In the Belly of the Murdoch Beast

murdoch rally

Over 100 people turned out at Friday’s shareholders’ meeting to protest News Corp.’s out-of-bounds political influence.

I always feel a little better when I go home to Los Angeles. My hometown takes a lot of flak about its Tinseltown image and how “fake” the people are supposed to be. But I can assure you that the working folks of my hometown are as real as the 99-percenters anywhere else in the country.

Last Friday, more than a hundred of my fellow “real” Angelenos took their concerns about the corporate media and their power to corrupt our democracy right into the lap of one of their most notorious figures: News Corp. potentate Rupert Murdoch.

Behind a phalanx of hired security on the Fox Studios lot in West L.A., Murdoch faced a barrage of hostile questions from News Corp. shareholders who are concerned that his stewardship during the phone-hacking scandal in the United Kingdom and its aftermath has hurt the global media empire — and their stock portfolios.

On the other side of the studio gates, the crowd of demonstrators waved placards declaring “Rupert is not above the law” and “Big Media + Power + Money = Bad Democracy.” People banged drums and chanted slogans, and, most significantly, honked car horns as dozens of other Angelenos driving across town on the busy Pico Boulevard thoroughfare marked their agreement that something very wrong is going on, and the media are at the heart of it.

Journalists from local, national and international outlets were there in swarms to cover not only the demonstration but the intrigue within the house of Murdoch. While the drama within the shareholders’ meeting was clear — could News Corp.’s massive global moneymaking engine keep producing massive profits and increasing stock value with Rupert Murdoch and his son caught in the grips of an expanding scandal — what was happening outside was harder for reporters to grasp.

“Why are people demanding jobs from Rupert Murdoch?” they asked in reference to the large contingent from Good Jobs LA. “What does Rupert Murdoch have to do with Occupy Wall Street?” they asked about the dozens of demonstrators who came from the Occupy LA encampment downtown. “What does Rupert Murdoch have to do with ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?” they wondered about the anti-war signs many protesters held.

For those of us who’ve been fighting for media reform in this country, answering those questions is almost painfully simple. Murdoch’s properties, like Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post and others, have served a corporate agenda that is mostly about creating, building, preserving and courting power. Murdoch, his empire and the social ills that have riled huge swaths of this country are intimately interconnected.

Libraries are filled with books about the media’s ability to influence our democracy. In politics, decisions are too frequently measured by how they’ll “play” to voters, rather than whether they’ll benefit the country’s long-term health. And the media’s ability to frame news to suit its need for sensationalism is barely questioned; recall that newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst is famously, if apocryphally, quoted telling a correspondent in Cuba in the lead-up to the Spanish-American War, “You provide the pictures, I’ll provide the war.”

While Rupert Murdoch draws a lot of fire — and how could he not, as an almost James Bondian villain, complete with (alleged) underground bunker — he is merely the symptom. The disease is far bigger and more insidious than Fox News Channel’s conservative bias: It is a news media establishment that colludes with policymakers in a vicious circle of money, power and self-interest.

And Murdoch is a textbook case of it. Remember that the only reason his News Corp. is allowed to own so many media properties is because he got significant waivers and exclusions from FCC regulations. Some of them came through bullying: A News Corp. lobbyist threatened former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt that he wouldn’t be able to land a job as dogcatcher if he didn’t stay out of Murdoch’s way. Some came from another Washington tradition, in the form of Murdoch-owned publisher HarperCollins paying then-House Speaker (and later Fox News analyst, and now GOP presidential candidate) Newt Gingrich a multi-million dollar book advance  — right after the FCC started questioning whether News Corp. had violated a federal law limiting foreign ownership of local stations. (The FCC soon dropped the matter.)

Some may cynically say that industries have bought favors from politicians since the cavemen stepped into the sunlight and formed societies, and media is just another industry looking for a leg up. Which may be true, but the media have special rights — it is the only profession recognized in the U.S. Constitution, enshrined in the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press. But those rights were granted to enable the press to serve as the people’s surrogate and watchdog over the government, to ensure that despite the checks and balances within the government that there would be an independent observer.

An independent observer would know that creating jobs is not a political game where wins and losses are measured by polling points, rather than the numbers of unemployed who are put back to work. It would know that a movement built out of frustration with politicians’ apparent lack of care or willingness to help the people suffering, through no fault of their own, in the worst economic period in generations should be covered as a dynamic force, and not mocked as a sideshow. And it would know that being used — knowingly or not — to foment war was no less proper in Hearst’s time than it was in 2003.

What the people out on Pico Boulevard were demanding was for News Corp. and the rest of the media to stop the self-serving cycle of favors and money and power, and to work for the 99 percent.

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good