Australian-born billionaire Rupert Murdoch has manipulated not just the news but the news landscape of the United States for decades. He has done so by pressuring the Federal Communications Commission and Congress to alter the laws of the land and regulatory standards in order to give his media conglomerate an unfair advantage in "competition" with more locally focused, more engaged and more responsible media.
Now, with Murdoch’s News Corp. empire in crisis—collapsing bit by bit under the weight of a steady stream of allegations about illegal phone hacking and influence peddling in Britain—there is an odd disconnect occurring in much of the major media of the United States. While there is some acknowledgement that Murdoch has interests in the United States (including not just his Fox News channel but the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post), the suggestion is that Murdoch was more manipulative, more influential, more controlling in Britain than here.
But that’s a fantasy. Just as Murdoch has had far too much control over politics and politicians in Britain during periods of conservative dominance—be it under an actual Tory such as former Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major and current Prime Minister David Cameron or under a faux Tory such as former Prime Minister Tony Blair—he has had far too much control in the States. And that control, while ideological to some extent, is focused mainly on improving the bottom line for his media properties by securing for them unfair legal and regulatory advantages.
Over the past decade, as media reform groups have battled to prevent FCC and Congressional moves to undermine controls on media consolidation, Murdoch and his lobbyists been a constant presence—pushing from the other side for the lifting of limits on the amount and types of media that one corporation can own in particular communities and nationally.
The objection was never an ideological one. Media owners, editors, reporters and commentators have a right to take the positions they like. Where the trouble comes is when they seek to turn politicians and regulators into corporate handmaidens—and when they build their empires out to such an extent they can demand obedience even from those who do not share their partisan or ideological preferences.
And the corruptions of the process created by Murdoch’s manipulation are not merely a British phenomenon.
Murdoch’s political pawns in the United States have been every bit as faithful to the mogul and his media machine as the British pols.
When he appeared before the House Judiciary Committee in May of 2003, at a point when he was the chief global cheerleader for George Bush’s war with Iraq (“We basically supported…I will say supported the Bush policy,” the media mogul would later admit), Murdoch was seeking to secure ownership of the nation’s largest satellite television company while pressing for FCC rule changes that would allow him to own newspapers and broadcast outlets in the same cities and for an easing of controls on the extent to which one corporation could dominate television viewership nationally.
Did Murdoch have a hard time of it?
News reports at the time described the response to the Australian-born media mogul’s appearance as “just short of fawning.”
The then-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Wisconsin Republican James Sensenbrenner, greeted Murdoch by thanking the media executive for developing the Fox News network. “When my wife doesn’t get a good dose of Fox News every day she gets grumpy,” chirped Sensenbrenner, “so there are some of us who appreciate what you are doing.”
Murdoch was invited to sing the praises of his various operations, and he did just that, claiming, “Innovation and consumer choice are built into our DNA.”
The whole point of Fox, Murdoch explained, was to “dethrone” more traditional media outlets—outlets that did actual news reporting (Fox is dominated by talking-head commentators) and that were not expressly ideological (in the sense that Fox places itself at the service of the corporate-dominated and militarist wing of the GOP).
That sat well with the Republicans on the committee. “Thank you for what you’ve done,” Utah Congressman Chris Cannon told Murdoch. “Thank you for your risk-taking.”
Sensenbrenner was so determined to create a favorable transcript of Murdoch’s visit—which he promised to forward to the Justice Department and the FCC, which were examining anti-trust and regulatory issues relating to the expansion of the News Corp. empire—that he prevented Democrats on the committee from asking basic questions.
The ranking Democrat, Michigan Congressman John Conyers, complained that he was prevented from questioning Murdoch about “the connections between [Fox News chairman and CEO] Roger Ailes and the White House. What the hell is that all about? It’s like there’s a direct line between the administration and Ailes. You can see it. There are plenty of political and policy implications in that.”
Conyers was absolutely right. So, too, were consumer groups that complained aggressively about the expansion of Murdoch’s media dominance and political reach. But News Corp. got the go-ahead to take over the largest satellite company (DirecTV) and the FCC (which Murdoch had personally lobbied) approved the ownership rule changes he sought.
Ultimately, the DirecTV deal turned out to be problematic for Murdoch, and the courts tripped up the FCC’s rule changes.
But Murdoch kept at the latter fight, continuing to push for the FCC to rewrite media ownership rules so that one corporation can own the daily newspapers, the weekly “alternative” newspaper, the city magazine, suburban publications, the eight largest radio stations, the dominant broadcast and cable television stations, popular Internet news and calendar sites, billboards and concert halls in even the largest American city.
This “company-town” scheme—a top goal of Murdoch and his lobbying team, as it complemented their US operations in cities such as New York—was again approved by the FCC in 2008, only to again be up-ended by United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit earlier this month.
