Murdoch ‘Unfit?’ Ya Think?

The British Parliament found News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch “unfit” to lead his media empire, but that’s been the case for more than 20 years, writes Eric Alterman.

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The British Parliament’s Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport issued a report Tuesday claiming that Rupert Murdoch, above, is “not a fit person” to run a huge international company. (AP/Richard Drew)
The British Parliament’s Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport issued a report Tuesday claiming that Rupert Murdoch, above, is “not a fit person” to run a huge international company. (AP/Richard Drew)

The headline says it all: “Murdoch Unfit to Lead Media Empire, Says British Report.” It was dated May 1, 2012 on The New York Times homepage (and appeared the following morning on page one). Thing is, if you leave out the part about the British report, the same headline could have appeared any time in the past 20 or more years. But by common agreement, owing to News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch’s power, influence, profit-making properties, and his ability to hire and fire people in any one of more than 50,000 jobs—to say nothing of his willingness to use all that power and influence to attack the character of anyone who had the temerity to question his actions—most folks decided to look the other way.

For those interested in the latest Murdoch outrage here is a breakdown of eight of the most damning passages from the report and here is the report itself of the U.K. Parliament’s Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport dealing, broadly speaking, with Murdoch’s widespread practice of wiretapping and influence-trading at the highest reaches of his empire in the United Kingdom. And if you need some more background on just what Rupert’s been doing in the past year, may I recommend that you take a look here and here and here and here.

But to students of Rupert’s progress it is a wonder that any of this is news at all. After all, Rupert has made no secret of the way he does business in the United States—where he can credibly claim to be the single most powerful person in the media and one of a handful of the most powerful people in the entire country—and has long made naked corruption a key part of the way he does business elsewhere.

Just ask yourself, upon learning of any of the incidents listed below, (and many, many more, excluded for reasons of space): Is this behavior indicative of the type of leadership that makes a fellow “fit” to run one of the world’s biggest (and meanest) media empires?

For instance: What about the time back in 1995 when Murdoch’s HarperCollins corporation offered a $4.5 million “book advance” (bribe) to then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (who renounced part of it under withering criticism) while major telecommunications legislation affecting much of Murdoch’s media empire was before Congress. The book was just a collection of speeches that would be unlikely to sell more than a few dozen copies to friends and family. The price paid? Well, let’s just say there were no other bidders even close. Even though the book wasn’t worth anything Murdoch found a way to give Gingrich millions.

And remember China? Before he became famous for his employees’ rampant wiretapping and intimidation of politicians, celebrities, and their families, Murdoch apparently learned about this kind of thing from the best. Among his greatest hits was the censorship of the BBC.

In 1993, Murdoch bought Star TV, an English language network that broadcast to 54 countries in Asia. He’d been on record calling satellite TV a means of undermining totalitarian regimes. Hah. Star TV carried BBC World News until the Chinese government decided they did not approve of a BBC documentary on Mao. The documentary was never broadcast on the network but Murdoch agreed to punish BBC World News and all of its viewers in Asia, and Star TV dropped BBC World News.

Next, HarperCollins cancelled a book by former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten that was critical of the Chinese leadership, but the company somehow decided to go ahead with a reportedly more than $1 million advance for another boring, unreadable book by Chinese politician and diplomat Deng Xiaoping’s daughter about her father.

Such actions led a group of The Wall Street Journal‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning China reporters to write a letter opposing Murdoch’s takeover of their paper, which had previously been willing to dedicate considerable manpower and expense to prize-winning investigative stories that shed an unflattering light on the Chinese government and business interests.

Rupert Murdoch, they worried, enjoyed “a well-documented history of making editorial decisions in order to advance his business interests in China and, indeed, of sacrificing journalistic integrity to satisfy personal or political aims.

They noted, moreover, that their colleague, Ian Johnson, shared the Pulitzer for international reporting for his articles about the “Chinese government’s sometimes brutal suppression of the Falun Gong spiritual movement.” Alas, it was during this period that James Murdoch, son to Rupert and then the CEO of British Sky Broadcasting, delivered a speech terming Falun Gong a “dangerous” and “apocalyptic cult,” which “clearly does not have the success of China at heart.”

And it was hardly only China. New York City’s government has also seen more than its share of Murdoch-style “journalism,” as the investigative reporter Wayne Barrett has tirelessly documented.

When Time Warner cable told Murdoch that Fox News Channel would have to wait for a space on its menu just like everyone else, according to Barrett, after repeated phone conversations between Murdoch, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and their aides, the mayor directly threatened the future of Time Warner’s cable franchise in the city.

When this didn’t work, the mayor tried to give Fox one of the city’s public access channels. Judge Denise Cote killed the idea and condemned Rudy’s “improper motives” in showing naked favoritism toward Murdoch’s property, in a decision unanimously affirmed by a three-judge appeals panel.

But the blitzkrieg went on until Time Warner caved in. According to court documents, Fox News President Roger Ailes instructed then-Murdoch employee HarperCollins editor Judith Regan to lie to a police investigation about the city-provided love nest in which she conducted her affair with former New York City police commissioner (and later George W. Bush’s ill-fated choice to head the Department of Homeland Security) Bernard Kerik to protect Giuliani’s presidential ambitions. Meanwhile, during Giuliani’s first term, News Corp. received a $20.7 million tax break for the mid-Manhattan office building that houses The New York Post, Fox News Channel, TV Guide, and other operations.

And how, until recently, has the media covered Murdoch’s various machinations? Well here’s what I wrote in The Nation when I addressed an earlier part of the crisis:

Consider the recent 3,000-plus word examination of the current Murdoch crisis in The Economist. “Few outside the liberal blogosphere” were “buying” the likelihood of any connection between the empire’s criminal behavior in Britain and its operations in the United States, according to its author. The proof? “Rudolph Giuliani, a moderate Republican and former mayor of New York, called Rupert Murdoch ‘a very honourable, honest man.’”

Note that I haven’t said much at all about the content of Fox News or the news division of the Fox Network, or even The New York Post. One could fill entire libraries with the crimes against journalistic ethics practiced by Murdoch properties over the decades. But rather than get into the actions of his employees, let’s keep the focus on Murdoch himself.

When Glenn Beck—then of Fox—called President Barack Obama a "racist" with a "deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture,” Murdoch endorsed his views, insisting that Obama “did make a very racist comment about, you know, blacks and whites and so on, and which he said in his campaign he would be completely above. And, you know, that was something which, perhaps, shouldn’t have been said about the president, but if you actually assess what he [Beck] was talking about, he was right.”

(Never mind that Beck, and now Murdoch, were accusing Obama of hating both his white mother and the grandparents who helped raise him.)

Murdoch has remained, through all of the above, an honored figure in both the media and the New York social whirl. So I guess the question is what now? Murdoch may be “unfit” to run a media empire, but he continues to run one. And so long as we continue to treat it as a news source like any other, the corruption that lurks at the bottom of his business practices will continue to infect our media and our politics and ultimately, our lives.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. This column won the 2011 Mirror Award for Best Digital Commentary. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.

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Eric Alterman

Senior Fellow

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