Saturday, September 23, 2023

His fingertips around the cosmos curled

 A.J. Liebling is top of mind these days, what with management offering and the union demanding just down the road, so the Murdoch papers' coverage of the great man's retirement naturally recalled "The Man who Changed the Rules," Liebling's 1951 summary of how William Randolph Hearst's death was covered. This quatrain, from the Mirror's house poet, stood out:

The Chief is gone, the man we all called Boss ...
Colossus of an age that changed the world.
The galleons of his genius knew their course,
His fingertips around the cosmos curled.

It's echoed, these 70-plus years on, by Trevor Kavanagh, political editor  at the Super Soaraway Sun (his phrasing, not mine): 

I’ve enjoyed knowing the man we call The Boss both at leisure and under pressure as chief of the world’s greatest media empire. ... I have seen him prove time and again that democracy and free speech only flourish under a free, vigorous and sometimes controversial press.

Two things at least distinguish Rupert Murdoch from Citizen Hearst: One, Murdoch is around to see the paeans, and two, he's actually rather successful at the business of selling news. (As Liebling noted in 1961, Hearst "not only failed to create good newspapers but failed to make money out of bad ones -- something that conspicuous medioctities have succeeded at.") But Murdoch's employees, like Hearst's, are united in praise of the Boss's unique genius and ability -- take it away, New York Post -- to "redefine the media landscape."

Two traits stand out in the coverage, exemplified here by the Wall Street Journal's editorial: that dogged stand-up-for-the-litle-guy attitude mentioned by the Super Soaraway Sun and the insistence that staffers made up their own minds.

That's actually a well-tested observation in media sociology, dating at least to Warren Breed's "Social control in the newsroom" (1955). Breed, having worked for a Hearst paper, noted that the Chief didn't need to emerge from the box of earth from his home planet to tell you how many adjectives to deploy, or when a story should begin with "Bands playing and flags flying." If you didn't already know that by the time you signed on, a friendly senior reporter would tip you off before you covered the parade. 

Here's Kavanagh quoting Murdoch's farewell note:

“Elites have open contempt for those who are not members of their rarified class. Most of the media is in cahoots with those elites, peddling political narratives rather than pursuing truth.”

Which explains why The Sun stands alone as “the people’s paper”.

That seems to be the heart of the Murdoch con: convincing the Little Guy that you're standing between him and the mysterious elite, even as you're reaching into his pocket for his own good. Here's Liebling again, riffing on the cartoon image of the overburdened taxpayer as "a small, shabby man in underclothes and a barrel":

The man in the barrel is always warned that a frivolous project like medical care for his aged parents is likely to double his already crushing tax burden. The implication is that the newspaper owner is above worrying about his parents, and of course he is, because his old man* left him the paper.

* Sir Keith Murdoch, if you're scoring along at home.

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