In the first part of a two-part series which was first posted at Politicalgates earlier this year, we examined the intricate and intimidating Murdoch connections and how watching Fox News apparently makes you more ignorant than watching no news at all.
In spite of the near continual boasting at Fox News, some (real) reporters have dared to question the Fox News ratings. Their suspicions were aroused by the simple fact that the numbers made little sense. Was it actually plausible?
How is it, they wonder, that Fox News can be so consistently in the lead despite their obvious niche programming focus on a narrow segment of the viewing audience. The decidedly right-of-center bias of Fox News corresponds to a rather small portion of the national electorate. Republican favorability has been hovering in the mid-twenties for years. So how does this negligible slice of the market translate into such a disproportionate ratings advantage?It’s a very good question. Perhaps the answer can be found in the complex (downright incestuous) business relationship between Nielsen Media Research, which collects the ratings information and Murdoch.
How the System Works
News Corp is, in fact, a client of Nielsen and back in 2006, signed an eight-year pact to "provide audience measurement services for 49 News Corp. television entities. The pact consolidates more than 150 individual agreements between the companies. Financial terms were not disclosed."
While that fact may call into question possible conflicts of interest, it doesn't automatically suggest anything improper. There are, however, other causes for concern.
It has recently been discovered that the Wegener Corporation, the manufacturer of the set-top devices that Nielsen uses, has a long association with Rupert Murdoch and the News Corporation, the parent of Fox News. Wegener was founded by the former management of Scientific-Atlanta, a producer of set-top boxes for cable access and other purposes.One of the other products in Scientific-Atlanta’s line was a device used by Gemstar to provide television program listings to cable operators and their subscribers. Gemstar was an affiliate of TV Guide, which in turn was owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. So the executives who were responsible for developing and manufacturing Murdoch’s equipment for Gemstar became the principles of the company providing Nielsen with their ratings collection devices. And around that same time Fox News dropped their objections to the new People Meter service.
Back in 2004, the objections that News Corp had to the People Meter service were well-publicized. Why did News Corp create such a stink about the PMS, you ask? Because, according to the Wall Street Journal, News Corp had the most to lose from the new system. When the PMS system was used, News Corp saw a staggering drop from number of the old system used by Nielsen- a hand-written diary system as opposed to a more automated system. At question, News Corp claimed, was the accuracy in measuring minority viewers, specifically African-Americans. Brody Mullins, writing for Roll Call, reported at the time:
... News Corp. argued that the new Nielsen ratings system would cost its New York affiliate millions of dollars a year in local advertising revenue by undercutting the number of minorities watching Fox shows tailored to minority audiences, as well as its national sports coverage.
News Corp was actually the ONLY company that objected and hired lobbying firms in Washington to call for an audit of the "seriously flawed" system.
To solidify its political support in New York, News Corp. hired former Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.) and his New York-based lobbying firm. In Washington, News Corp. relied on a host of prominent Democratic strategists to help stir up the minority community, including two of former President Bill Clinton’s spokesmen; a top political adviser to former Vice President Al Gore; a chief strategist for the presidential campaign of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.); and a founder of the shadow Democratic group that hopes to spend up to $80 million to defeat President Bush this fall.News Corp. first began reaching out to black and Hispanic lawmakers at the end of March, less than two weeks before Nielsen planned to implement its new system.
Another source, Real Media Riffs, makes this interesting claim: the entirerace complication was merely a red herring.
