Sunday, September 29, 2013

Feudal media organizations - Michael Wolff on News Corporation journalism

Any student of the television soap opera genre knows the importance of the family structure. Every step of that structure is negotiated with the patriarch as the centrally challenged focus of the domestic structure. The social relations are always somewhat subtle, even while power is the central matter under examination. Keeping or giving up control is what is being negotiated in those daily TV shows.

The most excessive view on family business is the ancient idea that the patriarch  - the alpha male - is unchallengeable. This perspective is the foundation of feudalism.

Somewhat surprisingly, last week New York media analyst Michael Wolff referred to News Corporation as well as the New York Times Company as "feudal" organizations.

In fact, Wolff is unusually well placed to comment on News Corporation after writing The Man Who owns the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch (2010), an authorised biography of Rupert Murdoch. Wolff refers to News Corporation and the New York Times as institutions run by a single male. Their structure mirrors the old family model: "dynastic and feudal."

This claim is at once breathtaking in its accusatory energy, while on closer examination it seems that the evidence for Wolff's claim is in place to support this view. Wolff on News feudalism

Of more moment may be the profile of the men who are employed as CEOs of both firms Mark Thompson (NYTimes) and  Robert Thomson (News). Indeed, an entire raft of men populate the higher echelons of these media firms, even though (last time I checked) 50%+ of the global population is female. What type of men become the CEOs, the editors in chief, the editors of these publications?

Unfortunately we cannot say with any certainty what the character types are and I am not aware of any academic studies of a sample of former lieutenants that indicate the type of person who works immediately down the line of command from a patriarch like Rupert Murdoch. (Former editors would be  good place to start). It is an important question for media analysts, because the critique of New Corporation news media is that it has been beholden to the political interests of Rupert Murdoch, who dictates the editorial line in state and federal elections in territories around the world where he owns news outlets - US, Australia, UK.

In other words, what kinds of people, what kinds of journalists agree to do what they are instructed in order to advance their careers? From a gender perspective, the question can be refined as, what kind of men?

This question seems especially relevant these days when so many journalism students are taught ethics, social responsibility and research methods in an effort to help guide their pursuit of the truth. What happens to the principles of reporting when an angle is called for by the boss? Should journalists merely cave? The feudal model would suggest that there is no choice, no room for debate and no questions to ask. It may be the explanation for the malaise of journalism as a profession, with apologies to all those faithfully practising their craft.



Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Ganging up on Rupert? - News Corporation becomes the news

With the Australian Federal election firmly decided in favour of the conservative Liberal-National Party Coalition it is time for those of us in media studies to engage in some analysis of the reporting across the media. The approach News Corporation has taken to reporting in its original home base, Australia, is an example of election influencing. Media critics are well aware of News Corporation's interest in boosting conservative causes.

It is fair to say that the defeat of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) government led by Kevin Rudd on September 7 was in the sights of the Murdoch-owned press for many months, and yet in seeking a change of government, Mr Murdoch himself became the news. Even his tweets were reported. Tweets by Murdoch New media such as Twitter, has moved the public into a relationship with media owners as opinion makers, generally unmediated by gatekeepers. In Mr Murdoch's case he can and do say whatever he likes, without editors telling him what to say or moderating his commentary.

The narrative from the News Corporation bunker was one sided: remove the ALP by reporting on the party and their leadership in antagonistic and negative ways, while reporting on the conservatives in supportive and positive ways. It is a well tried path, as Fox News support of the Republican Party and President George W. Bush played out in the 2004 US election. The election coverage in support of the conservatives and against the ALP in the News Corporation Sydney Telegraph tabloid was calculated by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Media Watch, a weekly 15 minute television commentary at around 134 anti-Labor articles and headlines out of 293. Media Watch  It hardly proves much except that it distracts from detailed journalism.  

Peter Botsman put it as follows:
"The media portrayal of the Rudd campaign has been beyond belief. It was a true 1950s ‘we will tell you what is good for you’ exercise. The Murdoch press effectively acted as a storm anchor that pulled back any positive news about Labor in any other media source...." Botsman Working Papers

But the importance of all this is elsewhere. Australian Labor Party supporters - the True Believers as they are called - could have spent more time devising policies that make significant contributions to public welfare, instead of counting the coverage. The media as the story is a function of a narrowing band of policy options. There are distractions everywhere, with little progress made on progressive policies, perhaps importantly on media and public communication debates, that would entail broadening the circulation of ideas through multiple sources. (The News Corporation argument is that the everyone has the Internet, so there's plenty of diversity. Do not be concerned...).    

It's business as usual.  At least the global aspects of media kicked in to the Australian election to add some stringent colour. There are two examples to this part of the story: the first is an unfounded yet public accusation from a mining tycoon and leader and funder of Palmer United Party (PUP - woof woof!), Clive Palmer, that Rupert Murdoch's estranged wife Wendy Deng was a Chinese spy Litigation central - Clive Palmer; the second that the UK Levenson inquiry followed Mr Murdoch to Australia, in the form of his chief British Labour Party antagonist Tom Watson.Tom Watson Sydney Morning Herald coverage

Both of these "events" put the Australian activities of News Corporation into the global context. In the former case, perversely, in the latter case, critically. No progressive public policy ideas made the light of day in this whirl of media wind.