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Eric Alterman

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Think Again: Rupert, We Hardly Knew Ye

Posted: 07/21/11 05:00 PM ET

The scandal facing the Murdoch empire that has dominated media news has certainly been riveting. But has it taught us anything we didn't already know?

Well, yes and no. Most significant disagreements between reasonably well-informed people are merely differences of degree. And in this case, we've merely learned that whatever well- (and honestly-) informed people thought they knew about Murdoch and company is true but far worse in degree than we imagined. As Paul Krugman has written, citing Brad DeLong, "it's looking as if the Murdoch empire is more evil than you could possibly imagine, even when you take into account the fact that it's more evil than you can possibly imagine." So what have we learned?

The Murdoch empire is based on lies, criminal behavior, a lack of respect for elementary human decency, and a single-minded pursuit of its own self-interest. Which, by the way, has next to nothing to do with honest journalism, much less "fairness" or "balance." (For an as-short-as-possible summary of all the nefarious activities that have been recently discovered in the current scandal, go here.)

But when challenged on any and every one of these activities, it will use any and every one of its media properties to defend its actions and smear its adversaries.

Just look at the coverage of the scandal on Fox News. Well, look hard, because it's not that easy to find. The Project on Excellence in Journalism confirms that Fox News trails far behind rivals in News Corp. scandal coverage, devoting "about one-fifth as much time to the News Corp. phone hacking story as MSNBC, and about one-sixth as much time as CNN."

And what's been the substance of that coverage? Well, here is one of the most impressive exchanges to be heard on Fox News, between a PR exec named Robert Dilenschneider and Steve Doocy:

Dilenschneider: All the right things have been done from a crisis point of view in terms of this News of the World issue. It really should get put behind us, investigators and the court should deal with this, and we should move on, and deal with the important issues of the day.


Doocy: I think you're right.

And how contrite are the editors of Murdoch's flagship publication, The Wall Street Journal? Well, try this:

Our competitors are using the phone-hacking years ago at a British corner of News Corp. to assail the Journal, and perhaps injure press freedom in general. ... the measure that really matters is the market's, and on that score Mr. [Les] Hinton [former Dow Jones chief executive officer] was at the helm when we again became America's largest daily.

Rupert Murdoch is one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the world. He is undoubtedly the single-most influential individual in all global media. That kind of power, influence, and cash will always have its defenders, from Joel Klein to Piers Morgan to Roger Cohen to Howard Kurtz, to name just a few of the most recent.

As the truth becomes ever more unavoidable, I think we all owe a debt of gratitude to Nick Davies and The Guardian for sticking with this story in the face of personal attacks and professional derision and reminding us why democracies need journalists to function in the first place. Italy had no Davies and has ended up with a Murdoch-like figure running not only most of its media but its government as well and significantly "screwing up" both.

Leaving the major for the decidedly minor -- but still, I hope, significant -- one of the most curious aspects of the contemporary American right wing is its capacity for self-pity. As the global reach not only of the Murdoch empire but also talk radio, think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage, Hoover, CATO, and every single Koch-, Scaife-, and Coors-funded project, among others, demonstrates, its members enjoy easy access to an uncritical, sympathetic media; megamillions available for puffery and self-promotion across all platforms; and frequently, generous grants and salaries with little or no scholarly demands.

And yet these same coddled individuals still manage to whine and whine and whine about the unfairness of the world. (Rather like an episode of Fox and Friends or a Wall Street Journal editorial that deals with criminality in the Murdoch media empire.) A prime example of the above can be found on the right-wing website Powerline, which has just published the introduction to a book called Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind by Tim Groseclose under the title "When All Hell Broke Loose."

The "hell" to which the title refers was the fact that years ago, Groseclose, together with Jeff Milyo, published an extremely shoddy and easily debunked study upon which this book is apparently based, and he and his co-author received some criticism for it. After the usual pain and suffering inflicted by the occasional unfriendly email, Groseclose explains that, "The most vicious response of all was by Eric Alterman, a writer at Media Matters. He insinuated that we were paid by rightwing think tanks to fudge our results."

To be honest, I had forgotten all about this study, but I looked up my original column and found that there's nothing in it that any fair-minded individual would call "vicious." Rather, it addresses the study's overt bias coupled with its various intellectual and structural weaknesses.

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