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Working In These Times

Thursday, Jul 21, 2011, 10:17 am

How Murdoch’s Empire Suffocates the Craft of Journalism

BY Michelle Chen

News Corporation Chief Rupert Murdoch reads one of his newspapers, The London Times, as he leaves his London home on July 20, 2011.   (Photo by CARL COURT/AFP/Getty Images)

With guilty pleasure, the mainstream media have been serving us a virtual buffet of reasons to despise Rupert Murdoch's evil media empire. Amid this fetid mess, however, it shouldn't be forgotten that beneath every media mogul, however rotten, is an enterprise of real people—a culture of workers who represent the embattled and tragic state of journalism today.

The ethical breaches at issue clearly reflect top-to-bottom corruption. Yet more importantly, the underlying criminality lies in a vulgar laissez faire corporate culture in which honesty and critical thought are dismissed as an impediment to commercial success.

The alleged hacking and bribery are just extreme symptoms of an ailment metastasizing throughout the media. Listen to the former employees who talked to Reuters about News Corp's inner sanctum, directly linking the cutthroat newsroom climate with the wholesale abandonment of ethics:

A fifth former News International employee who worked with News Of the World journalists at this time said its reporters were under "unbelievable, phenomenal pressure," treated harshly by bosses who would shout abuse in their faces and keep a running total of their bylines. Journalists were driven by a terror of failing. If they didn't regularly get stories, they feared, they would be fired. That meant they competed ruthlessly with each other....

Reporters say they lived in constant fear of byline counts which weeded out those who had filed the fewest stories. "They were always seeking to get rid of people because it was a burn-out job. Their ideal situation was you work your nuts off for six months and they let you work there another six months," said the general news reporter.

"Every minute you spent there you felt that your employer hated you.”

Even more disturbing is the acknowledgment that “Eavesdropping on voicemail or obtaining call logs was initially a money-saving measure” to get the scoop fast and cheap. That is, pressure to maximize profits contributed directly to the corruption of reporting practices.

Media commentator George Snell takes a wide angle on this do-or-die mentality:

The pressure on journalists these days is tremendous.  The industry is still reeling from the Great Media Collapse in 2008-09 where more than 30,000 journalists were axed.  The industry continues to shrink with more than 2,800 lay-offs last year and more than a thousand job cuts so far this year, according to the newspaper lay-off tracker service Paper Cuts.

This means fewer journalists – with less experience – doing more work.

Technology, especially on the web, has increased deadline pressure to outrageous extremes.  Forget daily deadlines or even hourly ones – news is breaking each and every second of the 86,400 seconds in every day.

Snell concludes with a tough question: “With all of these factors putting additional pressure on traditional journalists is it any wonder that some of them are relying on underhanded and unethical practices? Is the News of the World scandal an anomaly or is it a harbinger of a new era of yellow journalism?”

In the age of copy-paste punditry, despite the rise of citizen journalism and other progressive media movements, professional ethics and quality seem increasingly in short supply, in part because the workforce itself is disintegrating at the hands of a few conglomerates.

This is not a new story at Fortress Murdoch, of course: Back in the 1980s, the tabloid magnate outraged British print unions by shifting operations to a non-union plant in Wapping, East London, setting off a brutal labor dispute. Journalist Ian Griffiths recounted in a 2006 Observer article:

[Murdoch's] decision to move his Fleet Street titles to Wapping was not just a calculated, cynical and clever means of invoking in perpetuity and without question management's right to manage. It was also the opportunity to tempt journalists into the no man's land of confrontation, to stare them down and put them in their place once and for all.

The blowhard attitude isn't just an in-house thing, obviously; it colors the whole editorial mix. Heavily spun stories that demonize unions and the poor are baked into the News Corp brand, especially at Fox News and the faux-populist New York Post (where Murdoch also reportedly fired many newspaper guild members when he took over).

Again, an old story: in a prescient 1996 article on media consolidation (written at the start of an unprecedented tsunami of deregulation), ethicist John McManus recalled:

The larger the megaphone, the greater the danger that an owner can control wide segments of public opinion, limiting the airing of opposing views. Fox TV network owner Murdoch, whose News Corp. Ltd. makes him the world's largest producer of newspapers, changed the political orientation of Britain's best-selling newspaper The Sun from Labour to Conservative when he bought it in 1974. As a result, a goodly chunk of British voters got to read nine full pages of anti-Labour articles the day before the last election, including an interview with a psychic who claimed Mao Zedong, Adolph Hitler, and Joseph Stalin were supporting the Labour candidate from beyond the grave.

While marginalizing and manipulating ordinary people, Murdoch's newspaper monopoly has bred incestuous circles of influence spanning across the British political class. As media scholar Jay Rosen points out, “news is not their first business. Wielding influence is.”

But even if newspapers were just a tool for political leverage, they inevitably became its victim. The bigger crime story in the background of Murdoch-gate is that the people most hurt by the corruption, inside and outside News Corp, are ordinary working people who are abused by a corporatized organizational ethos.

So here's one angle on the scandal the papers haven't dug into yet: if corruption in journalism is rooted in culture, then culture change must begin in the workplace, by giving real journalists a voice.

Donnacha DeLong, president of the National Union of Journalists, wrote in the Guardian that had News of the World workers had effective union representation, the NUJ, as an ethical arbiter, could have intervened to change labor-management dynamics. But Murdoch had kept the union effectively “locked out of News International,” at the staff and public's expense:

A well-organised union provides a counterbalance to the power of the editors and proprietors that can limit their excesses. The collective can tackle stress and bullying and prevent people getting desperate.

Now we're all feeling the desperation. Media consolidation, the crushing pressure of the news cycle, and the drive to pander to salacious tastes in order to please advertisers, are rotting journalism from within. The promise of digital age innovation is being suffocated by a business model that treats news as a mere consumer product.

The takeaway from today's front page is that the news is not a commodity, nor is the labor of the people struggling every day to keep the press free.

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica's WBAI. Her work has appeared on Alternet, Colorlines.com, Ms., and The Nation, Newsday, and her old zine, cain. Follow her on Twitter at @meeshellchen or reach her at michellechen [at] inthesetimes [dot] com.

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