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Rupert Murdoch: Not Silent, But Deadly

Robert W. McChesney is the Gutgsell Endowed Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois. He is the author of Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet Against Democracy (New Press, 2013) and, with John Nichols, Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America (Nation Books, 2013). This article is adapted from the introduction to David McKnight, Murdoch’s Politics: How One Man’s Thirst for Wealth and Power Shapes Our World(Pluto, 2012).

Rupert Murdoch is unquestionably the single most important media figure of our times. He is a dominant force in the journalism and politics of the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Whether the world would be the same with some other person playing the same role had he never been born is an academic matter. In this world, Murdoch controls a vast media empire, which pushes his political agenda and his commercial ambitions. One studies Murdoch much like one studies Rommel: in awe of the vision but petrified by the consequences of his actions.

Of course, by 2012, the House of Murdoch was trembling, at least in the United Kingdom, thanks to the phone hacking scandal. But even there the fact that Murdoch and his News Corporation still function largely unimpeded is a testament to his unrivalled power in the political system. A lesser mortal might be doing hard time.

In the United States, Murdoch has played a central role in the evolution of both journalism and politics. His Fox News Channel has become a powerful force—arguably the powerful force—within Republican Party politics, and therefore all of American politics. The station has a dubious record for fairness, accuracy, and integrity, but it has proven to be a supremely powerful megaphone for Republican talking points. Although Murdoch’s global empire is vast, I would like to make a few observations about Murdoch and the Fox News Channel.

Michael Wolff characterizes Fox News as “the ultimate Murdoch product,” because it brought tabloid journalism to American television.1 What has been missed in the equation is the business model of tabloid journalism: it means dispensing with actual reporting, which costs a lot of money to do well, and replacing it with far less expensive pontificating that will attract audiences. For a tabloid news channel, that means the value-added is by providing a colorful partisan take on the news; otherwise the channel has no reason to attract viewers. Former CNN head Rick Kaplan tells the story of how, in 1999 or 2000, he was confronted by his superiors at Time Warner who were dissatisfied with CNN’s profits despite what had been record revenues and a solid return. “But Fox News made just as much profit,” Kaplan was informed, “and did so with just half the revenues of CNN, because it does not carry so many reporters on its staff.” The message to Kaplan was clear: close bureaus and fire reporters, lots of them.2 In short, Fox News is the logical business product for an era where actual journalism is deemed an unprofitable undertaking by corporations.

Fox News and the conservative media sector, including the conservative blogosphere, provide a self-protective enclave in which conservatives can cocoon themselves. Research demonstrates that the more conservative media someone consumes, the more likely they are to dismiss any news or arguments that contradict the conservative position as liberal propaganda and lies.3 Conservative media, led significantly by Fox News, march in lock-step with the same talking points, the same issues, and even the same terminology deployed across the board. They apply the core principles of advertising and propaganda. This has helped to galvanize and solidify the right and make it more powerful than it would be otherwise. Progressives could only dream about having anything remotely close to such media power.

This is the shell-game premise of the entire conservative media con: the case is premised on the presupposition that what the mainstream news media are doing has a distinct liberal bias, deeply hostile to the right, the military, and big business. In that context, what conservatives are doing is either straight unbiased news by contrast, or they are justified in bending the stick toward the conservative direction to balance the liberal propaganda.4 In the current system, mainstream journalism works formally to not favor either major party, and prove at every turn its lack of bias toward either party. Reporters must answer for such a bias if it is exposed. Conservative media claim they do not have to play by those rules. The irony, of course, is that Fox News insists it is “Fair and Balanced” and that “We Report, You Decide”—it assumes the mantle and prerogatives of professional journalism, as it goes about its partisan business.

Being a semi-surreptitious partisan player in the world of professional journalism has provided considerable power to the right to set the news agenda. Traditional journalists get their cues about what to cover from official sources, and can dismiss some as ludicrous if they fail to meet an evidentiary standard and are opposed by other official sources. Fox and the conservative media, in contrast, can aggressively push stories, have Republican politicians echo them, and then badger the traditional media for having a “liberal bias” if they do not cover the stories as well. Because it believes it is in an uphill battle with liberal propagandists, Fox News can have an unabashed and breathtaking double standard, where they have very different evidentiary standards for stories that serve them versus stories that damage their politics. If facts prove inconvenient for the preferred narrative, ignore them. Republican officials are treated entirely differently from Democrats, even when the facts of a story are virtually identical. It is this opportunistic and unprincipled nature of conservative “journalism” that draws widespread consternation outside of the political right, and from those remaining thoughtful conservatives willing to brave the wrath of Murdoch and Roger Ailes.5

