Dear Rupert Murdoch (and Mark Zuckerberg)

Category: 

Open Letter by Jeremiah Horrigan

Sympathy for the Devil—with a Face

 

"The Devil Extras" © Christine Mahler; Creative Commons license 

My Dear Mr. Murdoch:

Allow me to introduce myself. I’m a former employee of yours who once believed you were to newspapering what the Big Bad Wolf was to Red Riding Hood. I said that many times to anyone who’d listen, though never to your face, since you never showed it around the office. You wouldn't even answer my phone calls.

I made those fruitless calls almost ten years ago, when you were wooing the major stockholders of Dow Jones & Company, whose flagship property, the venerable Wall Street Journal, you lusted after. I was a reporter for one of the small dailies that comprised the Ottaway Newspaper chain that Dow Jones also owned.

I never really expected you to answer my queries about the sale, which was something none of us in the newsroom of the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, New York, wanted to happen. We were a feisty little daily with a liberal editorial reputation and a newsroom tradition that valued strong reporting and good writing. We couldn’t fathom how we’d possibly fit into your worldwide empire of trashy, soft-core journoporn, let alone your well-known propensity for essentially dictating through those diseased organs what news was fit to print.

To be fair, I have to say that not everyone in the newsroom likened you to the Big Bad Wolf. “The Prince of Darkness” was the more common epithet of choice.

We didn’t shy from covering the Wall Street Journal story. I was given the task of calling your flacks for comment whenever something was up. The closest I ever got to getting anything more than a "no comment" was a between-us-guys quote from one of those flacks, delivered in the thickest Australian dialect, telling me that “Say what you will about Rupert Murdoch, mite—but ‘e’s a real newspaperman.”

This was meant to reassure me, I suppose, and if it didn’t do so at the time, that comment has taken on a new, unexpected meaning for me since.

The only man who did return my phone calls during your charm offensive of the company’s shareholders was James Ottaway, Jr., the scion of the Ottaway family and the largest owner of Dow Jones stock. Like the reporter he once was, Ottaway was appalled by your crimes against journalism. He argued loudly, publicly, and sometimes rather rudely against you and your proposed purchase.

Ottaway’s argument was essentially the same as that of another former reporter named David Simon, who testified on the fate of newspapers before Congress two years later in 2009. Simon left his newspaper-of-origin, the Baltimore Sun, in 1995, well before the Internet did its damage, but not before what might be called “family values” began to fade from the industry. In his wide-ranging and insightful testimony, the creator of The Wire pointed out:

When locally based, family-owned newspapers like the Sun were consolidated into publicly owned newspaper chains, an essential dynamic, an essential trust between journalism and the communities served by that journalism, was betrayed.

Ottaway was saying this in 2007. Unfortunately, he was unable to convince Dow Jones’s other major shareholders to reject your blandishments. Five billion dollars turned out to be too sweet to resist. The sale went through, and your new employees in sleepy Middletown were left in a sweat of knuckle-biting apprehension about your arrival among what you once called “those silly little Ottaway papers.”

Ironically, very little changed at the newsroom when News Corp. took over. Oh, the ethical gymnastics you and your top minions performed during the phone-hacking scandal at the British News of the World were now especially delicious. We giggled at the expensive, glossy manuals your remaining minions issued emphasizing ethical behavior in the wake of that mess. But, for the most part, you left us alone. Instead of personal or corporate interference, we were the beneficiaries of benign neglect.

So, I was wrong—or at least short-sighted—in my assessment of the immediate outcome. Our newspapering world did not end with the paper’s passage into your hands. I look back on those days in your employ not with fondness, but with rueful dismay. As time has shown, and as I’ve learned the hard way, you weren’t the worst thing to happen to me, to the Times Herald-Record, or to the beleaguered profession that I left, most happily, last year.

Pardon me, Mr. Murdoch, for providing you—in traditional, explanatory news-feature style—with a bit more background about a story I’m sure you don’t remember, if you ever paid any attention to it in the first place.

Simon’s congressional testimony was intended to kill the canard that the Internet was killing the newspaper industry. The killing had been going on for years, at the hands of press lords like yourself. You guys had been cutting back on local coverage years before the Internet became a player, despite enjoying Scrooge McDuck-level profits and market shares rivaling OPEC’s.

Simon fingered a variety of villains, including news aggregators like the Huffington Post. He mentioned, almost in passing, a new phenomenon called Facebook. You don’t hear much about news aggregators anymore; they’re part of the social media landscape. But Facebook? Now that’s a hobbyhorse of a different color. Facebook has become the aggregator of everything known and unknown to humankind.

Rupert Murdoch (2007) © World Economic Forum; Creative Commons licenseAnd this is why I can finally feel a bit—just a bit—melancholy when I see your wrinkly face on my news feed. Facebook is the new you, Mr. Murdoch. And it has no face.

