NewsBusters Interview: David Folkenflik on the Meaning of Rupert Murdoch

As much as people on the left in this country and others rage against Rupert Murdoch and his many creations it is rather remarkable how most American conservatives, even professional political junkies, know or care very little about the man.

Beyond missing out on understanding how Murdoch’s life is a textbook case of the power and influence of media on policy, people on the right who aren’t very familiar with Murdoch are also missing out on a number of interesting stories.

One person who has spent a lot of time analyzing the life and times of Murdoch is David Folkenflik of National Public Radio. He’s just completed a book entitled Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires which takes a look at the media mogul’s recent career and also gives a survey of some of the many stories in which Murdoch’s primary creation, News Corporation, has played a very important part.

I had a very extensive conversation with Folkenflik this week in which we talked in-depth about Murdoch, his importance, and also some of the misconceptions that people have about him. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows. We didn’t always agree on everything which is something that made this a rather interesting discussion.

You can also listen to the audio below as well.

 

MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: So thanks for joining me, David. Why don’t we start off today with talking about what you mean by the “last of the old media empires?”

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Sure, well thanks for having me, Matthew. I subtitled it that because Murdoch is a guy who has a lot of different investments in a lot of different kinds of media operations. You can think of Fox News, BSkyB in the UK, he’s got state-of-the-art satellite sports channels offering soccer matches in Latin America, and Australian rules football in Australia and the like. But he really lives and breathes newspapers, he still loves newspapers and he loves them in the printed form. He’s sort of one of these great old media barons in that sense—he’s really a newspaper guy. And he’s just split his companies in two, severing his newspapers from the television and entertainment side in a way that leaves them much more financially vulnerable. They’re now subject to the same pressures as the rest of the newspaper industry across the world and particularly across the English-speaking world and as a result, they’re vulnerable.

I don’t think we’re going to see a singular person and personality so forceful and influential in so many publications and so many old-school types of news organizations. Again, I think we’re going to see a rise, as we already have, of certain kinds of newer digital entrepreneurs such as Nick Denton [founder of Gawker Media] and Jonah Peretti [founder of BuzzFeed], Pierre Omidyar, the guy who is the co-founder of eBay who has gone on to say that he’s going to invest some magnitude of several hundred millions of dollars in this new online digital investigative news startup. People like Jeff Bezos who just spent a quarter of a billion dollars in personal funds—he’s the founder, as you know of Amazon and he just bought the Washington Post and he’s going to be really rethinking the model for that once great and once-financially strong newspaper.

Or a guy like Chris Hughes, a young liberal guy who made a ton of money off Facebook, he went and bought the New Republic which not anyone’s idea for a big money-maker but which has struggled in recent years. To me, what’s interesting about him is not that he has a lot of money and therefore can sustain losses—but if he did that he wouldn’t be very different from earlier owners. But what might be interesting is if he says that there’s a path to figuring out a way to make such a publications of opinion financially viable. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with his ideology but how it can connect to its audience and convince them that this is something they should find ways to financially support or that advertisers would find ways to support. So I think that there—those are just a small smattering of examples—but I think that you’re going to find new figures who are going to pop up who are very different from the newspaper barons of old, of which I think you can look at Murdoch as the last of the great ones in that regard.

SHEFFIELD: And so you would not include Arthur Sulzberger Jr., president of the New York Times Company, in that?

FOLKENFLIK: I think that Arthur Sulzberger Jr. is an incredibly important news leader, probably of the most influential newspaper in the country and one of, if not the most, in the world. But Rupert Murdoch owns, and I could be getting the numbers wrong because I know he just sold off some of his smaller community newspapers. But let’s call it over 150, 160 newspapers. That’s a lot of newspapers! The Sulzbergers, the family and the Times Company under his leadership has divested itself of other newspapers in places like Florida and North Carolina and other investments in television stations and About.com and they’re in the process, most importantly, they sold off the Boston Globe and the paper in Worchester [Massachusetts] I think it’s called the Telegram-Gazette if I’m not mistaken. It’s just a different kind of company. It is a very important and influential newspaper but Murdoch has had a different influence across the decades and across the world than Sulzberger has had over the practice of journalism and over the business of journalism and the media in a much larger way. Sulzberger himself has inherited what he got and led it and fought to innovate and change it and had some real success in the last couple of years, particularly with their digital pay-wall becoming and increasing part of their financial makeup and has received both criticism and praise for some of what he’s done elsewhere. But he’s not as defining of a figure for his company or the industry as Murdoch has been.

SHEFFIELD: OK. And I guess on that point, perhaps related to your invocation of Chris Hughes—and this is a two-part question. On the one hand, on the left, there is an enormous amount of interest in Rupert Murdoch and his activities, you see them very widely and frequently reported. Whereas on the right there is almost no interest in Rupert Murdoch whatsoever. He has not inspired even a single imitator or book which is I think an interesting thing. So why don’t you talk about why liberals are so interested in him and why are conservatives not?

