Monday, December 15, 2003

A nice article....


I am often asked why, as a journalist, I keep coming back to the story of
media and democracy - how newspapers, radio stations, television and cable
are being swallowed up by huge conglomerates. One answer comes >from the
former Yankee pitching star, Jim Bouton, who told me in an interview this
week exactly what can happen when there's only one newspaper in a town and
it's owned by a media conglomerate far from home.

Bouton, you may remember, jolted the baseball world back in 1970 with his
truth-telling diary of a season in the big leagues. Lo and behold, as Ball
Four revealed to a shocked - shocked! - America, the "boys of summer" were
just that - adolescents with overstuffed hormones who, when they weren't
making double plays, home runs, and leaping catches, liked to drink, smoke,
and run around with, ahem, "girls who do." Ball Four may well be the best
baseball book ever, but it's more than that: the New York Public Library
recently chose it as one of the l00 "Books of the Century." Whatever is
meant by the word "classic," Ball Four fits.

Now Bouton is back with another truth-teller that deserves to be a
bestseller. Media conglomeration, like baseball after Bouton, will never
be the same. Turns out the newspaper in the town near where Bouton lives -
Pittsfield, Massachusetts - wanted to use $l8.5 million dollars of taxpayer
money to build a new baseball stadium on property it owns. Turns out the
property is polluted, although the newspaper didn't bother to disclose the
fact, and that the new stadium was a way of passing off the liability to
the public even while enhancing the value of the newspaper's property.
Turns out the newspaper, which Bouton thought was locally owned, is owned
by MediaNews Group, based in Denver, Colorado, which counts among its 100
"media properties" The Salt Lake Tribune and the Denver Post. When Bouton
and his partner went to the local publisher with a proposal to renovate the
existing - and historic stadium - at no expense to the taxpayer, they were
told: Out of our hands; check it with Dean (Dean Singleton is the mogul who
runs MediaNews). They tried; Singleton didn't bother to answer, even when
Bouton sent him a signed copy of Ball Four. Turns out the conglomerate
wanted its own stadium, on its own property, at public expense, despite the
fact that the public voted down the proposal - three times! But, hey,
what's a little democracy when the only daily newspaper and the largest law
firm in town, and - hold on to your hat - General Electric (yes, that GE,
which has title to its own media universe) want the indulgence of taxpayers
for their little profit-making schemes. The local newspaper publisher,
Bouton tells me, "was being controlled by his boss in Denver. And the local
politicians were being controlled by the local publisher. So there was a
sort of puppeteer controlling the decisions that were made by the local

I'm not going any further to give away a crackling good story except to say
that when his book publisher received a call from somebody close to GE, the
big league publisher caved and wouldn't publish the book. Bouton says he
was told he could keep half the advance if he remained silent about the
whole affair; he refused and published Foul Ball himself. Rush out and buy
a copy ( and read for yourself how
every monopoly is a tyranny lying in wait. The only daily paper in
Bouton's town didn't want the public to know what was going on, and there
was no competitor to throw a light on the shenanigans taking place between
its publisher and the politicians. As the old saying goes, freedom of the
press belongs to the fellow who owns one.

What happened in Bouton's town happens all over the country, alas; two
thirds of the newspaper markets in America are monopolies. Oh, by the way:
When their side of the story was distorted by the paper, Bouton and his
partner got their story out through the radio stations in town. If Dean
Singleton and the FCC have their way, such insubordination by mere citizens
won't happen again. Singleton was last seen in Washington making the case
for the FCC decision to enable him to own more media properties -
broadcasting and print - in one town. Talk about silencing the lambs!
Truth is, when the big broadcasters and publishers lobby Congress, the FCC,
and the White House for the green light to merge, consolidate, and
eliminate the competition, they don't bother to report to their readers or
viewers what they're up to. They prefer to keep us in the dark.

John Leonard gives us another insight into why it's important to keep
coming back to this story of media conglomeration. John Leonard may be
our most prolific social critic. He's everywhere - Harper's, The New York
Times Book Review, The Nation, The New York Review of Books, "CBS Sunday
Morning." Most recently he has edited a wonderful array of writers who
have produced for Nation Books ( a reminder of just how
much we need our maverick voices. These United States is a series of
essays, articles, reports - they fit no neat description - by some
wondrously talented writers and journalists commissioned to describe the
sights, smells, and politics of America in each of the 50 states. But I
bring John Leonard up here because in preparing to interview him this week,
I re-read a brilliant essay ( he wrote some years ago about
what happens when reporters, editors and critics become caged birds singing
the company tune in the information-commodities racket. When they begin to
have more in common with the chairman of the board than with the working
stiffs who read and watch, journalism turns to slush; pretty soon they
figure out it doesn't pay to cover the working stiffs standing out there
with their noses pressed against the window.

So, yes, I keep coming back to the subject of media conglomeration because
it can take the oxygen out of democracy. The founders of this country
believed a free and rambunctious press was essential to the protection of
our freedoms. They couldn't envision the rise of giant megamedia
conglomerates whose interests converge with state power to produce a
conspiracy against the people. I think they would be aghast at how this
union of media and government has produced the very kind of imperial power
against which they rebelled. So, yes, media conglomeration has become a
beat for my colleagues and me. We think this is the most important story
of all, the one that determines what other stories get told - and how.

This is an expanded version of an essay that will air on a special edition
of NOW with Bill Moyers airing on Friday, November 28, 2003 at 9pm on PBS
devoted to media issues. Tune in to watch the complete interviews with
Jim Bouton and John Leonard.

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If you miss some or all of this week's NOW broadcast or you would like to
watch it again go to to watch this episode online beginning
Monday, December 1.

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