Murdoch Media: The Sleeze Finally Hits The Fan
From the August 2011 edition of THE SCENE
In 2007 Clive Goodman, a “journalist” for Britain’s sleazy celebrity gossip tabloid The News of the World (NotW), went to jail for illegally hacking into voice mails of the paper’s “persons of interest.” For 4 years, NotW executives brushed off the hacking as the work of one rogue reporter. Owned by Australian born media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, NotW in 2010 averaged 2.8 million readers per week.
Then last month, the sleeze finally hit the fan; Britain’s Guardian exposed the targeting of as many as 7,000 citizens for phone hacking. Targets included victims of terrorism. Most enraging was the discovery that NotW weasels hacked the voice messages of 13 year old murder victim Millie Dowler. Though NotW had been in circulation for 168 years, public revulsion at the Dowler fiasco led to Murdoch closing down the paper. As I write in mid-July the scandal has already resulted in the resignations of top level Murdoch executives Rebekah Brooks and Les Hinton as well as an array of journalists. [August 2 update: The Guardian recently exposed NotW phone hacking related to another young murder victim.].
Possible phone message hacking of 9/11 victims, along with allegations of bribing police officers for sensitive information, resulted in United States Attorney General Eric Holder launching an investigation into the News Corporation’s activities on this side of the pond. Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal responded with an outrageous editorial attacking “politicians and our competitors” using the scandal to “perhaps injure press freedom in general.”
Rupert Murdoch is not the first and will not be the last ethically challenged, power obsessed corporate media executive. Yet with the possible exception of William Randolph Hearst, the famed publisher whose “yellow journalism” rags whipped the public into war frenzy and in the 1930s exposed millions of readers to pro-Nazi propaganda, Murdoch is the single most negative force in the history of western media. Since the 1980s, television and print productions associated with the Murdoch brand read like a murderer’s row of exploitation, titillation, free market cheerleading, and right wing proselytizing. In addition to NotW they include “A Current Affair,” The New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, the Fox News Network and many others. Often, as in the case of the New York Post and Wall Street Journal, Murdoch’s ownership transforms once respectable news sources into sensationalist muck (the Post) or a propaganda arm for Murdoch’s market ideology (the WSJ).
According to Nation columnist John Nichols, Murdoch has “gamed American politics every bit as thoroughly as Britain’s.” During a 2003 appearance before the House Judiciary Committee, Murdoch discovered that Republicans on the panel could not wait to kiss his ass. Nichols quotes Wisconsin Congressman James Sensenbrenner as telling Murdoch, “When my wife doesn’t get a good dose of Fox News every day she gets grumpy. So there are some of us who appreciate what you are doing.” Today, Congressional Republicans appear to be in no hurry to investigate Murdoch’s News Corporation. Why risk harming the “fair and balanced” Fox News network’s incessant spewing of GOP talking points?
Given the above, it’s tempting to see Murdoch as the cause of the debasement of political discourse and journalism on both sides of the Atlantic. But that’s too simple; Murdoch more accurately is the most awful symptom of what happens when an unchallenged model of profit-driven media intersects with a weak media regulatory system. Here’s the equation: Unquestioned profit motive + weak regulations = Murdoch’s News Corporation.
Media critic Marvin Kitman’s fine piece in the November 2010 Harper’s (“Murdoch Triumphant: How we could have stopped him twice”) lays out in crisp detail how the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) virtually suspended the Communication Act of 1934 in order to green light Murdoch’s growth plans. Kitman argues that the FCC, when it came to Murdoch, wasn’t a lap dog as much as a lap dancer.
The FCC lap dance happened in the 80s and 90s. Murdoch bought 6 American television stations, but because the News Corporation was Australia based the FCC could have denied licenses on the grounds that the Communications Act does not allow foreign ownership of American stations. The FCC ruled in Murdoch’s favor, and did again when he sought to own a newspaper and television station in the same market.
I learned from Ben Bagdikian’s classic The New Media Monopoly that Murdoch’s News Corporation even owns Zondervan, the largest producer of commercial Bibles in America. When conservative Christians buy a Zondervan Bible, do you think they know they are supporting a sultan of sleaze overseeing a morally challenged and quite possibly criminally corrupt empire? Not a prayer, I suspect.