What’s Beneath the Gutter?

British politicians are suddenly sprouting spines and even American legislators (Sens. Jay Rockefeller, Frank Lautenbach, Robert Menendez, Barbara Boxer, and lone Republican Rep. Peter King) are calling for SEC and Justice Department investigations into possible criminal acts performed on native soil. As I write, the AP reports that the FBI is investigating whether News Corp. might have hacked into the phone accounts of 9/11 victims. In the light of Murdoch’s extraordinarily successful attempts to do for salacious depravity what John D. Rockefeller did for oil, it’s an especially nice touch that the latter’s great grandson, West Virginia Senator Rockefeller, was first up among American politicians to seize the investigative day. Meanwhile, Steven Brill has pointed out that “News Corp. has a lot of FCC licenses. There’s still a clause in the federal communications law that requires that you have to be of good character to have such a license.” Meanwhile, members of the Bancroft family, who in 2007 sold the family jewel, Dow Jones, to the global pirate himself, are shocked, shocked, to discover that his ethical standards are not the highest.

One has to dig deep for metaphors commensurate with the sheer moral creepiness of Murdoch’s enterprises.  Gordon Brown, whose disabled five-year-old was the object of a Murdoch-owned Sun data dump of health records a while ago, said yesterday in the House of Commons about News Corp. depradations:

Not the misconduct of a few rogues or a few greedy freelancers but law-breaking often on an industrial scale, at its worst dependent on its links with the British criminal underworld….  [Mr. Murdoch and his papers] “descended from the gutter into the sewers” and “let the rats out.” …[They] created “a criminal-media nexus.”

Former NPR London correspondent Michael Goldfarb contributes an excellent Bastille Day summary to the Global Post, reminding us how this appalling stench from behind the Murdoch curtains reached our nostrils thanks to extraordinary investigative work at a grand old-media institution, the Guardian. (The Guardian belongs to a nonprofit charitable trust, thus putting the lie to the propagandistic view that a free newspaper must be left to a freedom-loving, profiteering tycoon like Murdoch and Sam Zell; but I digress.)

Pausing from the well-earned anathemas, and excusing myself for indulging in some irresistible incivility, this is a nice moment for a capsule refresher course on how the buccaneer built his base on American soil.

Murdoch, the Australian, became an American citizen in 1985, satisfying the statutory requirement that American TV stations can only be licensed to American citizens. That year he also bought himself a studio, 20th Century Fox.  The next year, he bought six TV stations, which became the nucleus of the Fox network. A few years later, American media got worked up about Japanese invaders (“Japan Invades Hollywood” screamed a Newsweek cover when SONY bought Columbia Pictures) but Murdoch spoke the right language, had the right skin color, and passed muster.

Murdoch’s Fox ensconced itself in the chicken coop.  As James Ledbetter wrote in the Village Voice in 1993:

In 1989, Fox privately settled a $21million federal fraud suit charging it with, among other things, unlawfully padding its pockets by using Fox TV stations to advertise Fox films. Disregarding FCC reporting requirements, Fox didn’t disclose that settlement when applying to renew the license of its Los Angeles station, KTTV. The FCC review board said that omission, along with other Fox misconduct, “shows either carelessness or arrogance, depending on how the Fox compliance record is interpreted…” Like good little deregulators, the board then promptly renewed KTTV’s license, effectively sweeping the misconduct aside.

Then, in 1995, a complaint was registered with the FCC to the effect that Murdoch’s News Corp. was actually Australian-based, not American, and that therefore it could not legally own an American network. The FCC, to its discredit, found for Murdoch, on the ground that his ownership of Fox was in the public’s best interests.  It was in 1996 that Murdoch launched Fox News.  Note:  It was because he already owned the Fox Network—featuring The Simpsons and all—that he had the leverage to push cable operators to pick up his news network. This is how mogul brilliance operates:  Step into the thick of deregulatory fever, lock in on entertainment acumen, leverage it into political power. (The comparable story of how he got away with buying, selling, and rebuying the New York Post, a relatively cheap outpost for political reach in the world’s media capital, is also interesting and intricate, but let’s save that for another time.)

Talk about low standards for America’s naturalization of immigrant.

And here we are, with what is evidently a criminal enterprise in possession of a huge hunk of American media. Who could make this stuff up? Oh right–Fox News.

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