Take a step back from contemporary American political debate and it’s not hard to conclude that our political class has gone insane. Tax giveaways to the wealthiest Americans as the deficit rages out of control. Attacks on underpaid and overworked teachers, caregivers and firefighters as alleged fat cats. Insults flung at scientists seeking to save us from the consequences of global warming as House committees vote to strip the EPA of its regulatory power. One could go on indefinitely, of course, but searching for a perfect symbol of how and why our priorities have grown so indefensibly askew, one need look no further than a recent issue of The Hollywood Reporter, which featured eighteen tributes from assorted business and entertainment luminaries to media mogul Rupert Murdoch on his eightieth birthday.
None of the tributes come from people identified as conservatives. Quite a few, including Ted Turner, Peter Chernin and Gary Ginsberg, are well-known liberals. Yet almost all appear to embrace the ethos of the quite liberal former head of Viacom, Tom Freston, who congratulates Murdoch for being the “driving force at News Corp.” and thinks we should all admire his savvy, “regardless of what you think of his political agenda.” The same disclaimer appears almost verbatim in a recent Fortune magazine story by Allan Sloan on Murdoch’s nepotistic business practices: “Whatever you think of News Corp.’s politics—which isn’t today’s subject—you have to admire and respect what Murdoch has accomplished on the business front.”
Remember, none of these people are members of Murdoch’s family and only a few work for News Corp., even indirectly. None of them need to mouth this nonsense to keep food on the table, or even their golf pros on permanent retainer. But all of them are apparently ready to put aside not only Murdoch’s political agenda but the manner in which he and his underlings pursue it in order to pay tribute to a man who, perhaps more than any other alive, has corrupted American politics by promoting ignorance, intolerance and the continuing class war of the wealthy against the rest of us.
Leave aside the purely corrupt aspects of his business practices: the nepotism; the bribery in the form of millions offered to Newt Gingrich and the daughters of Chinese dictators in the form of “advances” for books that nobody wants to buy; the unionbusting; the cancellation of a book contract by Christopher Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, because it displeased the same Chinese strongmen to whom he kowtowed by kicking the BBC off his satellite network. Judge him instead according to the testimony of film producer Arnon Milchan, who says Murdoch told him, “I am first and foremost a journalist. All the rest is a defense mechanism.”
How to pick the highlights of this esteemed journalistic career? What about the practice at Fox News of deliberately misleading its audience with phony footage—for instance, using films of violent altercations in Florida while pretending to report on peaceful demonstrations in Wisconsin; or, presumably for variety’s sake, using footage of a much larger demonstration somewhere else to give a boost to a poorly attended Michele Bachmann–led rally against healthcare reform? And what are we to make of the anti-Obama rally led by Glenn Beck at which a Fox producer could be seen leading the protesters in cheers as Fox readied to film them?
Of course, this is rather small potatoes compared with the hosts and guests who frequently promote the false and destructive notion that Barack Obama is a Kenya-born Muslim who hates all white people—including, presumably, his mother. (Murdoch, one must recall, said he agreed with Beck’s comments that Obama hates white people.)
As if that’s not dangerous enough, there is the recent campaign of anti-Semitic slander against Holocaust survivor George Soros on Beck’s show and the ginning up of anti-Arab racism on all Fox programming. It’s impossible to know what, exactly, motivates any act of violence by a disturbed person—say, in the case of the attack on Gabrielle Giffords and those around her by a crazed gunman. But what of Beck fan Byron Williams’s desire to take out the progressive Tides Foundation, a frequent Beck target—a crime foiled only when California Highway Patrol officers pulled Williams over on a DUI charge?
It’s no accident that such tactics are so prevalent at Fox; they are the rule rather than the exception at Murdoch properties. Was it really such a shock, for instance, when it was recently reported that Murdoch’s top honcho, Roger Ailes, allegedly instructed ex-HarperCollins employee Judith Regan to lie to federal investigators in order to protect Rudy Giuliani? As mayor, Giuliani had pressured Time Warner Cable after it initially declined to include Fox News on its menu of channels. And is it really so amazing that the British staff of Murdoch’s News of the World were widely engaged in criminal wiretapping to try to scoop their competition? When you consider all this, you almost want to give ex–New York Post gossip columnist Richard Johnson a Pulitzer Prize. All he did was regularly accept cash bribes in exchange for using his column to promote the properties of those handing over the cash. (Johnson was not publicly disciplined when this corruption was revealed.)
If Murdoch is judged as “first and foremost a journalist,” the inevitable conclusion is that he is an enabler and purveyor of lies, hatred and criminal activity in the service of his ideological, financial and personal interests. A man like this deserves to be shunned, à la Bernie Madoff or Mel Gibson. That he is celebrated as some sort of hero by people who need not worry about their reputations tells you almost all you need to know about the insanity that grips our benighted political culture.