Between the cocoon effect and the shameless disregard for consistency and intellectual honesty, it is not surprising that professional surveys tend to find regular viewers of Fox News to be more ignorant about what is actually happening in the world compared to those who watch other networks. A November 2011 examination, by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind Poll, of how New Jerseyans watch television news concluded that “some outlets, especially Fox News, lead people to be even less informed than those who say they don’t watch any news at all.”6 In some surveys, to be accurate, Fox News does not rank at the bottom in terms of audience knowledge.7 But on balance, it is the clown dunce of TV news. No other network even comes close to getting the sort of assessment Fox News received from World Public Opinion, a project managed by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland, in 2010. As one reporter summarized, PIPA conducted a “survey of American voters that shows that Fox News viewers are significantly more misinformed than consumers of news from other sources. What’s more, the study shows that greater exposure to Fox News increases misinformation. So the more you watch, the less you know. Or to be precise, the more you think you know that is actually false.”8

What may be most revealing of all is that there is not any evidence that this bothers the management of Fox News in the least.

Most striking is the handful of explicitly liberal TV programs which all spend considerable time fact-checking, debunking, and ridiculing the material on Fox News, while Fox News, conversely, never seems to even notice what the liberals are saying. They do not seem to care. Why should they? They are calling the shots, and the liberals are spending their time responding to them.

Rupert Murdoch and Fox News are fiercely dedicated to a political project that will eliminate trade unions, abolish and/or commercialize public education, increase economic inequality and the power of billionaires and big business, ignore and aggravate the environmental crisis that threatens human existence, promote endless wars and militarism, governance by and for the rich, a corrupt judicial system, and elections that go to the highest (anonymous) bidders. Above all, Murdoch champions the elimination of independent journalism. All the institutions that make for a credible modern democracy are in his crosshairs.

Of course, Murdoch and his minions rarely put it this way. In the official propaganda, it is all about keeping government small, making poor people work harder, kicking the crap out of people who have the temerity to think otherwise and live in some foreign nation, and protecting free enterprise and competitive markets. But in reality it is all about marrying monopolistic power to a large and unaccountable militarized state that works hand-in-hand with its corporate masters. Murdoch himself is the poster child of crony capitalism: his empire is built on effective government-granted monopoly franchises such as broadcast licenses and copyright. His genius is as much knowing how to buy off and cow politicians for colossal privileges as it is mastering how to win in a competitive marketplace.

Murdoch, in short, is a figure of singular importance in our tumultuous times, in the United States, the United Kingdom, and worldwide. He can be regarded much like the great editor William Allen White characterized William Randolph Heart nearly a century ago: “professionally Hearst is a form of poisonpolitically he has degenerated into a form of suicide.”9

Notes

  1. Michael Wolff, The Man Who Owns the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch (New York: Broadway Books, 2008), 282.
  2. Kaplan left CNN soon thereafter; Robert McChesney in conversation with Rick Kaplan, March 2002. For a detailed discussion of this period, see Scott Collins, Crazy Like a Fox: The Inside Story of How Fox News Beat CNN (New York: Portfolio, 2004), chapter 11.
  3. Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Joseph N. Cappella, Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media Establishment (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), x, 240.
  4. Eric Alterman provides a compendium of prominent conservatives like Pat Buchanan, William Kristol, and James Baker acknowledging the liberal bias of the news is BS. See Eric Alterman, What Liberal Media? (New York: Basic Books, 2003), 2. Ralph Reed has said the same. See Joe Conason, Big Lies (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003), 34.
  5. The groups Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) and Media Matters for America have both done rigorous work fact-checking and analysis of conservative news media, and their mountains of resultant work is fire-tested for credibility. The picture is not pretty. FAIR also applies the exact same standard to mainstream news media, and finds much that is flawed there as well.
  6. Some News Leaves People Knowing Less,” Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind Poll (press release), November 21, 2011, http://publicmind.fdu.edu.
  7. Jon Stewart Says Those Who Watch Fox News Are the ‘Most Consistently Misinformed Media Viewers’,” June 19, 2011, http://politifact.com.
  8. Mark Howard, “Study Confirms That Fox News Makes You Stupid,AlterNet, December 14, 2010, http://alternet.org.
  9. Ben Procter, William Randolph Hearst: The Later Years, 1911–1951 (New York Oxford University Press, 2007), 200.
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