Topic: Government and Politics

Murdoch vs. The Man

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing lately about Rupert Murdoch’s drive for total world domination. I’d be as disappointed as anyone if he took over the Wall Street Journal and wrung out of it what makes the Journal a great paper.

But a recent New York Times story on “Murdoch, Ruler of a Vast Empire” rather off-handedly made clear what real power is — and it isn’t what Murdoch has. As the Times reported,

Shortly before Christmas in 1987, Senator Edward M. Kennedy taught Mr. Murdoch a tough lesson in the ways of Washington.

Two years earlier, Mr. Murdoch had paid $2 billion to buy seven television stations in major American markets with the intention of starting a national network. To comply with rules limiting foreign ownership, he became an American citizen. And to comply with rules banning the ownership of television stations and newspapers in the same market, he promised to sell some newspapers eventually. But almost immediately he began looking for ways around that rule.

Then Mr. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, stepped in. Mr. Kennedy’s liberal politics had made him a target of Murdoch-owned news media outlets, particularly The Boston Herald, which often referred to Mr. Kennedy as “Fat Boy.” [This is an unfair claim by the Times; one columnist at the Herald calls Kennedy that. This is like saying “The Times often refers to Cheney as ‘Shooter’ ” because Maureen Dowd does.] He engineered a legislative maneuver that forced an infuriated Mr. Murdoch to sell his beloved New York Post.

Murdoch could spend $2 billion on American media properties and change his citizenship — but one irritated senator could force him to sell his favorite American newspaper. The Times continued,

“Teddy almost did him in,” said Philip R. Verveer, a cable television lobbyist. “I presume that over time, as his media ownership in this country has grown and grown, he’s realized that you can’t throw spit wads at leading figures in society with impunity.”

Well, actually you can in a free society. That’s what makes it a free society — that you can criticize the powerful. And true, nobody tried to put Murdoch in jail. They just forced him to change his citizenship and sell his newspaper.

He ran into similar problems in Britain. His newspapers there, unsurprisingly, usually supported the Conservative Party. But in 1997 two of them endorsed Labour Party leader Tony Blair for prime minister. Blair reacted warmly to the support, but some Labour leaders still wanted to enact media ownership limits, which might have forced Murdoch to sell some of his properties.

“Blair’s attitude was quite clear,” Andrew Neil, the editor of The Sunday Times under Mr. Murdoch in London from 1983 to 1994, said in an interview. “If the Murdoch press gave the Blair government a fair hearing, it would be left intact.”

Is this what the long British struggle for freedom of the press has come to? A prime minister can threaten to dismantle newspapers if they don’t give him “a fair hearing”?

Murdoch has been a realist about politics. He knows that while he may buy ink by the barrel, governments have the actual power. They can shut him down at the behest of a prime minister or a powerful senator. So he plays the game, in Britain and the United States and even China.

After the 2006 elections, for instance, News Corporation and its employees started giving more money to Democrats than Republicans.

“We did seek more balance,” said Peggy Binzel, Mr. Murdoch’s former chief in-house lobbyist. “You need to be able to tell your story to both sides to be effective. And that’s what political giving is about.”

Rupert Murdoch’s empire may become yet more vast, but he’ll still be subject to the whims of powerful politicians. This is hardly surprising in China. But one would hope that in the country of John Milton and the country of John Peter Zenger, and especially in the country of the First Amendment, a publisher would be free to say whatever he chooses without fear of government assault on either his person or his property.

Unequal Justice?

There it was, emblazoned across the front page of the Washington Post, a headline made especially disturbing by its publication on July 4:

Justice Is Unequal for Parents Who Host Teen Drinking Parties

What did it mean, I wondered. Poor parents go to jail, rich parents walk? The law is enforced in black neighborhoods, winked at in white suburbs?

Not exactly. In fact, the Post reported,

In Virginia and the District, parents who host such parties can be charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a misdemeanor that can carry jail time. In Maryland, hosting an underage drinking party is punished with a civil penalty, payable with a fine, even for multiple offenses.