FOLKENFLIK: Well I think that’s an interesting point. I think, I’m not sure I wholeheartedly agree but this is a book that takes a look at him as a figure in the U.S. but also beyond our borders and it may be that my thinking about him is colored as a result. In this country, if you talk to liberals, they sort of froth at the mouth over Roger Ailes, right?

SHEFFIELD: Who is his [Murdoch’s] employee.

FOLKENFLIK: The chairman of Fox News and was, really the visionary of how that could play out, refining it and tweaking it along the way, but always very clear-sighted about what he wanted it to be like.

SHEFFIELD: And yet it was Murdoch’s idea though, it was not Ailes’s.

FOLKENFLIK: But it was Murdoch’s creation. And he had the faith and the understanding with Ailes to make it so. You know, Ailes had played around with earlier thoughts and iterations with this and had been tempted to do this. I’ve seen conversations that he’s had that preceded the creation of Fox News and the conversation with Rupert in which he sketched out a proto or early type of this. In the 70s, again just sort of speaking hypothetically as he was such a successful television executive. In the early 90s he was thinking about some related issues.

But Murdoch, the fascinating thing for me in doing this book, and this may well have been known at the time, but I’ve been covering the media since 2000 and it was new to me was that this was really something that this [what later became Fox News] was something that Murdoch initially wanted to create as a program. He wanted to create a very conservative, well let’s not say very, a clearly conservative counterpart to what he argued was the liberalism of CBS in 60 Minutes. He had just spent a ton of money to steal NFC [football] games from CBS and Rupert said I’m going to overspend for football but it will give us a day in which we have great programming and will reinforce in the public’s mind that we are actually going to become a real network. And it was absolutely right.

But he also looked at, correctly I think, 60 Minutes which was then and once again is today almost always a top-ten show. And he said if I could just do something that felt conservative, I could get that kind of audience, too, in following on Sunday nights the games I’ve just taken from CBS. So he started to do that. He brought in a guy named Andrew Neal who had been for, I think, a dozen years the top editor at the Sunday Times in London which was one of Murdoch’s most prestigious publications there in the years. And Neal is sort of a mirthful Scot, a sense of mischief about him, likes a good caper, oversaw some good investigative stuff at the Times but also some fairly controversial stuff but he brought him in and he was actually going to have as a co-host Judith Regan who was—became famous later as this very savvy publisher of confrontational books and then went up in flames when she was going to publish a book by O.J. Simpson called If I Had Done it or something like that.

SHEFFIELD: If I Did It was the name of it.

FOLKENFLIK: If I Did It, right, which pretty much outraged everybody across the spectrum. And she had her own fights with Roger Ailes but what happened was that, as Neal told the story to me, was that as the show became, to his mind, increasingly ideological, he became uncomfortable with it. Which is not to say that Neal isn’t conservative but he just wasn’t sure that he wanted to do it in quite that way. And Murdoch brought in a consultant to sort of help him think through how the show would look, and the consultant was Ailes. And Ailes started to advocate strongly for the idea that let’s devote a cable network instead. And the brilliance of cable is that they really do reach a lot of people but at any one time, it’s a relatively small number of people that you have to attract to be a big success. I mean if you get 3 million, slightly over 3 million people to be watching your best-viewed show on a regular basis, and that’s The O’Reilly Factor on Fox, that’s one percent of the nation as it now stands. So it’s a real audience so it’s not one of these old-school broadcast audiences.

He [Ailes] said we have to frame our news in a different way and there’s going to be an audience which feels alienated and left out by the way in which the major news organizations currently serving the wider public do things. And Ailes and Murdoch were right. Murdoch instinctively felt that to be the case. I mean this is exactly the sensibility of his tabloids in many ways. It’s a populist tone most of the time, it tends to be center-right. His tabloids in the UK, with the New York Post and for a while in Chicago and Boston in a sense and San Antonio as well when Murdoch owned those papers as well, particularly Australia.

It’s center-right, I think Fox has on its opinion shows more of a center-right sensibility in the stories it picks but nonetheless it identifies heroes, villains, and goads people who should be mocked and people who should be elevated. It knows what it believes and what it stands in and explicitly and implicitly in how stories are selected and how they’re pursued—but often in how they’re [FNC viewers] explicitly told, conveyed to you that the other guys are leaving things out and are trying to mislead you. The other guys being the rest of the media and other so-called elites in politics or academia or various supposed authorities.

Ailes and Murdoch approach things a little differently. I think Ailes is more personally conservative than Rupert Murdoch is himself but they really have a nice mind-meld in terms of how they view things and it was for the two of them, a glorious and profitable partnership.


SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, OK but let me go back to the question.

