The Power of News Corp’s Family Values

When the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was passed, many believed it was the key to promoting competition in the media.  It was the first overhaul of telecommunications in over sixty years and included several changes to the laws governing communication.  In the years since then, however, the controversy over its passing has only grown.  Instead of allowing small businesses a chance to reap the same benefits as corporations, it created an opportunity for the already flourishing corporations to become unrivaled conglomerates.  One company in particular, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, has since become massively profitable and much more capable of supporting its obviously conservative agenda.  It has very little diversity on its board of directors, associated itself with and funded politicians with anti-gay rights agendas, and is, for the most part, homophobic.  With the power it has gained through the Telecommunications Act, and the subsequent growth in disparity between media makers and media conglomerates, News Corp remains unchallenged in its stress on heteronormativity.  The Telecommunications Act of 1996 and subsequent concentration of media ownership has been partially responsible for the lack of respectful representation of queerness on primetime television.

It includes seven titles, the first of which, Title I, “Telecommunications Service”, was to layout the responsibilities of local telephone companies. Title II, “Broadcast Services”, addresses the role the government will play in cultivating broadcasting. Title III, “Cable Services”, is the part that addresses media ownership (“FCC – Telecommunications Act of 1996” 1). This section concentrates on the reform of the Cable Act of 1984, which was the source of the notion that deregulation would cause competition to flourish. To allow for more cable providers, the government gave regulatory authority to local governments. The intention of this reform was to provide a competitive marketplace by implementing a deregulatory system which, unlike the one that had been in place for half a century, relaxed the limitations on the amount of media production one entity could own. The goal was to cultivate competition within individual markets. Title IV, “Regulatory Reform”, is the modification of regulatory forbearance, the interim relief granted by the government in return for future compensation, as well as the way to re-review the regulations every two years (“FCC – Telecommunications Act of 1996” 3). The section titled “Obscenity and Violence”, Title V of the Act, established rules to determine the amount of explicit material on cable television. The sixth title, “Effect on Other Laws”, covers the bearings of local laws or rulings over cable sales. Finally, Title VII, “Miscellaneous Provisions”, was a catch all section with rules to protect consumers from fraudulent billing, invasion of privacy, as well as initiatives for the future of telecommunications (“FCC – Telecommunications Act of 1996” 3).

My focus, a highly discussed aspect of the Telecommunications Act, is Title III. Instead of promoting it, over the past two decades, we have seen the competition in the Television Industry diminish as five main conglomerates have risen to dominate the market: Time Warner, Disney, Viacom, News Corporation, and Bertelsmann. Instead of intramodal, we now see intermodal competition. In January 2000, Time Warner and America Online merged to form the largest media conglomerate in history at a net worth of $350 billion (“TWX Income Statement” 1).

The Radio Industry has experienced a similar concentration of ownership since 1996. The Telecommunications Act revised section 73.3555 to eliminate the law that prevented ownership of numerous national stations and relaxed the local ownership limitations (“Radio Ownership” 2). There was a 5.9 percent increase in the number of commercial radio stations between March 1996 and March 2003, yet there was also a 35 percent reduction in the number of owners (“Radio Ownership” 4). While, in 1996, the top two radio owners had fewer than 65 stations each, by March 2003, Clear Channel Communications owned over 1,200 stations and their closest competitor with a measly 250 (“Radio Ownership” 5).

I will be utilizing the organizational concept of analysis for this review, for it studies content through the perspective that the organization of the production entity. Media scholars who employ this method of examination recognize that differing structures result in differing content, which can be related to the practices and processes of these establishments. An organization is a framework through which people relate to others based on their positions and work together toward a common goal. Brian Ott and Robert Mack give us structure and process which are the basic elements of organizations. Next, we have the three components of an organization’s structural break down: hierarchy, differentiation and specialization, and formalization. Hierarchy describes the levels of authority of the various positions held and how they shape the interactions between employees. Differentiation and specialization refer to the distinct branches and responsibilities of each company, conglomeration or organization. Formalization, perhaps the most important in the light of this paper, is “the degree to which specific practices must conform to accepted organizational and professional conventions,” according to Ott and Mack (48). The term process concerns what the basic structure yields.  If the structure is the skeleton, the process is the flesh of the institution’s body. It is not a wholly free process, as it attaches to and relies on the structure for guidance (49).  We refer to the resulting set of ideals, conventions, and practices as the organizational culture. Every organization, in any market, has a particular organizational culture cultivated within their walls.