So it’s not a story about unequal justice, just about different jurisdictions with different laws. But the Post sees it differently:

The stark contrast in punishments is just one inconsistency in a patchwork of conflicting legal practices and public attitudes about underage drinking parties.

“Inconsistency.” “Patchwork.” “Conflicting legal practices.” This is ridiculous. Move along, folks, nothing to see here. On the Fourth of July, let’s pause to remember: The United States is a federal republic, not a unitary centralized state. Different states and even different cities and counties have different laws.

One of the benefits of a decentralized republic is that laws can reflect people’s different values and attitudes. Decentralism also allows states and counties to be “laboratories of democracy.” If voters in Maryland and the District of Columbia read about how Virginia sentences parents to 27 months in jail for serving alcohol to teenagers after taking away their car keys — and they think that sounds like a good idea — then they can change their own laws. Or if Virginia voters notice that Maryland has a slightly lower highway fatality rate, then they might decide to change their laws.

States in our federal republic have different laws about lots of things, certainly including alcohol since the repeal of national Prohibition. I grew up in a dry county in Kentucky — no legal sales of alcohol of any kind — but neighboring counties were wet. The old joke was that Bourbon County was dry while Christian County was wet, but that seems not to be true any more. First cousins can marry in some states but not in others. The rules used to vary on interracial marriage until the Supreme Court stepped in and banned laws against it. In the past couple of years we have begun to experience different state laws on same-sex marriage.

Some people seem to want all laws to be uniform across this vast nation, from California to the New York Island, from the redwood forest to the Gulf stream waters, from sea to shining sea. They use their power in Congress to impose national speed limits, national environmental rules, national school testing laws, national marijuana bans, and so on. But the beauty of America is that we have resisted many of those pressures, and there are still real differences in the laws of San Francisco and San Antonio; Manhattan, New York, and Manhattan, Kansas; Wyoming and Wyomissing, Pennsylvania.

The laws are even different in Virginia and nearby Maryland. That does not mean that justice is unequal.

Hillary’s Chutzpah

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton denounces the Libby commutation as “disregard for the rule of law” and a “clear signal that in this administration, cronyism and ideology trump competence and justice.”

She has a point. But hello?! Wasn’t she part of the Clinton administration? Speaking of disregarding the rule of law.

And abusing the pardon power? The Clinton administration was notoriously stingy in pardoning real victims of unjust sentences. When it did use the pardon power, it seemed to have an unerring instinct for scandalous and undeserving beneficiaries. In 1999, as Hillary Clinton began her Senate campaign, President Clinton pardoned 16 members of the Puerto Rican terrorist organization FALN, raising questions about whether the pardons were intended to curry favor with New York’s Puerto Rican electorate. And then there was the infamous last day in office, when Clinton managed to pardon or commute the sentences of

  • Marc Rich, a fugitive tax evader whose ex-wife was a major contributor to the Clintons;
  • Susan McDougal, who loyally refused to testify in the Whitewater scandal;
  • Child-molesting Democratic congressman Mel Reynolds;
  • Post Office-molesting Democratic congressman Dan Rostenkowski;
  • Cocaine kingpin Carlos Vignali, whose father was a major Democratic contributor;
  • Four Hasidic shysters alleged to have promised and delivered Hasidic votes to Hillary Clinton’s first campaign;
  • Clinton’s half-brother Roger;
  • and various crooks who paid fees to Hillary Clinton’s brothers Hugh and Tony Rodham to lobby the First Family.

With so many people in jail who deserve a pardon, as Gene Healy and I have discussed in earlier Cato@Liberty posts, it’s appalling that both President Clinton and President Bush have used their pardon powers in such ways. And if anyone lacks credibility to criticize the Libby pardon, it would be President Clinton and Senator Clinton.

“He Has a Terrific Knack of Not Looking through the Rearview Mirror.”

So says Rep. K. Michael Conaway (R-Tex.) of President Bush in Sunday’s Washington Post.

Conaway, a “longtime friend who once worked for Bush,” meant this as a compliment, and it is – to a point. Even though I am a historian, I am willing to put the study of history into perspective. Sticking with the metaphor, I don’t drive down the highway with tape over my windshield. When you’re moving forward, you need to keep your eyes on the road.