(T)he biggest irony of all in News Corp.'s anti-people meter effort isn't the transparent, self-serving nature of its political maneuvering, it's the fact that they've actually convinced influential politicians and minority groups that the New York people meters will somehow damage the representation of Hispanics and African Americans in Nielsen's ratings.The reality is, they will improve them. And that's what really has Fox worried. Because the reality will show that Fox doesn't capture the sizable shares of minority viewers - or of viewers of any kind - that the current TV set- meter/diary system reports. People meters may not be the Holy Grail of audience measurement, but they've been proven to be light years ahead of diaries for measuring how people watch TV. And if any self-respecting media planner or buyer doesn't see right through Fox's ploy and mentally adjust for that ratings overstatement in their heads, then they're not doing their jobs.And other media research experts agreed that the new system was definite
improvement on the old methods. According to an article in Television Week:
"If the political people had talked to any one of the agency people, they would have heard that this is a step forward, not a step backward. Is it perfect? No. But it's better and we like better," said the top research executive of one of the top media buying shops, who asked to remain anonymous. "We'd love some issues to come to the head, but the race issue is not one of them.In any event, eventually, Nielsen bowed to pressure and delayed the implementation of the PMS in contested regions. But then, News Corp dropped its objections, two years later, signed a lucrative contract with Nielsen and supported the People Meter System.
Probably off-topic: Scientific-Atlanta- (makers of the equipment used in the new meter system) and Newt Gingrich, a former Fox News employee, had a colorful history together. Both Senator Sam Nunn and Representative Newt Gingrich nurtured partnerships between Atlanta's research universities, military concerns, political ties, and business outlets. Gingrich described Scientific Atlanta as "a model of the spirit of invention and discovery" in a series of university lectures he gave and which eventually got him in hot water with The House Ethics Committee.
(The part that possible backroom deals between Gingrich and Fox News/News Corp has been the subject of some online speculation. It ties in with huge advance on book deals and assistance in gaining citizenship according to the allegations. That interesting murky Murdoch story will have to be saved for a different post, however.)
Nielson, Gemstar, Scientific-Atlanta all became connected in one way or the other with News Corporation and even the Wall Street Journal which once investigated the story was bought by News Corp in 2007 for a reported $5 billion.
That is how the system actually works.
Affecting All Americans
The bottom line is.. well.. Bill O’Reilly said it quite clearly when discussing alleged ratings inaccuracies that benefited MSNBC
“The bottom line on this is there may be some big-time cheating going on in the ratings system, and we hope the feds will investigate. Any fraud in the television rating system affects all Americans.”
We share his heart-felt desire that the Feds investigate this problem. We hope they investigate all the news channels, but let's just start with Fox.
On the other hand, so what? So what if Murdoch, News Corporation and Fox News want to play games with the numbers. It allows them to boast but then that’s what bullies do. It’s all unethical, yes. It’s a pack of lies, yes, that’s true. But, outside of defaulting on its claim of being a trusted news source, is it a crime?
The ratings are not only used to determine what to charge advertisers, they are also used in annual shareholder reports. False claims would be giving an unrealistic, deceptive picture of the company, amounting to fraud. According to News Corp’s 2011 annual report:
At FOX News, for example, Roger Ailes and his team have built television’s undisputed news leader – not just in cable network news, but in all television news. Later this calendar year, FOX News will celebrate its fifteenth anniversary, and I couldn’t be more pleased with its success. Over at the FOX Business Network our ratings are improving – and at certain times of the day we’re head to head with CNBC, and sometimes beating them.
When back in July 2002 then-president George W. Bush signed the Corporate Corruption Bill- which was supposed to make inflated claims to shareholders illegal- he told reporters:
This law says to every dishonest corporate leader: you will be exposed and punished; the era of low standards and false profits is over; no boardroom in America is above or beyond the law.This law says to shareholders that the financial information you receive from a company will be true and reliable, for those who deliberately sign their names to deception will be punished
Still, given all we have seen from that pair, you can’t help wondering if Rupert Murdoch was standing over his shoulder when Bush was signing the bill.
Now that Murdoch has admitted before the British authorities in the Levenson inquiry that there was a cover-up in the case of the phone hacking scandal in the UK, the Department of Justice will finally step up to the plate and file charges against Murdoch and his empire.But I am not holding my breath.
