.Rethinking the Media Monopoly

Renowned press critic Ben Bagdikian fires an old salvo at a new media. Too bad he misses.

Not long ago, in a land of indeterminate location, a broadcaster interviewed one of the most influential media critics of our time. Before they went on the air, the host asked his esteemed guest to abide by a few rules: Don’t mention where we are, don’t say what day of the week it is, and don’t talk about the weather. He explained that the network would air the syndicated program in other cities. “We like people in all those cities to think they’re listening to a local program,” the host said.

Ben Bagdikian was the esteemed guest that day. To him, the episode illustrates how localism gets lost in Big Media. “It has reduced the amount of local information that you get out of the big radio stations, the big TV stations, because when you own 150 stations around the country you would like to get something you can use in all of them,” he says.

Bagdikian knows a lot about Big Media. The former dean of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and dean emeritus of media criticism wrote the bible on media consolidation 21 years ago in his groundbreaking book, The Media Monopoly. His book is still regularly listed as required reading on many a journalism, poli-sci, or sociology professor’s syllabus; its publisher, independent book-house Beacon Press, has rereleased the title and updated it five times.

When Bagdikian wrote the first edition in 1983, before media criticism became a cottage industry, what few media critics there were tended to be conservative. One of the most prominent watchdogs of the time was Accuracy in Media, a right-wing group devoted to finding examples of liberal bias in the press.

The Media Monopoly took on the press from a different angle. Whereas the conservative critique focused on the politics of those who worked in the newsroom, Bagdikian took aim at the big corporations that owned the newsrooms, in the process creating what would become a key component of leftist media criticism for the next generation. Unlike fellow critics such as linguist Noam Chomsky, Bagdikian could call upon his journalistic experience to inform his arguments. He spent thirty years working as a newsman and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for local reporting. An article he wrote for Esquire in the mid-1960s led the Louisville Courier-Journal to become the first newspaper in the nation to hire an ombudsman, or readers’ representative. Bagdikian later held this role himself at the Washington Post, where he also played a key role in securing the Pentagon Papers for his employer.

As its title suggested, Bagdikian’s book identified an alarming trend in media ownership: Mergers, buyouts, and attrition had left fifty corporations controlling most of what Americans got to read, see, or hear about the world via the nation’s then-25,000 media outlets. The owners of these media giants sat on the boards of oil, timber, agricultural, and banking companies — creating conflicts of interest for their news divisions on a colossal scale. Meanwhile, family-owned newspapers were being bought up by publicly traded national chains that had to turn a profit to appease Wall Street.

Bottom-line pressures were affecting news coverage more than ever; media outlets peddled fluff, relied too heavily on authority figures for information, and short-changed the poor. Afternoon papers were on their deathbeds and most cities had become one-newspaper towns. The diversity of voices in the press was effectively being homogenized, he warned, by the trend toward consolidation of media ownership into fewer hands.

This trend accelerated in the years after the book’s publication, thanks to broadcast deregulation in the ’80s under President Ronald Reagan and later with passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. By 2003, Bagdikian says, just five big conglomerates had come to control the mass media. And, although he doesn’t address it, consolidation is also a trend among alternative newsweeklies. The Express, for instance, is one of eleven papers owned by Phoenix-based New Times, a private company — and Village Voice Media owns six alt-weeklies, including The Village Voice, OC Weekly, and LA Weekly.

“Bagdikian saw what was coming,” says lefty media critic and syndicated columnist Norman Solomon, who cites the author as an important influence. He recalls amply referencing Bagdikian’s work in his research for Unreliable Sources, a book Solomon co-wrote with Martin Lee in 1990. “Our book ended up quoting and paraphrasing The Media Monopoly more than a dozen times in various chapters,” he says. “I remember going through [the book] with a highlighter, and many pages were streaked with color. The Media Monopoly has been path-breaking — with long-term profound impacts — and you can’t say that about many books.”

Yet much has changed in the two decades since Bagdikian’s book first appeared. Besides the continued shrinking of big-media ownership, we’ve witnessed an explosion of talk radio. The rise of cable television and the 24-hour news cycle. Satellite TV and, more recently, satellite radio. The Internet. Who better to dissect what all the changes mean than the man who correctly predicted where the media were headed twenty years ago?

Ben Bagdikian has stepped out of retirement to rejoin the debate with a new book that, in his words, “deals with a new media in a new world.”

