“It always seemed strange to me that the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first, they love the produce of the second.”
-- John Steinbeck, “The Log from the Sea of Cortez”
People love to paint their judgments of others in primary colors. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch is currently decked out in ebony.
Murdoch, now seemingly brought low due to the criminal activities of his journalistic employees, is being grilled by Parliament even as I write this. All and sundry are gloating over his downfall.
The powerful press lord, creator of the Fox Broadcasting Company and recent purchaser of the Wall Street Journal, is a legendary monster in the business – perceived and portrayed as ruthless, right-wing, opportunistic, with an editorial mission to cheapen the minds of readers with sex, scandal and celebrity obsession, with a healthy dollop of abuse and persecution of political targets in the pages of his publications.
Yet, as much as he is despised, he is feared. And admired. Undeniably, he gets things done, he makes things happen. According to the customs of unrestrained capitalist practice, he is not particularly out of line. Is he a hero or a villain?
In 1985, British playwrights Howard Brenton and David Hare saw the staging of their “Pravda,” a brilliant satire of the media with a thinly disguised Murdoch clone at its center. (It was one of Anthony Hopkins’ last star stage turns before his rise to international prominence with his performance as Hannibal Lecter in the film “The Silence of the Lambs.”) Nearly 30 years before today’s events, they summarized the dilemma the journalism business – can you have success and influence and still fulfill the ideals of the profession?
In the play, the Australian Murdoch becomes the South African Lambert Le Roux, who mercilessly consolidates and dumbs down his media holdings, making countless enemies who nonetheless are unable to band together and bring him down.
“I provided the formula,” Le Roux states in Act Two. “ . . . Page One, a nice picture of the Prime Minister. Page two, something about actors. Page three, gossip . . . a rail crash if you’re lucky. Four, high technology. Five, sex, sex crimes, court cases. . . . Then six pages of sport. Back page, a lot of weather and something nasty about the Opposition. There you are.”
Is Le Roux a monster, or simply an astute businessman? “Good papers are no good,” he continues “There’s no point in them. All that writing. Why go to the trouble of producing good ones, when bad ones are so much easier? And they sell better too.”
In the end, Brenton and Hare do not indict Le Roux. They indict his victims. “Journalists are not noted for standing up for each other. It is not in their nature,” Le Roux comments. And indeed, a publication’s discomfort with some truths is laid at the feet of editor Andrew May in the first act. May, who later becomes Le Roux’s puppet, is seen dealing with a woman who comes to his provincial paper seeking a retraction of a damaging falsehood.
“We don’t publish corrections. Because we don’t like them. I’ll be honest. They don’t look good on the page. If every time we got something wrong, we published a correction, then a newspaper would just be a footnote to yesterday’s newspaper. . . . if we apologize and correct, how can the readers know what is true and what is not? To print corrections is a kind of betrayal. Of a trust. It’s a matter – finally – of journalistic ethics.”
May’s corkscrew logic explains much about the temptations of the business. Is a newspaper a repository of facts, or not? This problem can be found at the smallest local rag. Agendas are pushed, perspectives are omitted, mistakes are made and glossed over, false conclusions are promoted. Access is traded for influence. Above all, the popular prejudices of the readership are reinforced.
As Andrew’s first boss ruefully states at the beginning, “As a young man I forged new copy. I hammered at words. I wrenched them. Until it was kindly pointed out to me that what people wanted was something that was every day the same. The illusion of timelessness, that’s what we sell. . . . Anything else and you’d stimulate people. Never do that. It can only compound their unhappiness.”
The shallow and manipulative route is remarkably and speedily successful. It works. I’ve seen editors make room for more and more crap, promising themselves that the extra “eyeballs” they generate will give them the leverage to assign more serious, in-depth work. I haven’t yet seen that happen. Laziness and deference to the lowest common denominator drives out the kind of journalism we all claim to want, but so few seem to read.
“Delusions.” says Le Roux at the play’s end. “Does nobody see? What on earth is all this stuff about the truth? Truth? Why, when everywhere you go people tell lies. In pubs. To each other. To their husbands. To their wives. To the children. . . . Why single out newspapers? Why there? ‘Oh! A special standard!’ Everyone can tell lies except newspapers. They’re the universal scapegoat for everybody else’s evasions and inadequacies. It is a totally unworkable view of the world!”
A publication can be many things. It can be a revenue stream, a beacon of light, a delivery system of consumer to product, a bludgeon, a pleasant waste of time. Who really wants the truth?
In this time, it’s easier than ever before for a journalist to wrestle with his or her conscience. The destruction of the profession’s economic viability, and the freedom to publish independently, means that “good” journalism is now a hobby.
Go for something thoughtful, complex, of social value, or flog the latest fad, promote the newest advertiser, rewrite the shortest press release? Get in bed with the government, bribe the police, tap people’s phones? All these things are simply logical extensions of what are generally considered to be sharp business practices. And it made Murdoch a billionaire.
Brenton and Hare saw it and named it and nailed it, decades ago. Perhaps Murdoch inspires such disdain because his choices are ours, writ large.