Sinclair and the Monopoly of Self-Expression
All this fiddling with numbers is just another symptom of the decline in the news media in general. Actually, there’s nothing all that new about that decline. It has happened in the past. (It is the scale involved and the damage that this kind of yellow journalism causes that puts Murdoch in a league of his own.)
The phrase “yellow journalism” was once attached to the media mogul William Randolph Hearst, a man that Rupert Murdoch in many ways resembles. For example, Hearst used his media power to promote the Spanish-American war, following the mysterious sinking of the battleship Maine.
Murdoch banged the drums for the invasion of Iraq following the mysterious 9-11 attacks. And Murdoch with a vast media empire banged those war drums so incessantly that they managed to drown out the more prudent voices of restraint.
A year-long study by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) reported that Americans who relied on the Fox News Channel for their coverage of the Iraq war were the most likely to believe misinformation about the war, whatever their political affiliation may be. Those mistaken facts, the study found, increased viewers' support for the war.Whereas the approximate cost, according to Congressional Research Service, of the one year Spanish-American War- in adjusted figures- was $9,034 million, Iraq invasion and occupation cost the nation more than $784 billion and eight years.
As a term, “Yellow journalism” was first coined during the epic battle between newspapermen, Joseph Pulitzer and Hearst. It was generally used to describe the kind of sensational - possibly imagined- story that was designed to attract readers regardless of the ethical questions. Today it is more widely used to refer to unprofessional or unethical reporting. One of Hearst harshest critiques came from the same author who had previously described the horrific conditions in the meat packing industry at that time.
Back in 1919, author Upton Sinclair wrote “The Brass Check: A Study of American Journalism,” an expose which revealed the dangers of media monopolies. He criticized ultra-conservative papers, especially the Hearst and AP, which he claimed, conspired against the working class for the sake of their narrow political or business interests.
He charged employees of Hearst newspapers with being “willing by deliberate and shameful lies, made out of whole cloth, to stir nations to enmity and drive them to murderous war." For newspaper writers, the word “socialism” was forbidden or, if mentioned, could never be portrayed in a positive light.
Sinclair’s words sound hauntingly true today.He wrote:
Every day the chasm between the classes in America grows wider; every day the class struggle grows more intense. Both sides become more conscious, more determined--and so the dishonesty of American Journalism becomes more deliberate, more systematic. And what is to be done? It must be evident to any sensible man that the conditions portrayed in this book are intolerable. Mankind will not consent to be lied to indefinitely.
Today the problem is much the same. Aggressive and uncalled-for brutality by police goes largely unreported (at least, until the journalists themselves become victims) for the sake of trivial and largely manufactured news about celebrities. The reporting on the Occupy movement was nothing short of an indictment of the mainstream media which did all in their power to ignore or to minimize its legitimacy. As far as Fox News, their slanders about the president or his family are practically a daily ritual. All without any regard for accuracy.
We see so-called journalists like James O’Keefe or Andy Breitbart making sensational and false claims without the slightest twinge of conscience. And when their claims are proven incorrect or highly exaggerated, they have already moved on to the next commotion. Hysterical Lies about rapist protesters (totally fabricated). The lies on Fox News are too numerous to list and there is apparently no means of holding any of them to account. They are free to slander and libel at will.
The difference is that today the world's resources are in the hands of a class, and this class has a monopoly of self-expression.
Sinclair also gave this warning if the trends continue and it is a warning that applies as much today.
I personally am not calling for violent revolution; I still hope for the survival of the American system of government. But I point out to the owners and managers of our great capitalist news-organs the peril in which they place themselves, by their system of organized lying about the radical movement. It is not only the fury of resentment they awaken in the hearts of class-conscious workingmen and women; it is the condition of unstable equilibrium which they set up in society, by the mass of truth they suppress.
If newspapers are in now decline and journalists on both sides of the political spectrum are held in low-esteem by so many, then they have only themselves to blame. They have chosen profit over all else, but especially the truth.
As soon as journalism became a commodity to trade, then truth itself was up for sale and ratings became simply the measure of what anyone would have to pay to own it .