The Age of Murdoch

Many see him as a power-mad, rapacious right-wing vulgarian. Rupert Murdoch has indeed been relentless in building a one-of-a kind media network that spans the world. What really drives him, though, is not ideology but a cool concern for the bottom line—and the belief that the media should be treated like any other business, not as a semi-sacred public trust. The Bush Administration agrees. Rupert Murdoch has seen the future, and it is him
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The New "News" Gamut

A few days before the FCC vote the liberal groups MoveOn.org, Common Cause, and Free Press organized a nationwide ad campaign to protest the likely result. A full-page ad ran in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other papers. The ad showed four TV screens, representing coverage on ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox, and on each screen was the same glowering picture of Rupert Murdoch, looking like Big Brother. "THIS MAN WANTS TO CONTROL THE NEWS IN AMERICA," the large-type headline said. "THE FCC WANTS TO HELP HIM." Chellie Pingree, the recently chosen president of Common Cause, told The New York Times, "He is the poster child of media consolidation. Who better to personify what the trends are than Rupert Murdoch?"

I talked with a News Corp official the morning the ad came out. He was exasperated by it and by the "poster child" quotation. News Corp was just a small player, he said. It had always stood for shaking up the status quo. And anyway, it didn't care about the FCC vote. Gary Ginsberg, a senior News Corp official, said to The New York Times in responding to the ads, "The reality is that in the past two decades no company has brought greater choice, unlocked more monopolies and invigorated more stagnant media markets than News Corporation."

Still, Pingree had a point—less about Murdoch than about the world around him. By example and by competitive threat, Murdoch was showing other companies the way ahead. What would it be like?

For people inside News Corp, it seems, not bad at all. Media organizations are dens of bitterness, intrigue, and insecurity, but News Corp seems no worse than most. Despite some fallings-out and notable firings, Murdoch's management team has been stable. The mood at Fox News seems positively jaunty, as the organization steadily overtakes CNN in the ratings with a much smaller staff. All of News Corp has an on-the-rise feel. The people I know who work at Fox News complain less than my friends in other news organizations. Murdoch will say "Sorry for interrupting" before coming into an employee's office. He is said not to yell or throw tantrums when things go wrong.

I heard several tales meant to illustrate Murdoch's reluctance to micro-manage in his empire—but I heard them in circumstances that make it difficult to determine whether they are true. Several people would, however, vouch for this incident: Benjamin Netanyahu, a longtime friend of Murdoch's, was booked on a Fox News Sunday talk show. But he got there late (offense No. 1 for a live show) because he was taping another Sunday show on another network (offense No. 2). The Fox News producers decreed, No more Bibi on our airwaves for a while! Netanyahu went to Murdoch and asked him to fix it. Instead of bigfooting, Murdoch told him to work it out with Brit Hume—the head of the Washington bureau. Netanyahu did, and the loyalty of the Fox staff increased.

From what I could gather in a number of off-the-record conversations with Murdoch's associates, he loves political gossip and is always calling officials to ask what they've heard, what's new. He is far more likely to use the telephone or talk in person than to send a memo. He rarely bothers with e-mail but is always interested in the details of new technology—especially the sort that can affect his business, from satellite to broadband. No one could remember Murdoch's recommending a novel to others, but he is always touting new nonfiction books—for instance, Robert Kagan's Of Paradise and Power, which contrasts American resolve with European weakness.

What Murdoch does pay close attention to is his divisions' finances. He looks carefully through "The Weekly Flash," a financial summary of the performance of News Corp divisions for the week and compared with the previous year. He makes lobbying calls when necessary in Washington but is not personally close to many of the big figures of the moment there. He is unlike Richard Nixon in seeming basically happy rather than tormented, but like him in believing that the "intellectual elite" is permanently scheming against him. Murdoch lives not on the Upper East Side but in a TriBeCa penthouse. One associate told me that Murdoch would rather be tortured than spend a weekend in the Hamptons. He is hypersensitive to criticism of his business judgment but laughs off complaints about his political or cultural role as mewls from the chattering classes.

Murdoch is known to be in close touch with his children, and he often gives James and Lachlan, the two with major management positions, life coaching on the phone. "Well, darling, it's okay," he might say, after one of them has described a recent problem, and then go on to impart what he has learned from similar challenges. The role of Murdochs within News Corp is basically similar to that of Sulzbergers within the New York Times Company, or Grahams within the Washington Post Company. In each case the family controls large blocks of stock and expects, but is not guaranteed, to run the company. One difference is that Rupert Murdoch is more purely entrepreneurial than recent Grahams or Sulzbergers have been. As a result, the business up for the next generation of Murdoch family control is currently at least six times as large as the Times or Post Company; it is truly global, and faces far more varied challenges.