FOLKENFLIK: Let me, I’m sorry. You’re asking why liberals, you asked a double-barreled question, right?

SHEFFIELD: I did, right.

FOLKENFLIK: So I want to make sure that I address that. The part that I haven’t addressed yet, forgive me is why liberals and conservatives on the one hand. What I would guess I would say is liberals, it seems to me, and conservatives in this country in the last, call it 16-17 years focus on Roger Ailes, that he has become the face of Murdoch Incorporated in this country to a greater degree whereas in other countries, you see Murdoch more as the figure who is either lionized or vilified by people who like or dislike what he has to offer. In this country, it’s going to be more Roger Ailes and some of his personalities I’d guess.

But Murdoch is definitely there. There are people who really just enjoy people sticking it to the rest of the media and they kind of cheer Murdoch on, and there are others who kind of argue and are concerned about the consolidation of media and that tends to be more of a concern on the left among liberals. You can see that concern more on the radical—the far, far right where conspiracy theories lurk but liberals tend to be more concerned about consolidation of ownership and power and issues like that.

SHEFFIELD: And it’s also that they don’t like Ailes’s political philosophy. I mean I think that’s obvious.

FOLKENFLIK: Oh no doubt. No doubt they don’t like Ailes’s political philosophy and to the extent that they’re clear on Murdoch’s political philosophy, liberals don’t like that either. It surprises me that Murdoch is not more closely followed by conservatives in this country. He is enormously important to the cultivation of conservative thought and, I think of the success, in some ways, of conservative figures and movements in this country. I think you have people like Rush Limbaugh who achieved his accomplishments outside of the Murdoch purview—and Ailes was involved for a time in trying to get up and running the Limbaugh television show. But he’s been a sort of uneasy ally of Fox News in some ways, he and Bill O’Reilly have had some tensions over the years. And—

SHEFFIELD: So why is it, do you think, that American conservatives don’t—I mean I find this a really interesting question to me because for decades, ever since Spiro Agnew, people on the right in America have complained about liberal media bias and here you have somebody like Roger Ailes through Rupert Murdoch who goes off and establishes an alternative to the overwhelmingly dominated liberal—in polls, there’s not been one survey that shows journalists are not liberal overwhelmingly at the national level. So you have someone who came in and shakes up the power structure like that you can actually get an audience that way and yet no one has, no one on the right has said, ‘Wow, hey that was interesting, what if we did something like that.’ Why do you suppose that is?

FOLKENFLIK: Well listen, let me put it a little differently than you might. I would say that certainly that without parsing every single one of those polls, you can certainly say that many conservatives feel that their concerns have not been successfully portrayed or captured by the day-in-day-out coverage offered by what’s been come to be called the mainstream press, the legacy news outlets: the major metro newspapers, the big networks, all the things that you guys monitor so closely. And Murdoch in a variety, a bunch of cities in the U.S., he created a cable television network that was simply predicated on the notion that they would present the news in a way that was much more appealing to conservative viewers and that they would have fun doing it.

Murdoch also took over the Wall Street Journal and was convinced that its reporting, even though it was often, prior to Murdoch’s arrival, pointed to as one of—probably the most down-the-middle newspaper you could find. That even its news pages were skewed to the left and pulled that paper rightward. And his editors would argue pulled it rightward to dead center to the fairest place it could possibly be. Some of the reporters and editors I talked to said it feels to us as though there’s been a thumb put on the scale and taken to the right. But whichever it is, you would think that conservative readers would say we’re getting a fairer shake in this.

To me, it’s almost incomprehensible that people haven’t registered that there’s a single figure that has done more than any to kind of pull the discussion rightward and that it has affected the conversation beyond its own walls and newsrooms, right? I mean Fox News has forced a change in the conversation of what cable news means.

Before 1996 and Fox News, cable news meant covering the news and the news was the star and “live” was the new asset and that because you were doing news all the time you could always break in and people would tune in to CNN and it knew what to do. It upended the broadcast news convention by being able to do these things. Well, son of a gun, if Fox News didn’t change that entirely. I mean MSNBC didn’t even make a dollar until it decided to bank left and not everything on its airwaves is left but it made a conscious decision that there was a formula and that’s what it looked like. Roger Ailes and Murdoch redefined what cable news was about and that’s important. They took, Murdoch and his editors took The Wall Street Journal, one of the most important news organizations in the country, and changed its formula significantly. It didn’t break its pact with readers in a way that some people feared but it also didn’t leave it alone. And it didn’t leave ideology alone, either. Its editorial pages were already more conservative than Murdoch is, right? But it took its news report and pulled it a little bit rightward with certain kinds of choices and that has affected, in a more subtle way, one of the most important newspapers in the country.

And the fact that people don’t register that is a mistake if they’re thinking about these issues.

SHEFFIELD: Well you mention the Journal but in your own book you quote people work there or worked there and they said ‘well a lot of us are on the left and maybe what is was doing wasn’t entirely wrong.’ I mean it seems like you’re forgetting that.

