Saturday, June 30, 2007

Krugman on Murdoch

Paul Krugman expresses his opposition to Rupert Murdoch's intended purchase of the Wall Street Journal. He argues that Murdoch's commercial motivations mean that US citizens have been misled on issues such as the war in Iraq.

'The problem with Mr. Murdoch isn’t that he’s a right-wing ideologue. If that were all he was, he’d be much less dangerous. What he is, rather, is an opportunist who exploits a rule-free media environment — one created, in part, by conservative political power — by slanting news coverage to favor whoever he thinks will serve his business interests.

In the US, that strategy has mainly meant blatant bias in favor of the Bush administration and the Republican Party — but last year Mr. Murdoch covered his bases by hosting a fund-raiser for Hillary Clinton’s Senate re-election campaign.

In Britain, Mr. Murdoch endorsed Tony Blair in 1997 and gave his government favorable coverage, “ensuring,” reports The New York Times, “that the new government would allow him to keep intact his British holdings.”

And in China, Mr. Murdoch’s organizations have taken care not to offend the dictatorship.

Now, Mr. Murdoch’s people rarely make flatly false claims. Instead, they usually convey misinformation through innuendo. During the early months of the Iraq occupation, for example, Fox gave breathless coverage to each report of possible W.M.D.’s, with little or no coverage of the subsequent discovery that it was a false alarm. No wonder, then, that many Fox viewers got the impression that W.M.D.’s had been found.

When all else fails, Mr. Murdoch’s news organizations simply stop covering inconvenient subjects.

Last year, Fox relentlessly pushed claims that the “liberal media” were failing to report the “good news” from Iraq. Once that line became untenable — well, the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that in the first quarter of 2007 daytime programs on Fox News devoted only 6% of their time to the Iraq war, compared with 18% at MSNBC and 20% at CNN.

What took Iraq’s place? Anna Nicole Smith, who received 17 percent of Fox’s daytime coverage.
Defenders of Mr. Murdoch’s bid for The Journal say that we should judge him not by Fox News but by his stewardship of the venerable Times of London, which he acquired in 1981. Indeed, the political bias of The Times is much less blatant than that of Fox News. But a number of former Times employees have said that there was pressure to slant coverage — and everyone I’ve seen quoted defending Mr. Murdoch’s management is still on his payroll.

In any case, do we want to see one of America’s two serious national newspapers in the hands of a man who has done so much to mislead so many? (The Washington Post, for all its influence, is basically a Beltway paper, not a national one. The McClatchy papers, though their Washington bureau’s reporting in the run-up to Iraq put more prestigious news organizations to shame, still don’t have The Journal’s ability to drive national discussion.)

There doesn’t seem to be any legal obstacle to the News Corporation’s bid for The Journal: F.C.C. rules on media ownership are mainly designed to prevent monopoly in local markets, not to safeguard precious national informational assets. Still, public pressure could help avert a Murdoch takeover. Maybe Congress should hold hearings.

If Mr. Murdoch does acquire The Journal, it will be a dark day for America’s news media — and American democracy. If there were any justice in the world, Mr. Murdoch, who did more than anyone in the news business to mislead this country into an unjustified, disastrous war, would be a discredited outcast. Instead, he’s expanding his empire.


davidp said...

The problem with this story is that the empirical evidence on newspapers doesn't support their being systematic political interference in news reporting in newspapers. Matthew Gentzkow has looked at this question:

He finds newspapers tend to reflect the political biases of their audiences e.g. a paper owned by the New York Times in South Carolina looks more like other South Carolina papers than the New York Times.

My memory from his talk is that this may not be the case for editorial pages. But for the Wall Street Journal editorial page, it is unlikely Murdoch will make it more right wing!

hc said...

David, I don't think Krugman is accusing Murdoch of dishonesty - nor do I think he sees systematic political interference. He justs sees a ruthless profit-maker who tailors his papers to maximise profit in any situation. This is not inconsistent with the Gentzkow argument.

He is arguing that truth (that which Krugman believes in with the wisdom of hindsight) should be presented on FOX - not programs that maximise Murdoch's profits.

davidp said...

Hi Harry,

I agree that your summary (not having read the Krugman piece) doesn't present Murdoch as anymore than a ruthless profit maximizer.

My concern is the quote that he is "slanting news coverage to favor whoever he thinks will serve his business interests."

Gentkow's results for newspapers are inconsistent with this.

Unless Fox news is more like editorial comment then it is hard to see why the same won't hold for television. One could argue that if Fox had presented the bad news about Iraq its audience would have switched off anyway. This is hard to test. Gentkow (and Shapiro)'s work is clever in that they have measures of political bias for both news coverage and political leanings for markets so the question can be tested.

The assessment at the end of the reply seems a bit more critical of Krugman than the last paragraph of the original post.