Thursday, 14 July 2011

Why the NewsCorp scandal won't resonate with Americans

The News of the World hacking scandal has progressed with shocking speed in the UK. Yesterday it seemed to reach a fevered climax when Rupert Murdoch withdrew his bid for satellite operator BSkyB after he was ceremoniously denounced by the entire British Parliament in an unprecedented session. It marks an incredible end of an era. Murdoch is effectively being banished from Britain after having held sway over the island's media, government and even police for decades.

Now commentators are speculating that the trouble for Murdoch's media empire News Corp, which also own many papers and Fox News in the US, is spreading across the Atlantic. The shares in News Corp on the New York Stock Exchange came crashing down even before Murdoch's BSkyB bid was withdrawn, and the billionaire himself had to buy up the shares to keep the price from collapsing.

Now there are concerns that the bribery allegations in the UK could get the company into legal trouble in the US, because it is illegal for a company publicly traded in America to pay bribes to foreign officials – which includes police officers. That, combined with new allegations that Murdoch's British papers also hacked into the phones of American 9/11 victims has prompted some Democrats in congress to call for an investigation into the matter. But will the public at large share their outrage?

Two different situations

Murdoch is a powerful force in the world of US politics, but in a different way than he wielded power in the UK. While Murdoch controls 1/3 of the British media and held sway over both of the main political parties (neither party could win an election without his support), in the US Murdoch holds power over only one party – the Republicans. His share of media ownership is also quite small by comparison. He owns a handful of local newspapers like the New York Post, but his main method of influence is through the cable channel Fox News.

Given that it is the most watched news channel in the US by far (its ratings total more than all its competitors combined), that influence is substantial. But still, normal people don't sit around watching cable news all day, and as an overall share of the TV audience Fox News doesn't have a huge reach into people's homes. Their influence is instead felt by the way they shape the broader news agenda. A story is invented on Fox News, the station focuses on the issue incessantly, and then other news outlets cover it because Fox has made it into an issue. The examples are endless, from the "black panthers voter suppression" to the Obama birth certificate controversy.

Given its right-wing leanings and its antagonism toward Democrats, Fox News has more than their fair share of enemies in the US. So it wasn't surprising to see so many Democratic congressmen trying to bring the British scandal to US shores this week. But the fact that it is such an overtly political stations means that most of Fox's direct audience is hyper-partisan in a way that the readers of the News of the World or The Sun in the UK are not. Fox News viewers often get their news mainly from Fox, right-wing talk radio and internet sites. Those people aree not likely to learn about this scandal. Because as many obervers have pointed out, while the rest of the US media shas been covering the story this week, Fox News has completely avoided it. On one of their shows the hosts even joked about "the subject we're not talking about today".

So Fox News doesn't have to worry about losing viewers as a result of this scandal, because their viewers won't learn about it. And for the people who will be reading about it in the New York Times or the Huffington Post, their already negative opinion of News Corp will not change.

News methodology vs news invention

It's important to point out as well that the general objections to what Murdoch's news empire does in the US are entirely different from the objections that are now being raised in the UK. The jaw-dropping allegations of phone hacking, bribery and intimidation in the UK have all centred around the method of news gathering rather than the news reporting itself. There have not been any allegations, as part of this current debate at least, that Murdoch's UK papers lied or concocted stories.

In the US, the news gathering methods of Fox News have never come under serious question. The main objection to the station and its power is that the reporting itself is often fraudulent or misleading, and it is considered by many to be a mouthpiece of the Republican party (although these days many commentators think the Republican party has become a mouthpiece of Fox News).

The scandal in the UK confirmed something that many people already believed – that Murdoch's British tabloids employ vile and frequently illegal methods to get their stories, and that Murdoch uses his media to intimidate politicians into doing what he wants. But this was usually done in an apolitical way. In the US, the thing many people already believe is that Fox News has a deliberate agenda to plant invented and inaccurate stories as part of a far right political agenda. If the scandal happening in the UK involved something like that, it might have more salience with the American public. But it doesn't.

Yes, Americans will be outraged when they hear that News of the World hacked into the phones of 9/11 victims. But that was a British paper. Since there's never been any suspicion that Fox News engages in such activities in the US, it will be hard to transfer that guilt to them. And unless some seriously dubious news gathering methods at Fox News emerge from the UK investigation – something that seems unlikely – I don't see this getting much traction across the pond.

Of course the fact is that the British tabloid press does have major accuracy problems, particularly when it comes to its coverage of the EU. This is a subject I've written about in a seperate post today.


Anonymous said...

"Given that it [FOX] is the most watched news channel in the US by far (its ratings total more than all its competitors combined)...."

Could you please provide proof of this statement? Possibly you meant "cable" news? Are you stating that Fox is watched by more viewers than NBC CBS ABC CNN MSNBC etc combined? Please prove this statement.

Also you didn't mention Dow Jones . . . oversite possibly?

Dave Keating said...

Yes I'm refering to cable news channels, those would be Fox's competitors. NBC, CBS and ABC are not news channels. Latest ratings figures-

Dow Jones is an interesting case to watch for the future but since the purchase is still relatively new I don't think News Corp is yet wielding significant political influence in the US through its ownership of Dow and WSJ.