i.e. down with Rupert Murdoch! Off with his head! Terminate him with extreme prejudice! I already posted on the SOB the other day and am recidivating, now that I read that
the rats are jumping ship some of his top executives have resigned on account of the hacking scandal. According to the NY Times, “Mr. Murdoch has become an increasingly isolated figure, not only in Britain but within his own company.” Let’s hope he becomes so in the US as well. If he does, you’re not likely to read about it on the Weekly Standard web site, which is maintaining radio silence on the affair. Wouldn’t it be nice if the unspeakable William Kristol jumped overboard as well? And all of Fox News? In addition to the news reports today’s NYT also has a column on the affair by Joe Nocera—who I guess has the libertarian slot on the paper’s op-ed page—, where he writes about how the Wall Street Journal “has been Fox-ified” under Murdoch’s ownership. Nocera says he didn’t think this would happen when Murdoch bought the paper but admits he was dead wrong and offers his mea culpa. Good for him.
On the subject of NYT columns on Rupert Murdoch, Roger Cohen had one the other day, entitled “In Defense of Murdoch.” It’s a doozy. Cohen thus begins with a
Fair warning: This column is a defense of Rupert Murdoch. If you add everything up, he’s been good for newspapers over the past several decades, keeping them alive and vigorous and noisy and relevant. Without him, the British newspaper industry might have disappeared entirely.
This has to be the biggest bucket of bullcrap I’ve read in a week. Is Cohen seriously suggesting that the British press, which has long had one of the largest readerships in the world—in the pre-Internet era (and also the pre-Murdoch one) several London dailies had circulation figures into the millions (rivaling only Japan on this score)—, would have vanished? That there would be hardly any newspapers left in Britain? That Fleet Street would be no more? How can he make such an asinine statement? But let’s be clear. If rags like The Sun, Daily Express, and Daily Star were to disappear, it would be no loss for anyone apart from the employees of the said rags. How would the British press, or the nations of the United Kingdom itself, be poorer as a result? And how, pray, did Murdoch alter the fortunes of the so-called serious press for the better? If Murdoch had never existed the Financial Times, Telegraph, Guardian, Independent, and even The Times would be doing just fine, or at least no worse than they are now.
Cohen made another assertion that got me going
[Murdoch's] love of no-holds-barred journalism is one reason Britain’s press is one of the most aggressive anywhere.
Aggressive in what respect? Revealing the sex lives of football stars? Offering breathtaking scoops of Prince Harry’s latest girlfriend? Forgetting about the tabloids and focusing only on the so-called serious (ex-)broadsheets, let me make an assertion: British newspapers are terrible. The FT is okay but the others are crap. And I mean all of them: Telegraph, Guardian, Independent, Times. Even in their heyday these papers could not hold a candle to the great American dailies in their heyday (NY Times, Washington Post, LA Times, the many fine regional papers). Not a single British broadsheet could claim to be a “newspaper of record” à la NY Times, Le Monde in France, FAZ in Germany, or El País in Spain. Some of the best known British reporters would not find employment with an American daily, not if they continued to write the way they do. E.g. Robert Fisk, who may have an intimate knowledge of the Middle East but is simply too partial in his reporting and too freely gives vent to his emotions. His dispatches would never get by the editor of an American daily (or a French one for that matter). The reportages of a journalist like Fisk more properly belong in an outlet like The Nation, a magazine of opinion with a well-known point of view. And then there’s the agit-prop of John Pilger, who still makes it on to the news pages of The Guardian. Lest one think I’m singling out leftists here, there have also been prominent journalists of the right, e.g. Brian Crozier and Robert Moss, whose articles—reflecting their political parti pris—were regularly published on the news pages of The Times and The Telegraph. Again, this could not happen in an American daily worthy of the name (which excludes, e.g., the Washington Times, NY Post et al).
But worse than this is the trashy reporting that makes it on to “serious” British dailies. To give a single representative example, in the late ’90s-early ’00s there were feature articles—presented as scoops—in The Observer and—if my memory serves me right—The Independent of massacres committed by the Algerian army during the nasty Islamist insurgency/Algerian state counter-insurgency in that country, as well as of heinous acts of the Algerian security services. The sources for these articles were single defectors from the Algerian military or security services and whose veritable identities were not revealed. There was no corroboration. The accounts were simply presented as fact, or meant to be taken as such. Needless to say, these articles would not have passed muster with an American editor (and if they had—editorial breakdowns do occur—, a major stink would have been made of it sooner or later, as was, e.g., the case with Judith Miller’s reporting on fictitious Iraqi WMD in 2002-03). In the late ’90s Le Monde published a similar type scoop on Algeria based on a single army defector. The paper quickly issued a retraction. One of Le Monde’s journalists told me at the time that the article had inexplicably been published without going through the usual editorial filters and that it had been an embarrassment for the paper. But in Britain? Nah, no problem.
Back to Roger Cohen, he concludes his defense of Murdoch with this
The guy’s a force of nature and his restless innovations have, on balance and with caveats, been good for the media and a more open world.
A more open world? Oy vey. No comment.
UPDATE: Oh my, even Larry Flynt thinks Rupert Murdoch went too far.
2nd UPDATE: The Economist has a piece on “Life in the global gutter: The popular press: Tabloids are a phenomenon worldwide, but they come in different varieties,” and which has this subtle put down of the snooty elitist French
The French press has always catered to elites, notes Olivier Fleurot, former chief executive of the Financial Times Group: Le Figaro is for the wealthy, Libération for the cultured left, Le Monde for intellectuals. “They have not properly understood what a mass audience wants to see in a newspaper.”
The three national dailies cited do indeed cater to “elites” but also to anyone with an interest in public affairs and who presumably went to university. (e.g. people like myself, and if I’m a member of an elite no one has yet told me about it; à propos, does The Economist—or Financial Times, Times of London, NY Times, Wall Street Journal, and the like—have any regular readers—any at all?—who did not continue their education after high school?). But in addition to these “elitist” Parisian papers there is also Le Parisien (and its national edition Aujourd’hui en France), which caters to the popular classes (and while in a tabloid format it is a big cut above its London counterparts quality-wise; it’s not a bad paper for what it is). There is also the once-venerable France-Soir, which has gone way downmarket but mysteriously still survives. And then there’s the regional press, which is read by all social classes in the French heartland.
On the subject of the (overrated) Economist, I am reminded of a fine article by Andrew Sullivan from 1999, on “Why Americans go soft in the head for The Economist.” Check it out here.