Page 22


BOOKS & THE CULTURE All the News That’s Fit to Print BY GEOFFREY RIPS THE MEDIA MONOPOLY By Ben Bagdikian Boston: Beacon Press 1987, 274 pages, $10.95 “The important thing about rain is that it is wet. ” Margaret Wise Brown “The public may believe that there are several papers, but there is really only one newspaper. ” Honor de Balzac The first decade of this century was the heyday of investigative journalism in this country. Spurred by the populist spirit in the countryside and a reformist movement in government, Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Charles Edward Russell, and a host of other journalists, novelists, and essayists took on the trusts, the food industry, Standard Oil, the insurance industry, bankers, and financiers and almost every other unregulated and unreformed corporate and government enterprise. These writers. found venues for their work in the proliferation of national magazines made possible in large part by the proliferation and growth of industries targeting nationwide markets. One of the few ways to reach these markets was through magazines with national circulation. With the development of sophisticated color production technology, mass advertising kicked into full gear. In the beginning, then, the rise of the corporate giant in some cases created forums for attacking corporate giantism. But that didn’t last long. Controlling interest in Harper’s, Scribners, Century, and a host of other magazines was bought by J. P. Morgan and Rockefeller interests, effectively ending by 1912 the muckraking era. In Wheeling, West Virginia, in 1950, Geoffrey Rips is a former Observer editor. Senator Joseph McCarthy waved a stack of papers at his audience and declared: “I have here in my hand a list of 205 names known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party . . . still shaping policy in the State Department,” thus setting off a nationwide paroxysm of hatred and retribution from which we have not yet recovered \(with a water carrier for Mca recent interview, William Randolph Hearst, Jr., revealed that McCarthy had called him after the speech and told him he hadn’t had “a damn thing on that list. Nothing.” Rather than reveal this wouldbe emperor unclothed to a nation about to be dragged through the lower depths of political life, Hearst stoked the flames of McCarthyism, lining up journalists and researchers at the New York JournalAmerican to provide McCarthy with assistance. The Nixon presidency was marked by a fortress mentality: there were repeated attacks on the “liberal” media by Administration henchmen, most notably Spiro Agnew; there were the coverups, from the bombing of Cambodia to the work of the Watergate burglars; there was the attempted censorship of the Pentagon papers, the harassment of alternative media, and the surveillance of writers and editors. Yet, in the fall of 1972, with a number of stories about the Watergate break-in already in circulation, the directors of the American Newspaper Publishers Association were reported to be “chary of taking any action that implied criticism of the President’s policies.” It happens that in 1969, following a concerted lobbying effort by several major newspaper chains, the Nixon administration had reversed an earlier position and announced its support for an exemption for newspapers under antitrust laws, an exemption later embodied in the Newspaper Preservation Act. Following passage of the act, every Hearst paper, Cox paper, and Scripps-Howard paper endorsed Richard Nixon for president in 1972. Despite his overt antagonism to the media and the notion of open public discourse, Nixon received the highest percentage of newspaper endorsements of any president in the modern era. Throughout 1983, while ranking third in presidential preference polls, George McGovern ranked last in media coverage. After finishing a close third in the Iowa caucuses, McGovern’s poor coverage declined even further, while Gary Hart who finished two points ahead of McGovern received from five to ten times the airtime on network news he had received before the Iowa vote. Hart’s campaign was about to take off; McGovern’s disappeared into media oblivion. Speaking to the Gridiron Club in Washington this past December, John Kenneth Galbraith complimented the press on its “tact and discretion” in not revealing to the public the ludicrous shift in blame for the October stock market crash from Wall Street and tax reductions for the rich to Washington and the need for budget balancing. “Especially it could not be suggested,” said Galbraith, `:that the tax reduction now scheduled for next year should be postponed. Here arose the need to protect that vulnerable minority. And here again the press was wonderfully cooperative and admirably restrained. . . . On increasing taxes on the affluent, on postponing the income tax reduction now on line, the discretion was nearly perfect. ” THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF JOURNALISM ALREADY IN THIS young year, we have been subjected, in what passes for news analysis, to countless renditions of that modern political refrain: how sad and unproductive it is that character and image dominate a presidential campaign when issues should be king. This year the 12 FEBRUARY 12, 1988