THE AGE OF MURDOCK

James Fallows has a superb piece on media consolidation that is the cover story of this month’s issue of The Atlantic.* The focus is on the influence of Rupert Murdock, who although not the most powerful figure in this game is easily the most controversial, especially now that Ted Turner is on the sidelines.

Rupert Murdoch frequently points out that the three established TV networks in the United States are part of conglomerates much larger than his. <...> News Corp and Fox are personal companies in a way that other networks have not been since the days of William S. Paley and “General” David Sarnoff. Murdoch and his relatives control some 30 percent of all News Corp shares, through a family trust called Cruden Investments. <...> Because of his role as owner, and also his market success, Murdoch’s reign has been long and unchallenged in a way not seen for the past few decades, during which CBS and NBC (the networks Paley and Sarnoff founded), and most of the rest of the media world, became the province of corporations. Jack Welch was in charge of GE for more than two decades, and Michael Eisner has run Disney for nearly that long. But neither of them can expect to stay in command as long as they’re physically able, which Murdoch clearly intends to do. And unlike Paley and Sarnoff, whose familial power died with them, Murdoch has planned his succession.

Fallows paints a picture of a visionary man who is polite, charming, and quick on his feet. His testimony before the Senate is too long to excerpt here, but is quite worth the read. A snippet from his exchange with Senator Barbara Boxer provides a good taste:

BOXER: You think there should be limits?

MURDOCH: I think there should be competition everywhere. My life has been built, and my business, [by] starting competition and starting up against–

BOXER: So we’ve gotten this far.

MURDOCH: –other people and providing diversity.

BOXER: So we’ve gotten this far. So you agree there should be limits. And the–

MURDOCH: I think there should always be diversity.

BOXER: Good. Limits and diversity. We agree. So then the question is how much? And that’s–you’re saying you can’t put a number on it.

MURDOCH: There should be no limit to diversity.

(Laughter.)

Murdock has built his vast empire by understanding the possibilities of advanced technology before his competitors, playing to the tastes of the masses, and carefully building alliances with key political figures.

Fallows’ conclusion is right on the mark, I think:

Sooner or later Murdoch’s outlets, especially Fox News, will be more straightforward about their political identity–and they are likely to bring the rest of the press with them. There will be liberal papers, radio shows, TV programs, and Web sites for liberals, and conservative ones for conservatives. This result will hardly be new. Frankly partisan media have never ceased to be the rule in modern Europe. Our journalistic culture may soon enough resemble that of early nineteenth-century America, in which party-owned newspapers presented selective versions of the truth. News addressed to a particular niche–not simply in its content but also in its politics–may be the natural match to an era with hundreds of satellite and cable channels and limitless numbers of Internet sites.

An age of more purely commercial, more openly partisan media leaves out some of the functions that news was until recently expected to perform: giving a broad public some common source of information for making political decisions, and telling people about trends and events they didn’t already know they were interested in. One way or another, self-governing societies must figure out the suitable commercial channels through which the information necessary for democratic decisions can be spread.

That’s not exactly Rupert Murdoch’s problem, though he helped make it the world’s. If the pure-market approach doesn’t do the job of informing the country, then eventually another sort of market process might kick in. Citizens who think they’ve landed in a vast information wasteland could ask their representatives to set new rules for the media: rules that recognize an obligation of the media beyond maximum profit, rules clear enough to survive interpretation by regulators or appeals courts with clear ideological agendas. In the long run the press does give the public what it wants. We’re about to see just what that is.

While consolidation in general may be a bad thing, it’s rather difficult to argue that the public has fewer viewpoints available than it did before Murdock’s arrival on the scene. I’m old enough to remember the days when ABC, CBS, and NBC constituted the entire range of televised news coverage. That was a little more than 20 years ago.

*They seem to be trying very hard to get people to think of it that way, even though the official name remains Atlantic Monthly.

