For more than three decades, as global press baron Rupert Murdoch amassed more and more power over both the journalism and the politics of the Western world -- usually to the detriment of both -- the question lingered in the air. What, if anything, could possibly bring down the empire of this turn-of-the-millennium Citizen-Kane-without-the-sled, a man who seemingly had the power to pick American presidents and collected British prime ministers as easily as Wingo cards on the way to fame and billions of dollars?
Now, not long after Murdoch celebrated his 80th birthday, we may finally know the answer.
It wasn't the years of influence trading on a global scale, but his paper's ruthless treatment of a murdered 13-year-old and her family.
That's always the way, isn't it? The stunning news today is that Murdoch is shutting down his reportedly most lucrative publication, the sleazy British News of the World tabloid, in the wake of a phone hacking scandal marked by intercepting messages left for the slain girl, Milly Dowler, in a way that impeded the police probe and gave her parents false hope she was still alive. The power of the scandal seemed a fitting a bookend to a week in which we debated what kind of news pushes our buttons -- and why.
It was only Tuesday here in America that a nation staggering from a years of a high unemployment -- with a crisis of governmental gridlock looming -- stopped to absorb every detail of a lurid Florida murder case -- and that shouldn't surprise anyone: It's as easy to get emotionally wrenched by the death of an adorable 2-year-old and the flaunting of bad motherhood as it's hard to wrap yourself around the true meaning of $14 trillion, or understand why there are no new jobs in America anymore.
Viewers prefer human dramas involving total strangers over the ideological debates that affect our actual lives; likewise, journalists crave these simpler morality plays of good and evil -- where the facts are smaller yet objectively provable or disprovable -- over the ever-so-complicated big picture. In American politics, we saw a president impeached for lying about an extramarital affair of no national import, while no punishment even close to that was seriously discussed for his successor who invaded a sovereign nation under false pretenses, leading to the deaths of tens of thousands of people.
And so now it's the simple memory of a slain Brtitish teenaged girl -- with the added shock that family members of casualties in that Iraq War and in Afghanistan were also phone-hacked, and reports of police officers taking bribes from journalists -- that brings the world's largest media empire to the edge of the abyss.
Right now, there's still a big disconnect between the uproar over the Murdoch empire in Great Britain -- salacious, tabloid-style crimes committed by tabloid journalists -- and closer scrutiny of the press baron's operation in the United States, which in addition to the highly profitable Fox television network also includes the politically influential Fox News Channel, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Post among its outlets.
I would argue there's no disconnect at all.
There are important differences but also key similarities between the way that Murdoch -- an Australian by birth who amassed a lot of a fortune first in the UK and finally in America, where he is now a citizen -- does business on either side of the Atlantic. The common denominator is a seamless rinse-repeat cycle of using his media power to gain political influence and then using that influence to gain greater wealth. In England, the dirty tricks and apparent lawbreaking of The News of the World helped Murdoch on the wealth side by selling lots of newspapers with scoops about racy murders and celebrity gossip -- but it's less clear how that pseudo-journalism mucked up the nation's broader politics.
In the U.S. of A., it's a different story, and it cannot be understated. Here, Murdoch's sins were less sensational -- but more important, arguably a matter of life and death on some stories. With his most audacious move, the invention of the Fox News Channel, Murdoch and his minions created a vortex of misinformation and emotion draped in an American flag that changed a nation's politics for the worse. That affects a lot more people than phone hacking, no matter how heartless that was.
Murdoch had help from brilliant, cynical aides on both sides of the pond. In England, it was the massively ethically challenged, wild-eyed redhead Rebekah Brooks; in America, it is the frumpy and grumpy Roger Ailes, the only man to run the Fox News Channel since it was launched in the mid-1990s. As recent documents have shown, Ailes -- who learned the American conservative politics of middle-class resentment at the foot of the master, Richard Nixon -- was long involved in a scheme for a conservative TV counterweight to the so-called "liberal media." But it took the arrival of Murdoch years later to execute the plan with the vision that a conservative cable news network could make millions in profits while wielding influence on a scale that a "Headless Body in Topless Bar" newspaper could only dream of.
