The current scandal involving Rupert Murdoch, his media empire, the British police, and the political establishment raises troubling questions about the nature of a free press and its role in maintaining a healthy democracy. It would be a mistake, however, to conclude this is a uniquely British problem and even more dangerous not to acknowledge the very same concerns about the press in this country.
I.F. Stone once said he didn't want to eat, drink or socialize with the people he wrote about in Washington. He didn't want to be friends with the politicians he hectored. He felt distance, and some alienation, assured his ability to be objective and call a spade a spade no matter whose ox he gored. Every year my stomach turns as stories and video emerges of the White House Correspondent's Dinner. While there doesn't have to be open warfare between the press and the powerful, there should at least be healthy suspicion and skepticism and the dinner is an example of the line between the two sides not blurring, but ceasing to exist.
This is not going to be a tirade about Murdoch and Fox and his genius in founding a news network based in ideology rather than journalism. Murdoch simply took to its logical conclusion, what had already happened to the corporate media in America. When General Electric bought NBC; Cap Cities bought ABC; Lowes Corporation bought CBS; all three demanded their news departments turn a profit. They cut back on anything, which didn't draw viewers. That moment was the beginning of the end of a vibrant, skeptical, press capable of acting as a watchdog on the rich and powerful. Making a profit equals a race for ratings. Ratings means getting people to sit and watch. Attracting viewers means covering stories, which grab their interest. It wasn't too long before the tabloidization of the news was off and running and this was long before Murdoch. White House reporters became millionaires. Networks shied away from controversy and any story which might alienates viewers. Investigative reports dwindled, unless they were about Lindsey Lohan, and foreign bureaus disappeared. Proof of how we have slipped is contained in the recent coverage of the Casey Anthony story. Can anyone explain the reason this story dominated network and cable news for weeks and months? We all know the answer. She was a cute, white woman and the victim was a child and the cast of characters was right out of central casting. The story was salacious and titillating. It was a slam-dunk.
As corporations bought up the news networks, President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 deregulating the electronic media and removing caps on how many radio and television stations corporations could own in any market. This allowed for even further concentration of media in fewer and fewer hands. Ironically, the Hanbaugh's of the world owe their existence to Clinton and de-regulation and to the elimination of their competition. They aren't where they are today because they defeated the competition, but because there was no one left to compete against. KGO is the proof of the pudding. Not once did any of these leading lights ever get better ratings than the locally produced content carried on this station.
Look across the nation today. Look in California today. What television station news department has a bureau in Sacramento? Does anyone have beat reporters anymore? Reporters who covered the cops and city hall? Reporters who knew where bodies were buried and what questions to ask? The only time these venues are covered today is when some print source raises a question or scandal and we all know the trouble print journalism is encountering. Can you think about a future in which only the electronic media were left to keep watch?
Murdoch is a cynical, amoral, despot who ruled in Britain through a combination of fear and intimidation. Even as the phone hacking scandal emerged, Newsweek is now reporting most of the media in Britain either ignored or played down the story. The police refused to take it seriously and maybe even covered it up and politicians turned a blind eye all because they were afraid of what Murdoch would do to them should they rock the boat. Murdoch was about to purchase all of B Sky B network and obtain a virtual monopoly on cable and satellite media. (Anyone seen any stories lately on what would happen if AT&T is allowed to buy T Mobile?) If it had not been for the Guardian newspaper, he would have gotten away with it all. Don't feel smug. It's happening here too.
We now know the entire corporate media was cowed by the Bush administration after September 11, 2001. They were terrified of criticizing or raising questions about Bush et. al. because they didn't want to be accused of being soft on terrorism or unpatriotic. The big media corporations were hoping the FCC under Bush would further deregulate and allow them to increase their holdings and antagonizing Bush could put all of that into jeopardy. Dan Rather has been quoted as admitting no one wanted to ask a tough question. We now know the Washington Post and New York Times were burying stories critical of the war on terror and which raised questions about the justifications for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Judith Miller, in a cozy relationship with Scooter Libby, was writing false stories and repeating Bush propaganda on the front pages of the Times. Stories raising questions about Bush administration assertions were buried on page 18 of the Post if they were published at all. The networks fell into lockstep. Does anyone remember the media love fest after Colin Powell spoke at the U.N.? Despite lying over and over again, no one in the media challenged him or the case he made. Actually, that is not entirely true. In the alternative press, Mother Jones...the Nation...the Progressive...Washington Monthly and others, questions were raised but ignored by the corporate media. Hell, Walter Isakson, then the head of CNN, ran up to capital hill to apologize to Republicans for CNN's coverage of politics and promised to do better. Really?
All Murdoch has done is be more ruthless and unethical. In his world, journalistic standards do not exist. In the rest of the world they are slowly being diluted. For him the end justifies the means. There is no journalism practiced at Fox. It is 24 hours a day of propaganda with the theme set each day by Roger Ailes. However, the rest are not much better. They are all competing for viewers or readers and this drives the discourse to the lowest possible denominator. The political debate always starts from the center and regresses. They are constantly looking for the next O.J. and Casey Anthony story. Do you think Nancy Grace cares about journalism? We now know the networks are paying for stories and interviews exactly the same way as the tabloids. Checkbook journalism is alive and well. Murdoch does it better perhaps, and with relish, but the rest aren't far behind.
The reason freedom of the press was enshrined in the first amendment was the founder's understanding democracy cannot function without a rigorous and independent press. They would be shocked to see the neutered eunuchs who pass for journalists these days. The one hope continues to be the alternative press. Search it out. Read it. Get informed. Subscribe and donate to keep them alive.
Do you want to know about Anthony Weiner, or about the billions being spent to defeat Dodd/Frank and the attempts to prevent financial services reform from being enacted? It is up to you. You get what you pay for and demand.