FILED UNDER: Media
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. John says:

    Wow James. I can have 1000 widget factories, and if 80% of all widgets are bought come from 5 of those factories, well the other 995 widget factories aren’t influencing the consumption of widgets. And that’s called a monopoly. I mean, really James. You, yourself, in your analysis of the Ecosystem show that 1% of the weblogs likely get 80% of the total traffic. Having a zillion more boutique information sources won’t change this. Conflating consumption with production capability is a boneheaded thing to do. And that’s what I consistently see with pretty much everyone who holds this point of view. Geesh.

  2. James Joyner says:

    But, John, InstaPundit doesn’t have a monopoly–he’s merely popular. His existence limits my ability to gain an audience only to the extent that people’s time is limited.

    Similarly, Murdock adds to the choices, he doesn’t subtract. ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN are still there. MSNBC, CNBC, and others have been added. And that’s just news–entertainment is even more exponential in its growth.

    Fox News Network has a far smaller audience now than any of the Big 3 had when I was a growing up.

    What is it that Murdock’s doing that stops you from getting your news elsewhere if you don’t like his spin?

  3. John says:

    So you’re saying “Standard Oil wasn’t a monopoly, it was merely popular”. Advertisers buy eyeballs, ears, brains, whatever. And such an enormous concentration of market dominance is trivial to manipulate (remember, in the CA energy market, a monopoly could be as small as 3% of the power suppliers).

    This is about well functioning information system design. Do you really want an information system that is so subject to manipulation and abuse? This isn’t like the efficient distribution of Twinkies or soda pop. This is about something far more important. A well functioning liberal democracy requires a well informed populace. And we shouldn’t decide what is news and what information should be reported by popularity.

    Facts are not determined by 51% of the popular vote. Markets can form any variety of solutions to a problem. The question is, what kind of solution do we want? A solution so obviously flawed and dangerous to democracy just doesn’t seem to be a smart thing to allow. Surely we can do better, can’t we?

    The market is a tool, not a master.

  4. James Joyner says:

    John,

    Don’t disagree with any of that. The question is, how is it that Murdock is denying access to “good” news? NPR is still operating just as strong as ever, as is PBS, the networks, CNN, etc. So, how does the presence of Fox impede access to “reliable” info?

  5. CGHill says:

    In the case of The Atlantic, I think they’re wrestling with the fact that “Monthly” really doesn’t fit well with their Web site, which is updated far more often than the ten times a year the magazine is published.

    Some previous cover logos have downplayed or even omitted the word “Monthly”; it seems to be a cyclical sort of thing.

  6. James Joyner says:

    CG,

    That’s a good point that hadn’t occured to me. In any case, it’s one of the best magazines out there. It’s worth the paltry subscription price, even though a lot of it winds up online eventually.

  7. John says:

    You’d be singing a different tune if NPR had the ears and eyes of Fox or Limbaugh. 🙂

    Saying “the truth is out there” if you want to search for it seems pretty silly. Basically, if you want to increase your “voice”, you have to get advertising dollars. If 5% of the players control 80% of the eyeballs, then they almost certainly control at least 80% of the advertising dollars. Thus, creating a heck of an un-level playing field for the quest for eyeballs or whatever – i.e., 95% of the players get to fight for less than 20% of the money.

    If you think it’s a good idea to have 5% of your market own 80% of the information content received (not just fluffed into thin air), then I have to ask what you mean by a system that’s resilient to manipulation and abuse – something that should be a fundamental assumption. It’s almost trivial to think how the system could be gamed if anyone actually wanted to. And in tight political campaigns where people are spending a quarter of a billion dollars on political races, I’m sure there’s a lot of incentive for abuse (by all sides).

    And since they own the market (80%), there’s little chance for the vast bulk of the actual market providers: the lumpenproletariat boutique information sources. And if the vast part (95%) of your market providers are hamstrung in profitability, they simply cannot perform a very necessary market function – i.e., Watching the Watchers. Maybe cheap web publishing will tip that balance drastically, but I just simply can’t believe that a system so drastically unbalanced and concentrated as ours is such a great idea. Well, unless we’re all saints. And I doubt that’s the case.

    That’s why the current structure “impedes reliable info” from getting to the population, and making it even more deregulated will result in even more concentration of advertising dollars.