FOLKENFLIK: I’m not forgetting it at all, I wrote it.

SHEFFIELD: Well, you didn’t mention it. No, I’m saying you did not mention that, what I’m saying—

FOLKENFLIK: Well no, I’m just saying what I said was that the people I talked to were essentially trying to explore their own experiences and figure out how to make sense of it and their feeling, the people I talked to were very painstaking, conscientious professionals and they’re open to the possibility that there are times—I mean editors are supposed to ask tough questions, that’s a good thing, that’s not a bad thing, that’s a good thing. If Gerry Baker [current managing editor at the Journal] or before him Robert Thomson asked difficult questions about stories, that’s fine and sometimes what they’re doing is making sure that people aren’t reflexively accepting this from any source, let’s say it’s a liberal source, without challenging it or triple-checking it. These are important questions and conversations to have and those questions become part of the checking process.

Their concern was not that questions had been raised but that all the questions point in a certain direction. So as they are trying to make sense of it, it may be—as I do believe that I said earlier in our conversation—it may be that it actually did pull, did essentially pull the paper to true north, right? Pulled them to a page balance of zero, pulled them to dead center, whatever metaphor you want to use. Or it may be that it pulled them to the right of that. And the editors and the reporters in it said it’s hard for us to be able to pinpoint exactly where that ended up, we do know that we felt it, that you can actually feel it occurring and you can feel it occurring in ways where, at times you say to yourself ‘hey is that a good question?’ or times that you say to yourself, ‘hey, gosh I feel like where we’re ending up is different than what I expected, and I’m always ending up right of where I started.’

Now I do think it’s fair to question does that mean, does that reflect a liberal inclination of the reporter doing the job? But simply because that’s possible doesn’t mean that that it is automatically reflects negative on what they did before. And as I say, when I talk to reporters for the couple of decades that I’ve been in the business, the Journal has always been pointed to, even prior to Murdoch as the cleanest, down-the-middle, most scrupulous news pages in the country.

SHEFFIELD: And I don’t see people saying that to the contrary.

FOLKENFLIK: It’s something to be measured with delicate instruments. It’s a complicated thing to assess perfectly.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, and I think overall, though, that it’s been a much lighter touch on the Journal, with perhaps the exception dealing with the phone hacking that you talk about [in your book where the paper’s top editors are alleged to have tried to stop Journal writers from reporting an exclusive they had developed].

FOLKENFLIK: Sure. I think that’s exactly right. Don’t forget Murdoch has a good sense of, he plays a very high-low game. And I don’t mean that cynically. I mean he has tabloids and he has prestige papers and he does this in all three of these countries, right? In Australia in 1964 he creates the Australian so they have their first national, general-interest newspaper. In the U.K., he bought the News of the World and then the Sun and made them these great financial engines which allowed him to buy the Times of London and the Sunday Times. The Times of London is not a profitable newspaper and it was not when he bought it in 1981. And it’s really not been a profitable newspaper. But he plays a very direct hand in that he’ll have a very direct hand in what’s happening in the tabloids and he has a much lighter touch in the prestige papers.

I can tell you from having interviewed a bunch of people who have edited both kinds of papers that [they think that] regardless of which kind of paper you’re doing, you have his voice in your head, pretty much every morning and pretty much every afternoon as you’re sort of deciding what stories to put on the front page and the like. But he was much less likely to question certain decisions. Most of the time he didn’t dictate things but he would ask questions, often after the fact in ways that informed the decisions that would be subsequently made. But he picked people who understood what he would want to read. It’s just that on the tabloids, he’d also pick up the phone and say ‘what have you got?’ And so therefore he’d be much more likely to influence there. He understood that his readers had different expectations, that readers of tabloids expected a certain kind of thing and that readers of the prestigious papers expected that the news that they would get would be somewhat straighter. Although in the Australian, the one prestige paper that he created out of whole cloth, the Australian is a much openly conservative paper than his other prestige broadsheets.

SHEFFIELD. Yeah. But you certainly would not deny that every poll that has been done of journalists of any size over the recent decades has said that said that national journalists are overwhelmingly more liberal than conservative. I mean that’s a fact, it’s not an opinion.

FOLKENFLIK: You know, I’ve seen some surveys that I thought were more convincing along those lines than others. What I would say is that it seems to me is that journalists tend to be more socially liberal on certain kinds of issues, for example, I think they tend to be sympathetic to claims on the environment or gay rights, which they tend to view through the prism of the civil rights movement for African-Americans in this country. And I’ve done stories on this—as opposed to fully capturing what cultural conservatives might see as more of something that they see as the fabric of marriage and what they see as an important civic institution in that way.

