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.