Murdoch Meltdown Solidifies the Value of Public Media

By Sally Jo Fifer, ITVS President & CEO
Posted on September 5, 2011

Sally Jo Fifer calls on public media leaders to put “new technology to work for a public interest free from the gravity of profit.”

Information is valuable. It’s valuable to those of us working in public media and it’s valuable to Rupert Murdoch, who started out owning a single Australian afternoon tabloid newspaper and ended up building the $33 billion News Corp empire by acquiring information, often at great cost, and packaging it to maximize profits.  Yet for Murdoch, perhaps no information in recent memory was as costly as the phone messages his staff allegedly stole, toppling the 168-year-old News of the World despite a circulation of 7.5 million. 

On the surface, it would seem that there could be no two beasts as dissimilar as public media and tabloid journalism. One strives to serve the public with the information and tools it needs as citizens; the other hawks sex scandals, celebrity secrets, and other entertainments. It might seem like they are the yin and yang of media, defined by their contrasts yet containing surprising elements of one another.  Public media, after all, must plumb the public’s obsessions — some dark, some trivial — in order to compete in the media marketplace and serve its audience. And tabloid journalism often invokes “the public interest” in its defense, as the National Enquirer does in ferreting out the untrustworthiness of public figures like John Edwards.

But as the past and present editors of the National Enquirer or News of the World would tell you, the marketplace for information is intensifying. A few years ago, the British documentary crew for Starsuckers secretly filmed journalists for three tabloids offering to buy private medical records, while Lindsay Lohan’s father brokered multi-thousand dollar deals for information stateside. Even for tabloids, any “public interest” portion of their journalistic mission appears lost in the mad dash for circulation and ratings and the incredible acceleration of the news cycle, where being first is more important than being right. And more respected publications are vulnerable; even the New York Times, in a momentary rush to scoop the national dailies, ran an erroneous online headline claiming Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords died in an assassination attempt. 

All of these companies have a business to run. Some depend on their reputation and credibility; others on their appeal to a certain niche group; still others on a talent for spectacle and showmanship.  What we often overlook, however, are the newer players that are reshaping the universe — companies like Facebook and Google, for instance. We think they are giving us a more level playing field for access to information, and maybe they are, for now. But what will happen as competition intensifies as it did for tabloid and other media endeavors? What lines will be crossed when the new media giants encounter potentially devastating market forces as did News Corp and the other five media conglomerates that dominate the media landscape? Public media has a business to run, too. 

The bottom line for our business is working to ensure that there’s an equal playing field for the public to get the information it needs to make informed decisions as citizens. Just as the financial meltdown showed us a glimpse of a world where information is shared unequally, and with great harm to those on the outside, the Murdoch scandal hints at the levels of inequity and codes of ethics at work in the increasingly bottom-line driven world of corporate media. As we put more and more trust in the new arbiters of information — the Googles and the Facebooks who track our search, mine our email, and analyze our social interactions — public media must provide the leadership in putting new technology to work for a public interest free from the gravity of profit. In the end, Murdoch is accountable only to his shareholders; we are accountable to the American people. We can’t afford to make the mistakes that corporate media makes —and we can’t afford to ignore our duties to represent the public in the wild west of the most competitive, chaotic, and potential-filled media environment the world has ever seen. 

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