The other theory I will employ is the cultural analysis theory, which argues, according to Ott and Mack, media does not reflect the true nature of society’s culture, but rather illustrates a distorted version (124). Obviously, there are discrepancies when groups try to agree on a singular definition of culture, especially because it is not intrinsic to humans but is a social construction. Media scholars who utilize this theory look at race, gender, class, sexuality, and other similar social paradigms; merely the selections of media production can condemn some aspects of culture and laud others. The three constructs of culture to be examined are the physical, the social, and the attitudinal. The physical simply denotes the tangible objects and materials we use. A library would be a clear indication that that culture values education. We classify the interactions, traditions, and practices we employ under the social side of culture. Large dining rooms indicate a value of shared meals. Lastly, the attitudinal aspect includes the ideas and perspectives of society as a whole. Two key aspects of this theory are culture’s collective and rhetorical natures. Collective culture means that to be considered culture, something must be shared by people. Fabricated by humans, culture is rhetorical. We assign meaning to symbols, and since we agree on the meanings of these symbols, they are able to  communicate significance that is not inherent (125).

Here, I use the organizational theory, which contends that a reorganization of such magnitude, as is the concentration of media ownership since 1996, will affect the work these various institutions will generate. The larger a company is, the more shareholders it needs to appease; this means it requires relatively nebulous and elusive opinions with which a greater number of people can relate.  Smaller companies have considerable leave because they have only so many shareholders to satisfy.  When two such companies merge, the smaller of the two often assimilates to match the dominant organizational culture.  The “Big Five” media conglomerations are so large that their primetime TV shows are no longer able to include diverse content.  Any substantial shift from the reality currently portrayed is unlikely, as those responsible for media production are hesitant to deviate from a technique that has made them billions.

Television is, of course, a profit-driven medium, as we see through the ever present commercial interruptions, and is therefore not only bound to accommodate the company’s shareholders, but their advertising partners. Advertisers and sponsors are reluctant to associate themselves with not yet proven programming. Television programming has the responsibility to attract and maintain a large audience to whom advertisers may promote their products. Unfortunately, shows that do not have a large enough fan base lack funding because they fail to generate sufficient revenue. Effectively, this systematically destroys ideals alternative to the dominant and glorifies lifestyles that are socially and fundamentally conservative, as any significant change in programming would threaten their already lucrative arrangement. However, since television is a profit-driven medium, the dominant ideals are not always the guiding factor. Sometimes, when “radical”, or nonconformist, ideas have the potential to increase revenue, drastically, networks are willing to step outside their comfort zone.  Since the Telecommunications Act, the media moguls have only gained power while those who were not already at a certain level of success by 1996 have floundered and definitely not seen the benefits companies such as News Corp has.

In 2009, News Corp was measured as the third largest media conglomerate in entertainment and in 2011 as the second-largest in profits (“Global 500 2009: Industry”).  The majority of the board of directors is comprised of white, Roman Catholics males.  According to the corporation’s website, there are 16 directors on the board, one of whom is a woman.  Three are Murdochs and will be addressed later.  Another director, José María Aznar, has been working for News Corp since 2008.  Aznar, a Roman Catholic, was the Prime Minister of Spain from 1996-2004.  In 2005, the year after Aznar left office, same sex marriage was made legal by Aznar’s successor, President José Luis Rodriquiz Zapatero.  It was around this time, more specifically June 2005, that an opinion poll was taken by government-run Center for Sociological Investigations. It found that despite being a Catholic country, 66% of Spaniards polled favored the legalization of gay marriage while only 27% did not (Giles 1).  One board member, Andrew Knight, is a white male who was educated at a Roman Catholic secondary school (“List of Public Companies Worldwide” 4).  Viet Dinh, a Vietnamese lawyer, is another conservative board member.  He served under George W. Bush as Assistant Attorney General of the United States on the board of the Section on National Security Law of the Association of American Law Schools.  According to News Corporation’s website, he is Roman Catholic.  Dinh is also on the board of financial mammoth Orchard Enterprises Inc. (Nasdaq: ORCD), as well as the committee for the election of Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who later vetoed a gay marriage bill in both 2005 and 2007 (Badash).  Dinh worked with Kenneth Starr in challenging in court the constitutionality of Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 which was the reaction of the government to the several large financial scandals by corporations, which caused their share prices to crash costing investors billions. These scandals, including that of Enron, were the first sign the nation’s financial conglomerates had been taking advantage of their investors.  Similarly Rod Eddington, another board member, serves on both the board of News Corp and that of JPMorgan, a bank that was fined billions of dollars for financing Enron (Johnson 1).  This snapshot of the News Corp board illustrates the lack of diversity of the organization, a trait that undoubtedly impacts the hierarchy and formalization of the entire conglomerate.

