Let me apologize in advance for any nightmares induced by this month's cover image. And let me apologize to dominatrices, too, for linking them to as controversial and (in some circles) disreputable a figure as Rupert Murdoch.
Yet the questions our cover asks — Does Rupert Murdoch control the media? Does anyone? — are vitally important and deserving of a provocative image. As the power behind News Corp., the Fox broadcast network, the Fox News Channel, The Weekly Standard, and more, Murdoch seems every inch a latter-day William Randolph Hearst, controlling a media empire that many believe exercises tyrannical, ideologically driven control over the nation's news and entertainment.
Liberals and leftists fume especially at the popular success of the Fox News Channel. As Robert McChesney, co-author of Our Media, Not Theirs: The Democratic Struggle Against Corporate Media, has thundered, Fox News "does virtually no journalism at all." For their part, conservatives wink at Fox News' self-evidently ironic "fair and balanced" mantra, preferring to forget that only a few years ago Murdoch was an arch villain to them. In 1999 professional moralist "Lucky Bill" Bennett teamed up with current Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Lieberman to present the Aussie-born magnate a "Silver Sewer Award," an honor the dyspeptic duo used to bestow annually upon the nation's top "cultural polluter." By creating TV shows such as Married…With Children and The Simpsons, Murdoch supposedly had "done more than any other programmer in television to foul the public airwaves and define our cultural norms down."
So does Murdoch — or anyone else — control the media? As media researcher Ben Compaine underscores in "Domination Fantasies" (page 26), the answer is no. In an age when the right and the left shrilly insist that the other is consolidating total control over the planet's airwaves, publishing houses, and newspapers, Compaine argues persuasively that fears about "galloping concentration" in the media are about as compelling as the quickly canceled Fox series Skin.
As far as major industries go, the media are not particularly concentrated, nor have they become much more so during the last 10 or 20 years. Compaine explains how deregulation and market forces — viewed suspiciously by liberals and conservatives alike — help ensure a diversity of viewpoints. "Most important," writes Compaine, "there is no compelling evidence that the current level of media concentration has had negative consequences for consumers, culture, or democracy." Indeed, these days any individual can "easily and inexpensively have access to a huge variety of news, information, opinion, culture, and entertainment, whether from 10, 50, or 3,000 sources."
That's the sort of liberating outcome people used to wish for in the dread age of three broadcast channels, a few dominant print outlets, and no Internet. And it's one that those of us who can now communicate far more easily and effectively to whole new audiences find positively thrilling.