BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. This spring, the Beacon Press released a revised and updated version of one of the century's most important works of media criticism. Ben Bagdikian's original The Media Monopoly is an examination of the concentration of American mass media outlets in the hands of very few corporations. Critics called it "alarmist," but 20 years later, it looks like Ben Bagdikian was right on target. The new version, The New Media Monopoly, describes a media environment much more concentrated and cartel-like than it was in 1983. With five corporations controlling most of the airwaves and presses in the country, even those original critics must agree that something unprecedented is happening to American media. Ben Bagdikian joins us now. Ben, welcome to On the Media.
BEN BAGDIKIAN: Glad to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: Did you ever see a Jimmy Stewart movie called The Billy Mitchell Story?
BEN BAGDIKIAN: Yes, I did.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, well allow me, please, to remind listeners that Billy Mitchell was a pioneering aviator -- sort of the Father of the Army Air Corps, and there is this dramatic scene in the film, like 1930, when he scandalizes the world by predicting that the Japanese would bomb the United States. Now he was dismissed as hysterical and alarmist and irresponsible, but 12 years later, lo and behold. So my question is: how does it feel to be Billy Mitchell?
BEN BAGDIKIAN: [LAUGHS] Well, I don't fly airplanes any more, but the analogy, I think, is a grand one. I think, if anything, what I've done by the original book and subsequent rewriting of this book is to predict that as the communications on which most Americans say they depend become controlled by a handful of corporations, that what is served to the public is what these corporations decide they want to say and what they don't want to say. And one of the themes that runs through the book is that media power is political power.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, you've been singing this tune for more than 20 years. What's changed since 1983?
BEN BAGDIKIAN: I have to say that every edition of the book I've put out was obsolete the day it came out, because I have, in every edition, under-estimated the arrogance and power and the, what I regard as disservice of the corporations as they became more powerful. The techniques of violence, of sex are very good audience collectors. How much that does for democracy is a good question.
BOB GARFIELD: You've said that with every edition of your book, you find that it's obsolete at - on the date of publishing. Do you think with this latest edition that at long last you'll be able to look at it in a couple of years and say well, just this one time, I've over-reacted?
BEN BAGDIKIAN: Well, I must say -- even though I have cases in the new book of the grossest kind of censorship, I would not have imagined at the time the book went to press that Disney would make a movie that was sure they'd make a lot of money and not put it out because it was politically damaging to the administration, which of course, appoints the FCC majority, which the present operators like. I was not able to imagine that they would go that far, but they did. They rejected their own picture.
BOB GARFIELD: You of course are talking about Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 which was supposed to be distributed by Disney until Chairman Michael Eisner said he wouldn't allow it. Disney sold it to Harvey and Bob Weinstein, his own employees, actually, at Miramax. They found new distributors, and the movie opened across the country and became the highest-grossing documentary in history. I want to ask you about the future. Is it possible that the internet is exactly the diverse and democratizing force that could counterbalance the effects of media monopoly as we know it now?
BEN BAGDIKIAN: I completely agree that it is the bright light on the horizon, and it has had a very real effect. One organization on the internet got tens and hundreds of thousands of people to march against the Iraqi invasion, and it demonstrated that power. So, money still rules the roost, but there are chinks in that old alignment of the big operators. But they remain there. They're powerful. In my book, I say that the people who control most of what the American public reads, sees, hears -- can fit in a generous phone booth. Twenty years ago, they needed a small ballroom. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Well, thank you very much.
BEN BAGDIKIAN: Oh, it was a pleasure to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: An updated edition of Ben Bagdikian's groundbreaking work Media Monopoly, now titled The New Media Monopoly, is published by The Beacon Press.