Murdoch in the Dock: What Does It All Mean?

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The Murdoch scandal mostly unfolded while I was tied up with other writing, so I haven't gotten terribly involved in the story.  As far as I can tell, at least one subsidiary of News Corp admittedly did something very, very wrong, which makes it hard for me to take seriously any complaints about witch trials and so forth.  On the other hand, virtually all the British tabloids have been known to have been doing pretty much the same wrong thing for a very, very long time (remember poor Prince Charles and the tampon remark?), which also makes it difficult for me to credit the new wave of outrage as being purely motivated by the breach of journalistic ethics.  There's a great deal of personal malice towards Rupert Murdoch in this that is based on his politics, and his success at advancing those politics, not at what seems to be fairly widespread corruption in the British press.  On the other hand, the company thoroughly earned whatever it gets, so you won't catch me complaining about the unfairness of it all.


Which leaves the results:  what happens?  Some of the more naive American commentators seem to think that this is somehow going to bring down Fox News.  This hardly seems likely.  The worst thing that is going to happen to Rupert Murdoch is that he and his son are going to be forced out of the leadership, leaving them to retire and collect checks on the family's massive ownership stake (a stake large enough that even in retirement, Murdoch would still have considerable voice in the company).  This would be personally extremely painful for the Murdochs, which will no doubt bring a smile to the faces of many of his critics.  But the company and its properties will not suddenly dissolve.  Indeed, it may well thrive.  The company's breakup value is estimated to be about twice the value of the individual properties, meaning that the "Murdoch discount" for having him in control of all these media assets might be a staggering 50%.

I think people assume that taking out Murdoch somehow means that his papers and television properties will track back to the left, where media properties are supposed to belong.  But this seems highly dubious.  As far as I know, studies of media bias generally find that the political slant of newspapers tracks the politics of their readership; the New York Times is not visibly left-leaning because its reporters are fooling the folks on the Upper West Side, as conservatives complain, but because the folks on the Upper West Side demand news sources that agree with them.  The same is true of the more conservative southern papers that liberals love to hate on.

And it's very true of Fox News.  It's like that scene in Star Wars:

Darth Vader: Your powers are weak, old man.
Obi-Wan:  You can't win, Darth.  If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.

The very thing that makes liberals hate Fox News--its slant, and its large audience--make it impossible to kill.  Even if you destroyed the network, some other cable network would buy up most of its talent and move into its niche, with an audience that would be even more fanatically loyal thanks to the Vast Left Wing Conspiracy that killed their beloved news channel.   This scandal will be bad for Murdoch, bad for the current British government, and very possibly, ultimately good for News Corp.  But I doubt it's going to mean much one way or another for the balance of power between liberal and conservative media outlets.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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