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April 23, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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All Hail the Media Barons!

A brief history of the media tycoon.

The media’s a dirty business, but should it be? When did newspapers become all about celebrities and political slandering? And most importantly, who’s to blame? Media scholars have long been pondering the answers, but the clearest perpetrators are the media barons. Media barons are wealthy, savvy businesspeople who own and control the information that we, the masses, use to formulate opinions. Inadvertently or not, they exploit the media’s wide reach in their efforts to make friends and influence people.

Modern-day media barons have William Randolph Hearst to thank for establishing a precedent of salacious gossip and ‘yellow journalism’. Hearst was a controversial and complicated character–so notorious that Orson Welles used him as the inspiration behind his 1941 classic Citizen Kane. In case you haven’t seen it, it’s about the demise of a megalomaniac newspaper magnate who dies a wreck, alone in his mansion named Xanadu. But Hearst wasn’t always a diabolical tycoon. In 1887, he took over The San Francisco Examiner, a broadsheet his father had bought, and turned it in to a reputable and well- written newspaper that dominated circulation in its area. His next attempt at journalistic success was the flailing New York Morning Journal, which he resuscitated and pitted against the best-selling paper of the region, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.

This is where things got hairy. With his paper lagging behind and the US on the brink of war with the Spanish, Hearst saw an opportunity to differentiate himself from the competition. He took advantage of the public’s need for displays of American bravado by advocating for outright war, writing scathing (and unfounded) editorials, and concocting stories about villainous Spaniards that had no basis in truth. And it worked. Circulation went through the roof, the public pressure forced the government to make a stand, and Hearst’s ‘standing-up-for-the- working-man’ rhetoric masked his ulterior motives.

Unlike other newspapermen of the day, Hearst bucked the principles of objective reporting and balanced coverage, and his continued exaggeration of the issues (each tainted with his own opinions) didn’t win him many fans among the political elite. Despite this, he tried (and failed) to win political office three times. His reign over public opinion didn’t waver. Hearst was the first to realise the media’s potential as a mass manipulation tool–and he rightly suspected that people believe everything they read. But the svengali- like techniques that he wielded so successfully eventually led to his demise. By the 1930s, other papers were beating him at his own game. Their pictures were racier, their politics more sensational, and each headline was more outrageous than the next. Hearst has lost his competitive edge. But his real legacy is that he established a journalistic tradition built on two ideas: that media is a moneymaking enterprise and that the editor is always right.

Alfred Harmsworth was Hearst’s British counterpart. In 1896 he launched The Daily Mail, which is currently famous for being the second largest-selling newspaper in Britain and for repeated accusations of misogyny.

Harmsworth and his brother Harold are credited with revamping British newspaper publishing and heralding the era of trash journalism. They popularised the practices of outspending their competition for leads, offering prizes and promotions, and running publicity stunts–all of which proved to be winning formulas. Harmsworth also pioneered the strategy of targeting female readers with their own daily sections, laying the groundwork for women-oriented gossip rags. Since Harmsworth and Hearst established the order, there’s only been one modern-day tycoon that’s really made the realm his own— his name is Rupert Murdoch.

Robert Murdoch needs no introduction. What does merit explanation however, is the way that he’s managed to build an empire that is so clearly ideologically biased, yet is so effective at dominating the market. Murdoch’s empire began with an Australian media conglomerate inherited from his father. Craving more influence and success, he took his operation global, acquiring News of the World, The Sun, and The Times. In 1979 he founded News Corporation, which is now the world’s second largest media conglomerate and the holder of media heavyweights like Fox News, Twentieth Century Fox and The Wall Street Journal. Murdoch built his company to serve three purposes: the advancement of the free market, the realisation of his vision for Western public policy and bringing about the demise of a perceived liberal media bias—many of which he’s managed to achieve. This is all the more impressive considering the blaring subjectivity of Fox News and The Sun, whose extreme right-wing stances have been denounced by almost every reputable media scholar in the business. So how does the egocentric eighty- year-old do it?

It isn’t charm or charisma. It’s money and influence. In Britain, his relationships with political movers and shakers are unprecedented. From his long-time friendship with Margaret Thatcher–whose harsh policies he backed–to sharing staff with David Cameron, Murdoch’s fingers are in every political pie there is. In the US, his $65 billion net worth–and control over 40 per cent of the world’s media–is enough to secure him a seat at all the right tables. Influential newspaper The New York Post regurgitates his preferences for the Conservative Party, and his flagship channel Fox News has long been the subject of debate and ridicule. He’s had no fewer than four potential Republican presidential candidates on his payroll, has dodged allegations of misconduct when backing Rudy Giuliani, and has even given Sarah Palin a home studio (for free).

Murdoch’s influence raises important questions about whether news media should be for profit or the public interest. The public have the right to be informed, but blank objectivity doesn’t attract advertisers, and it can come down to a decision between editorial integrity and making sure the staff get paid a living wage. Integrity is something Murdoch lost during the News of the World scandal. The much-publicised affair revealed that its journalists had used unethical methods to gain illegal access to the private phone messages of as many as 7000 people. Almost as nefarious was the evidence that came out about Murdoch–who claimed he was innocent of any wrongdoing–using his clout to convince Labour Party MPs to back off. Luckily, both Labour and the British public had had enough, and like Hearst, the questionable tactics that were once so popular turned poisonous as the breadth of the affair became known.

The phone-hacking scandal may have been the final straw for Murdoch, but it also begs the question: just where should society draw the line on issues of terrible journalism? Can the media ever be trusted, or is it as Chomsky says, all about “manufacturing consent”? There are those that would say we’re overreacting. They argue that the changing media landscape of the twenty first century will override the abominable practices made acceptable by men like Harmsworth and Murdoch. Nevertheless, one only has to look at any Fox News coverage to know that’s not true. The media matters. It’s precisely because of its power as a political and social tool that it’s appealing to those who are least committed to the public good. With that in mind, we have to wonder, who’ll become the next media baron?

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