What Rupert Murdoch Has Wrought, and Bought, in America

From 'Jaws' to Rupert Murdoch, It's the Best Media Writing of the Week

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Rupert Murdoch
Rupert Murdoch
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If you've adopted an it-couldn't-happen-here position on the British phone-hacking scandal, Frank Rich asks that you think again.

Mr. Rich, recently relocated from The New York Times' Sunday paper to New York magazine, has seen a dangerous American exceptionalism in recent weeks. This week he laid out the ways that Mr. Rupert Murdoch's very particular view of journalism has impacted public life in the United States, crucially in his properties' buying of certain politicians, of whom the magazine provides a scary list. Media-bashing can often be monolithic, eliding the differences between the excesses of , say, TMZ and Fox News. Mr. Rich makes a useful distinction between the kind of damage done by a celebrity-obsessed culture of infotainment and the more direct political intrigue carried out -- allegedly! -- by the likes of News Corp.

There's a real difference between the tabloidization of America -- which is , and no doubt always will be, unstoppable -- and the Murdochization of America, which still might be stopped. It's not just because Roger Ailes once worked for Richard Nixon that Watergate analogies abounded as News of the World and then the key Murdoch executives Rebekah Brooks and Leslie Hinton were abruptly sacrificed in the family's efforts to save Rupert and James. Carl Bernstein, more attuned to those echoes than anyone, got it exactly right when he wrote in Newsweek that "too many of us have winked in amusement at the salaciousness without considering the larger corruption of journalism and politics promulgated by Murdoch Culture on both sides of the Atlantic." And not only "liberal" journalists feel this way. Conrad Black, the right-wing Canadian media mogul who has lately been in prison for fraud, recently described Murdoch in the Financial Times as not merely a "tabloid sensationalist" but "a malicious mythmaker, an assassin of the dignity of others and of revered institutions, all in the guise of anti-elitism." Or as the former Bush speechwriter David Frum said more than a year ago, "Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us, and now we're discovering we work for Fox."

New York's Murdoch package also included an Aaron Sorkin-penned imaginary dialogue between Mr. Murdoch and his consigliere, Joel Klein:

Murdoch: And as chancellor of the New York City public-school system. ... Well, nobody really cares, but my point is , you shouldn't be having a crisis of confidence. You're my man to lead this.
Klein: I just think the investigation should be led by someone else.
Murdoch: That's not what you said to your wife. You said that by heading up the investigation, you'd have access to me, which would help prime the pump for your eventual position as my replacement.
Klein: How do you know what I said to my wife?
Murdoch: You mean I guessed right?
Klein: Sir, have you been hacking my phone?
Murdoch: Don't be ridiculous, Joel. And don't forget to pick up milk on your way home from work.

The Times of London had a good get in interviewing Vaughan Smith, whose Frontline Club played host to one Julian Assange for just under a year, during which time this "private members hotel and bar for independent journalists" (hmph!) was often under siege by , well, journalists. That time opened a window into the routines and rituals of the almost-Time Person of the Year:

In the midst of it all is the nomadic Assange, who seems to behave quite like a moody teenager. He "eats when he's hungry, sleeps when he's tired". House rules have been "implemented" and then "ignored." He's "not interested in food," often "skipping meals." If he "sees you washing up, he'll come and join you, but he won't start." He's not a "hugely domestic animal, but in a funny way no one really expects him to be." He's "always in front of a computer."


As an ex-soldier, Smith is less prissy than some about Assange's hygiene. The New York Times editor Bill Keller described the WikiLeaks founder as wearing "filthy white socks" and smelling as though he "hadn't bathed for days." "Look," Smith says. "The guy is an unmarried man. I know a lot of unmarried men who would reverse their underpants if they could. It's a very funny thing to make an issue of ."

The Chicago Reader's Michael Miner looked at how operations like ProPublica and Voice of San Diego, devoted to lengthy investigations that don't lend themselves to rapid-fire publication schedule, understand how they should feed the beast:

If any new media news site has earned the right to think only big thoughts and not get swept up in ephemera, it's ProPublica. But that 's not [Managing Editor Stephen] Engelberg's reality.

"If websites have to be updated all the time to drive traffic, how do you get the time to think about in-depth things?" he muses. "There's clearly a conflict between new forms of communication." His reporters are allowed to spend days or weeks on stories, but he feels pressure on him to do a one-month story in three weeks, "maybe two." It's less the pressure of bean counters demanding results than it is a kind of social pressure, the result of hanging around with a website and its predilection for immediate satisfactions.

A terror just beneath the surface.
A terror just beneath the surface.

We end this slow, midsummer week with one from the vaults. Thanks to Byliner, the great new site devoted to storytelling, I stumbled across this 1975 essay on "Jaws" by Peter Biskind, once of the late great Premiere, now of Vanity Fair. Writing for Jump Cut six months after the Steven Spielberg first inflicted the notion of the summer blockbuster on an entirely willing populace, Mr. Biskind sees the film "as a middle-class Moby Dick" and a super sexy one at that ! If you're the kind who thinks a 22 -foot-long great white is just big shark, you might not want to read on. But if you view life as one big psychosexual castration plot, which is to say, if you're in advertising, then you're in luck:

We need only consult the graffiti scrawled on the familiar ad for JAWS -- the huge phallic head of a shark aimed suggestively at the midriff of a naked woman swimming on the surface of the water -- to recognize that we are invited to put a sexual construction on the encounter between shark and woman, and indeed, such a view seems warranted by the facts. The shark, all too obviously, can only be the young man's sexual passion, a greatly enlarged, marauding penis. (Later on in the film, a dead shark, slit open, exudes a white, sperm-like fluid.) This passion is aroused by the woman's own provocative behavior, and is freed from restraint by the young mans intoxication. His rational faculties, his inhibitions, his moral scruples are, quite literally, asleep. His conscious mind has abdicated its authority, allowing the monsters of the libido to hold sway.

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