Monday, July 18, 2011

Murdoch, Media, Cops and Politics

In an earlier post, I proposed the current Murdoch flap as a potential miniseries with an ending out of modern fantasy fiction. This time I want to look at it from a more serious point of view, to try to figure out why it happened and what the longer run implications are.

The simple answer is that it happened because Murdoch got unlucky—a number of stories broke involving illegal activities by people in his employ, some of which involved not only lawbreaking but lawbreaking of a particularly offensive sort. Once it was clear he was in trouble, the pressure on people inside and outside his organization to continue covering up other past offenses became less, leading to a potential cascade.

All of that may explain the timing, why it happened when it did. But I suspect there was a deeper cause, one that will be relevant to future political press magnates as well, may even imply that there will be no future press magnates on the scale of Rupert Murdoch. We may be watching the extinction of the last dinosaur.

I start with the question of why Murdoch had as much power as he did, power not only over political actors but, as the evidence strongly suggests, over law enforcement as well.

I do not think the answer is money, although of course he had a lot of money and used it. I am not sure exactly where Murdoch ranked in the list of "X richest men," but he was not in the latest Forbes top twenty. He had more influence than people who were considerably richer than he was. Why?

In the case of influence over politicians, the answer is obvious. Electoral support from a popular newspaper or TV station is worth votes. So is the willingness of major media to slant stories in your favor, to deflect attention from your errors and misdeeds and focus it on your successes while applying the opposite policy to your opponents. Murdoch had something valuable to offer politicians; it is hardly surprising if they were willing to do him favors in exchange.

The same applies to his relations with the police. There is evidence that journalists paid police for information. But even without such payments, media coverage of police actions matters, can matter a lot, to the police. How and whether their actions are covered by the media may determine whether a particular police official looks like Sherlock Holmes or Inspector Clouseau, competent professional or  bumbling amateur. If the police end up killing innocent people, as happens all too often, or failing to catch guilty people or prevent their crimes, how and whether the story gets covered matters.

From the standpoint of economics, all of this is a consequence of rational ignorance. If believing the truth about politicians and police was a matter of great importance to every voter, the voters could presumably find reliable sources of information with which to do it, as they often do find such information with regard to matters controlled by private choice, such as what car to buy or what grocery store has the best prices today. 

But for purposes of public choices, news is mostly entertainment not information—for the good reason that, considered as information, it is not very valuable. Each voter knows that his vote has a trivial effect on electoral outcomes, hence making sure he casts it for the right, or at least less bad, candidate is not worth much. Getting a good story is, often if not always, more important than getting a true story, and under those circumstances the authors of news stories have considerable ability to influence what their readers believe is true.

Which implies that someone with control of a lot of the media can be expected to have quite a lot influence over politicians and law enforcement. Rupert Murdoch did. What changed?

What changed, not in the short run but the long, was the technology of spreading information, specifically the growth of the Internet. I take the role of the Drudge Report in breaking the Monica Lewinsky story as a useful marker. In the old days, judging by what we now know about the sex lives of various past politicians, the major media would have discretely chosen not to cover the case, there woul have been rumors in minor media, and the scandal would never have gotten as far as it did. But as news is increasingly spread through decentralized mechanisms hard for any single actor or organization to control, the power of media organization declines. Even if they still have as many readers as before, there are now other places to read things, making it increasingly difficult for them to control the flow of information.

If I am correct in this analysis—I am not sure I am, but it seems plausible—the timing of the Rupert Murdoch flap was an accident. That it happened was not. The development of alternate sources of public information was gradually weakening Rupert Murdoch's ability to get politicians and law enforcement people to do favors for him in exchange for his doing favors for them, reducing both his political power and his ability to have his people get away with doing illegal and potentially unpopular things in the course of gathering the news. Eventually his power dipped below the level necessary to sustain his policies, and everything blew up.

That, at least, is my current theory.


power_and_ideas said...

I like your analysis. It seems like the increasing speed and availability of information will eventually do similar things to other people/corporations and even governments. Their inability to adapt to and control a rapidly changing world could be their downfall.

Tsunami said...

I think this analysis is quite correct, certainly as far as means-analyses go...and if McLuhan is correct, the means here is the message, much to the mournful morbidity of the mainstream media. (I'm sorry. The temptation to Hopkins was just too strong.) This leads me to wonder, though, what the inverse will yield.

On the one hand, we have the steady, slowly-drowning outcry of the publishing dinosaurs that goes "we are the last bodies whose reputation assures integrity of reporting!" This must surely taste strange in their mouth given the Murdoch scandal, among all the others. It resembles, in many respects, de Tocqueville's criticism of the "taille" and like aristocratic accreditation in The Old Regime And The Revolution; they wish to have tribute paid to them despite no longer performing the duties their institutions were founded upon, and this is causing a media revolution. They are well on the way out, much like the French aristocracy.

