We now know that top players with Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News channel plotted with General David Petraeus about the prospect of using the cable network as a platform for launching a “Petraeus for President” campaign. As Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and author Bob Woodward writes in the The Washington Post:
So in spring 2011, [former Republican campaign strategist and now Fox News president Roger] Ailes asked a Fox News analyst headed to Afghanistan to pass on his thoughts to Petraeus, who was then the commander of U.S. and coalition forces there. Petraeus, Ailes advised, should turn down an expected offer from President Obama to become CIA director and accept nothing less than the chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the top military post. If Obama did not offer the Joint Chiefs post, Petraeus should resign from the military and run for president, Ailes suggested.
The Fox News chairman’s message was delivered to Petraeus by Kathleen T. McFarland, a Fox News national security analyst and former national security and Pentagon aide in three Republican administrations. She did so at the end of a 90-minute, unfiltered conversation with Petraeus that touched on the general’s future, his relationship with the media and his political aspirations—or lack thereof. The Washington Post has obtained a digital recording from the meeting, which took place in Petraeus’s office in Kabul.
McFarland also said that Ailes—who had a decades-long career as a Republican political consultant, advising Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush—might resign as head of Fox to run a Petraeus presidential campaign. At one point, McFarland and Petraeus spoke about the possibility that Rupert Murdoch, the head of News Corp., which owns Fox News, would “bankroll” the campaign.
“Rupert’s after me as well,” Petraeus told McFarland.
Murdoch is not the first media mogul to stand accused of plotting a presidential campaign for a favored contender. But the revelations regarding his network come at a particularly inconvenient moment, as Murdoch is seeking federal rule changes that would allow him to become a dramatically more definitional figure in American politics.
The Federal Communications Commission is currently considering a radical restructuring of media ownership rules that would benefit Murdoch. From its founding, the FCC has been charged with preventing media conglomerates from dominating local and national media in a manner that would allow an individual owner to define the discourse. Now, because Murdoch wants to buy major daily newspapers in communities where his News Corp combine already owns local television stations, he proposes to tear up the old rules.
Murdoch wants FCC chairman Julius Genachowski and his fellow commissioners to ease limits on what is referred to as “media cross-ownership” in the nation’s largest cities. If that happens, the nation’s media reform network, Free Press, warns that the move will “pave the way for Murdoch—and like-minded media moguls—to own the daily newspaper, two TV stations and up to eight radio stations in the same market.”
Free Press has been fighting the change, and it has rallied considerable support. So far:
* More than 100,000 people have signed a petition telling the FCC to abandon its giveaway to big media.
* More than 600 people have called members of Congress and asked them to oppose the FCC’s action.
* More than 40 local and national civil rights organizations representing millions of constituents have raised concerns about the rule changes.
* Ten senators have written letters to the FCC in protest of its march toward more media consolidation.
In recent days, the senators have stepped up their advocacy.
“We strongly believe that maintaining robust diversity of media ownership is fundamental to preserving the strength of our democracy. Broadcast media continues to be the primary source, by far, for local news in communities across the nation. When ownership of local television and radio stations is concentrated in too few hands, diversity is threatened, and when programming decisions are made by large media companies from hundreds of miles away, coverage of local news can become either diluted or neglected,” wrote Senators Bernie Sanders, Patrick Leahy, Tom Harkin, Barbara Boxer, Patty Murray, Ron Wyden, Jon Tester, Al Franken and Jeff Merkley in a letter to Genachowski requesting that the FCC “not proceed” with the rule changes.
The letter is important, as it signals concern on the part of the Senate, which has significant oversight responsibility with regard to the FCC and media-ownership rules. Expressing concern, in particular, with regard to the negative impact that the easing of media cross-ownership rules might have on efforts to promote ownership of media by more women and minorities, the senators note that “past research shows that minority communities are the ones harmed most by further consolidation, and in particular by loosening the prohibitions on cross-ownership.”
These are not small matters. In a rapidly diversifying country, it becomes all the more important that media outlets reflect that diversity. Allowing further consolidation of ownership in the hands of existing owners makes that prospect more remote.
And that’s not the only concern.
In addition to demographic diversity when it comes to media ownership, communities are best served by basic diversity in their news sources. In other words, information should be gathered, reported and analyzed by outlets with different owners. If not, the risk is that communities and even states could end up with the sort of one-sized-fits-all communication that threatens genuine democratic discourse.
There are those who claim that these diversity concerns will be resolved by the development of new digital platforms. But there is scant evidence to suggest that the Internet fills the void, especially on the local and regional level.
“While the Internet has matured significantly in recent years, it does not solve this problem,” write the senators in their letter to the FCC. “Importantly, we still have many constituents in our states who rely solely on TV and radio broadcast news for news and information. According to a recent Pew study, 74 percent of adults get their local news information from their local TV news station, 51 percent from radio broadcasts, and 50 percent from local newspapers. Even when citizens have the opportunity to consume news over the Internet, they continue to rely on the websites of their local broadcasters and newspapers for information about their communities. The vast majority of respondents reported sampling multiple local news sources—an activity that would be impossible if their community had only one media owner.”
This is big deal not merely for communities and states but also for federal policymaking, especially when players like Rupert Murdoch are looking to buy up dominant newspapers in big cities where they already own television stations. Just as Fox is seen as a conservative network, so too are Murdoch owned outlets like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Post and The Weekly Standard magazine. America has always had media outlets that skew to the right and to the left. That won’t change. But a shift in cross-ownership rules could allow an individual media mogul or a media company to play an outsized role not just in major markets but—if the owner operates in multiple markets and nationally—the dialogues, the debates and even the campaigns of a whole country.
That’s not healthy for democracy, especially when we’re talking about owners who appear to be interested in picking candidates for president and using their networks to promote those candidates.
(John Nichols is a co-founder, with Robert W. McChesney, of Free Press, the nation's media reform network. Nichols and McChesney are the co-authors of a number of books on media policy, most recently The Death and Life of American Journalism.)
For more on the fight against expanding corporate power, check out Sasha Abramsky's coverage here.