Jim Sleeper: What Blinded Murdoch's Enablers and Apologists?

Roundup: Media's Take

Jim Sleeper is a lecturer at Yale.

As Rupert Murdoch was closing in with his bid for Dow Jones & Company and The Wall Street Journal five years ago, what Harper's magazine former editor Lewis Lapham calls "the orchestra of high-minded opinion" could be heard tuning up to play "This Is The Best of All Possible Worlds," its familiar medley of hosannas and half-truths.

Soon all you could hear were hoof beats as the parade of Murdoch apologists became a stampede. A few hardy souls, at the Columbia Journalism Review (and including me, here and in Britain's The Guardian), cried that this emperor had no clothes: Murdoch certainly ruled an empire of sorts, but why not strip off the robe of "good business" and civic rationalizations that apologists such as Tony Blair's spokesman Alastair Campbell and Time magazine writer Eric Pooley were rushing to drape on him?

Their torrent of rationalizations ran like this:

1. Venerable newspapers such as the Journal had been declining because their owners were stodgy, and upheavals in technology and investment had hurt even those who weren't. Murdoch sows these changing soils brilliantly. While other newspapers are wilting, he's planting. Why care about his fertilizer and scent?

2. All news-organization owners across the political spectrum influence what their reporters report and how. Rupert is a businessman first, a conservative only when it's good for business. ''Capitalism is built on the highest and best use of capital and [Murdoch] understands that. Money has no conscience,'' an investment banker observing Murdoch's bid for the Journal told The New York Times.

3. Anyway, there's no such thing as objectivity, and, in the end, it's the consumer who's the sovereign. As a student put it more recently in a Yale course I teach on "Journalism, Liberalism, and Democracy," "People wouldn't buy if they didn't want it. If you don't like it, just switch the channel! Buy a different paper!"

Murdoch himself couldn't have said it better. We were back to Adam Smith's much-loved apercu that it's not the benevolence of the butcher and the baker that gives us a good dinner but their self interest. And, really now, how different is reporting from cooking?

Very different, Britons were reminded last week. When a man whose son had been killed in the London bombings a few years before learned that his phone had been tapped posthumously by sensation-seeking Murdoch reporters colluding with paid-off police officials, he said he'd thought things couldn't get lower for his family but that "this was lower than low," making very clear that news organizations owe citizens something better than whatever they can induce them to "want" to buy.

In any democratic society, citizens, including capitalist citizens, sometimes want -- and decide -- to curb or even contravene their immediate market interests in order to achieve public goods together that they couldn't achieve by acting only as individual consumers and economic competitors. There are other ways to act, but often it takes courage and strength to get those actions going against powerful barriers and undertows.

Alexander Hamilton sketched the challenge in 1786 in The Federalist Papers, writing that history seemed to have destined Americans "to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force."

Hamilton had no boundless faith that "the people" - many of them stressed and angered by war, privation, and abuse -- would get enough good information and commentary to assist them in making rational, binding decisions, especially if they were being deluged by disinformation designed (sometimes brilliantly) to play on their fears and resentments.

To give Americans what he, at least, considered better guidance, Hamilton founded the New York Post in 1801. By the time my cousin James Wechsler was editing it during its liberal heyday in the 1950s and '60s, many other journalists, editors, and even newspaper owners shared his commitment to nourish the reportorial skills, contacts, dispositions, and courage that are so necessary to sustaining "good government from reflection and choice."

But it was only three years after the Watergate scandals had underscored journalism's importance that Murdoch bought Hamilton's and Wechsler's Post and turned it into a daily reminder that his own native Australia was founded as a penal colony. As New York Times columnist Joe Nocera puts it, "The kill-or-be-killed culture he created at his newspapers helps explain, for instance, why his New York Post was willing to publish an article last week, based on the thinnest of sourcing, claiming that the hotel housekeeper Dominique Strauss-Kahn was accused of sexually assaulting was actually a prostitute. (The woman has since sued The Post.)

In May I offered here a very long post, "American Journalism in the Coils of Ressentiment," that showed how Murdoch's minions, most notoriously at Fox News here, seed the opposite of self-government by reflection and choice, souring and hobbling public discourse by trading on fear and mistrust, laced with circus-like titilations and snide winks ("fair and balanced").

Sure, Murdoch isn't the only one. But business and partisanship can become an especially strong poison under a brilliant but perverse owner. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, noting that 60 percent of Americans believed that Iraq and Al Qaeda were linked, that W.M. D. had actually been found, or that world public opinion favored the war with Iraq, reported that only 23 percent of PBS and NPR audiences "believed any of these untrue things, but the number was 80 percent among those relying primarily on Fox News.... [T]wo-thirds of Fox devotees believed that the U.S. had 'found clear evidence in Iraq that Saddam Hussein was working closely with the Al Qaeda terrorist organization.'"

Sure, Murdoch hasn't ruined every one of his properties. A lot of reporting in his Times of London and Wall Street Journal is still respectable.

When he was acquiring the latter in 2007, I predicted he'd expand its scope, and sustain serious reporting -- until he got his critics on record saying they'd been wrong about him. Then, I wrote, the Journal would begin its inexorable, tawdry decline into a Murdochian half-life.

Sure enough: As Nocera, again, reports, "Robert Thomson, the editor of [Murdoch's] Wall Street Journal, sent out a memo a few years ago saying that Journal reporters would henceforth be judged not on their ability to report deep, thoughtful stories -- long The Journal's strength -- but on whether they regularly broke news, even by a matter of "a few seconds," for the Dow Jones Newswires.

"How those stories are obtained has never been of much concern to him. In Murdoch's mind, at least, it's still life or death," Nocera adds.

''All newspapers are run to make profits. Full stop,'' Murdoch told his biographer William Shawcross. But, too often, big corporations use "their growing wealth to improperly influence government to distort markets to their advantage, eroding trust in markets themselves," as Dean Starkman put it in his blog, The Audit, at the Columbia Journalism Review in 2007.

It's a story Murdoch's News Corporation "is quite incapable of covering," Starkman added, "because... that's what it does... to gain an advantage over other actors unwilling to do the wrong thing."

Not only in business reporting, as we're now seeing. Isn't it time Murdoch's apologists of 2007 and yesterday explained why they've eased his way with their hosannas and half-truths?

No one should suggest curbing freedom of the press. But how about curbing the perfectly discretionary tax and regulatory loopholes and waivers that Murdoch has been winning by playing politicians like pawns? He became a U.S. citizen in 1985 only to get around rules limiting foreign ownership. Citizenship or no citizenship, he has no constitutional right to some of what he's been given.

Isn't it time more of the public and politicians, seduced or bought or intimidated by Murdoch's minions, stopped yapping about the evils of government and began starving this parasite in our body politic?

Read entire article at Talking Points Memo

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