John Buell

News Corp. and American Democracy

Will Rupert Murdoch’s public humiliation end with the indictment of his son and deposing both as leaders of News Corporation? Murdoch is of course a larger than life figure, a modern day Citizen Kane, the movie character based in part on the life of the real media titan of his day, William Randolph Hearst. Hearst built a media empire through yellow journalism and relentless promotion of American empire.

Murdoch has helped reshape modern media, not merely in terms of corporate consolidation or political leanings but also journalistic style and redefinition of the nature and limits of political argument.

But though he has helped to define the role of media tycoon in the late twentieth and twenty first century, the evolution of capitalism and its political economy has itself reinforced and in turn been buttressed by his performance. Great actors inspire but also depend on engaged and receptive audiences.

Rupert Murdoch did not begin the process of media consolidation. A generation ago, media scholar and critic Ben Bagdikian highlighted the tendency of corporate media empires to achieve a high degree of both vertical and horizontal integration. (See The New Media Monopoly, revised and updated in 2004 with seven new chapters.)

Diminishing numbers of corporate media controlled most of the market. In Britain, Murdoch has achieved an unprecedented degree of media consolidation. That success of course owes something to Murdoch’s ability to appeal to — and sow — the politics of backlash and jingoism.  Murdoch had a cultural climate that proved receptive. The mainstream media of the sixties and seventies did indeed show some sympathy to growing concerns over racial justice and social issues. Radical critiques of corporate capitalism or sympathetic analyses of the plight of working class whites in an era of outsourcing, however, were hardly to be found. Murdoch had a perfect sweet spot to spread his right wing populism.

Murdoch’s success has had other drivers as well. Like the large investment banks and defense contractors, he has depended on a symbiotic relationship with major political leaders. John Nichols points out “Rupert Murdoch has manipulated not just the news but the news landscape of the United States for decades. He has done so by pressuring the Federal Communications Commission and Congress to alter the laws of the land and regulatory standards in order to give his media conglomerate an unfair advantage in ‘competition’ with more locally focused, more engaged and more responsible media.”

Murdoch is a prime example of the evolution of US capitalism toward a political economy that imposes market discipline on the poor even as it rewards and buttresses the power of the corporate winners and the wealthy. Nichols also asks if we should care about Murdoch’s journalistic triumph.

He suggests that the Murdoch scandal “raises huge questions about how news stories are and will be obtained in an era of new media and about the extent to which supposedly personal communications are private.” These are certainly valid points, but a ruthless pursuit and exploitation of information about the private lives of its subjects has early precursors within the national security state itself.

Think of J Edgar Hoover’s accumulation of information about the sexual predilections of political leaders and his shameless deployment of these to bribe his nominal superiors.

Just as importantly, the corporate culture of News Corp reflected Murdoch’s broader political ideals and affected its journalistic practices. Murdoch’s notorious hostility to unions expressed itself in actions taken after high profile news takeovers at such papers as the New York Post and this in turn affected the editorial product. Michelle Chen comments: “Eavesdropping on voicemail or obtaining call logs was initially a money-saving measure” to get the scoop fast and cheap.

More broadly, Murdoch feeds but also reflects a politics of demonization not unique to the United States but exceptionally potent here. Thus to a greater extent than in most modern democracies, such questions as whether one inhaled marijuana or had a mistress pass for informed and important political debate.

Fox reflects and amplifies another vital trend in the evolution of our politics. Naomi Klein’s provocative Shock Doctrine suggests that the evolution of neoliberal capitalism with its market discipline for the many and rewards and subsidies for the well placed has depended on crisis.

Thus 9/11 gave Bush extraordinary opportunities to reshape the economy and the national security state. Yet from my vantage point Klein underplays the role of the media in framing and fostering the sense of crisis.

How is it that 9/11 evoked a far different response from the Oklahoma City bombing?

A media that glorified Wall Street as the world’s financial capital, that demonized Arabs, that viewed human history in Manichean terms played a crucial role. The role of the media in shaping and defining crisis is even more obvious in the case of the current debt ceiling debate. The notion that the US is broke is absurd. If we are broke now, we were much more broke in the years following WWII. Yet in those years the US growth rate topped that of the Reagan era and the fruits of growth were much more equitably distributed.

Nonetheless, Fox has been an amplification machine for the notion that the US is broke and government, just like today’s families, must retrench.

Murdoch and his minions may face criminal charges. His singular ability to sense cultural vulnerabilities and ruthlessly to unearth and exploit personal failings or eccentricities has altered the media and political world. But neither our media nor our progressive politicians should indulge in anti-Murdoch vendettas and frame him as symbol and root of our troubles.

True, he is an ideal villain and we love villains. But absent much stronger barriers to media consolidation and more opportunities for a diverse, citizen-journalist- and- consumer-directed media, where something other than advertiser dollars are the prime driver and motivation, Murdoch’s demise will do us little good.

Perhaps the role of the few remaining independent voices like the Guardian in exposing Murdoch and the truly ghastly practices to which News Corporation has stooped will help foster broad media and economic reform.

If progressives’ only success is to punish or remove Rupert Murdoch, we may be disappointed. The larger political economy he represents may survive and even grow with his fall. Gwynne Dwyer points out: “There is something called the “Murdoch discount.” It is the gap between the market value of News Corporation as it is, and the considerably larger sum that it would be worth without Rupert Murdoch at the helm. (Bloomberg estimates that it would be 50% higher.)” But what is good for News Corporation stockholders may not be good enough for us.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2011

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