The Moral Case Against Murdoch

Commenter dissent has a heartfelt

and powerful rebuttal to my sanguine view of Rupert Murdoch,

and his comments are worth broader dissemination:

Fox News is manna from heaven for war mongers. Read the headlines about the

traumas of Iraq and consider the real consequences for real people that have

come because we’ve allowed our news to turn to trash and war propaganda. It’s

not only shameful. It’s not only a disgusting display of what American values

have become. It’s a death and destruction corporate machine. Way to go, Felix!

The question you ignore is, how to protect the public interest in objective

information? Perhaps you think we shouldn’t be interested in maintaining a

democratic govt. You may be right (and I may be headed to the E.U.). But if

maintaining an American democracy is an important goal, then an informed citizenry

is essential.

If our society has media dominated by corporate interests to the extent that

we go to war and hundreds of thousands are killed with skewed reporting by

said media a big factor in fanning the flames, it is (for heaven’s sake!)

more than the pursuit of profit that is at stake.

There is a world out there, of consequences, deaths, chaos.

In this world, media consolidation in the USA can have deadly consequences.

If you find this "uninteresting", shame on you.

The word I used was actually "unenlightening", but point taken. The

viewers of Fox News are some of the least

informed Americans in the country, and their belief in fictions such as

the link between Iraq and the attacks of 9-11 was a crucial part of the reason

why this democracy allowed its leaders to go to war, and even re-elected them

after they did so.

What’s more, Rupert Murdoch is a classic hands-on proprietor, which means that

ultimate responsibility for the content of Fox’s programming rests with him.

(He’s perfectly happy to accept that responsibility, too: he’s not the kind

of CEO who blames his underlings while adding that he had no idea what they

were doing.)

It’s also true that democracy is served by fearless journalists who afflict

the comfortable and who are beholden to no one. Although if you’re looking for

that kind of journalism, I don’t think you’re more likely to find it in the

EU than you are here: Silvio Berlusconi, anyone?

To that end, I have a lot of sympathy with the likes of James Ottaway,

a man who is so

principled that he doesn’t even think newspapers should have lines of credit:

In an interview with The Audit to be published soon, former Dow Jones executive

and director James Ottaway said the controlling Bancroft family avoided even

taking on debt because they didn’t want the Journal to appear beholden

to financial institutions it covered and wouldn’t own TV stations because

they didn’t want the company to appear before any regulator.

It’s worth noting, however, that Ottaway newspapers itself always had

a lot of debt before it sold out to Dow Jones for $36 million in 1969, or

about $200 million in today’s dollars. The realities of finance and the markets

and competition apply to all newspapers, and to try to rise above them seems,

in practice, to be to consign one’s newspaper to underinvestment and eventual

obsolescence. In the real world, there’s a strong case to be made that a flagship

publication such as the Wall Street Journal will do much better as a rich man’s

plaything, receiving large cash infusions and becoming relevant to a much broader

global demographic, than it would do as a declining old media property, run

by hacks who have neither the cash nor the vision to turn their franchise around.

Do I fear that the WSJ will go the way of Fox News if it’s bought by Murdoch?

Of course not – I doubt even James Ottaway thinks that. In fact, I think

that the WSJ can and will thrive under Murdoch, and become better than ever.

So in practical terms, I think that Murdoch should buy the WSJ.

But I am sympathetic to the moral case against Murdoch buying the

WSJ. This is a man with blood on his hands, and he shouldn’t be sold such a

precious trust. How much weight you put on this case depends entirely on your

own morals, and on the degree to which you think Fox News viewers ended up holding

views they wouldn’t have held otherwise. As Murdoch himself often says, successful

media properties such as Fox News and The Sun are generally successful because

they reflect widely-held opinion, rather than because they’re particularly good

at shaping opinion. And it’s also worth remembering that the viewership of Fox

News is still only a tiny fraction of the viewership of the big network newscasts.

But let’s distinguish two arguments which seem to get easily elided. If Murdoch

has blood on his hands and you won’t sell to a proprietor with blood on his

hands, fine. End of argument. That’s not an argument about journalistic independence

or about well-functioning democracies, however.

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