Don’t Hack Me, Bro! Scandal brings attention to the state of media today

August 7, 2011 in News

Published in LareDOS (July Issue, p.16)

Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, News Corporation, is the best possible advertisement for the alternative press.  There is no better example of the dangers of media consolidation than the communications behemoth constructed by Murdoch’s News Corp.  The recent phone hacking scandal perpetrated by the staff of News Corp’s News of the World daily has brought attention to a problem that has existed in media for several years.

To readers who are yet unfamiliar with the big and heavy hack attack scandal as it has unfolded, here’s the short and skinny: The News of the World, one of the many News Corp publications, was shut down recently after allegations that staff were illegally obtaining the cell phone voicemails of hundreds of unknowing individuals.  The voicemails ranged from celebrities, like Hugh Grant, to politicians, competing journalists – even kidnap and murder victims and their families, including perhaps victims of the September 11th attacks.  The scandal is far reaching, implicating not only staff of the newspaper, but also English politicians and police officials, accused of taking bribes to cover up the paper’s crimes.  Inquires have been made, resignations submitted – arrests taken place, and now surely charges will be filed.

As a result of the scandal, questions have been raised regarding the structure of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire and how it came to be so enormous in the first place.  Even at a glance, his ownership of media is quite impressive. Parent company News Corp reaches hundreds of millions of people through outlets in television, newspapers, book publishing, film, and social media.  The ownership list includes FOX Broadcasting Company – and all derivatives, i.e. FOX News, FOX Sports, dozens of local FOX affiliates, etc – SKY (U.K.), National Geographic, The New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph (Australia), The Sun (U.K.), The Times and The Sunday Times (U.K.), HarperCollins Publishing, 20th Century Fox, Fox Searchlight – even Myspace and Hulu – just to name a few (Complete list can be found at: http://www.cjr.org/resources/?c=newscorp)

Public outrage over the phone hacking scandal has caused some discussion in the press as to whether the Federal Communications Committee (FCC) should step in and break up the Murdoch media conglomerate.  After all, it was through waivers repeatedly approved by the FCC that Murdoch was able to gain control of so many sources of news.  Competing 24-hour cable news stations, CNN and MSNBC, have run nearly continuous coverage on the matter – while FOX News remains predictably quiet.  The talking heads at CNN and MSNBC are quick to point out that News Corp, unable or unwilling to curb illegal activities at one of its many publications, has clearly become too big for it’s own good – and more importantly the public’s good.  The charges are stiff, and in the court of public opinion at least, Murdoch’s judgment looks grim.

While rival news organizations are relishing in News Corp’s recent troubles, they unavoidably ignore the fact that they are part of the same larger problem.  The environment in media which has allowed for News Corp’s corruption is the same environment in which Time Warner’s CNN and General Electric’s MSNBC have flourished.  Within the last few decades, we have witnessed a remarkable evolution of news media around the world.  The marriage of media, corporate interest, and government has created a sort of “media-industrial complex”, and the connection between Big Media and Big Brother is one that deserves to be explored.  This symbiotic relationship between media giants and the government is one that has been enjoyed by both parties for quite some time.  In the absence of outright bribes, as alleged in the News of the World scandal, favors are exchanged, and no one’s back goes without scratching.  And when it comes time for our government to move the public along on a difficult or divisive issue, such as war, Big Media is quick to beat the drums.  This is made all the easier in recent times since former politicians, high ranking military officials, and Washington insiders – like George Stephanopoulos, David Gergen, Karl Rove, Oliver North, and so on – now appear to have retirement plans in place at one of the few major news networks.

The problem is then compounded when only a few corporate interests control most of the major news outlets in our country.  In fact, only five corporations, News Corp (FOX, FOX News), Time Warner (CNN), General Electric (NBC, MSNBC, CNBC, Telemundo), The Walt Disney Company (ABC, History), and National Amusement (CBS and Viacom) control all of the major sources of information the public receives.  New frontiers online have helped to level the playing field a bit in the news business, but traditional media still holds most of the public’s attention.  The 4th Branch of Government, as it was once known, meant to keep the balance of power and the free flow of information in check, is now as embedded in greed and power-lust as the rest of the branches.  In search of ratings and the almighty dollar, the “news” today serves more to entertain than to inform.  If there is any doubt, recall the number of times Casey Anthony or Anthony Weiner’s Weiner has been discussed in mainstream media, compared to the number of inquiries into our current military operations in Libya, Yemen, Pakistan, or Somalia.  It is this greediness, at least in part, that leads unscrupulous reporters, like those of the News of the World, to hack the phones of grieving families, in search of that all elusive exclusive story.

The silver lining in this egregious violation by News Corp and the ensuing scandal is perhaps the newfound attention that media consolidation is and will be receiving.   Usually, an FCC ruling will receive as much attention in the mainstream media as a new city works project – little to none.  Perhaps the next time this un-elected, unaccountable governmental body meet to make a decision on how we the people receive our information, more of the public will be paying attention.  Within the current news climate, alternative sources of information are needed more than ever.  The public not only deserves, but requires information that is not tainted by Washington influence or filtered through a corporate master.