One of my journalistic heroes in the early part of my career was Ben Bagdikian, who just passed away at age 96. Bagdikian was a tough critic who warned that quality, independent journalism was threatened by the trend toward increasing corporate control of media outlets. It used to be that wealthy families owned major media outlets and felt some sense of public service, but over time they have mostly sold out. I got my first taste of this reality when Scripps-Howard sold my beloved United Press International to a series of craven raiders, who stripped it bare.
In 2004, Bagdikian wrote “The New Media Monopoly” in which he argued that a mere five corporations and their leaders exercised too much control over the media that Americans watch or read every day. We’ve seen a proliferation of cable channels and Internet sites since then, but the central reality remains: the profit motive now far exceeds any sense of journalistic mission.
What Bagdikian anticipated, and what I have witnessed, is that the owners of media organizations have placed an emphasis on sales, sales, sales and have been willing, eager even, to sacrifice the journalistic values of dispassion and some measure of objectivity. It used to be that Americans believed what they consumed from the media, or at least most of it.
But today media organizations, driven by the need to expand the number of hits and eyeballs, are pandering to the opposite ends of the political spectrum. They have lost legitimacy. Which news organization can anyone believe? Who has maintained credibility as fighting for the decent middle ground? Precious few. Perhaps The New York Times and Wall Street Journal but even they have staked out clear ideological ground in the nation’s culture wars.
One result is that someone such as Donald Trump can surge onto the nation’s political stage and take a commanding lead in the Republican Party’s bid to succeed President Obama. Any rational examination of Trump would reveal that he is a man without any moral purpose other than self-enrichment and self-promotion. He just shouldn’t pass the basic scratch-and-sniff test. Yet the media of all stripes helped promote him. Why? It was good copy. Key editors and producers, the so-called gatekeepers of the media, hitched their wagons to Trump because he sold. They did that because, as Bagdikian feared, they were more interested in profits than in speaking truth.