The more troubling question is not why media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s news outlets crossed the line into unethical and possibly illegal behavior, but rather why did millions of viewers and readers follow and lap up what they served?
As Mr. Murdoch’s news empire in the United Kingdom unravels, his holdings here in the U.S. are coming under increasing scrutiny, with some saying another shoe has yet to drop. As evidence mounts that his top aides oversaw the hacking of cellphone voicemail messages and the bribing of law enforcement officers to get information in the U.K., there have been rumblings about similar activities in the U.S.
Beyond the investigations, what Fox News, the most recognized of Mr. Murdoch’s U.S. holdings, reports is revealing. The top headline on the Fox News website at one point on Monday, July 18, was “Mystery Mansion: They appeared to be a charmed couple — but last week she was found hanged, and today his son is dead.” That was followed by “Your Tax $$$ to Study Penis Size of Gay Men?” and “Flying Car Cleared to Land in U.S.”
These three stories illustrate the Fox News formula: create human, soap-operatic drama in the news, incite outrage about government and throw in an oddball element.
No one could fault Mr. Murdoch for devising a clever business strategy.
And he may be more intent on making money than furthering an ideology. Mr. Murdoch found a niche, here and in the U.K., for those who didn’t want to read or watch news that focused on the incremental machinations of government or explored the nuance in complex issues. Instead, the Murdoch model serves up the missing toddler, the CEO’s affair with the prostitute and the government boondoggle.
It has been replicated often. And, of course, Mr. Murdoch didn’t invent it. His salacious, combative, biased approach was the standard for newspapers 75 years ago, and re-emerged in TV after the dominance of the three networks waned. One of his early forays in the U.S. was A Current Affair, an early tabloid TV show.
But it’s a formula that is prone to excess, to blurring the line between ethical and unethical and perhaps doomed by the ever-diminishing return on manufactured shock and outrage, which in turn spurs ratcheting up both.
If Mr. Murdoch is primarily driven by the profit motive, his politicized, often-skewed Fox News was a brilliant creation, winning viewers who bought the myth of a liberal media bias. But Fox News has caused collateral damage to the democratic process, arming angry conservatives with distortions and outright falsehoods.
Will news consumers demand more substance, less bias and less sex? Probably not. If that’s the case, then news organizations must point out the difference between those that pander to the lowest common denominator and those that do not.