On the other hand, though, do we know what will replace them? Will we obtain, for the first time in history, a truly enlightened and yet lasting (media) democracy? Considering the individual character of a blog, this is one "possibility", although not really a feasible one, especially given that 4chan has as much of a voice as the most informed blogger. (Indeed, given the size of that delinquent community, they have as much of a voice as probably any one hundred bloggers.)

Or, perhaps, will the internet media system yield up a strong meritocracy, a friendly competition to deliver media fast-food, the hottest scandals the fastest, Drudge-style? He or she, it is supposed in that case, who goes the furthest to get the scoop will slowly but surely rise to the top. While more feasible, I think this is also utopian, especially given the fact that the Internet is not a completely independent situation. When the old-fashioned newspapers with the newsrooms that were the stuff of drama went after the stories, they (even then!) had their end sealed in precisely the corporate control that made Murdoch a media magnate. (Hopkins again. Sorry.) Their financiers became their financier; their standard-setters in competition became their cartel-owners in cahoots, and later their few magnates in mastery. Given the dual reliance of the average blogger upon freedom in ISP and advertising revenue, and the continued need for something like an editor, this will not change, I think, despite the fact that there are now as many presses as there are servers. It will become harder to control, perhaps, but not impossible. This also applies to the democracy situation above.

And let us not forget what happened to those same aristocracy in France: they were guillotined by an angry populace, along with so many other things, not all of which deserved a blade at their throat. While our presses today are not exactly models of integrity, this is the strength of having editors as such; and not every good or even audienced writer is a good editor. Stephenie Meyer got published and rich by writing prose which is desperately in need of an author. If the mainstream media falls, and it will, while journalistic integrity will not collapse altogether, standards will indeed lower, inexorably.

Perhaps a market will somehow develop, phoenix-like, for integrity, despite the fact that media will (in this picture) become a competition with the Grande Idée of the Grey Lady and, at the same time, the amorality of a TMZ. But markets are not so much concerned with integrity, I think, as the appearance of integrity, especially when integrity itself has an opponent that likes to hide its face.

Tsunami said...

I worry about this, myself, though without becoming a Luddite. After all, to abandon one's sword (the use of the Internet) when one realizes one's enemy is manifold and armed is pretty daft, unless one suspects the enemy of being chivalrous; and I have no interest in testing the chivalry of the duplicitous media machine. So I rather distrust all media and look to what matters, namely, how I conduct myself with respect to myself and other people.

Interesting fact, though, ere I go: it is precisely this distrust of the media which makes people pay MORE attention to their vote, out of a desire to act morally. After all, when one cannot trust the watchman to truly declare that there are no marauders in the streets, one tends to lock one's own door. Likewise, when one hears people say "the Republicans believe this, the Democrats believe that" on the media, and yet they seem historically identical, one tends to look to the candidate who disavows both. Hence, I think, the Tea Party, as conservative as it may seem.

Anonymous said...

An article that might be of interest:

$9,000,000,000 Write Off said...

People are rationally ignorant when scanning news about politicians, but not about cars and grocery prices? Please describe how a rational non-ignorant voter, car buyer and grocery shopper decide which politician will behave rightly, car will suit their needs, and store will deliver the best value.

Know that no politician has all the details of all the appropriation bills; no voter knows how a political candidate will vote on future, unknown bills; no car designer knows the tolerances in cylinder heads, the angle of valves, the safety and entertainment features, upholstery, the interplay of torque, tire and drive, etc; no executive of Ralphs & Vons know their prices that day on a shopping cart full of groceries.

If they can't know, the average person can't either. Instead we all select on proxy - a brand, a spiel, an endorsement, experience, etc.

No one has epistêmê on such matters, nor can they acquire it. For you to divide their choice into ignorant or not is for you to claim knowledge on all these things, but you don't have that ability.

Milhouse said...

People are rationally ignorant when scanning news about politicians, but not about cars and grocery prices?

Yes. It's not rational to be ignorant about things that actually matter to you, such as the prices of things you buy. It is rational to be ignorant about politics, because the chance that you can do anything about it is infinitesimal, and therefore the benefit you can hope to get from learning about it is a tiny fraction of the cost of that learning. The only reason to educate oneself about politics is as a hobby.

Andrew said...

It's rational to be ignorant about things like grocery prices and gas prices because the market forces the price to be very close everywhere. You simply aren't going to save much shopping once place or another, maybe a few percent.

On the other hand, you can make big differences in politics, not by voting, but by donations and advocacy. Or if you're wealthy, by creating media outlets that promote your views, or running for office. Unlike gas prices from station to station, the differences between politicians are often vast (no matter what L's will say), regardless of party affiliation.