Editor’s note: Ben Bagdikian was one of my favorite professors at UC Berkeley. The journalism school was mainly for graduate students, but undergrads could take some classes upon approval. I still have my “blue book” tests and notes from his course — in a few boxes marked “Cal.” His book, “The Media Monopoly,” (1983) which remains relevant, is on our bookshelf. At the time, the journalism school was housed on a floor in the math and statistics building — Evans Hall — and Ben taught his classes there. The year I graduated it moved to North Gate Hall.
“Ben H. Bagdikian, a journalist and news media critic who became a celebrated voice of conscience for his profession, calling for tougher standards of integrity and public service in an era of changing tastes and technology, died on Friday at his home in Berkeley, Calif. He was 96.
“Over five decades, Mr. Bagdikian was a national and foreign correspondent for newspapers and magazines; a reporter, editor and ombudsman for The Washington Post; the author of eight books; and for many years a professor and the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.
“Born into an Armenian family that fled from genocide in Ottoman Turkey, he grew up in Depression America with a passion for social justice that shaped his reporting. He became an undercover inmate to expose inhumane prison conditions in Pennsylvania, rode with an Israeli tank crew to write about the 1956 Suez Crisis, and lived with oppressed families in the South to cover the civil rights struggle in the 1960s.
“He was The Washington Post’s conduit for the Pentagon Papers, the secret Defense Department study of decades of American duplicity in Indochina that was disclosed by the military analyst Daniel Ellsberg and published by The Post and The New York Times in 1971 in defiance of the Nixon administration’s attempts at suppression as the nation debated its deepening involvement in the war in Vietnam.
“But he was perhaps best known as the author of ‘The Media Monopoly’ (1983), which warned that freedom of expression and independent journalism were threatened by the consolidation of news and entertainment outlets in a shrinking circle of corporate owners. A mere 50 companies, he wrote, controlled what most Americans read in newspapers and books and saw on television and at the movies.
“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.
“Journalists, scholars, corporate officials and the public still debate the drawbacks and merits of limited media ownership. But the Internet and desktop publishing have extended freedom of speech to anyone with a computer. Cable networks and online news and entertainment choices have proliferated, and some observers contend that the Orwellian perils envisioned by Mr. Bagdikian have receded or become moot.
“While Mr. Bagdikian was most vociferous against ownership concentrations — calling for limits on the size of newspaper chains, for example, even if the limits ran afoul of the First Amendment — his news media criticism ranged widely. He examined conflicts of interest and journalistic integrity, legal issues affecting the press, the media’s responsibility to act in the public interest, and trends in investigative reporting.
“He rebuked newspaper publishers who pressed journalists to promote advertisers’ interests, breaching the traditional wall between news and business. He was troubled by the wide use of anonymous sources in news reports, and by the credulity of reporters and editors who accepted the “official” accounts of self-serving government spokesmen, especially when facts were being suppressed on national security grounds.
“He urged tougher standards of public service for broadcasters seeking renewal of their licenses. He advised Americans not to rely on television networks for news, calling them “one network in triplicate” because of their similarities. And he especially deplored the celebrity status of television network anchors.
“’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.’
“Ben Haig Bagdikian was born on Jan. 30, 1920, in Marash, Turkey, the youngest of five children of Aram Bagdikian, a chemistry teacher, and the former Daisy Uvezian. The family fled the massacre of Armenians when Ben was an infant and made its way to America, settling in Stoneham, Mass. His mother died when he was 3, and his father became pastor of an Armenian Congregational church in Cambridge.
The rest of the article is here.