The Guardian 26 October, 2005

Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

When no news may be good news

Itís a sad comment on the modern mass media that the two most-watched international news services are CNN and Fox News. Both, of course, are US outfits, and both aggressively push a very pro-US line ó on everything.

CNN, which was started by Ted Turner of Atlanta, Georgia, is now owned by Time-Warner. Despite its policy of operating continuously, 24-hours a day, with bulletin on top of bulletin, CNN never uses its plentiful time to provide detailed analysis or to probe deeply into any news story.

Instead, it provides "non-stop" shallow coverage of current affairs, replacing meaningful analysis with an accumulation of undifferentiated detail.

For a long time, CNN seemed to enjoy a privileged relationship with the State Department and the White House. CNN almost certainly received advance notice from government sources of impending news events, ensuring that the networkís very large array of global correspondents could be early ó if not first ó on the scene.

In return, CNN would see that the official "spin" on the story was firmly set in place. Such was CNNís clout that other networks would quickly fall into line.

All of which must have been very gratifying to the White House, the Pentagon and the various other arms of the US government with a stake in "massaging" public opinion.

Time Warnerís boss, Richard Parsons, told a conference of corporate heavyweights in New York last week that maintaining all CNNís foreign correspondents is "expensive", but "we feel we have a public mission".

I donít know about their public mission, but they certainly have a ruling class mission: to present the news in a way that does not encourage viewers to take up a working class perspective or to enquire too closely into why things happen.

Like CNN itself, the ruling class want people to limit themselves to following the course of events, not the causes of events.

Of course, these days, CNN has been overtaken by Murdochís Fox News as the most watched news channel. Fox News only began in 1996, but by 2002 already had more viewers than CNN.

And thatís a really sad comment on the expectations of TV audiences globally, but especially in the US. If CNN has pretensions to "journal of record" status, Fox News has no such aims ó or inhibitions.

Murdochís news channel fulfills his dictum to journalists on The Australian, "we are not in the news business, we are in the entertainment business". The Australian had begun, you will recall, as another quality "journal of record", an approach which was dropped (along with its first editor) after a few months in favour of a more entertaining, down-market tabloid approach.

Fox News uses argumentative, opinionated interviewers, aping the mannerisms of shock-jocks like Jerry Springer to appeal to people for whom witnessing a verbal stoush is much more interesting than actually clarifying ó or even understanding ó an issue.

This tabloid television certainly works for Murdoch: today, Fox News attracts almost twice as many viewers as CNN. Which, to Murdoch I am sure proves, once again, the old and very cynical show business adage, "you canít go wrong underestimating the intelligence of the public".

In fact, it proves only the effectiveness of advertising and pandering to the lowest common denominator amongst your audience. Cater for low expectations and you will attract people with low expectations.

Murdoch certainly has no interest in raising peopleís expectations! Nor in raising television standards.

As you would expect of a news channel controlled by a filthy rich media magnate like Rupert Murdoch, Fox News is very right-wing, and very supportive of the Bush Presidency.

And this is the most-watched news channel in the world! Surely a triumph of form over content. At least, one hopes so.

Murdoch, Parsons and Sony CEO Howard Stringer were part of a panel at the New York conference, which was organized under the aegis of the Clinton Global Initiative. The Clinton Global initiative is a project of former US President Bill Clinton, and the panel discussion was moderated by Bill himself.

The panel had a singularly specialised topic: "Managing Major Media Companies in a Globalised World". So it wasnít really aimed at you or me.

According to The Sydney Morning Herald, the Clinton Global Initiative is all about "attracting private investment to alleviate poverty and disease".

Canít you just see Bill Clinton using his famous charm on corporate bosses: "Aw, címon, guys ó use your imaginations. Thereís got to be lots of ways to make a great profit out of alleviating poverty.

"Just think of the government subsidies and tax write-offs you will be able to pull down!"

The media moguls, at least, might have had difficulty comprehending what "alleviating poverty" actually meant. Rupert Murdoch, for instance, has spent US $1.3 billion since July acquiring internet businesses.

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