imperfections and devious evasions by station owners, did in fact produce access by citizens to their own stations and provide a wide range of programs for a variety of ages and audiences, a range of quantity and quality that began to disappear in the 1980s.

The Fairness Doctrine

The first dramatic change in the country's broadcasting came in the mid-1980s, when a concerted campaign was launched by the National Association of Broadcasters and its member stations to repeal the Fairness Doctrine. The Fairness Doctrine required stations to devote a reasonable time to discussions of serious public issues and allowed equal time for opposing views to be heard. By the mid-1980s, there had been years of broadcasters' complaints that keeping records was too onerous, though their annual profits were among the highest among American industries. The broadcasters insisted that the Fairness Doctrine requirement in fact hampered local and national discussion programs from discussing civic issues and that repeal would increase these community debates on serious matters. The broadcasters succeeded in repealing Fairness; in the next six months, civic discussions on the air dropped 31 percent. Since then, they have almost completely disappeared in major markets.

The impact of conglomeration and loss of diversity is clearly demonstrated in newspaper editorials on the Fairness Doctrine. Before newspapers and their conglomerates began buying broadcast stations, in 1969 when the Supreme Court ruled that the Fairness Doctrine was constitutional, the majority of newspapers editorialized in favor of the Fairness Doctrine. But by 1984, when newspapers had become part of the growing conglomerates that owned both newspapers and broadcast stations, those newspapers had reversed their positions and editorialized against the Fairness Doctrine. At least 84 percent of newspaper editorials then argued that the Fairness Doctrine should no longer be required. Diversity of opinions had begun to shrink and rights of reply disappeared from the U.S. airwaves. In the past, the Fairness requirement was an incentive for stations to offer air time to local groups to avoid a battle when their licenses came up for renewal. During the fifty years of Fairness Doctrine, the FCC never revoked a license. (Communications law, from the start, has always forbidden the FCC from mandating specific content for any station.) If the Fairness Doctrine were reinstated now, there would be no inhibition of the Rush Limbaughs and other wild talk shows, but individuals now unfairly accused of being insane or "Nazis" -in this case, the kind of rhetoric used to characterize equal rights for women-would have a chance to reply.

The Public Voice in License Renewal

Another remedial action that has produced at least modest results in the past has been challenges by community groups to stations' license renewals. The renewal period was expanded from three years to eight by the disastrous 1996 Telecommunications Act, which started the removal of restrictions on ownership. Even so, protests against renewal are still a citizen right that in the past permitted excluded major groups to gain air time. It is still possible to launch such a challenge as the date for a local station's license renewal approaches. The FCC combines renewal dates for regional groups of states. Protesters in each region would need to know when to do their recordkeeping as evidence of improper or absent concern with serious news programming on their local stations. They would also have to be reminded, regularly, that they own the air waves and, consequently, control the licenses for its use.

Each group of states has its own eight-year renewal cycle for both radio and television stations in that region. Some examples are the following:

Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont: radio 2006, TV stations 2009; New Jersey and New York: radio 2006, TV 2007; Texas: radio 2005 and 2013, TV 2006 and 2014; California, radio 2005 and 2013, TV 2006 and 2014; Ohio and Michigan, radio 2004 and 2002.

In the Absence of Law, Lawlessness

The FCC retreat from real regulation of broadcasting for the benefit of the general public has resulted in illegal protests, like pirate, or unlicensed, broadcasts that are transmitted by individually assembled, portable, low-powered stations that reach a particular community, now without news about their cities. The most publicized was "Radio Free Berkeley," based in a van that moved to different locations in the hills about that city and broadcast news of interest and notice of educational events to the community and its minority groups. Because unlicensed broadcasting is a federal crime punishable by fines and imprisonment, one of the earliest pirates, Stephen Dunifer, was eventually located by the FCC, convicted in court, fined, and placed on probation.

In the meantime, at least one thousand illegal low-powered stations appeared around the country. They seem to continue in the United States, are common in other countries, and are not likely to disappear. Among a generation of young people are youths sophisticated in circuitry and a desire to reach their own neighborhoods and towns. A low-powered transmitter, small antenna, and amplifier can be built for about five hundred dollars with parts available at Radio Shack. Operators broadcast from their garages, attics, or their own rooms and generally tend to avoid offensive language or capricious comments, presumably finding a neighborhood grateful for the only source of news about itself.' There are thirty-five hundred applications pending before the FCC for permits for low-power neighborhood broadcasting, feeding the hunger in most communities for local news they do not get from their own stations. A great deal of chaos, illegal transmissions, and theft of legal cable and dish transmissions are likely to continue as long as the FCC permits such a limited variety of programs and such limited public access to its own local stations.

Another major gap is the U.S. limitation to only one noncommercial public broadcasting system, unlike the multiple varied ones in Britain, Japan, and other democracies. Until there is the kind of adequate, multichannel television that is truly noncommercial and devoted to children, education, adult entertainment, and the popular and performing arts, the most technologically advanced and richest country in the world will continue to have the least capacious noncommercial broadcast system among its peer nations.

The Corrupting Disease

While reform concentrating on the mass media must continue, it must fight the formidable barrier inhibiting all social progress in the United States. A fundamental change on which media and other reforms depend is the removal of the magnitude of corporate money given to the major political parties. It tests the patience of any citizen to take seriously the claim by politicians that the millions of dollars from corporations does not influence their votes. If that were true, one must assume that for the last generation, as corporate contributions to politicians have grown to historic highs, the corporations making those massive contributions are incurably stupid and continue to throw away ineffective millions year after year out of pure caprice or philanthropic virtue.

Before mass media reforms can become real and substantial, the political system requires changes that seemed almost impossible before the Internet generation used the technique to organize protests. But as long as hundreds of millions of dollars continue to be given to candidates and officeholders, there will be powerful influence on the laws and agencies of the U.S. government, given that corporations, including media corporations, constitute 75 percent of all political contributions. The influence of media corporations on broadcast laws, for example, is an example of the results-almost complete disappearance of serious national

The New Media Monopoly

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