But my driving instructor also told me to at least glance in that rearview mirror from time to time. And it is the president’s unwillingness to ask hard questions about his past decisions that so undermines his ability to fashion effective policy.

This story hearkens back to a widely-cited article by Ron Suskind, published just before the 2004 election, and particularly to a quote maddeningly attributed to a “senior adviser” to Bush. Suskind writes:

The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

George W. Bush will leave office on January 20, 2009. He’ll be creating his own reality for 567 more days. And there doesn’t appear to be anything that anyone, particularly those of us who “study…how things will sort out,” can do about it.

European Union Squanders Money on Self-Promotion and Propaganda, Including Sex Videos

A story in the UK-based Telegraph discusses a new report that exposes the European Union’s expensive propaganda campaign. With a budget of more than $7 billion, the self-promotion effort is hardly trivial:

The European Union is spending £3.8 billion a year on “propaganda” to win over its sceptical citizens… As well as publishing a plethora of pamphlets and employing an army of public relations staff, the EU has spent hundreds of millions of pounds on teaching aids, school trips and even cartoons. According to Lee Rotherham, the author of a new book which examines the EU’s spending on its image, such initiatives are an “outrageous and cynical attempt to brainwash the young”. …Let’s Explore Europe Together, an online teaching aid aimed at nine to 12-year-olds, describes the EU as a “really good plan that had never been tried before”. …In Italy, reports Mr Rotherham, children have been confronted by Camillo e l’Euro in Europa, a cartoon that champions the single currency. …Europe’s Best Successes, a 51-page pamphlet to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the EU, features lines such as “if you are lucky enough to be a citizen of the EU”, and “young people have really benefited from the development of a borderless Europe”. Mr Rotherham also details extensive spending on umbrellas, mouse mats, pencils and other items branded with the EU logo - part of a £2.4 billion budget for European Commission “projects”. He also reveals big grants to think-tanks and EU-funded trips to the European Parliament.

The U.S. government wastes money in similar ways, of course, including propaganda campaigns on behalf of the new Medicare prescription drug entitlement and the President’s no-bureaucrat-left-behind education scheme. But the Europeans seem to have more creativity when it comes to wasting taxpayer money. The UK-based Times reports that part of the European Union’s self-promotion budget was used to produce a sex video. In the understatement of the year, a bureaucrat admitted that the EU is not quite ready to compete with Paris Hilton:

The latest promotional video from Brussels shows European citizens engaged in enthusiastic congress, but it is not the sort of union the founding fathers had in mind. The film, available on the European commission’s space on YouTube, the video website, shows 18 couples having sex. The video opens with a man and woman ripping each other’s clothes off in the bedroom while bottles rattle on a shelf. In the interests of sexual equality, two of the couples are gay. …The video is part of a campaign by Margot Wallstrom, the communications commissioner, to boost interest in the workings of the EU. …The scenes were compiled by the commission’s press unit, using footage from Amélie and All About My Mother. Both films were supported by the EU. Wallstrom’s spokesman was initially unaware of the video’s presence on the site and denied it was in questionable taste. …he added: “We can’t really compete with Paris Hilton yet.” …Godfrey Bloom, a UK Independence party MEP, said: “I suppose this film is appropriate. The EU has been screwing Britain for the past 30 years.”

Raise Your Own Darn Taxes

In a Politico story about what appears to be push-polling (“a political campaign technique in which an individual or organization attempts to influence or alter the view of respondents under the guise of conducting a poll”) by Hillary Clinton is this gem:

Freeman Ng, a software designer in Oakland, Calif., reported getting a call late in the morning of May 5.

He wrote on DailyKos that day that he was asked how the fact that “Barack Obama failed to vote in favor of abortion rights nine times as a state senator” might affect his vote.

He said he was also asked a question that associated Edwards with tax hikes.

“A lot of the statements struck me as being very conservative and moderate in orientation, like the tax thing,” said Ng, who stands well to the left of center. “To me, that was a plus that he’s going to raise my taxes.”

Hey, you wanna pay more taxes? Fine, pay more taxes. Nobody’s stopping you. But leave me out of it.