Ben H. Bagdikian, journalist, professor and media critic, RIP

(Photo by Richard Barnes)
(Photo by Richard Barnes)

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.

Author: jeffpelline

Jeff Pelline is a veteran editor and award-winning journalist - in print and online. He is publisher of Sierra FoodWineArt magazine and its website Jeff covered business and technology for The San Francisco Chronicle for years, was a founding editor and Editor of CNET News, and was Editor of The Union, a 145-year-old newspaper in Grass Valley. Jeff has a bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley and a master's from Northwestern University. His hobbies include sailing and trout fishing.

11 thoughts on “Ben H. Bagdikian, journalist, professor and media critic, RIP”

  1. I met him once at an event at Berkeley, he came out to see a film we helped advance on the life of Aldo Leopold. I was thrilled to be able to thank him for publishing the Pentagon Papers and for his support of Daniel Ellsberg.

  2. You were very blessed to have had this great man as your professor at Cal. He represented a time period that held great fire and knowledge based on his own experiences that today’s profs can’t even come close to. Like all good teachers, we never forget them or the lessons they passed our way.

  3. What’s also interesting about Ben was his Armenian roots — and California was home to a lot of the immigrants. In L.A. where I grew up, there were families of Armenians who contributed. Some were well known such as J.C. Agajanian, a race car promoter and owner. There was Ben Agajanian of the L.A. Rams. The Armenian immigrants to America contributed much. Now, of course, people like Trump wants to build a wall. In his lectures, Ben talked about the massacre of the Armenians in Turkey.

  4. While in high school, my very best friend was Armenian. Her uncle was William Saroyan an American – Armenian author from immigrant parents, who was known widely for his stories and plays based on life in Fresno, California, the center of Armenian-American life in California and where he grew up. I grew to have so much respect for their rich culture and the hardships they suffered as immigrants. A very tight knit and celebrative grouping of individuals.

  5. What a cool story. Saroyan is a California literary treasure, like Steinbeck. I remember reading Saroyan’s “My Name is Aram.”

    Armenians settled in the Central Valley, because it reminded them of home. They brought a lot of farming expertise. Many of them planted the fig trees and grape vines that are still prevalent around the Fresno area. Saroyan has a special story about pomegranates.

    Here’s a passage from a UC Press book — Saroyan in California — that sums up these immigrants well: “Here they could acquire land and farm, a simple enough desire, but one which had been suppressed for centuries in their native land, where Turkish overlords set limits on their freedom.”

    California was built by immigrants. How quickly some of today’s politicians forget.

  6. Ben Bagdikian was one of the rare journalists whose work — particularly his warning about the danger to democracy of media consolidation — becomes more relevant with every passing decade, and will continue to be increasingly relevant even after his death. The Trump phenomenon is largely a product of a world in which the federal government no longer enforces the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, and the highly-consolidated corporate media is no longer bound by the fairness doctrine. CBS CEO Les Moonves recently said that Trump mania “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

    A danger to democracy indeed.

    About Saroyan, I read his “Human Comedy” when I was about the age of his protagonist, Homer, in that book. Come to think of it (apropos of nothing Armenian) I read “Catcher in the Rye” when I was about the age of Holden Caulfield in Salinger’s masterwork. These books we read in our youth are often formative in the way great teachers are formative. they become lasting parts of who we are.

    So, I was more than delighted when our son married into the William Saroyan family. Our daughter-in-law — I asked her about this yesterday — is a cousin “four or five times removed” of William Saroyan. When I sent her email yesterday mentioning this Bagdikian post, she sent me this reply:

    Wayne (my illustrious brother) had just sent out the obit for Ben to the family, but I didn’t know him or know how (or if ) we were related. My Mom used to joke that if you looked back far enough, all Armenians are related. I think it’s funny how many people “know an Armenian,” usually just one 🙂

    We’re loving “being a part” of this extended family, which brings my love for the works of William Saroyan full-circle in a way I could never had anticipated.

    1. By the way, when I asked our daughter-in-law (nee Saroyan) about her relationship to William Saroyan, here was her answer:

      Yes – a cousin four or five times removed. Both of his parents had the last name Saroyan, from two different sides of the family. His mom was the sister of one of my cousins .. and that’s where it starts getting fuzzy for me. If you are interested, I can dig up the actual connection info, or check in with my aunt. This comes up every now and then and I should document this somewhere before I lose people who remember.

    2. I had forgotten that it was Saroyan who wrote The Human Comedy. I remember reading the book as a child then seeing the Mickey Rooney movie and only much later as an adult seeing the play. One of the most poignant anti-war messages I have ever read. For some reason I was thinking James Thurber wrote it. Thanks for the reminder, I think I will re-read it this weekend.

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