No, no, don’t tell me about your fellow billionaire Mark Zuckerberg. He’s not the face of Facebook the way you’re the face of News Corp. Zuckerberg is the quintessence of facelessness. He’s got no swash. No buckle. No weird accent screaming across continents, looking desperately for attention and corporate tax breaks. He’s never going to marry a Mick Jagger castoff, never going to hold an opinion spicier than a kale salad. He gives every appearance of being a nice guy. Which means he’s never been a newspaperman, mite. Which also means he’s not and can never be a press lord. Not even a press baron. He has no presses, for God’s sake. He’s amiable, personality-free, the kind of guy who’d take your phone call.

That’s what makes him so scary. He and a few other faceless friends of his are busy every day taking over the world, and you with your billions and I with my pension can’t do a thing to stop it.

I thought, for a moment there, that rubber-faced news despots were making a comeback this summer when your favorite, Roger Ailes, was accused of sexual extortion by a phalanx of female Fox News employees. Alas. You bought him out for $40 million, and he disappeared into the bowels of Castle Trump. It’s still possible we’ll see him in a perp walk. But until then, Ailes has lost his public standing as your most nauseating familiar.

Instead, remember the hoo-hah last spring when some conservative groups accused Facebook of editorial bias? I bet you do, especially now that you’ve taken the helm at Fox News as interim chief. Glenn Beck, Breitbart News, and others wailed that Facebook ignored conservative opinion in determining its read-by-billions Trending Topics section. Facebook at first denied the charge, then surprised everyone by revealing that stories were selected for the trending section not by a string of bloodless algorithms, but by a gaggle of (unnamed) journalists working from company-issued “guidelines” about what news sources to favor.

This, of course, didn’t calm the shattered nerves of the complaining conservatives, whose allegations of liberal bias predate Gutenberg. But for once, I found myself agreeing with the complainants.

By summer's end, the story took another strange turn. Zuckerberg sacked his faceless editors without warning, apparently confident that algorithms could do the work of a basement full of suddenly unemployed journalists. The results were hilarious. The new and improved Trending Topics section included a phony story about Fox’s own Megyn Kelly, a profane piece about goose-necked wingnut Ann Coulter, and links to a video of a man doing something…unprintable to a McChicken sandwich.

Speaking of unprintable: In early September, Facebook sank even lower into its own mire by removing a Pulitzer-Prize-winning AP photo from a Norwegian author’s feed. It’s the famous image of children running from a napalm attack during the Vietnam War, but because the girl in the middle is naked, it triggered an algorithm that flags pornography. In censoring what was arguably the most indelible image of that miserable war, the world took angry notice. The photo was soon back up on Facebook. But despite the company’s continuing claims that it’s not a media enterprise, editor Espen Egil Hansen of Norway’s Aftenposten shot back, “Mark Zuckerberg is the most powerful editor in chief in the world.”

Algorithms, as it turns out, are a lot like you and me; imperfect, driven by what’s popular rather than what matters, partial, or impartial in the wrong ways. Any computer scientist will tell you that because they're created by human beings, algorithms have their own biases, which—and this should come as no shock to anyone—include a taste for the salacious and untrue.

I know, I know. "Salacious and untrue" sounds like a winning combination to you, Mr. Murdoch. But that's not my point. I don’t know if the urge toward reportorial effort still survives in your presumptive heart, but I wonder if you feel, as I do, at the mercy of these mysterious constructs and the anonymous human drones who have set them loose in the billions of personal newsrooms Facebook has made possible.

News judgment, or the lack thereof, needs a face, and that face used to be yours. You were the source of so much that was wrong with contemporary journalism. But when you gave the world Fox News, for example, at least I knew who my enemy was. I could see you coming a mile away. I could refuse to watch your clown shows, refuse to vote for your clown candidates, turn my back on your clownish editorials.

Now, your grinning visage has been replaced not by one of your squabbling scions or by scheming henchmen, but by an anonymous cabal of Silicon Valley techno-twerps. Their mathematical creations call the shots without our even knowing them. Facebook and its online clones are everywhere and nowhere, and therefore unaccountable.

Hell, even Big Brother had a name and a face. I recognized him in you, Mr. Murdoch, and I never thought I’d see the day when I’d prefer your mug, mite, to whomever and whatever is now running the show.

Yours in utter dismay,

Jeremiah Horrigan

 


Publishing Information

Art Information

Jeremiah HorriganJeremiah Horrigan is a contributing writer at Talking Writing, a now-retired prizewinning newspaper reporter, and author of Fortunate Son: A Father, a Son, and the War on the Home Front. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Salon, and Narratively.

His essays on politics, journalism, and growing up in troubled times can be found at the Huffington Post.

As a follow-up to what happened to his old paper, Jeremiah adds:

We didn’t know how good we had it until Murdoch sold us down the river of no return to a vortex of vulture capitalists a couple of years ago. But the sad story of that ornithological debacle will have to wait for another time.

Comments

Jeremiah: Great piece ... as

Jeremiah: Great piece ... as usual. Three big cheers!

