On Puppetmasters

by Reihan Salam

I was very fortunate to have been invited to appear on The Chris Matthews Show, a news roundtable hosted by journalist and MSNBC host Chris Matthews. During the program, I disagreed pretty strongly with some of my distinguished co-panelists on a number of questions. Crooks and Liars, a popular left-of-center website, has highlighted some of my remarks. I’m sorry to say that the post contains a number of distortions of my views, but I get the sense that these distortions are not deliberate. Rather, I think they reflect a sincerely held worldview. Regardless, that’s the price of doing business. 

Heather, the author of the post, was very bothered by my contention that Rupert Murdoch is not Glenn Beck’s “puppetmaster.” Here’s what she wrote:

 The part of this segment I found really irritating was the National Review’s Reihan Salam and his dismissiveness of Rupert Murdoch’s control over Glenn Beck. Glenn Beck doesn’t do anything on the air without the full approval of his station’s ownership and to pretend he doesn’t is just nonsense.

And here is the excerpt:

Matthews: This whole thing, I think it gets ethnic, I think it is tribal. I listened to Rush Limbaugh this week saying, you know, we’re not Islamaphobic, we elected Barack Obama. That proves we’re not Islamaphobic. That’s saying he’s Islamic again when the guy’s a Christian.

Salam: I don’t think that’s quite what it’s saying. I think what it’s saying is that Barack Obama is someone who comes from a very different kind of background and Americans have embraced him in large numbers. I also think the idea respectfully that Glenn Beck is… ah… you know… is being controlled by Rupert Murdoch as his puppet master gets things wrong. (crosstalk)

When you look at Glenn Beck you see someone for example, remember Louis Farrakhan and the Million Man March. What was the Million Man March about? A lot of people were terrified by that. It caused a lot of consternation among liberals and conservatives. But ultimately what you saw was an event where tons of African American men got together and it was really about identity and pride.

And I think that when you are looking at our politics right now, it’s true that in an economic downturn you see a lot of confusion, you see a lot of uncertainty and there is a decent number of people who feel like now “have nots”, but they feel like “are nots”. They feel like they’re not being respected in our public life and they want to assert themselves….

Matthews: Who are the Glenn Beck constituency?

Salam: I think that it’s a lot of folks. It’s a lot of people from smaller cities, rural areas, small towns, tend to be white, tend to be ah…

Matthews: Okay, who is their villain?

Salam: I don’t know if they necessarily have a villain…

Klein: Oh, come on!

Salam: …so much as there’s a lot of confusion and anger and resentment. [Emphasis added.]

Because I think it’s pretty obvious that “they” — the people who watch and admire Glenn Beck — are not all racists (I find the idea that Beck’s fans are necessarily racists absurd, to be blunt), I’ll focus on the highlighted section.

Note that Heather makes a crucial shift — she suggests that I’m denying that Glenn Beck’s program is “approved” by Fox News, which is of course not true. 

But I’m also aware of the fact that Rupert Murdoch is at the helm of a vast multinational business enterprise, which owns a variety of media outlets including MySpace Records, Truckin’ Life, Vogue Australia, Lifestyle Pools, The Times Literary Supplement, Bronx Times-Reporter, Papua New Guinea Post-Courier, The Geelong Advertiser, HarperCollins, Fox Searchlight Pictures, Uruguay’s Saeta TV Channel 10, Israel 10, National Geographic Channel, Fox Telecolombia, the Fijian newspaper Shanti Dut, The Wall Street Journal, and Fox News, among many, many, many others. (I haven’t read Truckin’ Life yet, but I intend to start. My guess is that it expresses a pro-truck political bias, but we’ll get to that.)

A friend of mine is an editor HarperCollins. She is a committed left-liberal — she calls herself a socialist — who has published, among otherbooks, Diary of a Very Bad Year, a collection of interviews first published in n + 1, a magazine that wears its democratic socialist convictions on its sleeve and a magazine I greatly enjoy for its sprightly cultural polemics. I’m pretty sure Rupert is okay with HarperCollins publishing left-wing books — peruse the catalogue if you’d like — as long as he makes money in the process.

One of my favorite Murdoch facts is that Rupert Murdoch’s son James Murdoch founded Rawkus Records, an independent hip-hop label that was later acquired by News Corporation. Rawkus featured a number of brilliant rappers who, suffice it to say, were not best characterized as right-of-center in their political views. Some of my favorite Rawkus artists were Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Company Flow, Pharoah Monche, Big L, and the obscure R.A. the Rugged Man, a native of Long Island’s Suffolk County. Most of these artists have left for non-Murdoch labels, but of course MySpace Records is home to a number of similarly leftish recording artists. 

