Murdoch, Media Consolidation's Poster Child

Over at the New York Times, Brian Stelter reports that media reform groups in the U.S. are seeing opportunity in the News Corp hacking situation in the U.K.:

Progressive activists and public interest groups have long blasted Rupert Murdoch and his News Corporation for political biases. But in recent weeks they have seized on a new and more tangible reason to call for the revocation of his TV licenses and the breakup of his company: the British hacking scandal.

The scandal, they say, is an opportunity to raise awareness of — and, they hope, objection to — media consolidation at a time when the American government is reviewing the rules that govern how much companies like News Corporation, Comcast and the Walt Disney Company can own.

“For those of us who’ve been warning about the dangers of too much media power concentrated in too few corporate hands, this scandal is a godsend,” said Jeff Cohen, the founding director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College.

For one thing, the timing works out well for advocates. The FCC is in the process of considering whether media ownership rules need adjusting. And earlier this month, a federal appeals court ruled in the long-standing Prometheus v. FCC case that, in 2006, the Federal Communications Commission erred in how it crafted rules that weakend restrictions on joint TV and newspaper ownership in American markets. The rulemaking gets returned to an FCC that has shown signs of being more willing than previous counterparts to limit the share of the media market that single corporations can own, in the name of media diversity.

But there's also, I think, something less tangible but still powerful working in the favor of groups like Free Press and the Media Access Project here. The hacking puts human faces on a certain worry about the corrupting effects of consolidation. In the '90s and aughts, the public aspect of the battles over deregulating media ownership tended to focus on the product side of things. Letting one corporation or a handful of corporations handle so much media was poor public policy, the thinking went, because what we got as a result was bad product -- TV programming and newspaper coverage and radio news that that focused on elite interests, designed to sell advertisers' products or advance the agenda of the powers-that-be. That left the Murdochs of the world to argue that, Hey, it's a free market. Even today, maybe Fox News is practicing boosterism of the Iraq war or the Tea Parties, but it's a transparent transaction. You can change the channel or read another paper (particularly in the Internet age).

Media reform groups have long tried to make an example out of Murdoch; in a wonderful 2003 profile of the News Corp head, The Atlantic's James Fallows describes advertisements placed by MoveOn, Free Press and others that read "This Man Wants to Control the News in America ...The FCC Wants to Help Him." But Murdoch, for many, was the as much a funny character on "The Simpsons" as he was a threatening media baron. What the News of the World scandal seems to offer advocates for limits on media ownership is a example of how media consolidation can corrupt cultural and political institutions in ways that the average citizen never even gets a chance to see. And if he can't see it, how can he combat it? Hacking the voicemails of 13 year-old murder victims, as News Corps employees are alleged to have done, and then reasonably expecting to get away with it because of the power you wield? That would seem to add passion to concerns about the systemic damages of media consolidation that have for decades been pretty bloodless.

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