Last year when a freight train carrying anhydrous ammonia derailed, releasing a deadly cloud over Minot, N.D., and the city's emergency alert system failed, the police -- quite sensibly -- called the town's radio stations, six of which are owned by corporate giant Clear Channel Communications. No one answered the phone at any of the six outlets for more than an hour. The largest owner of radio stations (1,240) in the United States, Clear Channel has only 200 employees. Most of its stations are operated by remote control with the same prerecorded material. It's an disturbing metaphor for the way American media have come to be controlled by a handful of corporate behemoths. Except that as Ben Bagdikian, dean emeritus of UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, reminds us, it isn't the least bit unusual.
When the first edition of Bagdikian's The Media Monopolywas published in 1983, the author was dismissed by some as an alarmist. Not anymore. Since the mid-'80s, the number of corporations controlling most of the country's daily newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations, book publishers, and movie companies has shriveled from about 50 to just five -- Time Warner, Disney, News Corp., Viacom, and Bertelsmann. (Yes, it's time to bring back the trust busters, he concludes.) The old saw about the "liberal news media" notwithstanding, it's perhaps no surprise that American political life has shifted dramatically to the right as conservative media Goliaths have gobbled up conduits of news and information. Revised and with seven new chapters, Bagdikian's latest offering is both primer and clarion call. He's done us a service in an era in which far too many purveyors of dumbed-down schlock in the news media have gone to hell in corporate handbaskets. -- Ron Russell