What’s mystifying is how someone who was so right back then could be so wrong now.

It’s windbreaker weather on a June Friday night at Cody’s, Berkeley’s famous independent bookstore on Telegraph Avenue. About thirty people are sitting in plastic folding chairs waiting to hear Bagdikian discuss his latest, The New Media Monopoly. Actually, the book isn’t totally new — much is recycled from the original — but this version contains seven new chapters.

The woman who introduces Bagdikian points out that his original work was widely dismissed as alarmist. Time, she says, obviously has shown otherwise.

A short, elderly man with big glasses and a prominent nose approaches the podium, accompanied by the requisite smattering of applause. He wears a rumpled sport coat with a button-down shirt and no tie — basically, a reporter’s idea of dressing up. Bagdikian steps to the podium and delivers an old line about the frantic pace of media consolidation: “Each edition of this book was obsolete the day it was published.”

Even this new book, released in May, is a little behind the times, the author admits. General Electric recently bought more media properties, and that could perhaps transform his Big Five list of media giants into the Big Six. These are the corporations he says control most of the mass media today, from broadcasting to book publishing to movie studios to magazines. None of them, however, has much of a stake in US newspapers.

The Big Five are Time Warner, Viacom, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, German book publisher Bertelsmann, and Disney. “Mickey Mouse in a corporate way,” he quips in his scratchy voice, “is not a Mickey Mouse operation.”

Bagdikian tells the Cody’s crowd of a disturbing incident in which a “media monopoly”– not one of the Big Five — literally hurt people. It happened last year in the small North Dakota city of Minot. A 1 a.m. train derailment released a toxic cloud of anhydrous ammonia. When local police tried to contact the six local commercial radio stations — all owned by radio giant Clear Channel Communications — to broadcast an alert, they couldn’t reach anyone right away. The music and newstalk was being piped in from a remote location, an efficient way of saving on labor costs. Three hundred people were hospitalized and some residents were left partially blind, according to Bagdikian’s source, The New York Times.

Bagdikian confides to his audience that he was reluctant when his publisher suggested he write a new book. By all appearances, the 84-year-old was enjoying a comfortable retirement with his wife in their upper-class Berkeley neighborhood near the Claremont Hotel. His job has been to answer the calls of reporters, including this one, seeking a thoughtful quote from an enlightened media critic. But taking the occasional call hardly compares, as Bagdikian puts it, to plunging “into the tank” and researching a book. He says he decided to do it because of what he saw as the “alarming” political shift in the country to the far right: “What we used to say was the nutty right is now the center.”

His statement inspired no protest from this sympathetic Berkeley audience, but it did suggest a departure from his original thesis. The Media Monopoly stressed the economics of the news media — how the pursuit of profits had led to fluffy or bland “objective” journalism that didn’t offend anyone, especially advertisers. “American media corporations benefit from the political sterility of the media,” Bagdikian wrote in 1983. He even noted that corporate newspapers had ditched their right-wing columnists to make their product less offensive.

Two decades later, Bagdikian is saying something very different. Instead of pushing political sterility, he argues that the new media monopoly has “played a central role” in pushing the country’s politics to the nutty right.

The trouble is, he doesn’t come close to proving that point. Instead, the author treats it as a given — a questionable assumption when nearly half the population, according to a 2003 Gallup poll, believes the media are “too liberal.” The result is a series of sweeping generalizations and underreported assertions that lack evidence to support them. For instance, anyone trying to demonstrate that the media have helped push the country rightward would certainly dedicate substantial ink to the rise of Rush Limbaugh and talk radio over the past fifteen years. Bagdikian devotes just two nonconsecutive pages to the topic.

Media-bashing has become America’s favorite new pastime. Bagdikian says there are now more than one hundred media-reform groups around the country, which sounds like a low estimate. The Bay Area has a handful, including Project Censored, a progressive critique of the media that originates at Sonoma State University; ChronWatch, a conservative watchdog that monitors the San Francisco Chronicle and other media for liberal bias; and the more thoughtful and neutral Grade the News, an adjunct to Stanford’s graduate journalism program for which Bagdikian acts as an adviser.

Both the left and the right have legitimate points: Surveys have shown that reporters are indeed more socially liberal than most of America, and media owners tend to be conservative, or at least pro-business. But no one has ever been able to clearly demonstrate how that affects news coverage, with the exception, perhaps, of Fox News, which substitutes opinion for newsgathering, a formula copied by its rivals because two-bit opinions come a lot cheaper than serious reportorial journalism.