Since the 1990 elections, News Corporation CEO, Rupert Murdoch, has personally contributed around $750,000 to political campaigns and committees.  According to research performed by the Center for Responsive Politics, 80% of these contributions have gone to committees and candidates from the GOP.  This number also includes a donation of $250,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee before the laws were changed to prevent the party’s committees from accepting unrestricted donations.  Merely 12% went to benefit Democrats and the remaining $57,500 funded political action committees, such as those for News Corps and Phillip Morris, the nation’s leading cigarette manufacturer (Ronayne).  Murdoch has donated to presidential hopefuls Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, both of whom oppose same-sex marriage openly on their campaign platforms.  Other politicians who have received contributions from Murdoch personally include Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, and Speaker of the House John Boehner (Ronayne).

Each of these politicians fight same-sex marriage.  In June 2000 and June 2002, Senate Minority Leader McConnell voted no to expanding hate crimes to include those based on sexual orientation.  In July 1995, McConnell voted yes to banning affirmative action hiring using federal funds, and a year later voted yes to prohibiting same-sex marriage.  Also in 1996, McConnell voted no to prohibiting job discrimination based on sexual orientation.  In 1997, he voted yes to end special funding for minority and women-owned businesses.  While not particularly surprising, it is remarkable that this politician who voted yes on loosening restrictions on cell phone wiretapping would be funded by a CEO whose company would soon be facing charges of illegal wiretapping (“Summary of Information on Mitch McConnell”).  House Majority Leader Cantor is similarly minded. He voted yes, in 2004, to a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.  Two years later, he voted yes to constitutionally define marriage as between a man and a woman.  In November 2007, Cantor voted no on prohibiting job discrimination based on sexual orientation and in June 2008, he voted again to amend the constitution to define marriage traditionally (“Eric Cantor on Civil Rights”).  Senate Minority Whip Kyl voted yes, with McConnell, on banning affirmative action hiring using federal funds in 1995.  The following year, he voted no to prohibiting job discrimination based on sexual orientation and yes to prohibiting same-sex marriage.  Like McConnell, too, Kyl voted yes to end funding for minority run and women-owned businesses.  The two also voted against setting aside 10% of highway funds to benefit various exploits of minorities and women in March of 1998.  Kyl also voted no on expanding hate crimes to include those based on sexual orientation in 2002 and more recently voted yes on a constitutional ban of same-sex marriage in June 2006 (“Jon Kyl on Civil Rights”).  Speaker of the House Boehner also has anti-same-sex-marriage and anti-affirmative action agendas as evidenced by his history.  As far back as 1998 he voted yes to end preferential treatment by race in college admissions.  In 1999, he voted yes to ban adoptions by homosexual couples in the District of Columbia.  Five years later, in 2004, Boehner voted yes to the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and in 2006 voted yes to constitutionally define marriage as between a man and a woman.

Finally, he too voted no on prohibiting job discrimination based on sexual orientation (“John Boehner on Civil Rights”).  These are simply the politicians to whom Rupert Murdoch has contributed personal funds. News Corporation itself has donated $1 million to the United States Chamber of Commerce, an association which has been aggressively supportive of the GOP’s effort to retake Congress in 2010.  News Corp also contributed $1 million to the Republican Governors Association approaching the US midterm elections of 2010 (Ronayne 3).  These two donations led media critics to question whether the company had crossed an ethical line for a media company, since comparable media conglomerates such as Disney, owner of ABC, and GE, owner of NBC, also make contributions, but in much smaller amounts and split more equally between Democrats and Republicans (Ronayne 3).  As of September 15, 2010, the Chamber of Commerce had spent $6,747,946 to air ads on behalf of Republican Senate Candidates.  This makes the Chamber the biggest spender on congressional races of any interest group (Ronayne 4).  The benefits of News Corp’s staunch support of the GOP must be significant to warrant these historically unmatched donations.

