Monday, June 25, 2007

Murdoch and Nielsen: how the world works

Rupert Murdoch, a famously ruthless man of vast ambition but amorphous ideology, is likely going to buy the Wall Street Journal. He can't make the editorial pages any more absurd, so the primary concern is that he'll bias the news coverage, which has historically been excellent. I expect he'll do that by gradually eliminating all who disagree with him, and retaining those who's thinking is compatible with his. It's claimed that he did something similar with the Times of London. Assuming he doesn't also buy the New York Times (they ought to worry) this is probably good news for them.

In the spirit of the pending acquisition, the NYT has reviewed Rupert's record. The story fits with what I've read of him over the years, with one significant exception. Five journalists are writing, and nobody mentions Murdoch and China. Murdoch changed the way his properties discussed China in order to obtain entry to the world's most important marketplace. The fact that the NYT never mentioned this little episode is a wee bit scary. Did some editor cut it out? Why?

Aside from that rather large exception, the story is a familiar one. Murdoch adjusts his media focus to whoever is in power, as long as he feels that person can be bought. So either Hilary Clinton or Mitt Romney would be quite acceptable, but John Edwards is unthinkable.

The most interesting story in the piece is the attack on the Nielson research operation (emphases mine). It has a few interesting lessons, not all of them obvious. Emphases mine.
Murdoch Reaches Out for Even More - New York Times

... In early 2004, an alarm went off at the News Corporation headquarters.

Nielsen Media Research was preparing to switch to a more sophisticated technology to calculate ratings that television stations use to set advertising rates for local programming. Results of a trial run showed sharp drops in ratings for shows carried on stations owned by the News Corporation, particularly those aimed at minority viewers.

With millions of dollars at stake, Mr. Murdoch sprang into action. He hired the Glover Park Group, a consulting firm with deep ties to the Clinton administration, to run a grass-roots ground war. Charging that the system was faulty and that it undercounted minorities, the firm started an extensive advertising campaign intended to delay the rollout of the new technology and staged protests around the country that drew such unlikely allies as the Rev. Al Sharpton. Among the Democrats who wrote to Nielsen opposing the new system was Mrs. Clinton.

The New York Post [jf: a premier Murdoch property] pursued the story, running news headlines like “Nailing Nielsen” and routinely failing to mention its parent company’s interest in the outcome.

The resulting two-year campaign was unusually brazen, even by Beltway standards. Protesters massed outside Nielsen offices in New York. The atmosphere grew so charged that Nielsen’s chief, Susan Whiting, hired a personal bodyguard and the company strengthened security at its headquarters, according to Nielsen officials.

At one point, Ms. Whiting publicly accused Mr. Chernin and Mr. Murdoch’s son Lachlan of threatening to do “everything possible to discredit you and the company in Washington” if she did not back down. Mr. Chernin and Mr. Murdoch publicly denied making the threat.

But the News Corporation turned to Republican allies to put pressure on Nielsen. Senator Conrad Burns, a Montana Republican who was chairman of the Commerce Committee’s communications subcommittee, and Representative Vito J. Fossella, a New York Republican, introduced legislation that threatened Nielsen with government oversight...

...Political contributions flowed to nearly all the legislation’s supporters. In 2005, the year the legislation was introduced, records show that the bill’s 29 sponsors and co-sponsors together received at least $144,650 in donations from the News Corporation’s political action committees and lobbyists.

Ultimately, the dispute was settled quietly. Mr. Murdoch succeeded in keeping the old rating system in place for several months in the three top markets, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Those months included the sweeps period, when advertising rates are set...
Interesting lesson one: If you believe the NYT story, the attack didn't achieve all that much. Murdoch took millions from advertiser who's message was probably wasted, but the system, supposedly changed anyway. So did Murdoch win or not? Was the attack all that profitable, or did it mostly produce new enemies?

Interesting lesson two: Ok, we know this one. Hilary is well integrated into the established order.

Interesting lesson three: The unasked questions are often the most interesting questions. While all this was going on, did anyone detect Murdoch's hand in the operation? Did NYT journalists twig to why the New York Post was so keen to right about Nielsen's change? Did they write about it? How about some commentary from NYP insiders? What are the mechanics of this kind of operation at the newsroom level?

Murdoch is the present and future of media control. If Americans care they can do something about it, but I think Americans, like everyone else, are overwhelmed by the complexity of the emerging world.

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