Like a Small Trout on a Heavy Line

Ben Bagdikian, 1991

excerpted from the book

Stenographers to Power

media and propaganda

David Barsamian interviews

Common Courage Press, 1992, paper


BB: ... the daily newspaper industry is fabulously profitable. It's one of the most profitable industries in the country, right up there with pharmaceuticals and tobacco.

The whole underlying principle of the First Amendment is that there should be as many I conflicting and competing voices, not just economically, but in ideas and perspectives and information, as possible and that it has been one of the central parts of the American rhetoric that we are against centralized government control of information, as well we ought to be. Centralized control of information by government means censorship. We ought to be very concerned with centralized control when it's private as well as governmental. At the very least, if it's governmental people can vote out the I censor. When it's private, they can't.

BB: The daily newspaper business, with the exception of a handful of cities, is a local monopoly. The basic reason for that is that over the decades newspapers have come to depend more and more on mass advertising. For the mass advertiser, it is much more efficient to advertise in one large newspaper, for a whole series of stores that may cover a whole market or a whole region, than it is for half a dozen papers to have to carry ads. So as a paper becomes larger and more powerful, the advertiser shifts more and more to that number one paper. That makes good business sense in one way, because you want to get your ads into as many households as efficiently as possible. Ads-and money-are shifted to the number one paper, away from the number two, three and four papers. So over the decades those other papers disappeared.

BB: It is true in all advertising supported media, with very few exceptions, that they want the good consumers because that's what the advertisers want. Newspapers and any medium that controls where it is sold have gone out of their way to push circulation, as do magazines, in the affluent postal zones, the affluent suburbs and neighborhoods and away from the non-affluent. But they do it in another way. Their editors are told where the affluent neighborhoods are and are told to select the news of interest to those people. Gradually those issues and that information that affect the non-affluent begin to diminish in the news. I think that's contributed to the polarization of our society which we're seeing now between those who are getting richer and richer and those who are getting poorer and poorer. Governmental policies have been basically the cause of that, but the mass media, which have concentrated on the more affluent for advertising purposes, have been less concerned with what now represents, I think, over half the population because the ideal target for mass advertising is an affluent person or household with people in it between the ages of 18 and 49. There are a lot of people in our society who are over 49. There are a lot of people below the median income, and they aren't terribly important to those media that have control of where they go. In broadcasting, broadcasting can't control who receives them. It goes out and poor families get it as much as rich families. As a matter of fact, the data are quite clear that the more affluent and educated the less they watch television. So you would think the best customers would be the non-affluent. They are not ignored in the numbers, because broadcasters like to boast about their ratings. Ratings mean a lot of money. One percent of a rating for a prime-time show on a network is worth between $30 and $60 million of revenue a year, which is why people are fired, programs are dropped with only one or even a fraction of one percent change in the ratings. But they are still interested in selling themselves as the medium for the good consumer.


BB: The news and needs about the non-affluent have been gradually strained out of our media until they begin to disappear. When they disappear in the mass media they tend to disappear in politics, and something else happens which is dangerous and tragic. That means that we are getting to be a society that no longer has the old-fashioned democratic institutions of the same school where everybody lived and the neighborhoods where there were poor, middle and affluent people within walking distance of each other and who took mass transit downtown and rode the same trolley, same bus, etc. What we have are separated neighborhoods, physically, more and more separated schools, and now we're getting separated media, so that these populations live in increasing ignorance of each other. That's dangerous, because there is lack of empathy, understanding and concern on both sides.

... increasingly people don't even bother to vote because politicians watch television. They read the newspapers. If the television or newspapers don't say, something has to be done about X, they shut up about X. There is a growing part of our population that does not hear in political campaigns things that affect their lives in a direct way, and they've tuned out ... part of that is the tuning out of those issues by the media themselves.

BB: I don't think there's any question that the news media, and even the entertainment media, are major influences on the national agenda. We know that in a locality, for example, if the local newspaper campaigns on something, chances are something will happen. I think that's true on a national basis. But there is no question that they help set the public agenda. They sometimes deny that, saying, we just reflect public opinion. There's a lot of public opinion that does not show up in their paper because they're outside this desirable advertising audience and because it might upset the political and economic status quo that is now so favorable to large corporations, some of whom are now major owners in the media.

... we not had a war in our territory since the Civil War. That memory is long gone. No one is alive now who knew what it was like to have blood shed in your back yard or front yard and your house smashed. It's been a distant thing. What happens is that soldiers come back and there are victory parades and flags flying and the story that we got always was how our glorious troops were winning. That's true of every country.

The media have interesting studies, that show historically the news people of each country became boosters for their own country and screened out the things that were unpleasant and boosted the things that were pleasant. Suddenly, we had television in the living room with footage that the military had approved of or made accessible for camera people that showed that there were children, women and civilians who were being hurt by the war. It became increasingly clear that not only were we losing the war, we certainly weren't winning the war. We had 55,000 casualties. We happened to kill two million Indochinese, but the American casualties themselves were a shock to people. There was a realization that the good guys and the bad guys, regardless of how you define them, fight the same kind of war, which is to kill or be killed. That anything that gets in the way must be smashed. That's the way you fight a war. It's in the nature of war. We could always sugar coat that before because it was so distant. Even if it appeared in print it wasn't vivid. On television you could see the civilian huts burning, you could see the women and children crying and see them injured and hurt. That was one of the things that caused the change.

BB: This skill not just in the military, but in the White House, in controlling and influencing the media to produce what they wish to have produced has become very great, when it isn't blunt. In a war it's very blunt: You shall not go to this place and you shall not run anything that we don't approve of. But even before that there was increasing skill which the media themselves, the news professionals, have not kept up with in terms of being able to deal with that. They are given their photo opportunities which then become the picture on television and on the front page. They're given their sound bite, which is the only message that comes out that day. There are other techniques to eliminate as much dissent as possible. The military did that in Grenada. They did it in Panama and got away with it. One reason they got away with it is the media's fault themselves. They were not permitted to see at the time of the invasion of

BB: For most of the Reagan administration, Central America was the center of American foreign policy. The major media took most of their news from the American Embassy, the White House, the National Security Council and the Department of Defense. With very few exceptions they did not have resident correspondents who got to know the country, who spent time and looked at the whole picture with comprehensiveness and continuity. So they got away for a long time with the idea that the contras were all freedom fighters and they were not in the drug trade and they didn't do nasty things to civilians but that the Sandinistas did. For a long time the Salvadoran army was the defender of freedom in E1 Salvador. For a long time we suppressed information that came out of Costa Rica that said that the contras were in fact drug dealing, including Colonel North, or was working with people he knew were. They got away with it. I think that that's emboldened the government to feel that not only can they control the information but that the media will do very little to go back and tell the whole story in an effective way. I think that that's happened in the Middle East. Because the Middle East was such an overwhelming American military victory, for which the full force of the American military force was designed to fight a country like the Soviet Union, the public seems to have accepted the idea that one important element was to censor the press and the news media. I think we're going to suffer from that for a long time.

BB: ... the attempt to get facts which are relevant from people who are in a position to speak with knowledge is not pursued when it is in direct conflict with voices of authority.

BB: ... if you can sell a war as a painless Nintendo game, people will be much more ready to buy it. The military fear public resistance; that's what leaders fear. when they decide that they want to settle things in a military way. They want unity at home so they control that kind of information, and they don't want to remind people that a lot of people are going to get hurt, and these are going to be a lot of innocent people, too.

BB: Diversity of viewpoints is not considered legitimate unless that diversity goes only so far as the voices of authority.

Stenographers to Power

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