Press Box

Sympathy for Rupert Murdoch

In defense of his company’s $1 million contribution to the Republican Governors Association.

Rupert Murdock. Click image to expand.
Rupert Murdoch

The Democrats and their fellow travelers convulsed with fury yesterday at the news that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. had given $1 million to the Republican Governors Association. Democratic Governors Association Executive Director Nathan Daschle sent a letter to Roger Ailes, who heads Murdoch’s Fox News Channel, demanding that Fox News start running a disclaimer informing viewers of its donation in its coverage of governors and of gubernatorial campaigns.

Liberal advocacy group Media Matters for America flayed Murdoch and Fox News, Fox Business Network, and for not reporting the donation. “Any pretense that may have existed about the ties between Fox News and the Republican Party has been ripped violently away,” a Democratic National Committee spokesman told the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz.

Although I’ve made Murdoch my whipping boy in the past, I’ve got to defend the genocidal tyrant’s donation. To begin with, many media corporations make political donations. As Kurtz points out in the Post, General Electric, which owns NBC and half of MSNBC, has given the Republican governors $205,000 since last year. Perhaps the only reason the Democrats and Media Matters didn’t bitch about that donation was because GE also gave $245,000 to the Democratic governors over the same interval. So the Democrats’ real complaint isn’t that Murdoch has tainted his company’s journalism by making a political donation. It’s that he didn’t give them as much fun money as he did the Republicans.

For Murdoch or any other CEO, campaign donations aren’t donations—they’re investments. Competing as he does in the highly regulated industry of broadcasting, Murdoch cannot function without government licenses. He cannot expand his broadcast holdings without securing new licenses. Because his very livelihood depends on the whims of politicians and regulators, he’d be insane not to be funneling all the legal cash he can to the most powerful and influential politicians. I hate to write this, but it’s true. Murdoch is a victim of government power. If Washington didn’t flex so much regulatory power, he wouldn’t feel compelled to pay them such steep tribute.

Whether you want to view Murdoch as a victim or not, the $1 million he just dropped on the Republicans will pay future dividends as some of these politicians move to Washington to take Senate seats or other positions of power in the permanent government.

In 1987, Murdoch learned from Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., that you can never have too many political allies. The two senators pushed through a measure that prevented the Federal Communications Commission from extending the temporary waiver that had allowed Murdoch to own TV stations and newspapers in the same cities (Boston and New York) at the same time. Had Murdoch stockpiled the right flavors of political juice, he probably could have drowned Kennedy’s move, which cost him ownership of the New York Post for several years. Since then, Murdoch has wisely labored to keep fed the political mouths he needs the most.

Although Murdoch tilts right ideologically, he rarely lets his own politics come between him and business. By dumping the Tories in England for Labor’s Tony Blair, he earned himself an honorary seat in the Blair Cabinet, according to a former Blair spin doctor. Then, he was happy to dump Labor to support Tory David Cameron in the last election. He’s thrown fundraisers for uber-Democrats Hillary Clinton and Charles E. Schumer. And he’s flattered, kowtowed to, and paid off the Communist establishment in China in hopes of winning the regime’s favor for his broadcast empire. (The effort failed. He recently sold down his China TV investment.)

I’d rather judge Murdoch on what sort of favors he asks of the politicians on his payroll than to judge them by what party they belong to. As long as Murdoch doesn’t play offense by asking politicians to punish his competitors with new regulatory measures and limits himself to playing defense—i.e., requesting relief from onerous or extractive regulation—I’m fine with his donations.

Writing on the New York Times op-ed page about the Blagojevich case today, Scott Turow observes that corporations and unions have obligations to spend money to improve profits and benefit their members. If Murdoch wasn’t making timely and legal political donations, the News Corp. board of directors would have no choice but to remove him as the chairman and chief executive officer.


If there were only a way to give donations to FCC commissioners and staff, I’ll bet Murdoch would do it. As an FCC commissioner (PDF) once put it, administrative agencies mass-produce laws whereas legislatures engage only in handicraft production. Meanwhile, if News Corp. wants to make me the chairman and CEO, I’ll have to sleep on it over the weekend and talk to Don Graham about it. What company should hire me as CEO? Send ideas to Make a donation to my Twitter feed by following me. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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