Ben Bagdikian, appearing in the film ‘Fear and Favor in the Newsroom’ (1996)
I never met professor Ben Bagdikian in his lifetime, though I had always wanted to. So I did the next best thing: Over the past few years I introduced his classic book The Media Monopoly (the updated version) to students of my own journalism courses at the university where I teach in Kyoto, Japan.
But recently I realized I had known little about Bagdikian’s personal background, his family history and how he came to be the respected journalist and professor he was. What kind of price had he paid to get to that high place in journalism? I wanted to find out.
A few months ago, then, I bought a copy of his post-retirement book Double Vision: Reflections on My Heritage, Life, and Profession and added it to my (ever-rising) stack of books that I intend to read in the near future.
As it turned out, Bagdikian beat me to the punch before I could start on his book. The news traveled quickly on the Internet on March 11 that Bagdikian had passed away in the United States at age 96 — four years shy of a whole century.
And what a life he had. His family was among the Armenians who had escaped genocide at the hands of neighboring Turkey in 1915 and who had resettled on the east coast of the USA, starting life from scratch. Newly arrived Armenians on both the east and west coasts of the U.S. had a tough time of it in those days, being the target of ugly racism in American society.
Bagdikian later went into local newspaper reporting in the U.S., harboring a sense of social justice. As a young reporter, he said, he relished covering the local beats and interviewing the kinds of people that most other American reporters wouldn’t waste their time on. Bagdikian got in hot water with one newspaper he worked for in the 1950s, the Rhode Island-based Providence Journal-Bulletin (reportedly the oldest continuously published daily paper in the U.S.) by supporting the editorial staff’s demand for a new labor union branch at the paper.
He later reported on the “Little Rock crisis” in 1957 in Arkansas, as U.S. army soldiers had to be called to escort nine African American students into a racially integrated high school. Bagdikian recalled getting interviews and good stories that many of his competitors in other news outlets were simply missing in Arkansas.
A decade later, as an independent journalist, he was writing a column for the esteemed Columbia Journalism Review, the voice of the media establishment in the U.S. His final CJR column in 1967 was about the Washington Post and how it lacked greatness as a big-city newspaper. The Post responded by contacting Bagdikian and inducing him to essentially either put up or shut up, offering him a job as a high-ranking editor on the paper’s national news desk. Bagdikian took the offer. Having him on staff would prove to be a mixed blessing for the Washington Post.
Just a few years on in 1971, Bagdikian served as the conduit for whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg to get the Pentagon Papers published in the Post. The documents Ellsberg had gathered showed the lie behind the United States' reasons and rationale for waging war on the sovereign nation of Vietnam.
Depending on whose version of the story you believe, the top people at the Washington Post were either boldly determined to go ahead and publish Ellsberg’s documents or they were hesitating to publish the documents for fear of reprisal by the corrupt Nixon administration.
But what most accounts of the Pentagon Papers generally agree on is that the Washington Post lawyers were strongly advising their client not to publish the Pentagon Papers and that Ben Bagdikian, the paper’s national news editor at the time, was pushing for the Post to keep its promise to Ellsberg that it would print the documents. At question was whether or not the Post even had the legal right to publish such confidential reports. “The only way to assert the right to publish is to publish” was Bagdikian’s argument, and the paper soon did. The rest is history.
Bagdikian became the Washington Post ombudsman after that, and ended up leaving the paper a year later in 1972. By 1976, the Post was embroiled in a labor union strike by its own employees — a strike Bagdikian publicly endorsed. Post publisher Katharine Graham, in her 1997 memoirs, recalled how she had fired off a memo to then-Post executive editor Ben Bradlee about their former charge and his support for the strike. Graham’s memo read in part:
“I am really embarrassed to think that this ignorant biased fool [Bagdikian] was ever national editor. Surely the worst asps in this world are the ones one has clasped to the bosom.”
But Graham’s elitist eloquence was no match for Bagdikian’s journalistic street credibility, and he went on to an even greater career as a professor and media critic of big news corporations like the Washington Post. His book The Media Monopoly, updated over the years as fewer and fewer mega-corporations came to own and control the press, remains a classic work of media studies.
And so, with Bagdikian’s recent passing, his book Double Vision still sits here in front of me, waiting to be read for the first time. I will treasure reading it all the more now that he is gone, and as I do, I will remember a wise man who served us with a warning about the dangerous power of giant media corporations at a time when most people were scoffing at the idea.
After all the obituaries and reminisces have come and gone in the wake of his passing, I guess all that’s left to say from me is:
Professor Ben Bagdikian, thank you. It was an honor to serve in the same field as you and to share your ideals and concerns about this line of work. Your legacy will be carried on. And if there’s any divine justice up there where you are now, please have them send down a thunderbolt or two aimed directly at the headquarters of Fox News. Amen.