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A FOX Guarding the Hen House?

August 2, 2007

Whatever one might think of Rupert Murdoch, it’s hard to deny the man has a certain roguish flair. He certainly seems to relish his role as the fearsome global media boor, upsetting the old fusty elites, monocles shattering and fine ladies fainting in the face of his unapologetically uncouth assault. Murdoch’s British tabloid, The Sun, is even more notorious than his other loss-leading market leader, The New York Post, for scurrilous headlines. My own personal favorite: “Willy Eater Gets Christmas Banger!” referring to German cannibal Armin Meiwes, who, after frying up his victim’s phallus for a snack, requested and received a Christmas bratwurst from the prison authorities, much to The Sun’s editorial horror. Now that Murdoch has convinced that blue-blood bastion, the Bancroft family (these people sound like they actually breakfast at Tiffany’s), to sell him Dow Jones and its crown jewel, The Wall Street Journal, the question is whether Rupert represents mere entertainment or something rather more sinister?

Perhaps entertainment itself represents something sinister. Murdoch is famous for gutting The Times of London, transforming the venerated media institution into a far more sensational and less serious newspaper via a series of editorial bloodbaths. Murdoch generally scoffs at quality – the trashier the better is the rule; whatever raises the bottom line. His tabloids screech, his Fox News marionettes froth at the mouth. Fox broadcasting is responsible for some of the greatest abominations in recent pop culture history. (Though, to be fair, Murdoch’s devil-may-care attitude has allowed for the creation of such gems as “The Simpsons,” and it’s not as if the other networks in America don’t mostly churn out crap, just with a veneer of self-righteousness and a lot less balls). Now that serious newspapers around the world are increasingly coming under the control of media conglomerates, will they inevitably decline, like The Times, to satisfy the lowest common denominator and the demands of shareholders?

This, supposedly, was what caused the Bancrofts to fear Murdoch’s offer and agonize over the sale. They even made a pledge of editorial independence for the Journal part of the negotiations, proving that they are either immensely gullible or simply wanted to acquire plausible deniability for allowing Rupert in to shred the Journal‘s standards. If Rupert wants more control, he’ll take it, whatever carefully worded contractual stipulations might stand in his way. Murdoch’s machinations raise the specter of an ever-smaller clique of super-wealthy corporate executives controlling much of both the serious and tabloid media. The conflicts of interest are obvious; the threat to independent scrutiny of government and business is clear.

In response to that threat, German philosopher Jurgen Harbermas has a not-so-modest proposal: public subsidizing of serious newspapers. (Hat-tip to my friend and colleague Jo-Ann Mort for alerting me to his essay.) Habermas’ argument is fairly straightforward, despite some rather perplexing constructions (“The meta-preference which guides such a reading is oriented on the advantages expressed in the professional self-image of independent journalism.” – perhaps something has been lost in translation). Serious research and reporting, independent from market pressures and corporate interests, is essential to the “energy” of the public sphere, which in turn is essential to an open, accountable democracy. Leaving serious journalism to the wolves of capitalism will lead to a kind of market failure, denying citizens access to a key resource. The government should therefore treat that resource – quality journalism – as a public utility and guarantee its supply.

It’s an intriguing argument, and Habermas certainly has a point: quality, elite media ultimately drives the public information agenda, however much folderol and foolishness gets mixed in along its way to the consumer/citizen. The trouble is that elite media is just that – elite. Whether or not governments decide to put the “quality press” on tax-paid life support, someone still has to read the quality press. That audience is the elites. The “people” read the New York Post, not the Washington Post and they most likely always will. Elites are willing to pay a premium for the quality press; people in general are not. Whether that quality press exists through state subsidy or the market therefore seems pretty irrelevant. Would any state-subsidized newspaper be better than or even as good as The Economist – a creature of the market that appeals to business and political elites, costs a lot per issue (no more than a couple of beers though) and does extremely well? The same echo chamber or trickle-down effect that Habermas talks about – quality press to mainstream – will still occur whether the quality press is state-subsidized or not. To get the effect Habermas wants, you’d have to force people to read “quality” information, as one forces children to eat their vegetables.

There will always be market demand for serious journalism, but by its nature that demand comes from a small market niche. Murdoch understands this as well as anyone, which is why he may desist from any cheapening of the prestige brand that he spent five billion dollars to acquire. What we are perhaps seeing the end of is the notion of mainstream news media as a kind of public trust. But that process is being driven by consumer choices as much as it is by corporate takeovers. People used to have fewer choices and the media was treated much like brussel spouts – something people should be made to consume because it’s in their best interests. Now that people have more choice, many are choosing low-quality products. Wal-Mart will always outsell Tiffany’s. The only way to change this would be to re-institute strict media regulation. In the 21st century media universe, that would be about as easy as getting Rupert to behave.

To read other blog entries by Hasdai Westbrook or others at GUERNICA click HERE

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