On the other hand, when you see polls on certain kinds of economic questions about taxation or deficit reduction or other things that there are ways in which Washington press corps or political reporters when you see, or at least when I’ve seen stories done that strongly suggest that they come out more of a—there’s more fiscal conservatism, there’s more of a sense of that actually the public may be more interested in certain kinds of spending—what I’m not, whether or not it’s sustainable than that press corps would be. So I’m just saying it’s a, there are big labels to slap on the press corps—

SHEFFIELD: Well just look at—

FOLKENFLIK: There are ways in which I’m not arguing with you and there are ways in which I think there are distinctions that can be drawn. I think, you know, Howie Kurtz [veteran media reporter now employed by Fox News Channel] has talked about this, too. It’s a, I don’t know, I’m trying to characterize it the best I can for you there.


SHEFFIELD: Well it’s not just on the social issues. I mean even Mark Halperin [of Time magazine] recently said a few weeks ago that the media were not sufficiently skeptical in their reporting on Obamacare, especially about the claim that people were going to be able to keep their insurance. I mean the fact of the matter is that if there had been more skeptical reporting when they were formulating this law—Obama basically got caught by the fact that people were not being more skeptical in the beginning so now he got caught flat-footed on it. So it’s not just that.

But let’s move on. A large portion of your book is focused on a scandal in the U.K. that most Americans have probably have never even heard of and probably don’t really even care about. Why did you focus so much on that?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, look, this is about—I work in Bryant Park here, right? So that’s in Midtown New York, News Corp. is headquartered about five blocks from where I work here in the heart of Midtown Manhattan. It’s an American company led by an American chairman and CEO in Rupert Murdoch although technically he’s not the CEO of the smaller News Corp. now. But he’s certainly running it. Murdoch is an American citizen and these are titles that are very important to him, they’re very important to his personality. There’s no newspaper that is more important to Murdoch than the London Sun and the News of the World [the now defunct paper that was at the center of the phone hacking scandal] is what really started him out of Australia. It was his first possession out of it. Those newspapers were the financial springboard which launched him into the U.S. and helped him—he bought the New York Post, he bought New York magazine, he picked up the Village Voice, he used that. He bought the Boston Herald, the Chicago Sun-Times. His first possession here in 1973, I believe, was the San Antonio Light, if I am not mistaken. And he ended up using the money he made to springboard him into television and he ended up using that to create Fox [News] and he ended up using that money to get the Wall Street Journal. I mean this guy controls one of the most popular television networks in the country, he controls the top cable news channel in the country, he controls a cable business channel, a top-ten newspaper in the New York Post, and the top circulation paper in the country by most measures with the Wall Street Journal.

What was revealed in London was what happened where, in a market where you have somebody with as buccaneering a spirit as Murdoch does, but there aren’t the counter-weights to him to the same degree. I mean he had, at the time, 40 percent of the national newspaper circulation in what is essentially a national newspaper market, very different from the U.S. Forty percent. And he also controlled the nation’s most profitable satellite television provider in the country [BSkyB] which was sort of like a Comcast-like creation that had its own Sky channels as well as a means of distributing stuff. So you had somebody who prime ministers paid exceptional deference to and aspiring prime ministers paid exception to. This was not, this is not a partisan scandal. It wasn’t just one party tied to him. Both major parties had deep roots and ties to him over the decades. And part of his political genius in Britain and Australia is that he took his papers and would toggle support back and forth in a way that is very different than how it feels on Fox. Different candidates may be treated with different degrees of sympathy or receptivity by Fox but it’s pretty clear that they tend to be from the Republican Party in terms of the major shows and the major figures.

So what you saw in the U.K. was a CEO [Rebekah Brooks] who Murdoch had described to people as being like a daughter to him, a woman who was one of his most-prized lieutenants, she was the CEO and a former newspaper editor and on her watch, not only as CEO but as editor, there were a string of incidents that appeared to suggest significant criminal activity at his tabloids. These tabloids that were so definitional to Murdoch about who he is and what his record was and were so important to him in terms of building his empire that I wanted to understand and explore more about this guy who’s been so important to the American media scene.

But this seemed to me to be a new window through which to look at it. And it showed you a very competitive market and it showed you how he operated but how also people operated in his name—which doesn’t mean that necessarily he ordered things up but how they interpreted what he wanted. It shows you the intersections of politics and media and influence and law enforcement and how elites really work behind the scenes. And through a lot of interviews and a lot of looking at documents and other records, you can piece together how decisions really get made, how partnerships get forged, how deals are struck, and how power is wielded sometimes in the media to a much greater degree than you typically think of it being done here in the U.S.

