Ben Bagdikian, Visionary

Photo of Ben Bagdikian from the

Washington Post, where he helped break the Pentagon Papers and Watergate stories.

From Day One, no journalist more influenced FAIR’s standard media critique than Ben Bagdikian. The first edition of his Media Monopoly was our bible. Ben joined our advisory board as soon as we assembled one in 1986; he wrote our first cover story in

Extra! (6/87). He was a kind and supportive uncle to FAIR during those early years.

No group followed the Bagdikian Number  (the ever-shrinking number of corporations that controlled a majority of media revenue) more avidly than FAIR. It was to FAIR what the “Doomsday Clock” was to the

Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. With every new mega-merger, we would say, “Life imitates Ben.”

Before almost anyone else, Ben warned about the impact of the modern wave of media mergers that accelerated during the Reagan years (and accelerated further during the Clinton administration). In the first years of FAIR, I heard from various sympathetic journalists in mainstream media who said they were thrilled that, finally, a pro–working journalist media watch group had formed . . . but that we were off-base to emphasize the impact of corporate owners—that the problem was in the newsroom far more than the boardroom. A few years and a few mergers later, these same journalists told us that we’d been right, almost prophetic—that boardrooms were undermining journalism, often quite nakedly.

But we weren’t the visionaries.  It was Ben Bagdikian who was the seer.

Ben was a journalist’s journalist—from his years as a local reporter to his years at the

Washington Post (where he played a crucial role in publishing the Pentagon Papers and went undercover as an inmate in a maximum-security prison). He served the public, not the boardroom—and luckily for him, he got out of corporate media before the conglomerate era.

Every semester in my journalism class at Ithaca College, I screen the Oscar-nominated documentary, Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press. The star of that movie is Ben Bagdikian, holding forth on what real journalists do: How they buck trends. How they don’t countenance demagogues like Sen. Joe McCarthy (or today, by implication, Donald Trump).

Ben’s motto through all these decades could have been: “Tell the Truth and Stand Strong.”


New York Times obit for Ben (3/11/16) quotes his message to his journalism students at UC Berkeley:

Never forget that your obligation is to the people. It is not, at heart, to those who pay you, or to your editor, or to your sources, or to your friends, or to the advancement of your career. It is to the public.

Jeff Cohen is the founder of FAIR. He’s now the founding director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College.

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