Al Franken — does it really take a comedian to understand this? — suggests that the more relevant biases in the mainstream media (which Franken distinguishes from “right-wing” media such as Fox) are the get-the-story-first bias and the profit-motive bias. He sums it up nicely in his best-seller, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: “Asking whether there is a liberal or conservative bias to the mainstream media is a little like asking whether al-Qaeda uses too much oil in their hummus. The problem with al-Qaeda is that they’re trying to kill us.”

Bagdikian’s original book transcended the bias debate by calling out an undeniable trend — media consolidation — and using solid journalistic research to demonstrate how it was transforming the news business. While The New Media Monopoly isn’t simply a bias polemic, it definitely is framed in that tired genre. In the opening passage, the author writes: “In the years since 1980, the political spectrum of the United States has shifted radically to the far right.” On the next page, he argues, “The major mass media have played a central role in this shift to the right.”

In an interview, Bagdikian elaborated on that idea. Media owners, he said, are rich and often conservative. Men like Rupert Murdoch, who owns the Fox Network, hire commentators who reflect their views. “There are very few millionaires who are left-wing. Rupert Murdoch is [very] conservative and he regards that as normal. … These are people who are concerned with getting government that is friendly to big business.”

No argument there. But the same was true twenty years ago when media owners preferred “political sterility,” as Bagdikian then argued, to appease advertisers who didn’t want controversy. Plus, bigger didn’t always mean more conservative back then, and it doesn’t now.

The Contra Costa Times is a case in point. Before the Knight-Ridder chain bought the paper in 1995, it was owned by the superconservative Dean Lesher. Lesher’s staff members sometimes leaked stories about their boss to other papers, such as the time he scolded his editors in 1989 for putting the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade on the front page. His wife, Margaret, hosted a religious show on a Christian TV network. Lesher also crusaded for new development, and successfully sued to overturn a slow-growth initiative approved by Walnut Creek voters. The Times under Knight-Ridder, the nation’s second-largest newspaper chain, is comparatively liberal. This year, the paper has editorialized against sprawl development.

Or consider the case of the Oakland Tribune. When the Trib was family owned, it was a bully pulpit for the influential and archly conservative Knowland family, which sent two Republicans to the US Congress: Joseph R. Knowland to the House of Representatives, and William Knowland to the Senate, where he eventually rose to the post of majority leader. Corporate ownership of the Trib has resulted in a decidedly less biased and more moderate newspaper.

Meanwhile, across the bay, the editorial pages of the Hearst-owned San Francisco Chronicle are significantly more liberal than in the days when the DeYoung family owned the paper and consistently endorsed Republicans.

Even if you agree that American politics have grown more conservative, you have to ask whether the media is really responsible, or whether news outlets are merely reflecting broader changes in our national political culture that are out of their control.

America’s political temperament is inherently cyclical. That the nation’s political culture has swung to the right since the 1980 election of President Reagan is without dispute, just as it is true that the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 served to set the nation on a more liberal trajectory after the two decades of cautious conservatism that preceded it. Likewise, the 1932 election of Franklin D. Roosevelt brought a swift end to a decade-long bender of pro-business excess that in hindsight seems to have served as the model for our own dot-com bubble.

Bagdikian goes on to criticize today’s media for lapping up junk fed to them by conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation while treating left-leaning and environmental groups as fringe curiosities. No doubt the right has shrewdly financed a rich network of intellectuals to push its views in the press over the past twenty years. But Bagdikian goes too far when he says the political content projected by the media giants has given the United States the “most politically constricted voter choices among the world’s developed democracies.” Europhiles often make this argument, but fail to make the crucial distinction that many European democracies are parliamentary systems with proportional representation. The United States’ winner-take-all elections produced a two-party system that existed long before any media monopoly. Ask your local Whig Party activist for details.

Even as far as the bias wars go, however, The New Media Monopoly fires only mild salvos. After all, Bagdikian has a real war to talk about.

Remember Wag the Dog, the 1997 movie starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro? If not, here’s the gist: Shortly before an election, the American president is facing a scandal at home. To distract the public, his propagandists launch a fake war with images supplied by a Hollywood producer.

