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.
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.