I am often asked why, as a journalist, I keep coming back to the story of media and democracy–how newspapers, radio stations, television and cable are being swallowed up by huge conglomerates. One answer comes from the former Yankee pitching star, Jim Bouton, who told me in an interview this week exactly what can happen when there’s only one newspaper in a town and it’s owned by a media conglomerate far from home.
Bouton, you may remember, jolted the baseball world back in 1970 with his truth-telling diary of a season in the big leagues. Lo and behold, as Ball Four revealed to a shocked–shocked!–America, the “boys of summer” were just that–adolescents with overstuffed hormones who, when they weren’t making double plays, home runs and leaping catches, liked to drink, smoke and run around with, ahem, “girls who do.” Ball Four may well be the best baseball book ever, but it’s more than that: The New York Public Library recently chose it as one of the 100 “Books of the Century.” Whatever is meant by the word “classic,” Ball Four fits.
Now Bouton is back with another truth-teller that deserves to be a bestseller. Media conglomeration, like baseball after Bouton, will never be the same. Turns out the newspaper in the town near where Bouton lives–Pittsfield, Massachusetts–wanted to use $18.5 million of taxpayer money to build a new baseball stadium on property it owns. Turns out the property is polluted, although the newspaper didn’t bother to disclose the fact, and that the new stadium was a way of passing off the liability to the public even while enhancing the value of the newspaper’s property. Turns out the newspaper, which Bouton thought was locally owned, is owned by MediaNews Group, based in Denver, Colorado, which counts among its 100 “media properties” the Salt Lake Tribune and the Denver Post.
When Bouton and his partner went to the local publisher with a proposal to renovate the existing–and historic–stadium at no expense to the taxpayer, they were told: Out of our hands; check it with Dean (Dean Singleton is the mogul who runs MediaNews). They tried; Singleton didn’t bother to answer, even when Bouton sent him a signed copy of Ball Four. Turns out the conglomerate wanted its own stadium, on its own property, at public expense, despite the fact that the public voted down the proposal–three times! But, hey, what’s a little democracy when the only daily newspaper, the largest law firm in town and–hold on to your hat–General Electric (yes, that GE, which has title to its own media universe) want the indulgence of taxpayers for their little profit-making schemes. The local newspaper publisher, Bouton tells me, “was being controlled by his boss in Denver. And the local politicians were being controlled by the local publisher. So there was a sort of puppeteer controlling the decisions that were made by the local government.”
I’m not going any further to give away a crackling good story except to say that when his book publisher received a call from somebody close to GE, the big league publisher caved and wouldn’t publish the book. Bouton says he was told he could keep half the advance if he remained silent about the whole affair; he refused and published Foul Ball himself. Rush out and buy a copy (www.jimbouton.com/foulball.html), and read for yourself how every monopoly is a tyranny lying in wait. The only daily paper in Bouton’s town didn’t want the public to know what was going on, and there was no competitor to throw a light on the shenanigans taking place between its publisher and the politicians. As the old saying goes, freedom of the press belongs to the fellow who owns one.