Thursday, August 11, 2011

Murdochization Of America

With the Debt-Ceiling Follies and its brutal aftermath commanding the attention of the media, short shrift has been given to the multiple transgressions of  Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. and what it means on this side of the Atlantic.  And when we do hear about this still-unfolding scandal involving phone-hacking, influence peddling and bribery, it is perceived as something that could only happen in England.  Criticism of the Murdoch empire in the Colonies is generally directed at Fox News as the propaganda arm of the Republican Party.

But, as Frank Rich points out in his latest piece for New York Magazine, Murdoch Hacked Us Too, there is a far bigger story about the corruption at News Corp. that "threatens to bring down its management and radically reconfigure and reduce its international corporate footprint." 
An otherwise archetypal media colossus, with apolitical TV shows (American Idol), movies (Avatar), and cable channels (FX) like any other, is controlled by a family (and its tight coterie of made men and women, exemplified by the recently departed Rebekah Brooks) that countenances the intimidation and silencing of politicians, regulators, competitors, journalists, and even ordinary citizens to maximize its profits and power and to punish perceived corporate, political, and personal enemies. And, as we now know conclusively, some of this behavior has broken the law.
What has been revealed thus far about how News Corp. operates in London includes conduct that would not be tolerated at most public companies:  compulsive lying, wholesale buying of police and politicians, thuggery used to invade privacy, and a dizzying array of cover-ups that include sham investigations and the paying of hush money.

Rich points out that we in the United States are in denial about the real damage inflicted by News Corp. bullying by Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck and others in or formerly in their employ.  "We've become so inured to Murdoch tactics over the years -- and so many people in public life have been frightened, silenced, co-opted, or even seduced by them -- that we have minimized his impact exactly the way his publicists hoped we would, downgrading News Corp. misbehavior merely to tabloid vulgarity and right-wing attack dog politics."  But, as Rich says, "there's a real difference between the tabloidization of America -- which is, and no doubt always will be unstoppable -- and the Murdochization of America, which still might be stopped."

It is one thing for a news organization to hire former politicians or even semi-retired officials, but Murdoch has taken this to a whole new level that can only be described as "the wholesale buying of elected officials."   For example, Fox included four potential presidential candidates (Palin, Huckabee, Gingrich, Santorum) on its payroll, not to mention Karl Rove, who continues to preside over a major political fund-raising organization, while dispensing his political wisdom on Fox and at the Wall Street Journal.  In addition is the publicity for Tea Party rallies and the donation of $1.26 million to the Republican Governor's Association. This "isn't mere partisanship," but is "tantamount to a GOP-Fox News merger."

Rich notes that this goes beyond Fox News.  A classic example of News Corp.'s political influence in the United States occurred in 1995, after the FCC raised concerns about how New Corp. secured Fox broadcast licenses despite a law that limited foreign ownership of  local stations to 25%.  News Corp.'s book division offered Newt Gingrich, then-House Speaker, a $4.5 million advance and the matter was dropped.

As happened in England, according to Rich, Murdoch will not be undone by politicians but by aggressive journalism, law enforcement and civil actions.  But don't look for the Washington Post to reprise its Watergate-like investigative powers.  Its current editor received $6.4 million severance from News Corp. when he left the Wall Street Journal in 2008, after Murdoch took over that paper.  At this point only the New York Times has devoted serous resources to reporting on the scandal.

Rich believes "it will take a lot of heavy lifting to overturn all the rocks under which Murdoch's secrets are buried."  The key first step is "for Americans to fully recognize that what happened at News of the World was no isolated virus but part of a larger culture that didn't remain quarantined on the other side of the ocean."  One can only hope that this "realization will sink in" which will "hasten the day when the long national nightmare of the Murdochization of America, now well into its fourth decade, will be over."


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