I have a little theory about Rupert Murdoch’s media holdings. My theory is that his goal is to make as much money through his media holdings as possible. That is, I don’t think he’s amassed billions of dollars by accident. And I’m also guessing that he makes political donations on the basis of an assessment of his own interests as well as his political proclivities. Long-time Murdoch-watchers are aware of the role he played in Tony Blair’s political rise, and his brief flirtation with Sen. Hillary Clinton. Does this change the fact that Murdoch is most likely a conservative of some kind? Of course not. But it should complicate our understanding of the man and his motivations.

Indeed, I’d submit that his own political proclivities matter very little to the substance of the various media outlets he owns. Consider this: MTV’s political coverage, to the extent it has any, tends to be fairly left-of-center. Do you seriously believe that Sumner Redstone, the majority owner of National Amusements and, indirectly, MTV’s owner Viacom is an enthusiastic left-winger who is bitterly opposed to “The Man”? Given that Sumner Redstone can make a pretty plausible claim to being “The Man” himself, my guess is that he recognizes that MTV is a for-profit enterprise that will either flatter the sensibilities of its youthful audience or go out of business.

In a similar vein, Fox News has been a commercial success because it connected with an audience that felt underserved, and that was eager for news and information that matched its sensibilities. Murdoch did not invent Fox News. Instead, Roger Ailes came to him with the idea, and he demanded a large amount of capital and near-total autonomy. And that’s what he was given. 

In 2006, Jesse Shapiro and Matthew Gentzkow, two of my favorite economists, published a paper titled “What Drives Media Slant? Evidence From U.S. Daily Newspapers” [PDF]. The notorious right-winger Austan Goolsbee, now serving as one of President Obama’s chief economic advisors, wrote a column for the New York Times on their research


A comparison of circulation data (per capita) to the ratio of Republican to Democratic campaign contributions by ZIP code showed that circulation was strongly related to whether the newspaper matched the readers’ own ideology.

Their measure indicates that The Los Angeles Times, for example, is a liberal paper. Its circulation suffers in Southern California ZIP codes where donations to Republicans are especially high.

The authors calculated the ideal partisan slant for each paper, if all it cared about was getting readers, and they found that it looked almost precisely like the one for the actual newspaper. As Dr. Shapiro put it in an interview, “The data suggest that newspapers are targeting their political slant to their customers’ demand and choosing the amount of slant that will maximize their sales.”

On one hand that sounds a little mercenary. On the other hand, there is certainly good news in the finding. If slant comes from customers, then the views of the owners and the reporters do not matter. We do not need to fear that some partisan billionaire will buy up newspapers and use them for propaganda.

Indeed, the study found that the views of the owner had no significant effect on the slant of the newspaper. The partisanship of corporate donations from the owner had no bearing on the slant of the news coverage in the paper. The slant of a newspaper group’s other newspapers had no bearing, either. The New York Times Company’s newspaper in Spartanburg, S.C., for example, had the same slant as other newspapers in South Carolina that the company did not own.

So although politicians from both sides tend to accuse the news media of partisanship and negativity, the data suggests that they ought to blame the public. The papers basically reflect what their readers want to hear. [Emphasis added.]

That is, the fact that Rupert Murdoch owns News Corporation and Fox News most likely has no bearing on what Glenn Beck says. What does have bearing is Beck’s popularity. Popular programs are given more leeway, popular hosts are given more compensation and more deference, and that is how for-profit media generally works. 

Recall that Glenn Beck began his cable news career at CNN’s Headline News. CNN is not owned by Rupert Murdoch. 

I can’t imagine this will convince many readers of Crooks and Liars. But it’s useful for the rest of us to keep in mind. Many conservatives make the same error, attributing the political bias of various media outlets to their owners. 

If anything, I think the real media bias — which stretches across left-of-center and right-of-center outlets — is a bias towards sensationalism. Convincing your readers or viewers that people they don’t like are bigots or racists, or that they are bent on imposing tyranny, is a good way to keep them hooked. 

I like to think that my readers are capable of thinking for themselves. That’s why I try to avoid hand-waving alarmism, though I’ve definitely indulged in some, usually because I let some kooky media narrative get the better of me.