And part of that is simply the economic model. I mean most people don’t subscribe to the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal and they have, at least until very recently, tended to read their regional newspapers. And those newspapers have tended to play things more down-the-middle than you would see in British or Australian newspapers because there’s only one of them in each city, right? And so they don’t want to offend their readers or their advertisers as much. And that’s an economic evolution as much as anything else that’s driven professional norms. And in Britain, you’ve seen a much more unvarnished Murdoch presence that nonetheless reveals a lot about, fundamentally, about who he is. Which is not to say he commissioned any of those specific acts proven and alleged but that his character very much influenced the way in which those newspapers evolved.

SHEFFIELD: Yes but there is a real dichotomy between the coverage, and I’m not just saying in your book here since it’s about Murdoch, but Mark Thompson, the current head of the New York Times, he was in charge of the BBC during the time it was revealed that they found out about an ongoing, decades-long sexual molestation of children that the British celebrity Jimmy Savile did. I mean that was far worse than anything News of the World ever did and yet Mark Thompson—I mean the BBC knew about that he was doing this and didn’t tell the public, didn’t tell the police and so as a result, it’s almost certain that children were molested because that knowledge was kept from the public.

And yet Mark Thompson, even in your own coverage, you only covered him and his involvement twice. And yet—it seems to me—

FOLKENFLIK: Well some of my colleagues also covered it from London additionally.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, but you see what I’m saying here, right? Mark Thompson is in charge of the most influential paper, as you put it earlier, in the world perhaps and certainly within the United States and yet he was involved perhaps, and no one knows for sure to what extent he was involved compared to with Murdoch. I mean couldn’t you say that Mark Thompson set the culture that led to the suppression of that information about Jimmy Savile? I mean why aren’t we hearing about that?

FOLKENFLIK: I think that the Savile story is a black stain on the record of the BBC in two ways. I think it’s a stain first and foremost because of the terrible things that occurred by one of its weirdest and most famous personalities, and it seems as though others, both inside and outside the BBC, in some ways participated. Most of the stuff is a long, long time ago but the second blot is that, as you suggest, that that story was—that they killed that story at the time that they were preparing this kind of hagiographic and zany tribute to this guy, to Savile. In late, I want to say it’s late 2012, but it’s been a long time since I looked up the precise dating on that. He died in November 2012 if I’m not mistaken, right?

SHEFFIELD: Yeah.

FOLKENFLIK: And they were preparing the thing a couple of weeks later in December. And he [Thompson] claims that he was told about it but only in passing, it’s a little hard to pin down because there isn’t the evidence [i.e. documents]. But Mark Thompson was an important leader at the BBC and he created a culture in terms of their digital stuff and if it can be shown that he was involved in killing or even acquiescing to not allowing its documentary division to put that program, that investigative program, on the air, then that’s absolutely rightfully held against Mark Thompson. And it’s right that the question be raised even in the absence of proof about what he did. And we certainly as a network have had that question ventilated on the air. I’ve talked about it on the BBC and other outlets as well.

But you can’t say that Mark Thompson created the BBC. Murdoch didn’t create News of the World but he utterly changed what it was. He completely changed what the Sun newspaper was. And it’s not a comparison because the BBC would be something approximating the BBC whether or not Mark Thompson had ever been born. And I just don’t think you can say that about Rupert Murdoch.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah but—

FOLKENFLIK: Murdoch took it from a paper in Adelaide [Australia] and made it something with a market cap in many tens of billions. That’s a very different proposition. So I don’t want in any way anyone to misconstrue my comments into suggesting that what happened with Mark Thompson wasn’t important. The BBC is not an American institution although it has a real presence here. The New York Times Company obviously is an important one. It’s a very important newspaper and news organization. And it was important to direct coverage of that but there’s been ongoing investigations and there’s been some coverage of the results of those investigations and those crimes are horrific as alleged and in some cases acknowledged but I think they’re just different stories.

If you want to go do a history of the BBC, I would think this would be an incredibly complex and brutal chapter and I would think it would be an appropriate one to do. And that’s not the story I set out to tell.

SHEFFIELD: Well again, your book is not about that. But I’m just saying the media coverage in general of those two scandals within the American press has certainly been disparate.

FOLKENFLIK: Well look, if you think of one that happened lately. I’ve done a couple of stories on CBS and the Benghazi thing which is something that liberals have been howling about and conservatives found more grist to criticize the Obama Administration with. I was a reporter with the Baltimore Sun and then first started, I believe my first story on the air was about Dan Rather and the botched 60 Minutes report about George Bush’s military service record. And I did a ton of stories on both news organizations about that. Because I thought that it merited it. You do the best that you can to calibrate the coverage. The Rather story, I thought was a bigger one. And covered it accordingly. I think you can always look back and say ‘Should I have done a story more or a story less’ and that’s fine but I think absolutely the BBC thing is a story and I think it makes sense that people who are watchdogging [sic] the New York Times would pay particular attention to that. If I were doing a book about the Times now I’m sure I would be looking at that as well. But this is the book I set out to write. There is only so much you can do at once.

SHEFFIELD: And again, I wasn’t speaking specifically on the book here.

