Saturday, July 11, 2009
Murdoch Comes To America by Michael Wolff
There's levels and levels of editing", Murdoch will tell me incredulously after an early tour of the Wall Street Journal's newsroom. "Every story gets edited about five times. Then it goes down to Princeton, where they put the paper to bed, there's 150 people there and they say, 'We do everything in the final edit to make sure everything is absolutely right and check the sources and stuff.' And I thought. 'Oh my God, it's a wonder anything ever gets in the paper or on time."
This has been a consistent disconnect- what American journalists think of when they think of the news and what Murdoch thinks about news. To Murdoch, even the word tabloid is misunderstood. "Tabloid" in the Murdoch context is an idea of immediacy, sharpness, efficiency, and emotion- it's news at its most visceral and powerful and entertaining. The craft, and it is a high craft, is compression. Necessary and vital compression: The tabloid tradition in Britain and Australia derives in part from newsprint rationing after the First and Second World Wars...
"Tabloid" in the modern U.S. context- to most people at the Journal , certainly- is about celebrities and gossip. It's faux news. Tabloidism is a modern journalistic illness, a virus spread most of all by Murdoch himself.
But Murdoch is, more accurately, not a modern journalist but the last representative from an era when a newspaper was its own advertisement, when it had to sell itself. Newspapers as sellers of news- as loud, unsubtle, rude instruments, as midway-type entertaiment (games of chance, horoscopes, funny pages)- were, of course, the American form too. The Hearst and Pulitzer empires were built on such papers. Any city with two or more papers fighting it out was certain to have a version of carnival news: cheaper (cheaper to produce, cheaper to buy), blunter, louder.
Then American papers- American news- turned orderly and genteel. This happened as newspapers, feeling television's competition, figured out a new business model: monopoly (largely by absorbing secondary papers). And then the big chains- Gannett, Knight Ridder, Tribune Company, Advance- replaced local owners. What's more, the American city as a working-class redoubt was transmuted into ghettos and suburban flight. The newsstand, and with it the battling urban evening newspaper, died. But a newspaper controlling its geographic position- not so much the city as its piece of the great expanding suburbs- had a monopoly on local ads. In a single-newspaper market, local advertisers often had no alternative but to advertise in the single paper. So a newspaper's best strategy was to be sedate, mannerly, uncontroversial- to offend no one, and not to call attention to the fact that it has monopolized the market, which it would certainly do if it screamed and bullied.
The dominant news voice in the United States has become a network television voice. News is now a serious, weighty, basso profundo affair, delivered by men of impeachable integrity and, relatively speaking, zero personality. News, bland news, self-important news, suddenly defined a kind of respectability and upward mobility. For the middle class, Walter Cronkite rather than Willian Randolph Hearst or a chain-smoking city editor came to represent the news...
Arriving in New York in the early seventies, Murdoch- whose papers are in markets where television news is hardly a factor, and are are still staffed by working-class reporters- is struck by one overpowering sense of the market: American news is lazy, stultifying, pickle-up-its-ass, boring. This suggests, to a man who has spent twenty years selling news in some of the most competitive news markets in the world, great opportunity.
Murdoch himself may have soured on and been disaffected with Britain, but Britain embraced his Sun. Its tone is pitch perfect. It is so spot-on that it effectively revolutionizes the form itself- in modern Britain, the tabloids become the most powerful media, breaking stories, setting the agenda, electing politicians, changing the culture. To question the form means you're standing on the sidelines. Questioning it, turning up your nose at its cultivated noxiousness, its calculated down-marketness, would make you something like an intellectual arguing against television, or a sixties parent decrying rock and roll.
The Sun and the News of the World are what he somehow hopes to bring to the United States. The size of his dream is disconcertingly huge- to be able to create a national tabloid with the success and impact of the Sun on a U.S. scale would be massive. And yet, judging by the incredibly boring newspapers in the United States, it seems almost like a no-brainer
Such sales as the Sun and the News of the World are having in the United Kingdom are dependent, however, on working class men (ideally with the same interests, i.e. soccer) who buy papers, and newstands where they can buy them. The absence of those factors in the U.S. market is an indication of how little Murdoch knows...In a car culture, in the great rolling suburbs, the only place the middle class gets to truly eyeball the cover of a periodical is in the supermarket. And all the middle-class people doing this eye-balling are women.
The Murdoch formula- his tabloid magic, his working-class insouciance, his badgering and bullying- is for men. The aggressiveness, the girls, the sports, the jokiness, the news- is for men.
Supermarkets in America do not really sell newspapers. Supermarkets sell magazines. And tabloids, aka "the tabs". In the seventies, the American tab is a magazine's newspaper hybrid- it fits into the supermarket checkout rack- that merges two publishing genres: the fanzine (with slavish attention to celebrities) and the fantastical (accounts of aliens and grotesques and deviants with only the barest pretense of being factual). Murdoch's idea of a tabloid as a media property that could become a powerful working class institution comes face to face with the American reality that a tabloid is a product that defines not only its readers' lack of standing but that of its owners. This is confounding and frustrating to him- and significantly, an entirely different business and cultural climate from any he's ever been in. He has no background in soft celebrity gossip targeted at women.
It's important to keep in mind how pre-modern Murdoch is. He's a fifties guy. A guy's guy. From an era when guys talked about guy's stuff.
Now comes the stubbornness and the relentlessness and the conviction that he can do whatever it takes. That, going forward, is the important thing. You set something in motion and then you try to control it. Doing it is what defines you. He remains committed to the tabloid model, unable to see beyond it, believing that the visceral impact of tabloidism has to prevail- and, indeed, finally will, on the Fox network and on Fox News.