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Media Monopoly

In journalism school, in a class on ethics, we were assigned to read “The Media Monopoly,” a thoroughly depressing screed about the onset of media consolidation with dire, unrelenting bad news that we young journalists were about to enter a field of whoredom owned by a handful of self-interested media conglomerates. These companies were filtering out far-ranging, dissenting voices (it was a prep of sorts for Noam Chomsky’s “Manufacturing Consent.”) It left a big mark on me. The book’s author Ben Bagdikian has just left us now.  RIP. (You can read his obituary here.)

I feel two ways about his book in hindsight. In one sense he was absolutely correct: Most of the big media is owned by the same conglomerates who pollute our water and build war materiel and would indeed like to keep us in the dark. At the same time, the Internet has recreated journalism as cottage industry where even the most extreme voices (communists and global warming deniers alike) are free to put their wares in the marketplace of ideas and have them amplified. That’s given us the multiplicity of voices, but it’s also given us a lot of echo chambers for aspirational opinion havers to confirm their own biases with selective research. To the new voices, pretenses to objectivity are boorish, arcane and disingenuous. The kind of serious investigative, bias-free journalism we used to rely on from professionals becomes harder to find and fund, and must often be paid for by philanthropist billionaires –the patronage of the modern tech Medici. Meanwhile, a lot of old-time professional journalists are simply getting out of the business because there’s no money in it and going into PR.

The Internet age has led us to a kind of anarchy of opposing realities where you can choose your own facts and deny things that are indisputable–global warming, the Sandy Hook massacre or the fact that the Sept. 11 attacks were planned by Muslim extremists. The Internet has given people the confidence to say they trust nothing they read. But it hasn’t confronted them with the consequences of that sentiment: You now have more work to do in scrutinizing what is real by taking multiple viewpoints into account and understanding your own subjective interference in it, including the value system given to your by your peers and parents. Somebody somewhere on the Internet right now will be very happy to let you off the hook for this work by coddling you and your values, and in this you are just as manipulated as you would be by General Electric trying to bury a pollution story.

In this light, the handful of sober conglomerate voices Bagdikian warned us against don’t look all that bad, frankly.

But here we are. Change is change and not to be judged, least of all by me. Powerful money interests have lost a great deal of power over information. It happened quite naturally in a technological upheaval. Power over it has come back to the people, even sweaty, frustrated schizophrenics sitting on their laptops at night. Many people, however, will likely not know what to do with all the conflicting information they have. They will be confused and they will turn to the people they trust, and once again risk becoming tools of somebody else’s will. They will repeat others’ ideas, not innovate on them, and act as if this is some sort of emancipation. The power only to repeat.

So mission accomplished. Patriarchy smashed. Hope you have some idea what you’re in for.

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