Ben H. Bagdikian, Reporter of Broad Range and Conscience, Dies at 96


Ben Bagdikian

Ben Bagdikian

By Robert D. McFadden

BERKELEY, Calif. (New York Times) — Ben H. Bagdikian, a journalist and news media critic who became a celebrated voice of conscience for his profession, calling for tougher standards of integrity and public service in an era of changing tastes and technology, died on Friday at his home in Berkeley, Calif. He was 96.

His wife, Marlene Griffith Bagdikian, confirmed his death.

Over five decades, Mr. Bagdikian was a national and foreign correspondent for newspapers and magazines; a reporter, editor and ombudsman for The Washington Post; the author of eight books; and for many years a professor and the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

Born into an Armenian family that fled from genocide in Ottoman Turkey, he grew up in Depression America with a passion for social justice that shaped his reporting. He became an undercover inmate to expose inhumane prison conditions in Pennsylvania, rode with an Israeli tank crew to write about the 1956 Suez Crisis, and lived with oppressed families in the South to cover the civil rights struggle in the 1960s.

He was the Washington Post’s conduit for the Pentagon Papers, the secret Defense Department study of decades of American duplicity in Indochina that was disclosed by the military analyst Daniel Ellsberg and published by The Post and The New York Times in 1971 in defiance of the Nixon administration’s attempts at suppression as the nation debated its deepening involvement in the war in Vietnam.

But he was perhaps best known as the author of The Media Monopoly (1983), which warned that freedom of expression and independent journalism were threatened by the consolidation of news and entertainment outlets in a shrinking circle of corporate owners. A mere 50 companies, he wrote, controlled what most Americans read in newspapers and books and saw on television and at the movies.

By 2004, when he published The New Media Monopoly, the last of seven sequel editions, the number of corporate giants controlling much of the flow of information and entertainment had dwindled to five. “This gives each of the five corporations and their leaders more communications power than was exercised by any despot or dictatorship in history,” Bagdikian wrote.

Journalists, scholars, corporate officials and the public still debate the drawbacks and merits of limited media ownership. But the Internet and desktop publishing have extended freedom of speech to anyone with a computer. Cable networks and online news and entertainment choices have proliferated, and some observers contend that the Orwellian perils envisioned by Bagdikian have receded or become moot.

While Bagdikian was most vociferous against ownership concentrations — calling for limits on the size of newspaper chains, for example, even if the limits ran afoul of the First Amendment — his news media criticism ranged widely. He examined conflicts of interest and journalistic integrity, legal issues affecting the press, the media’s responsibility to act in the public interest, and trends in investigative reporting.

He rebuked newspaper publishers who pressed journalists to promote advertisers’ interests, breaching the traditional wall between news and business. He was troubled by the wide use of anonymous sources in news reports, and by the credulity of reporters and editors who accepted the “official” accounts of self-serving government spokesmen, especially when facts were being suppressed on national security grounds.

He urged tougher standards of public service for broadcasters seeking renewal of their licenses. He advised Americans not to rely on television networks for news, calling them “one network in triplicate” because of their similarities. And he especially deplored the celebrity status of television network anchors.

“The worst thing that can happen to a journalist is to become a celebrity,” he told The Progressive in 1997. “The honest job of the journalist is to observe, to listen, to learn. The job of the celebrity is to be observed, to make sure others learn about him or her, to be the object of attention rather than an observer.”

Ben Haig Bagdikian was born on January 30, 1920, in Marash, Turkey, the youngest of five children of Aram Bagdikian, a chemistry teacher, and the former Daisy Uvezian. The family fled the massacre of Armenians when Ben was an infant and made its way to America, settling in Stoneham, Mass. His mother died when he was 3, and his father became pastor of an Armenian Congregational church in Cambridge.

He graduated from Clark University in 1941 and worked briefly as a reporter for the Springfield Morning Union in Massachusetts. In 1942 he married Elizabeth Ogasapian. They had two sons, Christopher and Frederick, and were divorced in 1972. His second marriage, to Betty Medsger, ended in divorce. In 1983, he married Marlene Griffith. Besides her, he is survived by Frederick. Christopher died in 2015.

After serving as a navigator in World War II, Bagdikian joined the Providence Journal and Evening Bulletin in Rhode Island in 1947. Over the next 15 years he was a local reporter, a member of a team that won the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for deadline coverage of a bank robbery, a foreign correspondent in the Middle East and a Washington correspondent.

From 1963 to 1967 he was a Washington-based contributing editor of the Saturday Evening Post and wrote freelance articles about politics, poverty, housing, migration and other subjects for the New York Times Magazine and other publications. He also covered the civil rights movement, sometimes as a companion of victims of intimidation and violence.

His first book, In the Midst of Plenty: The Poor in America, was published in 1964. His other books included The Information Machines: Their Impact on Men and the Media (1971), The Effete Conspiracy and Other Crimes by the Press (1972), and a memoir, Double Vision: Reflections on My Heritage, Life and Profession (1995).

Frustrated by the “sins and omissions” of reporters and television crews at news events, he began writing media critiques in the 1960s after formulating a Bagdikian Law of Journalism: “The accuracy of news reports of an event is inversely proportional to the number of reporters on the scene.”

Bagdikian studied the news media for the RAND Corporation from 1967 to 1969. After joining the Washington Post in 1970, he became an assistant managing editor and the ombudsman, representing the newspaper’s readers. From 1972 to 1974, he wrote for t he Columbia Journalism Review. He taught journalism at Berkeley from 1976 until retiring in 1990, and was the graduate school’s dean from 1985 to 1988.

“Never forget,” he told his students at the outset, “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.”