But Ailes and Murdoch -- with a typical disregard for the consequences -- created a monster as their FNC grew in popularity over the course of the 2000s. They held onto to their millions of viewers by playing to their emotions, and to what they felt was true about America -- regardless of whether it was actually true. Over the years, misinformed Fox viewers wielded more and more clout over a directionless Republican Party that in turn drove the U.S. body politic, with disastrous consequences.
You want examples?
Iraq and the war on terrorism: America's misguided "pre-emptive war" in the oil-rich Persian Gulf would not have been possible unless the 9/11 attacks and a response to terrorism became conflated with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, which for all its horrors had nothing to do with the assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The Fox News Channel, and its parade of GOP-talking-point infused hosts and military "experts," helped to make sure that wrongful conflation took place, as later evidence proved.
A 2003 poll by the Program on International Policy (PIPA) at the University of Maryland and Knowledge Networks found that regular Fox News viewers were significantly more likely than other news consumers to believe one of three significant falsehoods about the Iraq war -- that Iraq was somehow connected to 9/11, that weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq, or that global opinion was in favor of the war. These jingoistic myths -- most heavily adopted by Fox viewers -- fueled years of continued fighting in a war in which thousands of Americans and Iraqi civilians died needlessly.
Climate change: It's hard to believe in 2011, but there was a time a few years ago when a majority of Republicans, just like a majority of all Americans, believed that man-made global warming was real and needed to be addressed in some fashion. That was before a parade of global warming skeptics and outright deniers on Fox News Channel -- a development that was actually encouraged by FNC top management. Most famously, FNC's Washington bureau chief wrote in a December 2009 memo " we should refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question."
In recent years, Fox News Channel has found a variety of ways to spread misinformation and outright lies about the state of the world's climate -- claiming, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that the world is actually cooling -- and the plan has worked. A majority of Republicans now believe that climate change theories endorsed by 90 percent of the world's leading climatologists are a hoax, and more importantly, so do the political leaders they elect. Fox-fueled opposition scuttled what appeared to be momentum for climate change legislation in Washington, even as the planet records its hottest years on record and predictions of future food shortages and natural disasters grow more dire.
The 2010 elections: The right-wing tide that changed the direction of Congress last November was powered by a large turnout of conservative voters, who once again -- as research showed -- were misinformed on the issues if their primary source of information was Fox News. It started with what the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking outfit Politifact called its Lie of the Year for 2010 -- the reporting on Fox News that President Obama's health care plan was "a government takeover" of the system.
But that was just one area where Fox News viewers had bad info, according to a new report (PDF) by the Program on International Policy Attitudes; this study found that FNC watchers were much more likely to think that their taxes went up (they were cut in 2009 for most Americans) or that health care reform increases the deficit (it lowers it) or that Obama was possibly not born in the United States.
There's more, but I think you get the idea. Meanwhile, misinformed Fox viewers are the tail wagging the dog of American politics; just ask the now former South Carolina congressman who had the nerve to criticize the then-popular, now-departed FNC host Glenn Beck before his 2010 primary defeat. Increasingly, it's impossible to tell where Fox News stops and the Republican Party begins, which is why it wasn't surprising to hear that FNC's Ailes even lobbied a would-be candidate, New Jersey's Chris Christie, to enter the 2012 White House race. Did Ailes think that would be good for the country or good for ratings?
That's the kind of ethical question that doesn't get asked any more at Murdoch's Fox News Channel than it was asked at Murdoch's News of the World. But the stakes in this country -- endless wars, looming environmental disasters, lousy policies that are leaving America mired in economic despair -- are far greater. So if you are outraged tonight by what the Murdoch empire was up to in Great Britain all these years -- and you should be -- than you should be doubly outraged by what they've pulled off here.
The only real question for America is what are we going to do about Rupert Murdoch now?