Monday, July 11, 2011

The Trouble with Rupert

There are many reasons that the scandal that's engulfing Rupert Murdoch has riveted public attention over the last seven days. It's a story that features all of the classic elements: twists of fate, betrayal, deception, abuse of power, and, even, murder.

But beneath Murdoch's meltdown lies a bigger problem, and its one that's not confined to the United Kingdom. It plagues all consolidated news organizations that reach a certain size and stature, but especially News Corp: The problem of media that get too cozy with power.

There's a disturbing parallel between Rupert Murdoch's methods in the UK and those he deploys in the US. More than any of the current crop of media moguls, Murdoch accrues political influence through aggressive manipulation of News Corp's many media outlets. It's not just in the ways they cover the news but how they use this coverage to gain favorable access to elected officials.

Consider the easy rapport struck among Murdoch's London executives and conservative candidate David Cameron. After he was elected Prime Minister, Cameron tapped a top News International executive to be his spokesman.

Compare that to the way Fox News Channel has courted GOP presidential candidates, many of whom have served as paid commentators for the network, in expectation that one may succeed in his or her bid for the White House.

In Sunday's New York Times, David Carr wrote: "News Corporation has historically used its four [London] newspapers... to shape and quash public debate, routinely helping to elect prime ministers with timely endorsements while punishing enemies at every turn."

Look at how control of media outlets in another powerful city -- New York, where he owns the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, two television stations, and where both News Corp and Fox News Channel are headquartered -- has placed Murdoch on the A-list among Manhattan's glitterati.

Comforting the Comfortable

Murdoch's relentless pursuit of political power has turned Finley Peter Dunne's famous quote about the role of journalism on its head. News Corp sees its purpose as "comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted."

It was a fortunate twist of fate -- thanks in large part to the dogged reporting of The Guardian -- that the afflicted would eventually have their say.

Reports revealed that News of the World staffers had hacked into the phone messages of a kidnapped and murdered 13-year-old to get a scoop. They even deleted messages in order to listen to more of the parents' desperate pleas, and, in the process, misled investigators to believe that the victim was still alive.

Now, the Daily Mirror reports that Murdoch's journalists at the News of the World had offered to pay New York police officer to hack into the phone messages of victims of the September 11 attacks here in the States.

Until now Murdoch's comfy ties to leadership have proven fruitful in promoting candidates, and winning official approval of the policies and mergers he has sought over the years.

But this could be changing. As A.C. Grayling wrote in a Friday Times op-ed, "News International's bid to take control of the television company British Sky Broadcasting, or BSkyB, was, in the opinion of many, a step too far, given that, even before the hacking revelations, its influence on politics and public conversation had become deeply corrosive."

This corrosive influence over London's political class is no less true of News Corp here in the US, where Murdoch displays a ruthless drive for access and control. That's why it was reassuring when a federal appeals court last week rejected a 2007 ruling by the Federal Communications Commission that would have let media giants amass more power by buying up more local news outlets.

The move no doubt delivered a blow to Murdoch's ambitions. And if past is prologue his reaction will be harsh.

In the 1990s, when the FCC was threatening to take away a single News Corp broadcast license, Murdoch's chief in-house lobbyist, Preston Padden, warned then FCC Chairman Reed Hundt's chief of staff that he would not be able to "get a job as dog-catcher" if the agency proceeded with its plans.

Murdoch later assailed Hundt in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, which triggered widespread attacks against the FCC chair by Congressional Republicans.

But the tables may now have turned against the media mogul. Had the FCC been allowed to loosen its curbs to consolidation this time around, Murdoch could have moved to control many more broadcast and print news outlets in New York, and elsewhere.

Last week's appeals court ruling was not only a rebuke of the FCC's decision, but also of the idea that the amassing of more media power posed no threat to our democracy.

America's founding fathers understood that media are essential to an informed electorate. What they may not have foreseen was rise of a media mogul like Rupert Murdoch, for whom the media serve merely as a means to his political ends.

The misdeeds of Murdoch's empire -- both here and abroad -- serve as plain evidence that last week's appeals court decision to curb consolidation was the right move.

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