Notably, while the Murdoch-friendly 2008 rule change was approved by a Republican-dominated FCC, it was defended this year by current FCC chair Julius Genachowski, an appointee of President Obama.
As in England, Murdoch and his managers have for many years had their way with the American regulators and political players who should have been holding the mogul and the multinational to account. Sometimes Murdoch has succeeded through aggressive personal lobbying, sometimes with generous campaign contributions (with Democrats and Republicans among the favored recipients), sometimes by hiring the likes of Newt Gingrich (who as the Speaker of the House consulted with Murdoch in the 1990s) and Rick Santorum (who as a senator from Pennsylvania was a frequent defender of big media companies), sometimes by making stars of previously marginal figures such as Michele Bachmann.
Former White House political czar Karl Rove, who prodded Fox News to declare George Bush the winner of the disputed 2000 presidential election and who remains a key player in Republican politics to this day, still works for Murdoch, as does former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, a prospective GOP vice presidential candidate.
But Murdoch is not the rigid partisan some of his more casual critics imagines. He often discovers unexpected political heroes of heroines—such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a former target whose 2000 US Senate run in New York and whose 2008 presidential run earned surprisingly generous coverage from the New York Post and Fox after Murdoch determined that she was on the rise politically. The Clinton embrace was classic Murdoch. He plays both sides of every political divide. But when he is not aiding and abetting the party of the right he looks for conservative and centrist figures (Britain’s Blair, America’s Clinton) within traditional parties of the left. The point, always, is to assure that those with power are pro-business in general and pro-Murdoch (or, at the least, indebted to Murdoch) in particular.
The strategy has been so successful that, even now, there is some debate about the extent to which Murdoch’s influence will diminish in the United States.
Criticism of the media Machiavelli has been muted, and not just from the Republican presidential contenders who are afraid of getting on the wrong side of the Fox team and the equally punitive Wall Street Journal editorial page. Democratic leaders had almost as much trouble finding anything bad to say about Murdoch’s alleged wrongdoing—let alone his manipulations of American political life.
After the current scandal began to unfold, a few Democrats with histories of questioning big-media companies, called for inquiries into News Corp. wrongdoing.
Senators Jay Rockefeller, D-West Virginia, and Barbara Boxer asked for an investigation of whether News Corp’s extensive use of phone hacking could have violated US laws. “The reported hacking by News Corp. newspapers against a range of individuals—including children—is offensive and a serious breach of journalistic ethics,” says Rockefeller said in a statement. “This raises serious questions about whether the company has broken U.S. law, and I encourage the appropriate agencies to investigate to ensure that Americans have not had their privacy violated.”
Similarly, Senator Frank Lautenberg, D-New Jersey, asked Attorney General Eric Holder and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Chair Mary Schapiro on Wednesday, to consider whether News Corp.’s allegedly bribery of foreign law enforcement officials violated US law.
“The limited information already reported in this case raises serious questions about the legality of the conduct of News Corp. and its subsidiaries under the [Foreign Corrupt Practices Act],” explained Lautenberg. “Further investigation may reveal that current reports only scratch the surface of the problem at News Corp. Accordingly, I am requesting that DOJ and the SEC examine these circumstances and determine whether U.S. laws have been violated.”
New York Congressman Peter King, who represents many families of 9/11 victims, was a lonely Republican advocate for an inquiry.
These requests prompted the US Department of Justice to pursue a limited investigation, with Attorney General Holder saying, “There have been members of Congress in the United States who have asked us to investigate those same allegations and we are progressing in that regard using the appropriate Federal law enforcement agencies,”
Holder, a frequent target of abuse from Murdoch media, has taken an appropriate if cautious first step.
An even more appropriate inquiry would go to the heart of the matter and ask: How did Murdoch get such favorable treatment from Congressional committees and regulatory agencies that are supposed to serve the public interest?
Such an inquiry would, undoubtedly, consider the unsettling tale of how former Senate minority leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, seemed to lose interest in challenging media consolidation—an issue on which he had been a good player—after Murdoch’s publishing house offered Lott a $250,000 book deal for the senator’s forgettable memoir, Herding Cats. It would also consider the strange case of then–Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s decision to take a break from her work at a critical early stage in the war on terror—on a day when a international outcry had stirred with regard to a failed attempt to assassinate a key Al Qaeda leader—to spend a leisurely afternoon briefing Murdoch’s editors from around the world.
But the most critical focus of any inquiry into Murdoch’s influence over US political and regulatory players would be on those figures, such as the slavishly devoted Congressman Sensenbrenner, who remain in positions where they can do the mogul’s bidding.
No doubt, Murdoch’s misdeeds deserve to be examined—thoroughly, and aggressively.
So, too, however, do the actions of those American politicians and regulators—Republicans and Democrats—who appear to have been every bit as obedient to Rupert Murdoch as their British counterparts.
Bio: John Nichols writes about politics for The Nation magazine as its Washington correspondent. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.