Bagdikian’s Long Journey to Journalistic Heights

By Dorothy Bryant Special to the Planet
Tuesday June 01, 2004

The most dramatic story in Ben Bagdikian’s life was not his role in obtaining, publishing, and reporting on the Pentagon Papers in 1971. It was a story he was not able to report (until his 1995 memoir Double Vision) because he was too young—10 days old in 1920—when his parents and four sisters fled Marash, Armenia, on foot, climbing over snow-covered mountains to escape the Turks during a great Armenian genocide.  

Thinking the new baby was dead, his father dropped him in order to catch his mother who had fainted. Ben hit the snow, cried out, and was picked up again. After more narrow escapes, the family made it to America when Ben was four months old and settled in Stoneham, Mass. There his father (who had taught at an American University in Armenia) became pastor of a Cambridge Armenian Congregational Church.  

Despite the loss of his mother to tuberculosis three years later, Ben says that, compared to immigrants with no contacts, no English, and few skills, his English-speaking family had a fairly “easy entreé into middle-class American life,” and he grew up as “an Armenian overlaid by, of all things, the culture of New England Yankees.” 

Although there were family feasts where relatives told stories in Turkish or Armenian, Ben—a fiercely “American” kid who “always wished they’d serve hot dogs and stuff like that instead of stuffed eggplant”—understood neither language. “I picked up a little Turkish when I was staying with my grandparents, but lost it all. Or thought I did.”  

A few years ago, his wife Marlene and he traveled to Marash.  

“One night we found ourselves wandering in a dark and gloomy district that made me more and more uneasy. We had to get out of there, but how? I saw a man in a tan uniform—some official or policeman, I hoped—walked up to him, and out of my mouth came, ‘Can you tell us how to get a cab?’ In Turkish! I was astonished. Somewhere, back in my brain, bits of the language still lived.” 

The plan was for Ben to become a doctor, but when he graduated from Clark University (after serving as editor of the college newspaper), he needed to earn money for medical school. As a pre-med student, he had to take many chemistry courses. He went to apply for a job as a chemist. “Come back in an hour.” During that fateful hour, he wandered into the offices of the Springfield Morning Union, found that they could use a reporter, and never looked back. 

During World War II, he married while serving as a navigator in the Army Air Corps. He and his wife Betty had two sons, Chris (1944) and Eric (1951), before their marriage ended. By 1947 he was working as a reporter and Washington bureau chief for the Providence Journal-Bulletin. In 1956, he won an Ogden Reed Fellowship for a year in Europe, then in 1957 took the risky assignment of covering the Southern Civil Rights scene along with black reporter Jim Rhea. He left the Journal-Bulletin in 1961 and began freelance reporting. His first book, In The Midst of Plenty (1964), came out of articles written after spending time with poor Appalachians, bean pickers in Florida, old people “warehoused” in Los Angeles, men in flop houses in Chicago.  

Later, a similar experience, having himself smuggled into a maximum security prison as an inmate, led to his book Caged: Eight Prisoners and their Keepers (1976).  

“I was only there two weeks, but I’ll never forget how quickly the outside world disappears. A depression settles over everyone. Once, when we were brought out of our cells, I looked into a wall-mirror to check out who was nearby. I saw a guy I didn’t know. Who was that? It was me! That look, that careful, dead, expressionless look had already made me a stranger to myself.” 

I asked Ben if such experiences with the poor and the imprisoned led to his life-long concern for the deprived, the less educated. He nodded. 

“And a couple of earlier influences. There was my Uncle Fred, a mechanic with a great zest for life. He bought me my first ice cream soda, took me around with him, out of that up-tight world of the ‘preacher’s son.’ That was a terrible burden, everyone watching and judging to see how ‘good’ I was—and I wasn’t good! Yet within that uptight world was the deep concern for values. Every night we had a Bible reading, all together, the family. Sounds dreary, and sometimes it was. But, you know, after years and years, the theology, the dogma falls away, and what’s left is ‘Do unto others—’ and the Beatitudes. You know, in the ethics class I have at Berkeley, I asked my graduate students, where they got their sense of right and wrong. And most of them went back to early religious training—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, whatever—and they said the same thing, that in adulthood the theology dropped away, but the moral teachings stayed with them.” Ben laughs. “Marlene says all that King James Bible reading shows in my writing style.” 

