McAdams On: News Corp., July 22, 2011

LOS ANGELES: The indignant schadenfreude over News Corp. would be amusing were it not so sad. It has been the single most ruthless media company of our time for years, not just since Tuesday. That’s also why it’s one of the largest and most powerful media companies in the world. Rupert Murdoch may lack scruples, but he knows how to move the chess pieces. Much of the fallout from Tuesday’s Parliamentary hearing will be posturing. Now’s the time to get on the “down with News Corp.” bandwagon. U.S. lawmakers are obliged to emit certain grumbles of condemnation to mollify media anti-consolidation forces. But it will be strutting and fretting, soon enough heard no more.

Nearly everyone is complicit in the News Corp. burlesque, from stockholders to politicians to those of us who read the newspapers or watch Fox channels on TV. Shareholders don’t ask “how,” they just expect returns. News Corp. is a vehicle for politicians, and vice versa. We content consumers are conspicuous for seeking that which confirms, rather than challenges, our fixed beliefs. Rupert Murdoch has been a master at catering to this American mindset, which in turn rendered him the most politically influential media mogul of the modern age.

One example I recall is when lawmakers were fighting about media ownership limits six years ago. Regulators had lifted the national audience reach cap for TV station groups from 35 to 45 percent. Anti-consolidationists took up pitchforks and torches, and Congress rolled it back to 35 percent, or tried to. Rupert’s TV stations reached 39 percent of U.S. households at the time. After Murdoch was quoted in one of his own newspapers saying he was sure Congress would do the right thing, a handful lawmakers met the night before Christmas adjournment and raised the cap to 39 percent. The power of the media, indeed.

No one said a word, then, and neither the half of News Corp.’s doings will be unearthed in this wave of perfunctory investigations. The company’s influence reaches much further than Scotland Yard, and to profess shock or deem that statement conspiratorial is a bit naive. Influence is how business and politics work. There’s nothing new about it.

I don’t condone the phone-hacking or any of the other more nefarious methods employed by News Corp., but the company is far from alone in its methods. What is most disappointing is the disingenuousness--of singling it out, of vilifying the old man, of running for cover after drinking his champagne on his yacht, of claiming cluelessness in the face of obviousness. That includes the master himself.

When asked if he was responsible for the conduct at the companies he owns, his answer was “no.” He blamed the people he employed. That’s understandable to some degree. New Corp. employs something like 53,000 people. He can’t know what they’re all doing; that’s logical. However, he is the head, the general, the leader. That’s what you do. You fall on your sword, at least figuratively. You stand up and say, “Yes, this was my responsibility. I failed to create a corporate culture in which this type of behavior and conduct was absolutely forbidden at every level. So yes, I was and am responsible.”

And the rest of us, Mr. Murdoch, are just as responsible for supporting, condoning or just turning a blind eye to that culture. I don’t expect any number of hearings or investigations will change it.
~ Deborah D. McAdams