Media

Unbalanced Like a Fox

Rupert Murdoch's critics should follow his lead.

|

In 1932 Thomas Storke, editor and publisher of the Santa Barbara Daily News, faced a dilemma that seems positively alien in 2004. Storke's competition, the 58-year-old Santa Barbara Morning Press, was on the brink of bankruptcy, and it begged him to take over as owner.

Today we'd expect the dominant daily to quickly euthanize the straggler, maybe absorb some of the fired staff, and enjoy the 20-percent-plus annual profit margins of monopoly publishing. It's what the Los Angeles Times did to the Herald-Examiner in 1989, it's what the Hearst Corporation tried to do to its San Francisco Examiner while buying the market-leading Chronicle in 2000, and it's something the Chicago Tribune may soon do to the flailing Sun-Times.

But Storke belonged to a long-vanished era that is only now making a bitterly contentious comeback: a time when monopoly was a dirty word and daily newspapers identified openly with political parties. The editor was more of a Democrat than Rupert Murdoch has ever been a Republican: He served as a U.S. senator for two years, played a crucial kingmaking role at three presidential conventions, and used his sway with President Roosevelt to funnel several major public works projects to California's Central Coast. But it was Storke's sense of partisanship that stayed his hand from shutting down the local organ of his rival party.

"If the town's only Republican paper should merge with the independent, but pro-Democratic paper which I published, would not the ugly cry of 'monopoly!' be sounded against me?" Storke recounted in his charming 1958 memoir California Editor. "And monopoly was something I and my father before me had been fighting all our lives….In Santa Barbara city and county more Republicans were registered than Democrats. I realized full well that the community should not be deprived of such an outlet of expression."

Storke's bundling of anti-monopoly sentiment and party politics, and his partisan conception of the audience, was the American newspaper norm before World War II, when media colossi like William Randolph Hearst tried to publish their way into the White House. Yet the exact inverse—nonpartisan monopolies—became the industry paradigm less than a generation later.

With start-up costs (and, in the case of broadcasting, limited spectrum allocation) proving an almost insurmountable barrier to entry, advertisers soon discovered that their products didn't sell well to people turned off by a news organization's politics. So during the newspaper consolidation era of 1960 to 2000, elite news became deliberately apolitical. Reporters, who had long chafed under the political machinations of their publishers, quickly learned that the ideal of objectivity, though unreachable, could nevertheless inspire a more thorough and convincing presentation of their work.

It was a win-win situation, except for more-partisan news consumers, whose dissatisfaction helped fuel the post-1960 explosion of left-of-center alternative weeklies, right-of-center talk radio, and niche opinion magazines like the one you're reading. Still, the lions of journalism—major dailies, network news broadcasts, Time and Newsweek—were able to keep their turf almost totally free from the perceived poison of identifiable politics. That is, until competition cracked open the door and Rupert Murdoch rammed a bulldozer through.

Kicking a 40-year habit is a traumatic business, especially if triggered by outside intervention in the form of a brazen foreigner whose politics you despise. Murdoch, by consciously pursuing the neglected audience of conservatives with both the New York Post and Fox News, broke the self-congratulatory spell with which journalists had long told themselves that their own editorial choices are driven by pristine motives. He then added a facetious insult to injury by declaring the result "fair and balanced."

This is why Murdoch's News Corp., despite being a smaller company than Disney (which owns ABC), Time Warner (which owns CNN), Viacom (which owns CBS), and General Electric (which owns NBC), has been the singular object of establishment journalists' increasingly unhinged wrath. In May Los Angeles Times Editor-in-Chief John Carroll devoted a lecture at the University of Oregon to the topic of "the wolf in reporter's clothing: the rise of pseudo-journalism in America."

"Today, the credibility painstakingly earned by past journalists lends an unearned legitimacy to the new generation of talk show hosts," Carroll told the audience. "What we're seeing is a difference between journalism and pseudo-journalism, between journalism and propaganda. The former seeks earnestly to serve the public. The latter seeks to manipulate it."

It's important to note that Murdoch's critics are not at all wrong about one of their major gripes. Fox News does have a political agenda that dictates its journalistic choices. This is documented, in hilarious detail, in the MoveOn-financed documentary OutFoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism, which began making the house party rounds this summer. One of the more amusing examples was given by former West Coast anchor Jon Du Pre, who said he was punished for failing to make the sparse attendance at a Ronald Reagan Library birthday celebration seem sufficiently "enthusiastic."

But the film's meaty middle, which consists mostly of on-air outrages and interviews with former employees who were shocked by the partisan influence on their news gathering, is bookended by rants against media consolidation that fail to recognize Murdoch's gift to his own ideological enemies: showing them that targeting a partisan audience can be a very lucrative business.

Having nonpartisan, elite news organizations staffed overwhelmingly by Democratic-leaning journalists—a recent study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press showed that newsroom liberals outnumber conservatives by 5 to 1 on the national level, 3 to 1 locally—creates an obvious demand for right-leaning news in the growing number of markets that enjoy competition.

During July's Democratic National Convention, for example, the Boston Herald sought to differentiate itself from the more staid Globe by bashing the bejesus out John Kerry's entire family. ("Kerry Girls Gone Wild," was one headline.) "If The Boston Globe hates Kerry," one Herald reporter told me, "then the Herald wants to kill his wife and decapitate his children." As Herald Editor Ken Chandler explained to The New Yorker, "Somebody's got to be the conservative paper in this town."

But newspaper liberals are significantly to the right of political lefties on issues such as free trade and military interventionism, so yet another thriving cottage industry has emerged from the ideological gap, as evidenced by the phenomenon of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 and the myriad pocket-sized bestsellers by the likes of Noam Chomsky and Gore Vidal. Now that it's no longer prohibitively expensive to print a book or even launch a daily newspaper, politically based competition in an evenly and passionately divided Red-Blue nation is inevitable, and it is already shaking up a news industry that had grown fat and boring.

OutFoxed would have you react to this world by petitioning the Federal Communications Commission to "take back our media" (which, judging by its long and gaseous interview with former CBS anchor Walter Cronkite, perhaps means a return to 90 minutes a day of broadcast news). But the documentary's very existence suggests that a hands-off FCC—one whose relaxation of ownership restrictions allowed Murdoch to create a fourth national network in the first place—is one that will allow media activists' treasured goal of "diversity" to actually flourish. Last year in The Atlantic Monthly the media commentator James Fallows predicted "there will be liberal papers, radio shows, TV programs, and Web sites for liberals, and conservative ones for conservatives."

Such an environment may make journalists sweat about the future of their profession. But even the most jaded critic should recognize that fretting about a new newspaper's motives is a considerable improvement over 40 years of not having any new newspapers to complain about.