Citing this film, Bagdikian argues that the Bush administration chose to deflect attention from domestic problems such as the sagging economy, rising unemployment, and reports of corporate corruption by announcing its intent to attack Iraq prior to the 2002 midterm elections. This is pure conjecture. Still, Bagdikian describes the mass media as the tail that obediently wagged.

By the end of the chapter on Iraq, the critical reader is left wondering why it’s even in the book. While the author correctly argues that the press blew it in the months leading up to the Iraq war, that’s hardly a unique view. Even people who work in the mainstream media concede that most news outlets blew it. But the fatal flaw is that Bagdikian fails to demonstrate any link between lousy prewar coverage and consolidation of media ownership. He even notes that it has always been the media’s habit to rely on authority figures and not question them, especially before and during a war. But that’s hardly news. Bagdikian made the same complaint twenty years ago.

The American press has a long history of being manipulated by the nation’s leaders during times of manufactured crisis. Lyndon Johnson used a fictional account of an unprovoked attack on a US destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin to persuade Congress to let him escalate the war in Vietnam. The media went along with the official version of events. In The New Media Monopoly, Bagdikian further undercuts his thesis by describing other significant instances — such as the McCarthy era and Communist witch hunts of the ’50s — in which the premonopoly news media danced to the government’s tune.

In an interview, Bagdikian argued that the difference between early coverage of Vietnam and Iraq is that, with Iraq, the mainstream media had critical information that would have dissuaded the public about going to war, but didn’t report it. He writes, for example, that in October 2002, shortly before Congress gave Bush the green light to invade, Democratic Senator Robert Byrd gave a speech in which he gave a detailed account of Iraq’s known weapons program and the role the United States played in arming Saddam Hussein during the ’80s. The media, he says, chose to ignore those details and instead showed Byrd as a melancholy, elderly senator making his last stand.

It’s hardly a given that the American people, especially after 9/11, would have resisted the invasion had they known their country backed Hussein in the 1980s. Indeed, any literate person already knew it, since the US government’s military support of Iraq in its war against Iran was widely covered during the 1990s. But for the sake of argument, let’s take at face value Bagdikian’s assertion that the media failed to seriously report Byrd’s historical critique of the administration’s position.

What Bagdikian fails to note is that, during the debate over the war resolution, the Associated Press — whose stories appear in hundreds of prominent daily papers around the country — ran an article, citing Byrd, about how the United States helped start Iraq’s biological weapons program. And Newsweek, the influential news magazine that boasts a readership of 21 million, ran a 3,500-word article in its September 23, 2002 issue about our country’s role in arming Hussein and how the US turned a blind eye to the dictator’s excesses. The secondary headline: “America helped make a monster.”

Matter of fact, Senator Byrd read that entire Newsweek article into the Congressional Record the week it came out.

It’s understandable how Bagdikian might have missed those stories in the sea of media we’re drowning in. Stories that don’t make it into the 24-hour cable news cycle or get debated by the radio and television pundits can easily be lost amid the media noise. And therein lies the paradox of today’s media monopoly: Thanks to new technologies such as cable, satellite, and the Internet, there are fewer owners of major media outlets but far more choices and, arguably, far more independent sources of information than ever existed before.

Using a conservative count that excludes weeklies, Bagdikian concedes that there are 37,000 media outlets now, 12,000 more than when he wrote his original book. But he concludes that, because there are fewer media owners “with only marginal differences among them,” this “leaves the majority of Americans with artificially narrowed choices in their media.” He makes the accurate point that a lot of content in the different media is highly duplicative, “the result of reruns, syndication, and synergy.”

At the same time, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that the wonderfully subversive “fake news” of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is the same as the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather simply because Viacom owns both of them. Even though it’s a comedy program, The Daily Show is willing to say things that “real” newscasters are afraid to. For instance, while the mainstream press has shied away from calling the abuses at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison “torture,” Stewart did just that following Donald Rumsfeld’s tortured testimony before Congress, in which the defense secretary bristled at using the T-word. “As a fake newsperson, I can tell you, what we’ve been reading about in the papers, the pictures that we’ve been seeing — it’s f***ing torture,” Stewart told his audience.

The one-newspaper town, another widely lamented consequence of consolidation, has been partially offset by the growth of the nonmainstream press, which plays an important role in keeping Big Media accountable.