FOLKENFLIK: Sure, sure.

SHEFFIELD: But going back to the book, you talk about an incident that a lot of people in the states missed and that was a proclamation of Rupert Murdoch in 2007 that he had watched Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth and that he now believed that Al Gore was right about everything and after that, two years later, well, he proclaimed that they were going to make News Corp carbon-neutral and two years later, they made an investment in a so-called “carbon farm.” And then he also simultaneously after that proclamation made, at least according to your reporting, made the different News Corp divisions sort of proclaim fealty to carbon neutrality and all that—anthropogenic global warming.

FOLKENFLIK: And a lot of that was taken literally from the corporate website and other things like that. I mean it didn’t take, there was no “according,” it’s just what he did. It was part of the effort to make News Corp green, they sent out press releases at the time about it. It was a concerted corporate effort that involved its various units. If you go to their lots in Los Angeles as I have, they’ve got all of this biodegradable, carbon-neutral stuff in the cafeteria as well, cups made out of corn instead of plastic, that sort of stuff.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah but was that, I mean you say that he got various publications of his also to sort of comply with that. You mention the New York Post cover saying “Go Green” and you mentioned some public service announcements that were run on the Fox network and then some changes. Isn’t that a violation of editorial integrity to force people to do that? It seems like to me that it is.

FOLKENFLIK: You know, I think you could make that argument. The Sun newspaper had its topless girl one day pose painted all in green as a way of indicating that green is good. Different places did it different ways. You’ll see networks do this where they decide to build storylines into various programs. It might be, I think some years ago there was the question of child abuse. Another time, I think Salon and others did reporting that showed that office, that the chief federal official charged with overseeing drug policy basically worked with different television studios to get them to incorporate different anti-drug themes. But journalism is different than entertainment. And you can say ‘is this wrong in some way?’ but there are just different styles of what you do, right? I mean there are publications like Mother Jones or the Weekly Standard that are pretty upfront about what it believes in and then there are publications like the news pages of the Wall Street Journal that you think of as not doing that. Now the Journal wasn’t part of this in that way.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah well I mean in your researching that particular point of the book, did you see any critical coverage from the rest of the press about this corporate-driven synergy, to put it nicely?

FOLKENFLIK: Well let’s put it this way: there wasn’t a ton of coverage and I think people were more surprises by the fact of it. I remember when it happened and I remember thinking ‘that’s interesting, I want to see if anything actually comes of it and what it means.’ And at a certain point, I deferred to my colleagues who covered the environment. So I think we had people on our show Talk of the Nation who talked about it, something that I encouraged. But I also said let’s drill down and see what this means. You know, Murdoch was greatly affected by what had happened, I think it was ’06, in Australia where they had these extraordinary floods and later on extraordinary brushfires which happen pretty often in Australia these days. And he’d said something to the effect in that first speech that you don’t have to be a climate scientist to know that there are exceptionally strong natural events occuring and whether or not its directly linked in a certain way, that it behooves him as a corporate citizen to act responsibly. And for many years, News Corp was rated by these outside ratings agencies very highly both for their actions but particularly the transparency of their actions which are thought among those involved in that stuff to be important to it.

Fox News, they did a, if I recall, one sort of hour-long treatment of global warming that was very measured but would give you the belief that it’s occurring and that it’s a concern. And I think another guy six months apart did one which was a lot more skeptical take. I don’t think you saw a ton of coverage as a result of this emanating from this decree. I don’t think there was a lot of news coverage as a result. It was more that the tabloids would just do a little promotional here and there.

Again, I think that if one wants to see this as corporate interference with its publications, one’s entitled to but you’d think it was a little weird if, all of a sudden, all of the Tribune papers suddenly decided to go after transfats. At times, newspapers make a crusade of things and sometimes they’re being explicit in terms of how they want it resolved and at times they’re not. I remember, I think, Newsday and the Chicago Tribune at various points decided to do stories every time somebody was shot dead. And I think implicit in that was a notion that gun violence had to be addressed. I think in the case of one of the two papers, it was only children shot dead but it meant that they did a lot of stories and it was heart-breaking but there was no way to read that and not think that “we’ve got to address gun violence.” Now it didn’t say here’s a solution but it certainly said, to me as a reader, that this is a problem and at times newspapers do that.

