If you haven’t read the recent NY Times article about Rupert Murdoch and Fox News, and you worry about the future of democracy, you should take time to read the story. Here’s a link:
This is a horrifying reminder of the concentration of power and influence in our society and of how limited our expectation of morality and ethics in public life has become. Participation in our political system is hugely expensive, and those who provide the needed funds are granted enormous access to, and achieve substantial influence with, those who make the rules.
The Murdochs, able to offer both money and media, have extraordinary influence around the world. In Australia, Fox newspapers and Sky News are major factors on the political scene and, according to the Times article, were an important reason Malcolm Turnbull lost his premiership to a right- wing successor. In the UK, Murdoch newspapers influence many government decisions and were powerful voices for Brexit. The family has a strong relationship with prime minister Theresa May and on various occasions has sought to acquire full control of Sky TV. In the US, I think it is logical to believe that Murdoch had more to do with Donald Trump becoming president than did Russian hackers, although there is no way to weigh the two.
Since Trump became President, Fox has abandoned any notion of fairness in favor of operating as a propaganda machine. And it’s a success, as measured by the fact that Fox watchers disagree with most other Americans on many important issues. Recently, Fox has moved to align the views of the New York Post – the President’s first read – with those of Fox News. Additionally, Murdoch’s son Lachlan, now chairman of Fox Corporation, has announced plans to launch a streaming service called Fox Nation, for those Fox viewers who are characterized as “super fans”. There seems little chance that a person who watches Fox, reads the Post and uses the internet to watch Fox Nation will ever have a view different from that of Lachlan Murdoch!
The complexities of our time are puzzling for all citizens and beyond the grasp of many. Newspapers – digital and printed – curate the information they provide and can explain issues in depth, but often have a clear point of view. Unhappily, more and more citizens seem unwilling to read either physical or digital newspapers and turn instead to social media sites and television for information. Social media sites make no effort to correct posts for accuracy and television cares little for depth and often shapes content to comport with the opinions of its owners, as is very much the case with Fox. The consequence of all this is that a badly informed public can be and is heavily influenced by both inaccurate information and partisan voices.
I think the degree of control Fox now exercises over what we call “news” is inconsistent with sustaining democracy. Unhappily, no legislative or regulatory solution seems imminent and it is likely that Fox and other advocacy sites will sustain and perhaps increase their collective influence unless we all do a far better job of filtering the “news” we see and hear.
If that happens, democracy may well be at risk, since those who have power and influence will likely do all they can to sustain and enhance their holdings. I am reminded of a quote from George Orwell’s “1984” in which Winston’s torturer has this to say about power: “We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship”.
Benjamin Franklin famously responded to a question as to whether he and his colleagues had created a Monarchy or a Republic by saying “A Republic, if we can keep it”.
Doing so is up to us.