But then there's this nagging thought: while I admire the prose and agree (fist in the air) with the sentiments behind that prose, in a dark corner of my consciousness I wonder if your utter dismay--and mine--are in part a function of generational bias. That is, I think we agree that Murdoch and Zuckerberg are deplorable agents of the writing world, past and present, but I'm not convinced that Zuckerberg is any more an enemy of truth than Murdoch--or that journalism or literature is getting worse, generation by generation, in the process. Is it possible that each man is guilty of using the tools of the era to steal the public's attention--and money?

I'm reminded of H.L. Mencken's screed in his autobiography: "In my day a reporter who took an assignment was wholly on his own until he got back to the office, and even then he was little molested until his copy was turned in at the desk; today he tends to become only a homunculus at the end of a telephone wire, and the reduction of his observations to prose is commonly farmed out to literary castrati who never leave the office, and hence never feel the wind of the world in their faces or see anything with their own eyes." It sounds good--and right and true--but then I think of all the extraordinary writing I'm occasionally reading today in the NY Times or the Washington Post ... or more than occasionally in venerable outposts like Talking Writing and elsewhere. I'm also thinking of my father and cigar smoking uncles (Murray, Mac, Herman) who wasted no opportunity to tell me how great things used to be in their day (those glorious days of war, depression, racism, sexism, etc.)--and how shitty the world had become in my glorious Free Love and Free Speech 60s.

Bottom line: I don't know whether Zuckerberg is more of devil than Murdoch--or whether the world grows more disconnected and venal over time--but I do think that I'll have a much better answer to my own question on November 9.

In any case, thanks once more for making me dig deep.

Steve: Thanks for the kudos

Steve: Thanks for the kudos and the thoughtful response. You raise questions that I've wondered about myself, though in the happy pursuit of presenting a fair and balanced portrait of Beelzebub and company, I lost little sleep at night.

I'm certainly aware of the risk of romanticizing newspapering. It's a big reason I got into the business to begin with. I can't think of a single profession that is more romantically involved with itself than newspaper reporting. Some of the best movies dver made (movies being my second-favorite romantic enterprise) are about the (usually) heroic efforts of newspapermen (cq) getting to the bottom of some otherwise-unnoticed crime or other, be it a man wrongly convicted of murder (Call Northside 777), the near departure of Rosalind Russell in the arms of Ralph Bellamy ("His Girl Friday) or the rescue of the USA from the clutches of the Nixon Administration ("All the Presidents Men). Only private eyes and cowboys play a bigger role in the id of the American male.

My point? Newspapering is all about the past. Always has been. It's what Murdoch's Australian minion was getting at with his assurance tto me hat the boss was a member of my tribe, however insignificant I was.

Given all that baggage, is there any way I or anyone else who's grown up (and out o)f newspapers can avoid making like Murray, Mac & Herman? It's impossible. And great fun -- most of the time -- to luxuriate in when journos gather at the latest going-away party for another one of their colleagues. Such ranting may be cold comfort, but there's very little of the warm variety to be found anywhere on the horizon.

As for the question of disconnection, I'd say it's pretty easy to say yeah, I think the world's in a heap of trouble that way. Without launching into a rant of social media, let's just say that lines that once helped present fact from fiction from propaganda from libel become more and more blurred every day. That phenomenon serves only -- what will we call them? -- entities that want to sell you something, be it a beer, a budget or a presidential candidate.

That said, I also think there's never been a better time for writing or writers, be they mainstream, online or offline. I think that when and if the dust clears following Nov. 9, there will be plenty of men and women who found ways to do what romantic old-school journos have always said was their business -- to find the truth of things and report what they find "without fear or favor."

PS -- You didn't expect me to challenge the veracity of what Mencken said, other than to laugh and note that he, like David Simon, worked for the Baltimore Sun. He also made this Snopes-confirmed prediction, which I hope is still a few decades away: "As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron."

Rupert Murdoch, Fox News

Rupert Murdoch, Fox News [with contributor Julian Assange], the evidence of fake archives of his newspapers published & the damage done
Murdoch's news media has featured fake news from the very beginning. His first newspapers - Adelaide [city] South Australia [SA state a Murdoch newspaper publishing monopoly state for more than 50 years - caused great damage & have fake archives of newspapers published that conceal crimes & corruption some details of some of which can be viewed at https://rjrbtsrupertsfirstnewspaper.wordpress.com/2016/09/27/rupert-murd... that includes media releases of Australia's financial reporting law enforcement authority [ASC since renamed ASIC] the newspaper articles reporting of which have been erased from publicly accessible records sold as genuine archives by Australian public libraries & British Libraries UK London.
Ask Rupert [what does he know?] about the fake archives of his newspapers & the crimes they conceal. Murdoch betrays the people who gave him the start of his media empire. The US FBI should investigate US citizen Murdoch's corruption of foreign governments & law enforcement, but would first need to get over their fear of being discredited by a Fox News smear campaign.
"Newspapering is all about the past." -- “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

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