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Media power: Murdoch, the web and the BBC, as seen from the USA

The openDemocracy debate continues as Todd Gitlin responds to oD's Anthony Barnett and the Guardian's Alan Rusbridger, reporting on the effects of Fox and his fears that the web won't be able to restore a media the public can trust

Alan Rusbridger divided all media into three sectors: (a) the press, (b) public service broadcasting, and (c) the ungainly sum of the digital none-of-the-above.  From an American vantage, this array still appears an enviable landscape.  We should only enjoy the luxury of a public service broadcasting that is significant enough to be worthy of amplification.  True, we have public radio, an uneven counter to the mélange of commercial pap and right-wing talk that dominate the airwaves.  But this stub of a grown-up media system is itself celebrity-choked, allergic to ideas, and politically imprisoned by he-said-she-said fearfulness.  As for public television, our own is a shriveled shadow of a shadow.  Even a single, quasi-monopolistic BBC seems a Beeb too far for our poor public sector.

As for (a), just after the midterm elections, I had occasion to fly from Columbus, Ohio, to Southern California and thus an opportunity to read the dead-tree editions of the Columbus Dispatch and the Los Angeles Times - the major papers in the largest cities in these two large states - on successive days.  The Dispatch ran a lot of Associate Press reports from abroad, and they were grown-up stories.  The Los Angeles Times, not so long ago possibly America’s second- or third-best paper, is a shell of its former self.  How that happened is a saga of bankruptcy, both moral and financial, at the hands of a cynical real estate tycoon who bought a failing paper and made it fail far worse.  I see nothing on the horizon - no business model, no technological fix - capable of resurrecting the occasional excellence of the press, however exaggerated that excellence has been in memory’s afterglow.

My touchstone for the performance of (a) and (b) has been and is still:  How well did they do in the two crashing (in every sense) stories of the last decade - the war in Iraq and the financial bubble?  In America, both (a) and (b) did poorly, channeling Alan Greenspan and Ahmed Chalabi as foolproof Grand Poobahs rather than the Grand Fools they were.  Even as I write, Greenspan is being resurrected as a sage voice.  What is so grandly termed “The Debate” on national (and international) economic policy is as shriveled as before. As for the Web, it is all over the place - foil, counterfoil, whatever the reader likes. In the press - even in the satire of the usually indispensible Jon Stewart - the Tea Party ignoramuses who were nowhere to be heard from as George W. Bush was fattening national deficits are now all the rage now that it is Barack Obama’s social programs rather than Bush’s tax cuts and military expeditions that are being threatened by deficit hawks. 

In the spirit of transnationalism, and speaking as a fellow denizen (with Anthony Barnett, Alan Rusbridger, and others) of Rupert Murdoch’s far-flung empire, I’m going to overcome my reluctance to barge in with advice for the UK by noting that Fox has so befouled the media climate in the US -in all categories - as to have produced a miasma all its own.  You get Page 3: we get rancid McCarthyism.  That Murdoch “often got where he has because of the feebleness of the British establishment,” as Anthony Barnett writes, is not a sound argument against regulating down the sheer scale of his empire.  There’s a chicken-egg problem here:  Murdoch certainly exploited establishment feebleness - in the US as in the UK- but now that he has succeeded in doing so, his enterprises now, and increasingly, constitute a huge gravitational force warping the entire media galaxy.  This is not so much because of the number of eyeballs he commands - these are far fewer than commonly thought - but because he (and his talk-radio allies) operate in synch with an entire political party.  So the US is now afflicted by a full-time propaganda network, an employment service for Republican politicians taking interim breaks from their election campaigns, that has lately taken to featuring the Muslim-hating, anti-Semitic demagogue Glenn Beck - a resuscitated John-Bircher obsessed with the evils of global “puppetmaster” George Soros.  I hate to contribute a bummer but as chunks fall out of the sky I don’t see the Web restoring the firmament.

About the author

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and author of the new e-book Occupy Nation:  The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street, also published in an expanded edition, in paperback, in August, 2012 (HarperCollins).

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