It’s more of a British or an Australian thing to do and it’s more of an old-school thing to do in the U.S., something you would have seen some decades ago. I don’t think that he [Murdoch] fully committed his news organizations to pursue it in a way that you sometimes see. You know when you see the Sun or the New York Post commit to a story as a crusade, you’re not in any doubt about the subtleties of it. This was something where it was really just a little light mention here or there and it was kind of, to be honest, a pretty perfunctory way to show people at the home office that they were in line and moved on. I think that one way you can really see that they moved on is that his publications as a whole have been very receptive to arguments that are quite skeptical about the existence of and concerns about climate change and that therefore it doesn’t feel as though his publications have been exactly brainwashed on the topic in Al Gore’s direction.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah well I’ll give you perhaps, and it’s not Murdoch related, there is a definite case of corporate interference that received almost zero coverage in the journalism trade papers and writers and that is that NBC Universal when it was owned by GE launched their campaign “Green Is Universal” which deeply permeated the entire organization and was designed to—well given the fact that GE had massive, massive billion-dollar investments in alternative energy, you could argue that this was a flagrant campaign to promote the interests of the corporate parent. And yet I didn’t see any coverage about that.

FOLKENFLIK: Well I think that’s an absolutely legitimate story to cover—

SHEFFIELD: So where was that coverage?

FOLKENFLIK: —including the angle that you did that you mentioned. Yeah. I think you could also argue that GE had been cited in certain times over the years and it may be more distant for corporate pollution and it may have been a way of sort of cleansing any sort of reputational issues that they had attached to them on that as well. So it can be on both sides of that as well. But I think that’s totally legitimate.

SHEFFIELD: So where was the coverage on that? I didn’t really see it. Why do you think that wasn’t covered?

FOLKENFLIK: It’s a fair question. I feel that I read a few stories about it and I feel that if I had time, I should have done one to. But it’s oftentimes these corporate campaigns aren’t taken seriously by the people who are looking at it and that may be a mistake. I think that’s a legitimate topic of coverage.

SHEFFIELD: Just going into some of the other stuff here, let’s talk about Murdoch and some of his political allegiances. You wrote something earlier in the Washington Post in which you called it a “myth,” and correctly so, that Murdoch is some sort of hard-line partisan conservative when the facts just do not support that assertion. Why don’t you talk about that?

FOLKENFLIK: I think that Murdoch is definitely a figure on the political right but he is not a doctrinaire partisan and he’s flexible and pliant. He wants to have political influence over certain kinds of issues and that’s more important to him than having a particular party in power. You know Roger Ailes is a much more of a conservative Republican figure than Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch supported Tony Blair three times, Tony Blair being a centrist Labour Party figure who reinvented that party away from its socialist, its more socialist roots.

In 2006, Murdoch had the New York Post endorse Hillary Clinton when she was running for Senate in this state knowing that she was a winner in terms of how her prospects looked in November and knowing that she was likely to run for president. And he likes people who have the smell of victory around them. And she also, even though in ’92 she was seen as an incredibly liberal, wild-eyed figure by a lot of her conservative critics, by that point she was seen as a relatively centrist Democrat on a lot of issues, hawkish on foreign affairs, a supporter of the war in Iraq for example when it was happening. So that she was somebody, a very practical figure politically, so she was somebody he could do business with. He had essentially elevated Ed Koch from a huge field of candidates a few decades ago when he was a not very well-known congressman to be the person he would champion for mayor of New York, a centrist Democrat who he felt he could do business with. And Koch did well by him. But he also obviously he has endorsed a ton of Republicans over the years as well.

But in Australia, in the UK, and here in the US he has found figures in both major parties to do business with that has served him well in terms of being able to get influence and served him well in terms of, at times, being able to secure, if not all that he wants, certain kinds of concessions on the part of government regulators and other kinds of agencies that need his business interests. So he genuinely has political beliefs. He very much was a champion of the war in Iraq as much of the Democratic establishment was in 2003 but he rallied Tony Blair constantly to do that both in print and by phone. And strongly encouraged and pushed John Howard, a strong supporter of President Bush in Australia, pushed him through papers down there to do the same. And Howard unflinchingly did so.

But on things like the carbon-neutral maneuver, it’s true that he did so as a corporate actor but he did so at the urging of more centrist figures including Al Gore (well certainly Al Gore a more liberal figure) but Tony Blair encouraged it and [Arnold] Schwarzenegger, who was then governor, who was more liberal than Murdoch himself is, he listened to those guys and he made his decision to take News Corp carbon-neutral as a result of that and as a result of the urging of his son James who is a more politically moderate than he is. You know, Roger Ailes was very afraid that the Murdoch kids would encourage Rupert to endorse Obama in ’08. And, in fact, the New York Post did endorse Obama in the primaries against Hillary Clinton and then reverted to form and then endorsed Senator John McCain, who is probably a better fit for that newspaper anyway, in the general election. But the fact that Ailes was even concerned about it because of Murdoch’s kids, particularly Elisabeth and James, and because of his [then] wife Wendi who likes palling around with Hollywood types. The fact that it was even a source of concern tells you how willing Murdoch has been to toggle over the years to try to maintain influence over policies and also over his own businesses’ fates.

SHEFFIELD: OK, well I appreciate you joining me today, David. The book is Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires.

FOLKENFLIK: Thank you so much for having me, I appreciate your interest.

Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013