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Human Interest

Eileene and I periodically argue politics. I’m a good liberal, though I hope a reasonable one; she’s got a conservative bent. (Although in the current political climate, she comes off as a moderate with strong liberal views on social issues, and I come across as a knee-jerk leftie. It’s our country’s politics that are extreme.)

When we discuss what’s wrong with the country, I often cite the consolidation of news into literally half a dozen media conglomerates. Journalism suffers because reciting press statements is cheaper than finding out the truth. Stories aim at an ever-more-common denominator. A broader perspective is lost. But above all, news organizations almost inevitably become a political mouthpiece for their owners; if we only have six owners from which to choose, we only have six opinions from which to choose—how else can one be informed of current events?

Eileene has pooh-poohed this objection in the past from a variation on the magical self-correction of free markets. She has argued, as others might, that compromising the news for a personal agenda is not in a news service’s interest, because the audience will leave for a source that will keep them better informed. Such arguments ignore a basic inertia in the audience, but more importantly overlook the fact that corporations don’t make decisions; individuals do. Corporations are a legal fiction; decisions are made by a corporation’s owners or executive officers, and their interests are not the same as a corporation’s, much less the general public’s. We see it every time an executive inflates short-term stock values by selling off (or firing) the company’s vital long-term assets. We saw it when when Wall Street execs loaded their companies with insane risks in order to inflate their salary bonuses, culminating in the 2008 crisis. We saw it when the Wall Street Journal began slanting news on China to aid owner Rupert Murdoch’s—just to pick a name—plans for investment in China.

And now we’re seeing it again, as the Wall Street Journal, Fox “News,” the Washington Post, and a few but prominent and politically powerful news sources leap to the defense of Rupert Murdoch—again, just to pick a name—and whatever yet-to-be-revealed involvement he may have had in the News Corp phone hacking scandal, and the numerous allegations of further criminal and scandalous behavior that are crawling out of the woodwork to join it. Such defense stands out because it comes exclusively from news sources that belong to Rupert Murdoch. What a co-inky-dink!

(It might be noted that the more nearly universal castigation of News Corp is being reported by that conglomerate’s competitors, but that merely reinforces the point that news services serve their owners and officers, and not the general public.)

And as bad as it may be that perhaps a sixth of news consumption may come from a source compromised to serve its owner when his interests diverge from those of his company, his shareholders, or the general public, consolidation of news services presents an even greater threat.

The owners of these massive news conglomerates are necessarily very, very rich. Which means that all of them share certain interests that may be (are!) at odds with those of the general public. Bad enough that voters who get their news only from the right-wing Fox propaganda mill will hear only Murdoch’s preferred version of events surrounding his various companies’ misdeeds before voting, in part, on whether news corporations need closer oversight. Far worse that virtually all voters will be getting their information on the merits of progressive or regressive tax structures, for example, or copyright issues, or libel laws, from their choice of multi-zillionaire media owners.

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