According to Kinsley’s Law, first promulgated by New Republic editor and columnist Michael Kinsley: “The real scandal is what’s legal.” The Watergate scandal – a bungled espionage attempt against the Democratic Party – unseated an otherwise popular President whose bombing of Indochinese civilians was one of the 20th century’s great barbarities. The Iran-Contra scandal, in which a not-yet-impotent Congress’s prerogatives were flouted, embarrassed an even more popular President whose foreign policy had turned Central America into a graveyard. Occasional vote-buying or procurement scandals pale in comparison with the everyday inequities of campaign finance and the revolving door from Congress, the military, and the regulatory agencies into lucrative corporate sinecures. In the contest for public attention, individual misbehavior nearly always trumps structural injustice.
The wiretapping, bribery, and other criminal activities of News Corporation employees and their political patrons certainly deserve all the attention they’re receiving. It’s equally important, though, to take this opportunity to consider what Rupert Murdoch’s vast power and influence reveal about the civic health of the societies in which he operates.
Already by 1998, as Robert McChesney notes in Rich Media, Poor Democracy, “Murdoch claimed to have TV networks and systems that reached more than 75 percent of the world’s population,” including twenty-two networks in the United States (reaching 40 percent of the nation’s viewers), eight networks in India (reaching 45 percent of viewers), six networks in China, and large holdings in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Australia, Taiwan, New Zealand, and Indonesia. News Corporation owns hundreds of newspapers and film companies in the English-speaking world. Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and Tony Blair have personally intervened on Murdoch’s behalf in legislative and trade negotiations. The Wall Street Journal (pre-Murdoch) called the commercial broadcasting lobby, including GE, Disney, Time Warner, and News Corporation, “the most powerful lobby in Washington.” They get what they want, and what they want is exemption from rules limiting concentration of media ownership.
Is concentrated ownership compatible with editorial independence? The question needs reformulating. Except at Fox News (see “The Memo” in Kristina Borjesson’s anthology Into the Buzzsaw), editors are not given explicit guidelines from corporate headquarters. But editors and publishers who are properly vetted by the home office before being hired will not need intrusive supervision, just as university presidents chosen by business-dominated boards of trustees can be relied on to appoint deans who will in turn make “responsible” appointments to the economics, political science, and other ideologically sensitive departments. Ownership invariably translates into editorial constraint, a process well described by McChesney and by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent.
Rupert Murdoch may be exceptionally greedy and unscrupulous. But if it weren’t him corrupting American democracy, it would be someone else. The incentives are too great, the laws and their enforcement too feeble, the ideological climate too favorable. The longstanding right-wing campaign against all things public has had exactly this purpose: to turn journalism, as well as education, health care, the criminal justice system, and national security, into mere profit centers. Murdoch’s current misfortunes may slow this Great Degradation, but not by much.
George Scialabba's writing has appeared in Dissent, the Boston Globe, and n+1, among other publications. He is the author, most recently, of the essay collection, What Are Intellectuals Good For?, and the forthcoming book, The Modern Predicament (both Pressed Wafer Press).