Ben H. Bagdikian’s The New Media Monopoly details an American media that most readers know little to nothing about. It is a winding and weaving text that sheds light on an institution we trust to keep us informed, but more often than we realize, utterly fail in doing so—intentionally, nonetheless. The people governing this institution range from government and military to big corporations. They are sometimes our friends and sometimes our foes, but no matter what we may think, they are always in control.
Bagdikian begins by introducing us to Time Warner, Disney, News Corporation, Viacom, and Bertelsmann—a group described by him infamously as the Big Five. These companies own and control “most of the newspapers, magazines, book publishers, motion picture studios, and radio and television stations in the United States”. Many company big wigs sit on the board of directors of more than one of these companies, and many of these companies share stakes in smaller companies that they also own. They present an illusion of competition and high stakes, but in reality, these five conglomerates exist as one giant driving force behind American politics and media. They blur the lines that define competition, ultimately controlling what people buy and at what cost—in both literal, physical terms, and also, political and metaphorical. While doing this, these conglomerates force-feed Americans the impression that Americans have options, have the freedom to choose, and enjoy the fruits of a “free press”. In all actuality, these virtues are illusions, and Bagdikian meticulously explains why.
After fleshing out the Big Five and how they affect American consumers directly, Bagdikian shifts his focus to the volatile relationship between the American media and the United States government. Here, he acquaints the reader with a potentially life-changing realization—that the rumors are true: the government lies. For whatever reason, the American media (whose binding code of ethics commands fact checking, for one thing) perpetuates these lies with great frequency at both the expense of the American public’s “right to know”, and the United States’ reputation internationally. Specific examples follow, which Bagdikian corroborates with facts, figures, quotations, and sources.
In other instances, Bagdikian enlightens readers on the truth about the wars in Iraq and Vietnam; the truth about taxes in America; the truth about homelessness; and the truth about the media’s schizophrenic relationship with the public and the United States government. There are instances where the media is our friend—and not the government’s lap dog. There are instances where journalists and media are ridiculed by the powers that be, putting their own heads on the chopping blocks in order to bring the public fair and balanced information.
Nevertheless, The New Media Monopoly is not for everybody. While it is fast-paced and fun to read, it is not for those who subscribe to the “ignorance is bliss” school of thought. Readers will undoubtedly never watch or hear the news in the same way again after finishing this book. Bagdikian, who morphs from author and journalist to the proverbial bearer of bad news (and therefore, a beloved friend), reads like a top-secret, anti-establishment writer of sorts. Unlike the media, he gives it to readers straight. And for that reason, his book is a must-read.