Saturday, March 12, 2016

Ben Bagdikian dead at 96, journalist and longtime critic of consolidation of ownership of media

Unless you were a journalist or a journalism student odds are high you've never heard of Ben Bagdikian, who died today.  He was a journalist who played a role in getting the Pentagon Papers before the public.  He also wrote warnings against the consolidation of the ownership of mass media into fewer and fewer hands.  From the NYT. 

By 2004, when he published “The New Media Monopoly,” the last of seven sequel editions, the number of corporate giants controlling much of the flow of information and entertainment had dwindled to five. “This gives each of the five corporations and their leaders more communications power than was exercised by any despot or dictatorship in history,” Mr. Bagdikian wrote.
“The worst thing that can happen to a journalist is to become a celebrity,” he told The Progressive in 1997. “The honest job of the journalist is to observe, to listen, to learn. The job of the celebrity is to be observed, to make sure others learn about him or her, to be the object of attention rather than an observer.”

So you could choose celebrity or choose to stay an actual journalist. That might be a warning worth heeding for people who studied journalism and are now brands unto themselves more than actual journalists. 

Remember how earlier this week I blogged about empires of patronage reflecting on the death of George Martin?  Well, the idea's hardly a new or original one and it's a thought indebted to writers like Bagdikian--that the leaders of the five corporations who dominate American media have more communications power than that exercised by any despots or totalitarian states int he history of the planet isn't that hard to believe, or even controversial.  That these empires celebrate themselves first and foremost, and sacralize what they do might be something to keep in mind during Oscar season.  It might be something to keep in mind when film critics like A. O. Scott have books out about the greatness of film criticism or academics talk about the greatness of the academy.  Yeah, cool, but these are all empires with their respective prestige rackets. 

What's seemed to be the case to me, from this meager blog, has been that when the empires of the press decide they don't want to cover something, or when they decide they already know the score, they decide what they want to run with.  At the level of Puget Sound the history of writing about Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll has all too often been the history of the echo chambers and confirmation biases of people whose primary loyalties have been to read all that has been said and done through the lenses of the left or right.  Discovering what the flesh and blood people who called Mars Hill home aspired to, what they believed, who they actually were, that was all of secondary or even tertiary significance to those who could transform it all into a lesson to be preached to a partisan choir, or a marketing opportunity to consecrate a brand.  In a word, prejudice on the part of the press left and right meant the press was less interested in what was going on at Mars Hill than in what hay could be made of it.

The history of Mars Hill and what has and hasn't been written about it in the press has been a history of the complete and abject failure of the secular mainstream press on the one hand and the shameful failure to investigate until it was essentially too late on the part of the Christian press on the other. It was also a failure on the part of all of us who once called the church home to have been alert enough to our own capacity for self-deceit. 

A whole lot of people have seen in the history of Mars Hill an opportunity to build a legacy for whatever their pet project may be.  That's understandable, even inevitable, but whether much of any of it fit what Bagdikian described as the first obligation of a journalist, to serve the public interest and good, may be impossible to answer in the affirmative.  But Bagdikian's critique of mass media empires may be a helpful reminder of why so few with so much power to discuss the subjects chose for so long to regard Mars Hill first and foremost as an opportunity to discuss talking points as usual rather than to observe and listen to see what might have been there.  Mars Hill came so prejudged by the left and right that it took a while for people on the left and right (whether in religious or political terms) to get a clearer sense what might be going on. 

In arts classes you may hear the warning that you need to learn how to draw what you actually see, not what you think you see, because your brain has developed and learned a panoply of shortcuts and symbolic equivalencies that can lead you to draw THAT instead of what you're actually looking at.  And in the midst of all this, writing as a sometime watchblogger, the most important caveat is that when you write and investigate what happened and who did and said what you have to remember that at the end of it all you and what you value will not necessarily be vindicated in the process. 

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