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Murdoch Media Empire: A Journalistic Travesty

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The scandal shaking Rupert Murdoch's media holdings in Britain could be expected of a global media empire intoxicated with power and lacking any ethical base.

What is unfolding--revelations of bribery and massive phone-hacking--could go down as the greatest press scandal in the English-speaking world. Overarching it is a media machine built by Murdoch that is the most dishonest, unprincipled and corrupt of any media empire in the history of the English-speaking world (against stiff competition). And it is gargantuan, the largest media empire ever.

"If Rupert Murdoch were the Angel Gabriel, you still wouldn't want him owning the sun, the moon, and the stars. That's too much real estate for even the pure in heart," commented Bill Moyers in 2007. "But Rupert Murdoch is no saint. He is to propriety what the Marquis de Sade was to chastity."

Murdoch has made a travesty of what journalism is supposed to be about. And he has institutionalised this on a global level. He has taken what was the distinguished paper of record of the English-speaking world, The Times of London, and degraded it--making it not a watchdog of power, what the press should be, but an instrument to aid those in power whom he favors.

He took what had been New York City's paper-of-the-people, the oldest continuously published daily in the U.S., the New York Post, and with his obsession for titillation and sensation, made it a disgrace. With his Fox News Channel, exactly the opposite of the "fair and balanced" outlet it claims to be, he and Republican political operative Roger Ailes have developed what is no more than an unbridled propaganda organ for the GOP.

An ideal of the press in the United States, and Britain and most English-speaking nations, is to be a check on power. There are checks and balances between branches of government, and a free press that's supposed to challenge it all.

After many years of restrictions on who could do publishing--more than a century of various forms of licensing and needing royal permission in Britain--in the modern era anyone can do it. That's if they have the money. Then they can own a press and publish a newspaper or magazine, or own a TV station or network or book-publishing company or movie studio or other media institution.

Murdoch, born to wealth, seeking through the press to project his political views, acquired media institution after institution beginning in his native Australia.

This now includes 150 newspapers in Australia including The Australian, the nation's biggest paper. In Britain, The Times, The Sunday Times and The Sun (and until the scandal forced him to close it, he owned The News of the World with its 2.7 million circulation). In the U.S., he owns the New York Post and The Wall Street Journal and the rest of Dow Jones & Company holdings.

He has been seeking to use The Wall Street Journal to take on what has been the U.S. paper of record, The New York Times, and become the new premier American newspaper. He owns the giant book-publishing company, HarperCollins. He owns the 20th Century Fox movie studio. He owns 20th Century Fox Television and the Fox Broadcasting Company. He has been trying in Britain to turn what started as his satellite TV network, Sky Television, into a merged company, BSkyB, a scheme now threatened by the scandal. His cable TV assets in the U.S. include Fox News Channel, Fox Movie Channel and Fox Business Network. Murdoch's media holdings also extend to Asia, western Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America.

In 1985 he became a U.S. citizen because the Federal Communications Commission requires U.S. citizenship for holding a majority interest in a U.S. TV station and Murdoch was aiming to center his media empire in the U.S., he became a U.S. citizen. (His News Corp. now owns 27 U.S. TV stations.)

No matter the country in which he has operated, Murdoch has been deeply involved in aggressively manipulating government officials. As Moyers notes, "Politicians become little clay pigeons to be picked off with flattering headlines, generous air time, a book contract of the old-fashioned black jack that never misses: campaign cash...The ambitious can't resist his blandishments, nor his power to get or keep them in office where they can return his favors."
It has been a "cozy relationship that Rupert Murdoch long enjoyed with the British power structure," began an Associated Press article this week.

Investigative reporter Carl Bernstein writes in this week's Newsweek of how under Murdoch "gossip, sensationalism, and manufactured controversy...substitutes" for the "best traditions and values of real reporting and responsible journalism...this journalistic ideal." Meanwhile, "It's hard to think of any other individual who has had a greater impact on American political and media culture in the past half century. But now the empire is shaking, and there's no telling when it will stop."

As Los Angeles Times journalist Tim Rutten wrote this week: "The seeds of Murdoch's British newspapers' abuse of trust and power were sown in a media culture whose essentials--salacious celebrity coverage, gossip, overt partisanship--have infiltrated our own under his influence. The meltdown in London ought to be a wake-up call."

There have been disreputable media barons through the years. William Randolph Hearst's outrageous activities are the subject of what has long been considered America's finest film, Citizen Kane. But the scale on which Rupert Murdoch has operated, his reach through a wide variety of media, his ceaseless crusade for his political agenda, exceeds these moguls of the past. As British journalist William Shawcross wrote in his 1992 biography, Murdoch, Murdoch positioned himself to be "an international Citizen Kane, with influence beyond imagining."

Will the scandal--and especially the criminal investigations and governmental (at long last) inquiries--bring Murdoch and his management circle down and lead to a break-up of his media empire? That would be a great outcome towards the goal of a free and independent media serving the public interest.