Except for a throwaway sentence, Bagdikian ignores the increasing prominence of alternative weeklies (like the one you’re reading now) over the past decade. Between 1990 and 2002, the combined circulation of alt-weeklies in the United States more than doubled, from 3 million to 7.5 million, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Alt-weeklies have become such a staple of urban life that a growing number of big cities now host competing papers. In San Francisco, the Bay Guardian competes with the SF Weekly (a New Times paper). In Seattle, The Stranger has given the more staid Seattle Weekly a run for its money. The Boston Phoenix is taking hits from Boston’s Weekly Dig, and in Portland, the Mercury (spawn of The Stranger) is stealing readers from both Willamette Week and the Portland Phoenix (daughter of the Boston Phoenix). Some of these challengers are best described as alt-alt-weeklies, with an edgier style that appeals to the elusive younger reader. The Stranger, for instance, has spoofed standard alt-weekly conventions such as the ubiquitous “Best Of” issue by running a “Best of Our Advertisers” issue.

Bagdikian also pays no attention to the insurgent growth of free daily newspapers, despite Berkeley being one of the epicenters of this hopeful phenomenon. The Berkeley Daily Planet, San Francisco Examiner, and Palo Alto Daily News are all local examples of a trend that already has brought free dailies to many of the major cities of Europe.

Bagdikian glosses over the alternative dailies and weeklies, community weeklies, and the ethnic press to focus solely on mainstream mass media. “This book deals with the media — daily newspapers, nationally distributed magazines, broadcasting, and motion pictures — used by the majority of Americans, and their influence on the country’s politics and policies,” he writes.

His focus makes the media seem more monolithic than they truly are. From a consumer standpoint, at least, the mass media are in fact a lot less massive than they used to be.

The networks still control prime time, but certainly not the way they once did. In his book, What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News, Eric Alterman, a columnist for The Nation, reports that the four networks — ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox — boasted of having a 43 percent share of all TV viewers during the roughly five-month period ending in March 2002. But two decades earlier, before viewers had dozens of cable or satellite channels to choose from, the Big Three networks had more than twice that audience, percentage-wise.

Media consolidation has arguably affected radio more than any other medium thanks to one company, Clear Channel, which owns more than 10 percent of the 11,000 commercial stations in the country, including eight in the Bay Area. Yet, despite Clear Channel’s stunning rise, there were 4,659 more commercial radio stations on the air at the end of 2003 than existed in 1970.

In radio today there are 47 different recognized formats. A lot of baby boomers fondly remember the early FM revolution, but even then Top 40 radio stations ruled the airwaves. Local boy and KFOG DJ Rick “Big Rick” Stuart acknowledges that the radio biz has changed a lot over the past decade — there are fewer people working in radio now, he says. “But ironically I think there is more diversity of sounds on the air in radio now, more than ever,” he said in an e-mail. “More than when I was growing up and nobody really knew about FM. More than when I was in college, when KFRC still had a lot of listeners tuned to their tight Top 40 playlist. … I hear and read the knocks against the big radio ownership groups. Some of it is true. It is staggering how much companies like Clear Channel, Viacom, Vivendi Universal, and the others own. But are they part of an evil plot to control the world we live in? Nah, that’s a little tinfoil-hat thinking.”

The number of magazines in print, meanwhile, has grown 24 percent since 1990, according to numbers from the National Directory of Magazines. During that period, the number of “news magazines” has grown 146 percent, from 46 to 113. Most of the recent growth has been in publications tailored to specific interests. Of the 440 new consumer magazines launched last year, the biggest growth categories, each with 45 new titles, were “Crafts/Games/Hobbies/Models” and “Metro/Regional/State,” according to the Magazine Publishers of America, which got its data from Samir Husni’s 2004 Guide to New Consumer Magazines. Just last month, in fact, Oakland finally got its own glossy city magazine.

New technologies have in many ways mitigated the power of the “mass media.” This is especially true with the Internet, a decentralized medium where someone with nothing more than a computer and an opinion can profoundly alter the course of national affairs.

Trent Lott would likely still be the majority leader of the US Senate had it not been for those meddling bloggers. “Blog” is short for “Weblog,” an online journal of an individual’s rants and raves about current events and, just as often, the media’s coverage of those events. In December 2002, bloggers were ranting and raving about Lott’s praise for Senator Strom Thurmond at his hundredth birthday party, which was televised on C-SPAN. Thurmond, a former Dixiecrat, ran for president in 1948 on a segregationist platform. Lott took the podium to deliver what sounded like an endorsement of segregation, saying that if voters had made Thurmond president fifty years ago, “we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years.” The mainstream press generally gave Lott a pass.

