In the midst of the dustup over Rupert Murdoch's News Corp phone-hacking scandal, a larger question is rarely raised in the corporate media coverage of the story. How did it come to be that one man – through an international media corporation – has come to exert such enormous influence over the UK government, much of the elected power structure in Washington, DC, and the political hierarchy in Australia?
Watching “Orwell Rolls in His Grave,” it becomes increasingly clear that we can't see
the forest through the trees, because with the consolidation of for-profit corporate media, the forest of information is pretty much owned by just a few companies. And those companies not only frequently create “facts” to enhance profits, but also create the frame through which public policy is debated to meet their business goals.
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“Could a media system, controlled by a few global corporations with the ability to overwhelm all competing voices, be able to turn lies into truth?” This is a question Robert Kane Pappas, the director and narrator of “Orwell Rolls,” undertakes to answer in a documentary that is both a journey through the harm done by corporate media consolidation and a testament to how relevant George Orwell's book on totalitarianism – “1984” – is today.
“Orwell Rolls in his Grave,” filmed during the Bush administration, is the Truthout Progressive Pick of the Week.
Mark Karlin: How do you feel about the power- and profit- hungry side of the corporate media industry that we are seeing unravel in Murdoch's News Corp?
Robert Kane Pappas: Through lobbyists, media companies like News Corp largely write the laws and fill in the key details of regulations. In the fall of 2002, prior to our invasion of Iraq, I was filming around the congressional office buildings. [Independent Vermont Senator] Bernie Sanders' chief of staff assigned a friendly and competent assistant to take me around and show me where it happens, how laws are written, through the halls and committee hearing rooms – places the mainstream news organizations rarely place their cameras. Podiums and sound bites are their methodology. It's easy and cheaper.
Here, I was introduced to something called “place-holders.” Outside the hearing rooms – where lawmakers are examining, for instance, telecommunication policy – down-and-out looking people are paid to show up first thing in the morning. They stand or sit on the floor on little round pieces of paper about 12 inches wide, saving places (places supposedly reserved for the public) for the lobbyists, who show up minutes before the hearing begins in their Brooks Brothers suits, and replace the placeholders. It's about writing the laws, the inherent promise of future jobs in the private sector (the revolving door) and campaign donations. So, in addition to the drafting of the laws, the regulators and politicians are captured by the people they are supposed to be regulating, including corporations like News Corp.
MK: The use of quotations from Orwell's “1984” as an ongoing analogy to the modern media age is quite effective in the documentary. How did you come up with this idea and pick specific passages from “1984”?
RKP: I had been thinking independently about our ability to forget things that happened, specifically, events that clearly were wrong, that crossed the line. It seemed to me during the 2000 election recount that the media's narrative was being orchestrated. Shockingly, after the Supreme Court decision, the media simply said, “Time to move on,” end of reporting: “Here's the new story.” And everyone forgot.
I remembered Orwell's “1984.” I picked it up, reread it, looked for relevant passages. A researcher, Tom Blackburn, combed through the text for specific quotes.
Orwell also focuses on the meaning of words, and the manipulation of them. I thought, “Let's film an Orwellian media dictionary.” I made lists of words that are used and altered in the media political nexus.
MK: This film is in large part a personal reflection – interspersed with experts on media consolidation such as Bernie Sanders, Robert McChesney and Mark Crispin Miller. How did you personally come to focus on the pernicious effects of profit-driven corporate media owned by just a few companies?
RKP: I went to the NYU Tisch graduate school of film. Many of us had this idea of doing independent film, of making personal, relevant films, as opposed to Hollywood fluff. I directed a few. The problem for independent filmmakers is that huge companies control all the promotion, all the advertising. Hollywood films' advertising budgets are as large as their shooting budgets. We didn't understand this, at first. It doesn't matter how good your film is; if people don't know about it, they won't go and see it.
So, I understood the paradigm and could recognize it in the way stories had come to be covered. At one point while I was at NYU, the Iranian hostages had been in captivity for over 350 days, and for each of those days, The New York Post had a little hand-drawn picture of a blindfolded hostage, with the number of days accrued typed below. I called it “the never-ending news story.” I got fed up with the ongoing soap opera, grabbed a primitive video camera from a classmate, and talked my way into a video interview with Murdoch's editor at The New York Post, who ended up telling me he was quitting in disgust.
MK: Yes, you have a great clip from more than two decades ago, with you interviewing the then-outgoing editor of The New York Post after Murdoch acquired it. It is grainy and faded and seems to be a ghost from the past that foretells so much. What has happened in the intervening years to strengthen your conviction that the information we receive about public policy issues and the “news” is brought to us in an Orwellian frame?
