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MURDOCH, MEDIA AND MONEY

Monday, July 12, 2010












Owners will always decide what gets published in their media. Is this a surprise?


Some people are upset because Rupert Murdoch wants to buy the Wall Street Journal and tell it what to publish.
But somebody has to decide what media say.
An owner may be biased.
But so is a newspaper editor, who gets paid to have an opinion on just about every subject.
Let’s say an editor is pro-choice regarding the issue of abortion.
If her newspaper covers a court decision dealing with this issue, a responsible editor will make sure that the story includes the viewpoint of the people who disagree with her position.
But depending on the title she chooses – “Court restricts women’s freedom over their own bodies,” or “Court protects unborn babies” – she influences the way readers think.
The reality is that no communications medium is objective.
But if the public in any country has access to many different media, each of which is allowed to publish or broadcast what it wants, freedom of expression exists.
Some people think that the problem of media bias is worse, when content is dictated by owners, who won’t publish stories which offend advertisers.
But even if editors had complete freedom to publish or broadcast whatever they wanted, the relationship between media and advertisers wouldn’t change.
Editors edit because media owners pay them.
Owners don’t use their own money to pay editors.
The money comes from advertising.
If editors offend advertisers, there won’t be much money.
If owners have no money, they can’t pay editors.
If editors want to get paid, they – like owners - have to figure out how to satisfy their public, without angering advertisers.
For example, the Health Ministry says that Brand X bread contains bugs.
To cover the story, the Daily Bugle can print a headline, which says, “Don’t Eat Brand X”, followed by a text which includes the company’s viewpoint.
But if it does, Brand X will stop advertising.
Instead, the Bugle publishes a headline which says, “Brand X Improves Quality Control”, followed by an article, which includes a summary of the Ministry report.
Brand X is happy.
Meanwhile, the public gets the information it needs to make an intelligent decision – but this happens regardless of whether or not the Bugle’s owner tells the editor what to print.
In an ideal world, media would sell their content directly to subscribers.
In this case, they could say what they wanted without worrying about what advertisers think.
But in the real world, few media can sell enough subscriptions for enough money to pay for their operations.
That leaves the option of state ownership.
Since publicly-owned media depend on tax revenues and not advertising, they don’t have to please advertisers.
On the other hand, a government may decide to use state media as propaganda vehicles for itself, in which case they would have even less editorial freedom than their commercial counterparts.
Meanwhile, no one is saying much about the problem of conflict of interest.
In many countries, big corporations and/or wealthy people own conglomerates, which include media businesses.
In the United States, the three biggest television networks are controlled by non media companies: General Electric owns CBS, Westinghouse controls NBC, and Disney runs CBS.
For his part, Murdoch is a director of Philip Morris Companies, whose subsidiary, Miller Brewing, is a major advertiser on Murdoch’s Fox television network.
There is nothing illegal in these arrangements, which in many cases don’t interfere with media content.
But there could be times when media are discouraged from saying things that are bad for a corporate owner, or for companies with which the owner does business.
Media magnates who have no conflict of interest will still be biased.
But at least their biases are their own.

Fred Blaser
Chairman
República Media Group