Monday, August 8, 2011

Murdoch on the Orient Express

So, how many of you are filled with glee over Rupert Murdoch's recent troubles?  The Australian-born American citizen--Citizen Murdoch?--is still a mighty media mogul, but he certainly has been taken down a few pegs this year, and his troubles may only be beginning.  

Of course, as a billionaire, he's not likely to experience much in the way of personal suffering, or discomfort.  And as an octogenarian, his days as one of the most powerful individuals in the world, and specifically as the Chairman and CEO of News Corporation, second only to Disney as the world's largest media conglomerate, were numbered anyway.

If you haven't been following the story, Wikipedia can help you out with a general entry on the News Corporation scandal, and a specific one on the News International phone hacking scandal.  I also recommend my friend Marvin Kitman's columns on the Investor Uprising website, five so far on the scandals and Murdoch's questionable entry into the American media landscape.

And the way I see it is, this is a story that broadcast journalists, with the exception of those owned by News Corporation, will not let go, or go easy on.  Simply put, I think most broadcast journalists see Murdoch as single-handedly responsible for lowering the level of discourse on television news, of ruining the ideal of objectivity in reporting, through the "fair and balanced" programming of Fox News.  I can only imagine the anger and resentment that exists in the industry towards the man and the company that so degraded the institution of journalism.

And let's be clear about it, the claim to maintaining objectivity in news has long been subject to criticism as, at best, an impossible ideal, at worst a smokescreen that mystifies the ideologies embedded in the news.  But Murdoch has demonstrated, to the critics, that there is a big difference between well-intentioned, honorable, professional attempts to withhold personal opinions and remain impartial, and deliberate attempts to set the agenda and manipulate public opinion.  

If news always was a form of propaganda in some ways (following Jacques Ellul--see my previous post, Jacques Ellul, Propaganda, and the Technological Society), we can certainly say that some forms are better than others (even Ellul would allow that there is a great deal of difference between western technological societies based on liberal democracy, and those associated with totalitarian governments), and the News Corporation has made broadcast journalism seem more propagandistic than ever before.

The natural response to such a development on the part of the audience is a cynical one.  So, once upon a time Walter Cronkite was the most trusted person in America, a television news anchor who was the epitome of journalistic professionalism.  Now, we put our trust in comedians such as Jon Stewart, and Stewart has quite properly expressed his qualms about that state of affairs.  It is the inevitable result of what Neil Postman pointed to in Amusing Ourselves to Death (as noted in my previous post, Aliteracy Anxiety).  When news becomes a joke, comedians become our most respected journalists.

So, no, I don't think the broadcasters working in the news divisions of CBS, NBC, and ABC, and the cable news professionals at  CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, and the rest, are going to want to let this one alone.  At least not as long as their professional ethics suggest that there is something to report on.  No, they're going to want to milk this one for all that it's worth.

As for the title of this blog post, well, just in case you don't get the pun I'm alluding to, here you go:

Murder on the Orient Express really is an excellent Hollywood motion picture, I recommend it if you haven't seen it, and I won't give away the ending, but the story is based on the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, and the murder in question is the murder of a murderer.  So now, perhaps, we may witness the media's Murdoching of Murdoch, but there is no mystery involved, only the desire to run the man out of town, and back east, on a (rant and a) rail.


Mike Plugh said...

Funny that you focused on this today. I was thinking about Jon Stewart and McLuhan while I was looking through The Medium is the Massage...

"The poet, the artist, the sleuth - whoever sharpens our perception tends to be antisocial; rarely "well adjusted," he cannot go along with currents and trends. A strange bond often exists among anti-social types in their power to see environments as they really are. This need to interface, to confront environments with a certain antisocial power, is manifest in the famous story, "The Emperor's New Clothes.""


"Humor as a system of communication and as a probe of our environment - of what's really going on - affords us our most appealing anti-environmental tool. It does not deal in theory, but in immediate experience, and is often the best guide to changing perceptions..."

Stewart deals in the "The Emperor's New Clothes" business with respect to the nominal Emperors of our political world, but also the actual Emperors, like Murdoch and the mass media conglomerates. Stewart's role is to create an anti-environment for news and politics, in a way that pulls the curtain back on those systems. Only a humorist can do such a thing with such great success in the age of television.

Lance Strate said...

Funny all around!

No question that humor can be a very serious matter, as Freud and McLuhan both acknowledged. It can serve as an analytical tool, and a way to generate critical awareness. But it still seems that we've lost the ability to have a serious discussion of the events of the day somewhere along the way.

And I am guilty of recommending the movie rather than the book, I admit it, and therefore of engaging in fatal amusements of my own, since I did so because I wanted to use the YouTube video on this post. Actually, I was hoping that the scene where Poirot reveals the solution to the crime was available, because I consider that to be one of the all time great Hollywood movie denouements, as well as a great metaphor for what's going on now, but alas it was not. Be that as it may, I would certainly agree that the book is well worth reading, and worth giving priority to over the film!