Dangers of media concentration; The Media Monopoly, by Ben H. Bagdikian. Boston: Beacon Press. 282 pp. $14.95.
I really shouldn't like this book - it's marred by bias, polemics, and inaccuracies, and much of the evidence the author marshals to prove his case is several years old.
But I do like it, because it's a groundbreaking work that charts a historic shift in the orientation of the majority of America's communications media - further away from the needs of the individual and closer to those of big business. It also provides a hard-to-find overview of the important ways our sources of information have changed during this century. And, above all, it is a book that could broaden public understanding of a key issue: why so many US voters, awash in ''information age'' data, actually feel ill-informed and apathetic about their choices in the democratic process.
In ''The Media Monopoly'' veteran journalist and media critic Ben Bagdikian sets out to warn readers about the dangers he sees in the growing concentration of ownership of America's newspaper, magazine, book-publishing, and broadcast companies. But by choosing to explore potential dangers, Professor Bagdikian, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, forsakes the safe territory of fact and marches into the minefield of speculation. His argument is certain to be controversial and possibly wrong.
In the first of the book's two sections, he shows that conglomerates have absorbed so many media enterprises since the '60s that now roughly half of the 25,000 American newspaper, magazine, book-publishing, and broadcast enterprises are controlled by just 50 large companies.
He predicts that further concentration threatens to weaken media coverage of such subjects as corporate wrongdoing, windfall profits, lobbying, tax loopholes , environmental problems, labor issues, and more. It could also lessen diversity among the voices that help determine the national agenda, increase the number of one-newspaper communities, shrink the amount of space given to local news, and cost readers and advertisers more money in the process, he adds.
But the ultimate threat, says Bagdikian, is to America's democratic system, which depends on ''informed consent'' of the governed. Without a coherent picture of the society in which we live and especially of the real causes of events, we ''tend to remain static and bewildered, left at the mercy of whoever acts with power.''
Forty-three percent of the United States population now lives in counties that have no local daily papers, he notes. These citizens can't possibly be as well informed as they should be about their choices at the polls, he says. Much of the ''information'' they get comes from candidate-sponsored TV spots or metropolitan newspaper ads that don't really inform. At the same time, the high costs of advertising mean that candidates must be backed by the wealthy or be wealthy themselves. Surveys show, he adds, that the biggest spenders have been winning races at the rate of 4 to 1.
The book's second section deals with the impact of advertising (which nets media corporations an average of nearly $5 for every $1 from readers or viewers, according to Bagdikian) on survivability, form, and content of the media.
The author points out that the rational decisions of advertisers, who attempt to reach the largest audience at the lowest cost, tend to squeeze out newspaper competition, magazines that don't appeal to the right (affluent) audiences, and TV programming that is hard-hitting, controversial, or in any way elitist.
An article or program that puts the reader ''in an analytical frame of mind'' doesn't encourage him or her to ''take seriously an ad that depend(s) on fantasy or promote(s) a trivial product,'' he writes. ''The challenge of American newspapers,'' he quotes a former editor of the London Sunday Times as saying, '' 'is not to stay in business - it is to stay in journalism.' ''
To illustrate the kinds of dangers he sees ahead, Bagdikian alleges that various books and articles have already been suppressed by publishers because corporate interests ranked above those of readers, and that today's media patterns present the potential for this to occur on a scale never before possible. Besides suppressed information, Bagdikian also alleges that political favors have been won through the clout of media corporations.
Bagdikian's account of a book tentatively titled ''Corporate Murder,'' which was ultimately rejected by Simon & Schuster, a Gulf + Western company, brought ''The Media Monopoly'' into the news even before it was published. Simon & Schuster pressured Bagdikian's publisher to change his account of the incident before going to press. Beacon Press refused.
Occasionally Bagdikian's zeal in tracing corporate links and his obvious anger over their influence prove his undoing. He sometimes exaggerates the consequences of interlocking corporate directorates and the penetration of corporate policy into day-to-day editorial decisions. And once in a while his facts are wrong. He identifies Temple-Eastex, for instance, a Texas wood products and pulp concern, as having the controlling interest in Time Inc., when actually Time Inc., owns Temple-Eastex.
Yet the many valid figures, studies, and examples of corporate self-interest (seen in dishonest PR campaigns, quashed stories, books, and TV programs) he gives us delineate a trend that demands the vigilance of us all.