SOURCE: August Pollak
On July 31, following months of speculation and negotiation, the Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch acquired Dow Jones & Company, publisher of The Wall Street Journal. The Journal has the second-highest circulation in the country and is one of the most renowned newspapers in the world. While many expressed fears about a Murdoch-led Journal, others, pointing to the fact that Murdoch recently hosted a Hillary Clinton fundraiser and seems concerned by global warming, argue that there is a tendency to oversimplify Murdoch’s politics and that worries about his impact on the Journal are overstated.
Murdoch is the CEO of News Corporation, a media juggernaut which “owns 175 different newspapers, book publisher HarperCollins, Fox Interactive (which includes MySpace, IGN, Rotten Tomatoes, AskMen, AmericanIdol.com, Fox.com), TV Guide, the Weekly Standard, leading U.K. television network Sky TV, DirectTV, 20th Century Fox, Fox News, FX (cable network), and the National Geographic Channel.” Murdoch also owns The New York Post, a tabloid-style newspaper known mostly for its controversial covers and hard-right, pro-war stances.
Despite assurances from Murdoch and his business partners, and the formation of a committee to ensure News Corp. doesn’t unduly influence the Journal’s reporting, a look back at a few of Murdoch’s media properties—and how he’s run them—reveals plenty of reason for concern.
Murdoch is perhaps best known for owning Fox News, the “Fair and Balanced” cable news network. Murdoch launched the station in 1997 to counteract what he saw as a left-wing media bias. Since then, the station has become better known for its overheated, hysterical pundits than it has for its news reporting. Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity are the poster boys for a roster of pundits who have created a separate, parallel universe where facts and opinion are one and the same, where vast liberal conspiracies are a given and the most empowered people in America—Christian white males—are in fact an embattled minority struggling to save their values, their way of life, and even Christmas from a vicious army of immigrants, gays, and judges.
It would be nice to ignore this sort of inflammatory rhetoric, but Fox News’s consistent disregard for the truth has had a profound effect on America’s political discourse. In 2003, a University of Maryland study quantified the network’s pernicious impact by looking at three common misperceptions about the war in Iraq: that evidence of links between Iraq and Al Qaeda had been discovered; that weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq; and that world opinion was in favor of the war. Overall, the study found, 60 percent of Americans held at least one of these false beliefs. For Fox News viewers, however, the number was 80 percent. Given the prevalence of the network and the visibility of its personalities, it’s not a stretch to say that the network helped pave the way to war.
But this should come as no surprise. Almost all of the 175 newspapers owned by Murdoch’s News Corporation wrote pro-war editorials on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. And Murdoch had a clear reason for supporting the war—oil. In a 2003 story in the Guardian, Murdoch was quoted saying, “The greatest thing to come out of this for the world economy… would be $20 a barrel for oil. That’s bigger than any tax cut in any country.” (As of this writing, the price of oil is $74 per barrel.) Even as the war started to go south, Murdoch was not going to allow facts to get in the way of his agenda. On the eve of the 2006 American elections, Murdoch said that casualties in Iraq, especially U.S. casualties, were “minute” when placed in a historical context. At the time, 2,832 American troops had been killed, and their families probably disagreed with Murdoch’s assessment.
Murdoch has also made his mark in the world of long-form print journalism. In 1995, he provided funding to launch The Weekly Standard, which was founded by William Kristol, Fred Barnes, and John Podhoretz. The Standard loses $1 million a year but is considered a flag bearer of the neoconservative movement and has quickly become one of the most influential conservative publications. As Scott McConnell wrote in The American Conservative, noting Murdoch’s annual contribution to keep the magazine running: “[I]f Rupert Murdoch’s purpose was to make things happen in Washington and in the world, he could not have leveraged it better. One could spend 10 times that much on political action committees without achieving anything comparable.”
Indeed, the Standard has served an important role for conservatism during the age of George W. Bush. While Fox News’s pundit lineup consists chiefly of faux populists who use “common sense” to explain how liberals are screwing over the world, the Standard provides a useful façade of intellectualism.
That’s not to say that Kristol and Barnes, the two remaining members of the founding triumvirate (Kristol is editor and Barnes is executive editor), have shown much acuity—or nuance—when it comes to analyzing politics or policy. Kristol once said during an NPR interview at the start of the Iraq war: ”There’s been a certain amount of pop sociology in America, that the Shi’a can’t get along with the Sunni and the Shi’a in Iraq want to establish some kind of Islamic fundamentalist regime. There’s been almost no evidence of that at all. Iraq’s always been very secular." Surprisingly, this turned out to be false. Barnes, for his part, wrote Rebel-in-Chief: Inside the Bold and Controversial Presidency of George W. Bush, a “maddeningly superficial” paean to Bush’s leadership abilities that seems less relevant each day. But, again, adherence to the truth rarely matters in Murdoch’s publications. While Kristol and Barnes have been failures by intellectual and journalistic standards, both steadily beat the drum for war with Iraq, and both have since refused to acknowledge the reality of the situation there. Even as recently as July 15, Kristol had the audacity to write that “we now seem to be on course to a successful outcome” in Iraq. In Murdoch’s media world, loyalty to the cause matters far more than predictive or intellectual ability.
Never is this clearer than in the New York Post, the feather in Murdoch’s newspaper cap. The Post provides a reliably reactionary conservative spin on each day’s events. As is the case with many tabloid dailies, its hard-right editorial stance regularly seeps onto the front page. In 2007 alone, the Post has pushed flawed, partisan polls; said that New Mexico’s governor, Bill Richardson (D),who’s vying to become the first Hispanic president, is throwing his “sombrero” into the presidential race; and referred to Sen. Hillary Clinton’s (D) call for a cap on troop levels in Iraq—a position held by more than half of all Americans—as “an effort to please her party’s liberal base.” And that’s just the paper’s news department. Its editorial page is even more notorious, and has in recent months called for a Scooter Libby pardon and accused Democrats of “encouraging the enemy.” After the release of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group report, it summed up the report’s prescriptions in one word: “surrender.” If you want the right-wing talking points on just about any issue, the Post should be your first choice for unoriginal, agenda-driven reporting and opinion writing.
Since Rupert Murdoch is much more mogul than editorialist, it isn’t always easy to draw a direct link between his views and the content pushed by his outlets. It’s not Murdoch, his backers might say, who is writing these columns and delivering these diatribes. Literally speaking, this is true, of course: When Bill O’Reilly acts like a jerk, he acts like a jerk because he’s Bill O’Reilly, not because of Rupert Murdoch. But Murdoch has hired, funded, and encouraged jerks. His outlets consistently show little regard for the truth, no compunction about advancing a right-wing agenda even in forums that are supposed to be objective, and nastily reactionary tendencies. Murdoch and Dow are asking us to take them at their word that Murdoch-journalism won’t infest the Journal’s journalism, but we see little reason to be optimistic.