Rupert Murdoch is the most powerful man in global media, which makes him a strong contender for the most powerful individual in the world. There is no good way to measure this, but the mere panoply of interests and the devil-may-care attitude his employees take toward professional ethics vastly magnifies his power and influence beyond merely giving people the news in his typical biased fashion. In the past few days, it’s nearly been a full-time job just to keep up with all of his employees’ nefarious activities.
The biggest newsmaker of the Murdoch stories came last week when The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward broke the story that Murdoch’s employee, Fox News Chief Roger Ailes, in spring 2011 offered support for then-Gen. David Petraeus should he decide to mount a campaign for the presidency. According to the leaked recording of the meeting—which took place between Gen. Petraeus and Kathleen T. McFarland, a Fox News national security analyst and former national security and Pentagon aide in three Republican administrations—it also apparently included an offer of Murdoch’s money to “bankroll” this hypothetical campaign. (Ailes is himself a former Republican political operative.)
While Ailes insisted after the story broke that the offer was a joke—as apparently was his offer to resign his post as head of the news network to manage yet another campaign—he did admit that he “thought the Republican field [in the primaries] needed to be shaken up and Petraeus might be a good candidate.” With regard to Fox’s own practices, McFarland informed Gen. Petraeus, “Everybody at Fox loves you,” and added that Ailes instructed her to inquire whether “there [is] anything Fox is doing, right or wrong, that you want to tell us to do differently?”
The next in the string of controversies that we heard of was Murdoch’s decision to divide his behemoth News Corp. media conglomerate into two companies: the entertainment assets bundled into the Fox Group, and the newspaper-publishing assets separated into a division that will retain the News Corporation name. But after kicking Robert Thomson, then the managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, upstairs to run the new News Corporation, he picked Gerard Baker—a neoconservative columnist from Britain, who mocked President Barack Obama as a false messiah in an appearance on Fox News—as Thomson’s replacement, suggesting that the creeping conservatism subtly pervading the once-uncorruptable news side of the Journal will now be in full force. (The news side of the formerly great paper hasn’t been included in the Pulitzer Prize awards for five straight years.)
Meanwhile, Murdoch named Lex Fenwick, a former Bloomberg LP executive, the next publisher of the Journal and chief executive of Dow Jones and Company Publisher. As The New York Times’ David Carr skeptically noted, “An expansive Reuters article in October suggested that Mr. Fenwick was erratic, profane and hard to work for.” Meanwhile, Jesse Angelo of the recently shuttered The Daily—a newspaper available only on digital tablets such as the iPad—was picked as the new publisher of the New York Post, a New York City tabloid. While much of the discussion about this down-market, money-losing tabloid has focused in recent days on the shocking photograph it ran on its cover of a man about to be fatally run over by a subway train—a photo that is at least of arguable news value—the paper recently showed its editorial hand with a too-typical cartoon depicting the sex life of Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and his wife, Chirlane McCray, after the New York Observer revealed last week an essay McCray wrote 33 years ago, titled “I am a lesbian.”
Offensive and worrisome as all of the above may be, these developments pale in importance in relation to the release in Britain of the Leveson inquiry report (chaired by Lord Justice Sir Brian Leveson), inspired by the criminal behavior of two Murdoch tabloids, The Sun and The News of the World. The nearly 2000 page report cited The News of the World (now defunct) in particular for its “failure of management” and “general lack of respect for individual privacy and dignity,” after it was revealed in 2011 that many reporters hacked into private phone lines and computers of various families and celebrities.
Under pressure from U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, Britain’s top newspaper companies agreed to the creation of an independent newspaper regulator, which would have the power to fine offending newspapers up to $1.6 million and would be made up neither of journalists nor government officials. In addition to the discovery that Murdoch-employed journalists were regularly hacking into citizens’ computers and voice mail messages, investigators also found out that the reporters were bribing law enforcement officials to get their stories. However this new regulator infringes on honest journalists’ ability to do their jobs—and nobody really knows how much it will—they will have Murdoch and company to thank for that favor.
But back to Fox. New York Magazine recently reported that Roger Ailes—working through his programming chief, Bill Shine—had issued a ban on future appearances by Karl Rove (along with Dick Morris) after Rove’s embarrassing tirade on election night in which he tried to prevent the network from recognizing reality and calling the election for President Obama. Ailes’s new rule would be that Fox News producers had to seek permission before booking either man for a program. According to New York Magazine, “Multiple sources say that Ailes was angry at Rove’s election-night tantrum when he disputed the network’s call for Obama. While the moment made for riveting television—it was Ailes’ decision to have Kelly confront the statisticians on air—in the end, it provided another data point for Fox’s critics.”
Alas, the Sixth Avenue freeze out lasted only 27 days. We see from the tireless coverage of Media Matters that Rove was recently invited back to push the false claim that U.S. debt is a “spending problem” rather than a revenue problem. According to Media Matters, Rove:
Cited Office of Management and Budget statistics to claim that “We’re back above the revenue level we had” in 2008 but that spending has increased by almost $900 billion since then… .But economists say that decreased revenue is a major cause of the deficit. According to the Tax Policy Center, federal revenue as a percentage of GDP was 15.4 percent in 2011 and 15.1 percent in 2010. These are the lowest figures since 1950—and well below the post-World War II average.
So, to recap, we know that Murdoch and his underlings:
- Engaged in direct politicking within the Republican presidential race
- Are moving their flagship publications even further in the direction of bias and tabloid trash
- May be endangering the freedom of press in England, with what appears to be a long legacy of illegal behavior for which its top executives have been arrested and charged
- Are bringing back discredited political operatives to pose as objective analysts and make demonstrably false claims designed to discredit the president
Now add to all of the above the fact that Murdoch has recently been seen in Chicago possibly shopping for more newspapers, including undoubtedly The Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times, both of which are now owned by the bankrupt Tribune Company. Fortunately, Murdoch would likely be prevented from extending his influence even further into these markets, thanks to Federal Communications Commission rules restricting media companies from owning newspapers and TV and radio stations in the same locality. Alas, such laws often fail to impress Murdoch—he has more than once used his political influence to get the commission to see things his way and either waive or change the rules. In this case, though, one would hope the commission resists.
The diversity in media issue is a real one. A recent Federal Communications Commission study found that in 2011 6.8 percent of commercial TV and radio stations were owned by women, 2.8 percent by Latinos, less than 1 percent by African Americans, and 0.5 percent by Asian Americans. Suspending the current commission rules would not only open up these newspapers to further consolidation—possibly under Murdoch—it would also defy the goals of the law, as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and several of his Senate colleagues explained in a letter to the Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski. “Congress tasked you with a mandate to promote localism and diversity in America’s broadcast system,” the senators wrote. “While the current ownership rules have not completely achieved these goals, they nonetheless remain a bulwark against mass consolidation and stand to preserve local voices.”
We will soon learn, then, if the most powerful and influential man in world media is about to become even more powerful and influential. Stay tuned … just not to Fox.
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. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.