By 1967 Ben was with the Washington Post as assistant managing editor for national news (1970), where his adventures with the Pentagon Papers hit the headlines in 1971. “It was a tricky spot to be in. I was covering the story, but I was instrumental in getting the papers, so I was part of the story as well. I believe a reporter should stand outside the story and report it accurately, but in some cases, that’s not possible. It’s like walking a tightrope.”  

Ben has won so many awards that articles about him no longer bother to list all of them. I asked which were his favorite awards.  

“I was part of a group Pulitzer, but what I value more is the Pulitzer I didn’t get. I was one of two finalists during that fellowship year 1956-57 in Europe. I had helped cover the Israeli/Egyptian war, giving the point of view of leaders but also of ordinary citizens on both sides; that’s what made our reports different. Another award I value is the Peabody I got in 1951 for criticizing leading TV and radio commentators. And I treasure the James Madison Award from the American Library Association, Coalition on Government Information in 1998.” 

In 1976 Ben joined the faculty of the UC Graduate School of Journalism, where he taught until 1991, serving three years as dean (1985-1988). His major publishing event of those years was The Media Monopoly in 1983. In that book he described the dangers of media ownership by only 50 companies. Media Monopoly went into five more editions—1987, 1990, 1993, 1997, 2000. Then in January 2004 The New Media Monopoly came out.  

“It wasn’t my idea. The publisher said I had to do a new edition because so much has changed. So the seventh edition is really 90 percent new. From 50 companies, ownership of media has shrunk to just five or six. But there’s an even bigger difference. In 1983 each company wanted a monopoly over just one medium—say magazines, or newspapers, or television. Now, these few companies try to control all media, so that the TV you watch, the radio, the newspaper, the magazines, the movies, the books—might all be owned and controlled by one corporation—Fox or Murdock or Disney. And these companies promote a far-right slant. What they have managed to do in 25 years is to shift what used to be called the ‘nutty right’ to the center. And the left has been pushed off the edge completely.” 

Is there hope in the Internet?  

“Yes. There’s lots of junk on it, but it’s still an outlet for an independent with no money but plenty of ingenuity and skill, like MoveOn.org. It’s not controlled by the corporations. Not yet. But the FCC, which is supposed to protect independent media, is Bush-appointed, and not a bit friendly.” 

What about print media? Name some of the ones that are holding firm against the move to the right. 

“Well, you know, I think you have to read the New York Times every day. There’s been a big change in the last five years. It’s not so wedded to the establishment. And there’s the Nation, the Progressive, Extra, alternative radio, the New York Review of Books. And it’s a good idea to read Time and Newsweek, so you get a view of the total picture most magazine readers are getting—and even those two have been pretty dismayed at the right lately.” Ben laughs. “I occasionally look at the National Review too, and the Weekly Standard—I think you have to know what the right is thinking.” 

I asked, what if I work at a full-time job and have a family and a house to keep up and friends, and a need to relax and watch TV a little. But I’m determined to squeeze out an hour a day to stay informed. What should I read? 

“Hmmmm. Okay. The Nation, Newsweek, the Progressive. And, of course, the Berkeley Daily Planet. It’s a really great local paper!” 

Lest the reader decide that, in my admiration for Ben, I am buttering him up inexcusably, let me conclude by telling his dirty little secret, the revelation of which is sure to infuriate him. Ben is not his real first name. His mother had him christened Ben-Hur, yes, after the monumentally schlocky best seller that spawned some even more tasteless movie spectacles. 

“To my knowledge,” Ben murmurs, “it was her only lapse of literary taste.” 


Ben Bagdikian will read from The New Media Monopoly at 7:30 on June 4 at Cody’s Books on Telegraph.