Don’t blame Rupert Murdoch.
Once again, he’s been using his newspapers, headlines and all, in a political/media controversy to make crude and dishonest attacks—this time on Senator Edward Kennedy because Kennedy and Senator Fritz Hollings managed to pass a law forcing the Federal Communications Commission to hold Murdoch to his agreements and to existing regulations.
But making Murdoch the villain is a mistake. Not because he is lovable. On the contrary, Murdoch is an avaricious media baron, he has debased journalism on three continents, he is shameless in using the “news” in his papers to bludgeon political enemies (liberals) and promote political friends (Margaret Thatcher, Mayor Koch of New York City and Ronald Reagan). He has become a major American power in newspapers, magazines, films and books, thanks not to his crudities, but to a process created and supported by the most respectable newspaper and broadcast organizations in the country.
Two years ago, Murdoch began his drive, now accomplished, to become a major TV force in the United States. His purchases included television stations in Chicago, New York and Boston. For 13 years, an FCC regulation has permitted no new television licenses or transfers to an owner who controls a daily newspaper in the same market. Other media owners have respected this cross-ownership rule, which is based on the principles of the 1934 Communications Act codifying diversity of ownership as fundamental to the public interest. This principle was upheld by the United States Supreme Court 40 years ago when it ruled that the public interest is served by media ownership that represents “diverse and antagonistic sources.”
The specific ban on new cross-ownership was promulgated by Nixon’s hand-picked conservative chairman of the FCC, Dean Burch, who said that despite new technical forms like cable, the vast majority of the American public gets its news and information from the 12 VHF television channels, a pattern that still holds today.
Like other owners before him, Murdoch agreed to divest himself of his newspapers in return for new TV licenses in three cities. (Newspaper owners, who make more than 20 percent pretax profits, often seek to buy TV stations, from which they can expect to make more than 30 percent profit.) Murdoch sold his Chicago Sun-Times, but in 1986 he asked for and was granted a delay of two years in selling the New York Post and Boston Herald. The divestiture deadline for the Post is March 6; the Herald, June 30, 1988.
But this is the era of Reagan deregulation and encouragement of giantism and monopoly. In the dying days of the administration, the FCC has rushed to dismantle all public service requirements for broadcasting, moves that have the overwhelming support of major newspaper chains. The newspapers have portrayed this dismantling as support for the First Amendment. Their news stories have consistently omitted or downplayed the anti-First Amendment conditions in broadcasting, like the limited number of VHF TV channels, and broadcasters insistence that the government use its police power to protect every TV station’s monopoly over its frequency.
In November 1987, the Freedom of Expression Foundation headed by the major newspaper chains — Gannett, Washington Post, Harte-Hanks, Times Mirror, Knight Ridder, Capital Cities/ABC — petitioned the FCC to abandon its cross-ownership rule. (The only cases pending were Murdoch’s.) Given its Reaganite policies, there was every reason to expect the FCC would kill the rule. So in December, Kennedy, a member of the Senate antitrust committee, arranged to have Hollings place in a government spending bill a measure that would forbid the FCC from extending any existing cross-ownership waivers and force the agency to retain the cross-ownership rule.
The major newspapers of the country, including the ones whose leaders created the foundation urging deregulation, condemned Kennedy’s “sneak” bill and supported Murdoch. Not surprisingly, most did not report the crucial (“sneak?”) timing of the newspaper foundation’s move to kill the cross-ownership prohibition to help their corporate compatriot, Murdoch and thus enhance their own quest for future broadcast acquisitions.
While the major papers handled the matter in polite language, Murdoch did it with explosions of vituperation in his New York and Boston papers, precisely the ones he had promised to sell. A Boston Herald banner headline (1/3/88) on page one proclaimed: “TEDDY K: I DID IT.” Murdoch’s columnist, Howie Carr (1/6/88), described Kennedy in vintage Murdochian journalism as “Fat Boy…Goodyear Blimp…spoiled rich kid…the nation’s oldest juvenile delinquent,” and called the legislation “Porky’s Revenge.”
In New York, Murdoch’s Post ran similar banner headlines: “MURDOCH: I’LL FIGHT TO KEEP THE POST ALIVE” (1/7/88). The huge display did not report that he had promised to sell the paper and had already received four offers to buy it. (As Extra! went to press, Murdoch claimed to have found a buyer.)
All this is standard Murdoch. With the help of the gross misuse of his newspapers, he has circumvented both Australian and English anti-monopoly laws. But it is a mistake to blame the episode on something peculiar to Murdoch. Rupert Murdoch is simply obeying the First Law of Media Dynamics: Media Power equals Political Power–squared.
The blame lies not in Murdoch, though his style is repulsive. The fault lies in current US economic policy and the mainstream news media which have consistently failed to report with fairness and balance the pros and cons of deregulation and monopoly development. Newspapers, formerly competitors of broadcasting, are now major participants in the industry. (A recent New York Times editorial–1/9/88–attacked the Fairness Doctrine without mentioning that the New York Times Co. owns five broadcast outlets.)
Where newspapers were once quick to publish news of broadcasters’ attempts to pry open the back door of regulatory agencies, they now rush to offer crowbars to their fellow broadcasters. That is one of the reasons cross-ownership was forbidden in the first place. With media power in the US unified and concentrated in a few large national and multinational corporations, those companies now have coercive power over public figures and government policy.
Only the crude style of Murdoch differentiates his corporate policies from other dominant media owners. The more dignified publishers accomplish the same thing quietly. They do not report in the news the negative social and economic effects of their most desired legislation, or they do it only briefly and obscurely. Thus, they have kept the issue out of the national discourse. They get their special governmental favors through Washington law firms and lobbyists who are standard fixtures in the halls of Congress, the White House and regulatory agencies.
Politicians understand the polite representations of media corporations as clearly as they can read Murdoch’s headlines: If a media owner controls a large enough portion of the news, that owner has control over what the public learns, if anything, of the politician’s image, campaigns and programs. The dignified calling card from a major media corporation has persuasive powers far greater than the editorial truncheon of Rupert Murdoch.
So don’t zero in on poor Rupert Murdoch. He has the virtue, if you’ll pardon the expression, of being flamboyant in his abuse of journalistic power. It is the polite media owners who have buried the issue of concentrated media control and killed the principle enunciated by the Supreme Court only 40 years ago that media ownership must be “diverse and antagonistic.”
FAIR advisory board member Ben Bagdikian is dean of the Graduate School of Journalism, University of California/Berkeley, and author of The Media Monopoly (Beacon, 1987).