(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.
... 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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
New Media Monopoly