But the bloggers weren’t so forgiving. They blasted Lott, the Republicans, and the media for days. On his blog (TalkingPointsMemo.com), writer Joshua Micah Marshall pondered “why this incident is still being treated as no more than a minor embarrassment or a simple gaffe.” Eventually mainstream journalists, many of whom regularly read blogs, jumped on the bandwagon and began pressing the issue. In the end, Lott was forced to resign his leadership post.

The single chapter of The New Media Monopoly dedicated to the Internet makes no mention of such things. Bagdikian does dutifully inform us that “WWW” stands for “World Wide Web,” and he discusses spam at some length. Yet nowhere in the book’s index do the words “Matt Drudge” or “blog” appear. Drudge, of course, is the former retail clerk who broke the Monica Lewinsky story on his Web site, the spark that led to Bill Clinton’s impeachment. Bagdikian does give the Internet a nod as a political organizing tool — albeit without mentioning MoveOn.org, Indymedia.org, or Howard Dean — but seems unsure how it fits into the mass-media milieu. “The Internet remains ambiguous as a ‘mass’ medium because of its multiple functions and individualistic usage,” he writes.

When Bagdikian’s first book appeared, there was no such thing as the Internet. Hell, very few people even owned personal computers. But since then, advancements in digital and information technologies have led to a media revolution that has given the public more choices than ever, both mainstream and independent. A.J. Liebling’s once-apt observation that “freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one” has become obsolescent as the barriers to entry into the media world have fallen. Producing and making public an indie documentary nowadays takes little more than time, talent, and a few thousand bucks. Meanwhile, the Project for Excellence in Journalism estimates there are 100,000 active bloggers online.

And while it’s true that big corporations own the bulk of the most popular news and information Web sites, alternatives are everywhere. It’s not as though anyone is hiding these options from the public. Don’t like the US media’s war coverage? Then seek out a foreign newspaper or Aljazeera.net for another perspective. Don’t trust a news report? Try going straight to the source for firsthand information — as a titillated America did en masse after the Starr Report was made public. The point is that anyone seeking an antidote to the media monopoly can now find it with ease.

In an interview, Bagdikian made the point that not everyone in America has access to the Internet. Most Americans, he says, still rely on the mainstream mass media. Yet the day when everyone is connected is not far off: An estimated 162 million Americans had access to the Net last year, according to the US Census Bureau’s Statistical Abstract of the United States, and 41.5 percent of US households had Internet access as far back as 2000, according to a Commerce Department study.

A seductive appeal of the kind of Big Brother Media argument that Bagdikian advances is its rhetorical simplicity. Americans love a good conspiracy, and they love to think of themselves as fighting that conspiracy. But in this age of information overload, the same critics who accuse Big Media of hiding information get their information from the media in the first place. The New Media Monopoly is a perfect example. Bagdikian and his researchers relied heavily on the mass media and the Internet.

Big Media can indeed be a dangerous thing. Bagdikian reports on the absurd extent to which the giants have gone to own everything they can: Time Warner now owns the rights to “Happy Birthday,” thereby forcing some restaurants to sing alternatives for their customers’ birthday celebrations. Bagdikian estimates the conglomerate earns $2 million a year in license fees from the song.

The media giants’ gobbling up of smaller competitors is reminiscent of other business trends. Everyone drinks Starbucks — from San Francisco to Newport, Rhode Island. Quirky local independent booksellers have been replaced by Barnes & Noble and Borders. Wal-Mart killed the little grocery stores. Chain stores, in general, have killed local flavor, even as they bring Americans more goods than ever before.

The same is true for today’s media. We have far more variety and choices than we did twenty years ago, even though five or six media giants own much of the content we consume. Rather than seriously examining how the media landscape has changed over the past twenty years, Bagdikian seems content to say I told you so. His all-too-predictable conclusion — fewer owners mean fewer choices — is simplistic.

The most profound failure of The New Media Monopoly is that its author completely fails to address the paradox his argument poses in this day and age: How can we be suffering from “narrowed” media choices (as suggested by the concentration of media ownership) when, at the same time, people complain about information overload in today’s media-saturated world?

Attempting to solve that riddle would have made for a fascinating book.


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