On August 6, 2007, GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, released their first “Network Responsibility Index” which measured each network’s inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer themes or characters in their shows.  FOX, a subsidiary of News Corp, received a rating of “poor,” and was shown to have only 6% of all of their programming hours during a 12 month span to contain queer characters or the discussion of queerness.  This rating was the worst of all the major networks.  ABC was best, and was rated 15%, the CW had 12%, CBS had 9% and barely better than FOX was NBC at 7% (GLAAD).  In a statement released by FOX, a spokesperson said they are “committed to recognizing diversity across our entire schedule, take these issues very seriously, acknowledge that we have work to do, and will strive to enhance the representation of LGBT characters on our air” (Kinon 2).

Two years later, enter GleeGlee is a show on FOX network with explicitly queer themes.  More than any other show on television right now, four of the characters on Glee are queer; however, three of them are white, males, and not particularly active in politically pursuing gay rights.  They are not clearly liberal and their characters and plots are based on this singular trait.  On the surface, the show appears to be “gay-friendly,” but upon closer examination, one can see that the characters are not well-rounded and their storylines seem to hinge on their sexual orientation.  Some other branches of FOX, such as FOX Houston, use the show as fodder for controversial debates.  FOX Houston held a segment of their news program called “Is TV Too Gay?”.  Guests were gay rights activist Ray Hill and Brian Fisher of the American Family Association, a group committed to fighting same-sex marriage (“Is TV Too Gay?”).  The Association has been officially labeled a hate-group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (“Active Anti-Gay Groups”).  Previously, Fisher has called Muslim student associations “parasites” and “toxic cancer” (“Fisher: Muslim Student Associations Are ‘Parasites’ and A Toxic Cancer’” 12).

In 2009, Nigel Lythgoa, host of So You Think You Can Dance, a show on FOX, commented on air to two men dancing together romantically that they would alienate the audience and he would like to see them dance with women (Dehnart).  Bill O’Reilly was discussing a French McDonald’s ad in 2010 that championed the fast food restaurant as a having a “come as you are” atmosphere.  To this, O’Reilly responded, “Do they have an Al Qaeda ad, you know, ‘come as you are’?” Many called upon him to apologize for this comment (Volsky 2).  First noting that Perez Hilton is “gay and a liberal activist,” Steve Doocy, co-host of FOX and Friends, then read a statement from the grandmother of Miss California, Carrie Prejean: “’I don’t know why that gay guy, Perez, was even judging a contest with a bunch of girls. That doesn’t make any sense. He should be judging a Chippendales contest.’”  Doocy then laughed and agreed, “Grandma has got a point” (Goode 1).  In 2010 the Wall Street Journal, also owned by News Corp, ran a photo of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan playing softball with the caption “Court nominee comes to the plate,” which angered activists across the nation.  It was argued that no straight, white, 50 year old, male nominee would be portrayed in such a light (Spillius 1).

Thanks to the benefits of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, felt by News Corporation and the few other media moguls, these conglomerates have no reason to fear any significant new competitors.  They will remain unchallenged in their ability to grow and incorporate further in each branch of media.  The incredible capital of FOX, and its parent company News Corp, gives it a historically unprecedented ability to influence the government.  Since News Corp has been making such an incredible amount of money through the system in place, the directors have a desire to maintain the system as is.  Their beliefs are fundamentally conservative and clearly Murdoch has an ideal he would like to see remain the dominant.  With such a CEO and board of directors, according to the notions of hierarchy, differentiation, specialization and formalization of the organizational theory, the corporation is unlikely to be capable of creating diverse content and three dimensional characters of various other lifestyles.  A single show with superficially gay friendly and controversial overtones cannot eclipse the blatant homosexuality portrayed by most FOX affiliates, as well as the extraordinary financial contributions made by the corporation’s leader to politicians with anti-same-sex marriage agendas.  As a world leader in media production, a position feared and revered for its incredible power, special responsibilities exist such as to report objectively and treat consumers respectfully.  News Corp does neither of those; instead it finances legislation attacking the rights of a group of people they claim to represent respectfully.

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