Monday, August 06, 2007

Murdoch, Media, and Monopoly

Listening to Alistair Campbell today on Talk of the Nation, I was struck by his insistence that the storm of renewed concern over media consolidation surrounding Murdoch's acquisition of Dow Jones, publisher of The Wall Street Journal is much ado about nothing. His appearance coincided with the publication of his opinion piece in the NY Times. First of all, the focus in his NY Times article is on Murdoch and people's reactions to Murdoch, merely reiterating the very obsession which he thinks is somewhat of a false concern. But what was really troubling was his assertion in the Talk of the Nation interview that consolidation of mass media by conglomerates is not a danger to democracy and that figures like Murdoch do not really have the power to manipulate public opinion because 1) in this day and age of 24/7 news coverage on TV, radio, and internet, power is so diffuse that no one person/business can really exercise that type of control over public opinion, and 2) the people know better and are able to discern for themselves, with the assistance of a vast amount of information, what's real and what's not, what to believe and what to disregard.

The proliferation of information sources seems, on its face, to be a legitimate argument - the Yearly Kos was just held in Chicago and was attended by many of the Democratic presidential candidates, emphasizing once again the new role played by bloggers and the internet in politics. However, it's also true that the majority of Americans still get their news and information from traditional news sources such as newspapers, television, and radio. (And, of course there's always The Daily Show and SNL, where during the 2004 election it was reported that 21% of those aged 18-29 got their presidential campaign news). The fact that the majority of Americans still get their information about world events from traditional news sources, or the web version of them, means that those traditional news sources still retain quite a bit of power to sway public opinion. So, while the proliferation of information sources may mean that we have access 24/7, it doesn't necessarily mean that we are accessing alternative sources for information 24/7.

But more troubling is Campbell's faith in the ability of people to make decisions counter to the information they are receiving from the consolidated mass media. In response to a caller who pointed out that Murdoch had admitted that his news organizations consciously sought to shape public opinion on Iraq, Campbell draws on his recent visit to the U.S. and, with the ease of a practiced politician does not answer the question asked: ". . . my very very strong impression when I was in the United States last week is that there was a lot of hostility, a lot of anger about the war in Iraq and I was actually quite taken aback in certain cases about the extent to which the hostility was directed towards President Bush in a really very direct way. Now, so I think that the reason why people should maybe just get a little bit less aerated about some of the Murdoch ownership issues because I just think the public now whether in your country or in ours are just much better at working things out for themselves."

Campbell is basically saying here that whether Murdoch or any other media tried to manipulate public opinion, it hasn't worked. But this creates a kind of wormhole in time, essentially asserting that because people have finally woken up and smelled the pile of crap that was fed to them on Iraq, that Murdoch and his cohorts have not been successful in shaping public opinion. This confuses cause and effect.

The reason people are so angry is that they relied on the media in making up their mind on the Iraq issue, and then learned that they were fed a pile of lies by a deceitful administration. The clincher is, of course, that the media took dictation from that deceitful administration but never took responsibility for its role in going into Iraq. The anger is, of course, leveled at the administration, but the anger emerged only after the firewall of mainstream media finally broke down. The fact that even Murdoch and his ilk could no longer keep the stench of the truth about Iraq from reaching the American public is not so much proof that the corporate media machine is a myth or that the American public has suddenly become media savvy as it is proof that Iraq is really fucked up.

This doesn't, however, mean that the public will never again feed at the trough of the mainstream media. The behavior of the public is almost pathological in its consistency: time and again people allow the facts regarding the world to be spoon fed to them by corporate media outlets interested in profits and then when the truth becomes so glaringly obvious that the media can no longer hide it, the media changes its tune and "exposes" the lying and manipulation of the politicians or business executives to whom it was and remains beholden. The fact that the media are willing participants in the lie until it becomes unprofitable tends to escape coverage or surfaces momentarily as part of a self-flagellating tsk tsk after which corporate media (and the consuming public) return to business as usual.

All of this just to say that Campbell is mistaken if he thinks that corporate media no longer exercises control over public opinion or that consolidation is not a danger to democracy.

The marketplace of ideas, when controlled by the marketplace, is not a democratic sphere - it moves with the tide of profit margins and is shaped by the rich and powerful.

A true democracy requires leaders who have more than their own interests at heart, and neither corporate-owned media (coextensive with but not exhausted by the likes of Murdoch's empire) nor the current administration have anything but their own interests at heart. So, the frenzy of commentary surrounding Murdoch's latest acquisition is, I agree, not very interesting in its own rite, but Campbell's wrong when he says it's not a harbinger of doom; what's troubling is that it's merely the latest harbinger of doom in a long line, a desperate grasping attempt at waking the slumbering American consciousness which, like Iraq, Katrina, Enron, 2000, etc., etc. will eventually be drowned out by conversations about the rehab attempts of pre-fab celebrities and the low necklines of presidential candidates.