News Corp's technological and strategic advantages are also hard for any other company, even a larger one, to replicate exactly. There are only so many major studios in Hollywood, and creating a worldwide satellite system to rival what Sky, Star, and DirecTV will give Murdoch is currently beyond any other company's reach. But even though they cannot imitate him, other companies will have to learn from him. Two principles that others can take from Murdoch's experience are his total market-mindedness and his pragmatic embrace of politics.

What the Murdoch model means in terms of content is precisely what the market will bear. In a country as big as the United States the market will support very refined and very coarse products. The gamut of Fox TV offerings, from the best to the worst on the air, indicates how wide the range can be. The writers for The Simpsons, the great pop-culture achievement of the late twentieth century, are fully aware of the contrast. In one episode Homer was convicted of murder, sentenced to death, and executed. Or so it seemed until the moment the switch was thrown on Ol' Sparky, when Carmen Electra stepped out from behind a curtain to tell him that he had been a player in Fox's newest reality show, Frame Up.

The purely market-minded approach creates more complications when it involves the news. The Fox TV empire covers news—sort of. Like its cable-TV competitors, it really covers whatever is most attention-getting that day. If it's a war, there is very interesting coverage of that war. If there's no war, then there's almost equally intense coverage of the Laci Peterson case—or of Chandra Levy, or JonBenet Ramsey, or whatever is compulsively watchable at the moment. The old-fashioned concept of news involved some calculation of what was "important." News as a pure business has to go with what grabs attention and hope that from time to time it's important, too.

What will a Murdoch era for the press mean politically? Here's what I think, after discussing the subject with people who have worked with and worked against Murdoch. The political component in Murdoch's media operation is larger than people inside the company admit—and perhaps larger than they believe. But it is smaller than most people who dread Murdoch's influence assume. He is principally a businessman, of conventional business-conservative views, who vents those views when possible but not when they interfere with any important corporate goal. For instance, the neoconservatives at Murdoch's Weekly Standard harshly criticize China, but Murdoch applies the wholly conventional economics-class view that ever increasing trade with that country will mean freedom in the long run. The main political significance of a Murdoch era is that more of the press will become more openly partisan than it has been in many years.

Murdoch's operations are not openly partisan quite yet. The New York Post is, maybe, with its cartoon of the ostrich as France's national bird. (Contrary to widespread belief, it was neither Fox News nor the Post that introduced "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" as a nickname for the French. The phrase came from Groundskeeper Willie, of The Simpsons.) But Fox News won't be budged from its claim that it offers "fair and balanced" coverage. Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News, frequently asserts that in opinion polls 70 percent of Americans say the media are "too liberal." Set aside for a moment whether respondents actually say that—or whether they're right if they do. For Fox's purposes it leads to the conclusion, as Ailes has put it, "that we can play things down the middle and get that seventy percent, while everybody else fights over the thirty." Brit Hume, of Fox's Washington bureau, has said that the "Washington herd" all runs in one direction. "If we just step aside from the herd, it's like picking up money off the street."

Of course, the Fox establishment would hoot at the idea that NPR, The New York Times, or CNN was "playing things down the middle," much as those organizations would hoot at Fox's claim. Every liberal thinks that Fox is a biased right-wing outlet; every conservative thinks the converse about mainstream outlets like these, plus the three big networks. Whether or not real bias in news reporting has changed, the perception of the press's political role has become steadily more polarized. One great truth of political life is that each side is absolutely convinced that the other has an unfair advantage in getting its views out. Liberals point to talk radio, conservatives to the generally liberal outlook of Hollywood. Many people point to Murdoch as an example of unbalanced power—and Murdoch himself points to The New York Times. In a recent speech he said that the Times was by far "the most powerful force in the country." "Its news and its priorities," he continued, "are repeated in hundreds of newspapers ... There is very much a tendency there, if you like, to domination by one company."

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.

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. His Atlantic cover story last November, "The Fifty-first State?," about postwar Iraq, won the 2003 National Magazine Award for Public Interest. His books include Free Flight: From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel (2001), Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (1996), and Looking at the Sun: The Rise of the New East Asian Economic and Political System (1994).
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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