Rupert, We Hardly Knew Ye

The scandal facing the Murdoch empire that has dominated media news has certainly been riveting. But has it taught us anything we didn’t already know?

Well, yes and no. Most significant disagreements between reasonably well-informed people are merely differences of degree. And in this case, we’ve merely learned that whatever well- (and honestly) informed people thought they knew about Murdoch and company is true but far worse in degree than we imagined. As Paul Krugman has written, citing Brad DeLong, “it’s looking as if the Murdoch empire is more evil than you could possibly imagine, even when you take into account the fact that it’s more evil than you can possibly imagine.” So what have we learned?

The Murdoch empire is based on lies, criminal behavior, a lack of respect for elementary human decency, and a single-minded pursuit of its own self-interest. Which, by the way, has next to nothing to do with honest journalism, much less “fairness” or “balance.” (For an as-short-as-possible summary of all the nefarious activities that have been recently discovered in the current scandal, go here.)

But when challenged on any and every one of these activities, it will use any and every one of its media properties to defend its actions and smear its adversaries.

Just look at the coverage of the scandal on Fox News. Well, look hard, because it’s not that easy to find. The Project on Excellence in Journalism confirms that Fox News trails far behind rivals in News Corp. scandal coverage, devoting “about one-fifth as much time to the News Corp. phone hacking story as MSNBC, and about one-sixth as much time as CNN.”

And what’s been the substance of that coverage? Well, here is one of the most impressive exchanges to be heard on Fox News, between a PR exec named Robert Dilenschneider and Steve Doocy:

Dilenschneider: All the right things have been done from a crisis point of view in terms of this News of the World issue. It really should get put behind us, investigators and the court should deal with this, and we should move on, and deal with the important issues of the day.

Doocy: I think you’re right.

And how contrite are the editors of Murdoch’s flagship publication, The Wall Street Journal? Well, try this:

Our competitors are using the phone-hacking years ago at a British corner of News Corp. to assail the Journal, and perhaps injure press freedom in general. … the measure that really matters is the market’s, and on that score Mr. [Les] Hinton [former Dow Jones chief executive officer] was at the helm when we again became America’s largest daily.

Rupert Murdoch is one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the world. He is undoubtedly the single-most influential individual in all global media. That kind of power, influence, and cash will always have its defenders, from Joel Klein to Piers Morgan to Roger Cohen to Howard Kurtz, to name just a few of the most recent.

As the truth becomes ever more unavoidable, I think we all owe a debt of gratitude to Nick Davies and The Guardian for sticking with this story in the face of personal attacks and professional derision and reminding us why democracies need journalists to function in the first place. Italy had no Davies and has ended up with a Murdoch-like figure running not only most of its media but its government as well and significantly “screwing up” both.

Leaving the major for the decidedly minor—but still, I hope, significant—one of the most curious aspects of the contemporary American right wing is its capacity for self-pity. As the global reach not only of the Murdoch empire but also talk radio, think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage, Hoover, CATO, and every single Koch-, Scaife-, and Coors-funded project, among others, demonstrates, its members enjoy easy access to an uncritical, sympathetic media; megamillions available for puffery and self-promotion across all platforms; and frequently, generous grants and salaries with little or no scholarly demands.

And yet these same coddled individuals still manage to whine and whine and whine about the unfairness of the world. (Rather like an episode of “Fox and Friends” or a Wall Street Journal editorial that deals with criminality in the Murdoch media empire.) A prime example of the above can be found on the right-wing website Powerline, which has just published the introduction to a book called Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind by Tim Groseclose under the title “When All Hell Broke Loose.”

The “hell” to which the title refers was the fact that years ago, Groseclose, together with Jeff Milyo, published an extremely shoddy and easily debunked study upon which this book is apparently based, and he and his co-author received some criticism for it. After the usual pain and suffering inflicted by the occasional unfriendly email, Groseclose explains that, “The most vicious response of all was by Eric Alterman, a writer at Media Matters. He insinuated that we were paid by rightwing think tanks to fudge our results.”

To be honest, I had forgotten all about this study, but I looked up my original column and found that there’s nothing in it that any fair-minded individual would call “vicious.” Rather, it addresses the study’s overt bias coupled with its various intellectual and structural weaknesses.

At the end of the column, I note that the two authors were funded by right-wing think tanks AEI and Heritage—neither of which is in the business of funding studies that debunk claims of liberal media bias. I said nothing at all about payments to fund results. Rather it was the bias of the authors that led them to seek right-wing funders in the first place that also led them to author such an unconvincing and easily debunked study. Read it for yourself here and make up your own mind.

I hadn’t given the column any thought since I wrote it five-and-a-half years ago. But I’m happy to stand by every word of it, both in tone and content, today.

Anyway, one aspect of Groseclose’s comically self-congratulatory introduction is that he refers to me as “a writer at Media Matters.” In fact, when the column was published in January 2006, I had never had any affiliation with Media Matters at all. Nor do I have any today. The organization sponsored my weblog Altercation for two years beginning in September 2006 and ending in 2008.

So why the irrelevant and inaccurate Media Matters identification with an organization with which I was so briefly affiliated? Perhaps Mr. Groseclose is simply lazy and unconcerned with accuracy. Or perhaps, as Mr. Groseclose surely knows, the words “Media Matters” act as a kind of dog whistle for the far right, implying “bad person” perhaps for its work in exposing the lies of Fox News.

Truthfully, I don’t profess to know. Certainly if Mr. Groseclose had said, accurately, “Eric Alterman, a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress,” or “Eric Alterman, a CUNY Distinguished Professor and author of eight books,” it would not have had the same effect on his desired audience.

It is certainly possible that during the past five years, Groseclose has improved the shoddy scholarly apparatus that marred his earlier study. I certainly hope so. But based on the book’s sensationalistic title, I cannot profess to be optimistic. What’s more, he has published his introduction on a website that specializes in right-wing know-nothingism like “Why Global Warming Alarmism Isn’t Science,” which appears as a link next to his introduction.

Groseclose closes his introduction with a weirdly self-pitying scene of himself fighting back tears over the difficulties he endured by seeing his work criticized by some and supported by others. My advice would be that if he plans to continue to accept money from right-wing think tanks and publish such easily discreditable work, he ought to try to develop a bit thicker skin, or at least stick to appearances with the likes of Steve Doocy and “Fox and Friends.”

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also a columnist for The Nation, The Forward, and The Daily Beast. His newest book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama. This column won the 2011 Mirror Award for Best Digital Commentary.