McLuhan, Murdoch and the ‘free’ press

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In a breathtaking burst of editorial recklessness, Saturday’s Globe and Mail honored the 100th anniversary of Marshall McLuhan’s birth by pairing a glaringly superficial piece defending the British tabloids with an insightful article on the master himself.

Michael Posner’s 1,500 word thumb-sucker on the tabloid press ran in the Globe focus section under the heading THE MEDIUM, while Michael Valpy’s thoughtful account of McLuhan’s rise and fall (and rise again) carried the label THE MESSENGER.

In his piece, Posner theorizes that  in “their willingness to threaten the rich and powerful,” the British tabs “speak effectively for the underdog.” That’s why, he writes, generations of working-class readers have swelled the circulations of the tabloids far beyond the numbers who read the more respectable establishment broadsheets that serve the ruling class.

Although the phone-hacking criminality of his News of the World went too far, he writes, Rupert Murdoch’s meddling in public affairs seems “restrained” compared to yellow press barons of the last century.

Posner concludes with dire warnings that trying to restrict the excesses of the tabloid press would harm the very institution that keeps us free. “For all its sins, a muscular, independent press remains vital for the maintenance of a robust democracy. An unfettered press keeps governments and politicians in check.”

What Posner misses

Rupert Murdoch’s media empire is hardly a voice for democracy. Far from defending working-class underdogs from ruling class politicians, it becomes clearer with each passing day that Murdoch has relentlessly used his global media empire to promote his own political and corporate interests. Many examples abound.

The Globe’s Doug Saunders reported last week, for example, that former British PM Tony Blair considered Murdoch’s editorial support essential to his electoral successes because British “politics had become a full-time matter of avoiding the wrath of the Murdoch press.”

After Mr. Murdoch bought the News of the World in 1969, British elections increasingly became races to court his support – usually in exchange for political favours. Margaret Thatcher’s staff credited much of her victory to her winning the Australian’s support – in exchange for which he was allowed to buy the Times of London and establish a satellite-TV empire.

In the U.S.,  even a quick glance at the many allegations of political bias against Murdoch’s Fox News cable channel, shows a news organization bent on promoting Republican, pro-corporate causes such as low taxes  for the richest. Fox, of course, famously declared that George W. Bush won Florida in the 2000 presidential election — a piece of fallacious reporting that helped propel Bush into the White House. (John Ellis, Bush’s first cousin just happened to be in charge of the Fox decision desk.)

As John Nichols points out in The Nation, Murdoch’s cheerleading on behalf of the 2003 invasion of Iraq encouraged Bush and Blair to press ahead in waging their illegal war. The Nation’s editor, Katrina vanden Heuvel, reports that although Murdoch is known for his big media — such as Fox, the New York Post or the Wall Street Journal, he makes a lot of his money in the U.S. on local TV stations:

He has done so, in large part, by taking advantage of a 1999 change in FCC rules that allowed a single company to own more than one television station in the same market. That arrangement, known as a duopoly, lets big conglomerates such as News Corp. buy up stations, reduce their staffs and consolidate newsrooms. Murdoch now has nine duopolies. According to Santa Clara University’s Allen Hammond, a staggering 109 duopolies were created between 2000 and 2006.

The problem isn’t just that control over the airwaves becomes concentrated; it’s that such consolidation often results in the gutting of local news coverage. Duopoly owners tend to duplicate their local coverage and reduce the amount of airtime dedicated to community news. The subsequent lack of coverage gives local governments a free pass to operate without any real media scrutiny.

Posner’s ringing defence of journalism that speaks for the working-class underdog seems a bit strange appearing in the pages of a newspaper that boasts its “audience consists of Canada’s most influential and affluent citizens.” You know, readers who “have the purchasing power — whether personal or corporate — to follow up on the needs and desires advertisements in The Globe generate.”

Moreover, the Globe is owned by the Thomsons, one of Canada’s richest families. They’re part of the handful of wealthy (and lucky) people who control the mainstream media in Canada — except, of course, for the publicly owned CBC.

McLuhan on commercial media

Thankfully, Michael Valpy’s Globe focus  piece on McLuhan provides a striking contrast to the superficiality of Posner’s work. Valpy points to McLuhan’s belief that artists detect cultural transformations long before they occur. In his 1964 tome Understanding Media, McLuhan, who considered himself an artist, warned that threats to democracy and freedom come not just from governments and politicians as Posner suggests, but also from commercial interests with unbridled media power:

Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous system to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit from taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don’t really have any rights left. Leasing our eyes and ears and nerves to commercial interests is like handing over the common speech to a private corporation, or like giving the earth’s atmosphere to a company as a monopoly.

As the Murdoch phone-hacking scandal shows, when politicians collude with the few corporations who now control our mainstream media, the public interest and journalism suffer. That’s the real threat to democracy.

And what we need most is not the hands-off-the-media approach that Posner advocates, but robust measures to ensure that media ownership is diverse and competition is real.

A Senate committee studying media ownership in 2006 concluded: “Excessive levels of concentration and the domination of particular markets by one media group engender distrust in the very institutions that Canadians rely upon for their news and information.”

About Bruce Wark

Bruce Wark is a freelance journalist and retired journalism professor who lives in Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada. He taught the history and ethics of journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax, Nova Scotia for 15 years. Before that, he worked for 19 years at CBC Radio news serving as a producer in charge of such network programs as World at Six, World Report and The House. He also produced Media File, a national program that looked critically at the performance of the news media. Along the way, Wark also worked as CBC Radio's legislative reporter in Ontario and as its National Reporter in Canada's Maritime provinces.
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