Rupert Murdoch’s Kingdom of Kitsch

In a column that takes the latest lowpoint in American life and letters – O.J. Simpson’s now not-to-be-published “hypothetical” confessional, “If I Did It” – as its jumping-off point, Sidney Blumenthal offers the following observation on Rupert Murdoch:

Murdoch’s media empire is a kingdom of kitsch. Whether as entertainment or news, talk shows or song contests, the aesthetic is consistent. (The ironic social commentary of “The Simpsons,” not to be confused with O.J. Simpson, is the exception that proves that rule.) Murdoch’s programming almost invariably traffics in faux-populist identities of the privileged and powerful battling phantom (liberal) elites. Murdoch-ism aims to unmask the great and the good as charlatans, frauds and crooks, proving that even as they masquerade as worthy they are really as cynical as he is. The programs delight in bullying and humiliating little people to provide vicarious drama for viewers similar in social background to those being embarrassed but who feel bigger and stronger and identify with the cranks posing as domineering father figures. This sadomasochistic exchange appeals to the authoritarian conservative personality. The hip Simon Cowell, host of “American Idol,” is just a variation on the theme of Bill O’Reilly, with the notable difference that he has an actual talent as a music producer. [emphasis added]

This is a key aspect of any authoritarian political project – the recruitment and inclusion of a segment of those to be ruled over as being “in on it.” Murdoch, as usual, is a few steps ahead of the game here – his media empire promotes all the attitudes necessary for an authoritarian culture: deference to authority above all else; mockery of outsiders/minorities; creation and fuelling of moral panics, real and imagined (see the endless coverage of “Amber Alerts,” missing white women and the “War on Christmas”).

What’s both most depressing and most hopeful about the column and a study of Murdoch’s career is just how quickly he has effected many of these changes, especially in American media culture – Fox News is only a decade old. There’s no silver bullet to create a more responsible discourse, but Murdoch’s success shows that a determined effort (and, yes, lots and lots of money) can move the ball pretty far, very quickly.

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2 Responses to Rupert Murdoch’s Kingdom of Kitsch

  1. Mark says:

    I thought it was an interesting article but ultimately flawed. Here’s a few quotes I pulled out:

    “On the other hand, he always follows power magnetically”
    “Applying to him the rule “follow the money” never fails to elucidate.”
    “Murdoch [has a] reputation as a conservative…Meanwhile, in Australia, Murdoch was a backer of a Labor government. When the Tories looked like losers in Britain, he switched almost overnight into a supporter of Tony Blair’s New Labor.”

    I think these statements are the key to understanding why Murdoch does what he does. He is a fairly scary example of a pure capitalist; that is, he has no particular morality, ethical code, or agenda beyond making money. He will do whatever he can within the law to accumulate capital, and can take seemingly hypocritical positions without cognitive dissonance if they both serve his ultimate goal: enriching himself and his shareholders.

    The assertion that he has some particular love of debasement or any particular political agenda doesn’t seem to be proven in the article, even though Blumenthal spends most of the second page arguing exactly that. In fact, the quotes above seem to argue exactly the opposite, which is why I thought the article was a bit off. Murdoch creates and markets the messages he does because they sell, and because he is skilled at selling them. As far as he is concerned, I don’t think there is a lot more to it than that. I don’t agree with the idea that he has any larger agenda. And
    to whatever degree he appears to have one, I think it can be explained by his desire to constantly enlarge the market niche he has for himself. He has a successful brand (call it “the Fox brand”) and he just keeps selling and selling it.

    The really frightening thing about Murdoch is that he appears to have tapped into something in the American culture that makes debasing and authoritarian messages a successful commercial product. Ultimately, Murdoch is simply an enabler. The real problem is not with him, but with the culture that made him a billionaire by buying into his brand.

  2. jkd says:

    I think it’s not one or the other, it’s both. Murdoch creates/capitalizes on an authoritarian media culture in support of an authoritarian political culture. Note that the non-“conservative” politicians he “surprisingly” supports are basically authoritarian: Britain under Blair has seen an enormous increase in CCTV surveillance and other curtailments of freedom of movement, and Clinton is one of the chief cheerleaders in support of all manner of moral panics, from online “child protection” measures to attempts at censorship of a wide range of media content (TV, movies, music, video games). All of these measures are at base about control, and about creating a political and cultural environment full of demonized others. The Fox brand is an authoritarian brand.

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