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Monday, July 18, 2011

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The media stories about the British scandal involving revelations of wrongdoing by employees of News Corporations’s tabloids are almost as titillating as stories in his tabloids. It is fun to see Rupert Murdoch squirm, and we can all enjoy the tabloid press getting a dose of its own medicine, suffering from scandal and outrage, the very things it has curried for so long. It seems a pleasing and humorous comeuppance tale of what comes-round-goes-round symmetry.
The core of the story - ethical excesses by the tabloids in digging up and creating sensational stories - is hardly news in the long view of things.
Tabloids have always made their bones by marketing items about sex, crime, corruption, celebrities, and any combination of the above. Sensation sells, sex sells, bloody photos sell, and selling is their only reason for being, not information or reform, although those "journalistic" principles are the excuse.
Truth is that in the colorful and nasty history of the tabloid press in Great Britain, the U.S. or elsewhere in the world, Murdoch’s rags aren’t even in the top ten of sleaziest. 

In the early days of the Twentieth Century, Pulitzer and Hearst notoriously competed in the most bloodthirsty howling that headlines had ever seen. In the 1920's in New York and Chicago, the competition among daily tabloids was ruthless and unrelenting. Celebrity culture reached a zenith with newspapers creating stars from the headlines, from Babe Ruth to Charles Lindbergh to Rudolf Valentino to Al Capone, and destroying them, as exemplified by the crushing of comic Fatty Arbuckle by Hearst's misleading and sleazy reporting about his trial for manslaughter when a drunken starlet died after sex during a "Hollywood party" (though it happened in San Francisco). 
But the more dangerous aspect of the Murdoch story has not yet been mined by the media and may never be explored for fear of overturning the entire rotten structure of our "free press" or perhaps for fear of Murdoch's power to retaliate. 
Even so, the scandal is providing a clue as to one of the ways that Murdoch uses his power to gain more power. Like all in business, Murdoch needs influence to thrive. Of course, he makes monetary contributions to politicians in the millions. And he certainly encourages friendships with politicians that they know are important because kissing the ass of the a billionaire media mogul who can influence public opinion is wise policy for a politician.

But this is not news. Other media moguls throughout history have been influential in politics. For example, Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune was a power broker in the Whig, then Republican Party, in the mid Nineteenth Century, influencing policies and attitudes toward all of the great issues of the day: slavery, the Civil War, reconstruction, the western migration, the destruction of the Native American tribes.

In England, Alfred Harmsworth (aka Lord Northcliffe) was owner of The Times and Daily Mail. During World War I, after undermining the prime minister, Lord Asquith, by scathing editorial attacks and biased reports, he was rewarded by appointment as Director for Propaganda by the next prime minister, Lloyd George. This was appropriate because his newspapers had instigated the war with vicious anti-German reporting. Under Northcliffe’s lead, wartime restrictions on newspaper reporting of the blunders of British military leaders during the war was almost total.
(Harmsworth friend, Robert McCormick, owned The Chicago Tribune, which, during the 1930's was a vocal opponent of F.D.R.’s New Deal and was steadfastly isolationist until Pearl Harbor. Joseph Medill Patterson, McCormick’s cousin, bought The New York Daily News in 1919).

The real threat posed by Murdoch’s accumulation of power and his willingness to use it can be seen when you consider what J. Edgar Hoover did as director of the F.B.I.

Hoover ordered his agents to secretly investigate people he suspected of a wide variety of what he considered "wrongdoing". To him, this ranged from "sexual perversion" — which might mean extra marital affairs or homosexual encounters or a kept mistress or a mixed racial relationship — to "criminality" or "anti-American activity." These labels could include any suspicion of membership or contribution to or attending a meeting of any group that Hoover thought of as leftist or upsetting to Hoover's southern biased sensibilities.

Proving that knowledge is power, Hoover’s secret dossiers on F.D.R., L.B.J., and J.F.K. assured his continuing in office long after his negative traits as an administrator should have sent him into retirement. Files on important members of Congress and the media (including Hollywood) also insured that the Bureau itself would never be investigated, its budget never cut, and that the legend of its perfection would never be challenged — the myth of the F.B.I. was protected by extortion.

It is now becoming clear that Murdoch uses his tabloids in much the same way. His editors pay for information — no matter how obtained — not only for sensational stories about murders and celebrity gossip — but far more importantly, to get dirt about politicians. 

Following the practices of spy agencies such as the FBI, the media pays informants (some of whom have ties to such organizations) to act as "agent provocateurs" to create the story by procuring the sex, drugs, situations to entrap subjects -- celebrities or politicians -- into the compromising and embarrassing poses, for cameras, tapes, and computers. 

Some of these stories are published, ending careers of some -- as cabinet members have been snared in the time-honored way (remember Profumo). But the rest are kept in secret files, stored as a deterrent to government interference with the Murdoch empire: regulations, denial of licenses, anti-trust investigations, tax breaks — any of the innumerable issues that billionaire business people need to control.

In the U.S., the influence of News Corp, Fox News — including Dow Jones, The Wall Street Journal, the Fox chain of broadcast stations — is enormous and growing. Its ties to the Republican Party are well known.

It employs and supports past and future candidates, personalities, commentators in interlocking influence peddling and policy creating panels. It channels vast sums of money for its purposes, curries influence, carries enormous weight simply because of its ratings — Fox News cable channel is by far the highest rated (over CNN and MSNBC).    

The New York Post, when I was a boy, was the liberal afternoon tabloid in a city with plenty of right wing representation, namely The Daily News. Murdoch turned The Post into a right wing scandal sheet, reporting on sex, celebrities, crime.

Just as the abuses of power that Nixon threatened represented a far greater danger than the transgressions that popular memory has chosen to trivialize under the misleading label, "Watergate," Murdoch's "hacking" scandal underestimates the danger his conduct presents.

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