RKP: Media manipulation has been going on for a long time. There are many examples. William Randolph Hearst comes to mind. The difference is in degree. In my new doc on the science of aging, “To Age or Not To Age,” scientists discuss “degrees” of aging damage. The startlingly simple idea is that the degrees, over time, change the nature of things. I think this is relevant to the pickle we are in, not only with regard to the corporate media, but also our economy, the various wars, etcetera. As there is more and more media concentration, less reporting, more manufactured PR, the nature of the impact to our society changes, has unforeseen negative effects that become cumulative in nature.
MK: In what ways do the campaign contributions of these large “news delivery” companies influence politics in the US?
RKP: This is similar to the problem of independent films. A politician without money for advertising is out of luck. They are not taken seriously. The media companies control whether a candidate gets “coverage” – which itself is tied to the knowledge of how much he or she has raised. The networks then know how much money the candidate is likely to spend on commercial airtime buys – so, this is a reinforcing system of legal corruption and quid pro quo news coverage.
MK: Does it surprise you at all that it appears that Murdoch pretty much “owned” the current UK prime minister and is rumored to have heavily influenced Tony Blair?
RKP: It doesn't surprise me in the least. A number of the potential GOP presidential candidates are paid commentators on Fox. Murdoch had perfected the technique, until the hacking of a British teenage girl happened.
MK: How has it come to be that Fox “News” has set the tone and framing for discussion of public policy and politics on television and even on Capitol Hill?
RKP: Fox News is able to set the range of discussion partly because of the vertical nature of Murdoch's holdings, which includes, books, TV, cable, movies, newspapers and magazines. He is the kindling and fuel for ideas developed by people like Koch and in right-wing think tanks. This is an infrastructure that dwarfs the silly talk about so-called liberal bias in the media, which is a right-wing myth generated by the likes of Fox.
Moreover, News Corp has become so powerful that the other major media entities like NBC, etcetera, feel compelled to respond to a Fox narrative, further driving the coverage.
On Capitol Hill, the GOP is almost totally captured by special interests. The Republican leadership propels talking points, period. That is the basis of their careers and leads to regular appearances on TV. They become well known. A great number of the Democrats are captured as well, and this adds up to a tipping point of corrupt politicians and a rigged media narrative.
MK: You discuss in the film how the majority of Americans held beliefs on certain reasons the Bush administration cited for going to war with Iraq that were simply not true. Isn't that, in large part, because large news outlets became simply megaphones for the White House during the buildup to the Iraq War?
RKP: If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it. It really is public brainwashing and misinformation.
MK: We've seen a precipitous decline in investigative reporting in the corporate media. Is this because investigative reporting is not profitable or it might reveal too much about the government that the for-profit media relies upon for favorable business regulations?
RKP: I think the answer is both. In-depth reporting is expensive. It is much cheaper to have people sit around or on remotes and talk about politics like it's baseball. But there is also a predetermined intent in terms of what is reported and how it is reported, and the degree to which a story is pushed. Both have bad effects.
I can answer this with an analogy. Scientists have had trouble conquering certain diseases precisely because there are multiple causes, redundant processes and feedback loops. Dr. Guarente at MIT explained that in aging, so many things are going wrong that it was thought impossible to fix enough of them at once in order to intervene, to slow aging down. Then scientists accidentally stumbled on certain nexus genes, which operate high in the pyramid of cause and effect to influence many downstream effects. Likewise, the problem of media/politics is multifold. Many things are out of whack. How can we get around the snafu? Well, Rupert Murdoch is a nexus point; this may be an opportune moment.
MK: Murdoch's News Corp is grievously wounded – perhaps critically in the UK – and time will tell if this is the case in the US and Australia. How did Murdoch come to be a shadow powerbroker with such enormous political influence and clout in the US, UK and Australia? In the UK, and certainly in the Republican Party in the US, the connection between Murdoch and the government is almost seamless.
RKP: Murdoch's empire is several decades in the making. He is absolutely hands-on. I interviewed his former private chef and housekeeper. The first thing his chef said was, “When I get a call, it is Rupert Murdoch on the phone, not an assistant.” They also told me that Rupert, at that time, couldn't operate a VCR or a computer, but that he had a Rolodex that contained the personal phone numbers of heads of state, top financiers, even Princess Diana. He makes and breaks political careers and has been doing business in a certain way for a long time.