Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Fiend of Dope Island: The Fiend bites a mighty hand that once fed him (crumbs)

Lots of weird stuff in the international news lately. I am really finding it quite surreal. Too bad I don't have any friends (consequences of my movie critic/author/only sober person in NE Ohio syndrome), or I could turn to them and ask, "Are you seeing the same thing I'm seeing?" Like aristocratic British cookbook author and Martha Stewart-type `domestic goddess' Nigella Lawson accused of being a crazed cocaine fiend. I mean, this is MAD Magazine stuff.

Then there are the rumors finally out in the open that the dissolution of global-media mogul Rupert Murdoch's marriage, to a much-younger bit of Asian dim-sum named Wendi Deng, has been ascribed to Deng having a too-close relationship with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Are you seeing the same thing I'm seeing? I always had my suspicions about Murdoch's young-enough-to-be-his-daughter second wife, but...Wendi Deng and Tony Blair?! That's like the really bad rough-draft of the sequel to LOVE ACTUALLY.

It's overshadowing a bit in the UK what is also a bit weird to me, the trial, underway at last, of various executives of Murdoch's NewsCorp International, in the "phone hacking" scandal that, when it first surfaced, let to the immediate closure of an entire weekly London tabloid, the sleazy News of the World (as opposed to closures of sleazy newspapers here, like the old Cleveland Press/Cleveland Free Times, who just run out of money and advertisers).

Some people at the time figured that Murdoch's career was over and empire finished just with that. In a worst-case scenario the phone-hack scandal would take down other Murdoch acquisitions like the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the European Sky cable/satellite system, and even Fox... But no, something that extreme wasn't going to happen. Even though the phone-hack thing is very much the moral equivalent of what Watergate was to the Nixon presidency - one grubby burglary that uncovered a mass of impeachment-level corruption. I suspect most of the other corporate media, as much as they hate Rupert Murdoch, just would not let a collapse like that happen to cohorts in these desperate days. These newspaper people, especially, would cover for each other. Besides, most of them are bastards who are no better anyway, and they know it.

Here's a disclosure. In a way, I used to work for Rupert Murdoch. It was back when his massive acquisitions included TV Guide magazine (a hugely expensive purchase Mr. Murdoch came to regret) and a small-time movie-encyclopedia publisher called CineBooks, on which I was a contracted freelancer. I wound up with a short-lived home-video column on the TV Guide website. For the duration, I could tell people, with some accuracy, that I was a NewsCorp employee. Had I but lived in New York City at this time (my TV Guide money would not have covered a fraction of the rent, I promise), I might have been present at the time Mr. Murdoch visited the CineBooks/TV Guide offices and shared a champagne toast with everybody to their bright futures.

(Maybe I could have warned him about Wendi, too. An overabundance of reviewing I did for CineBooks seemed to be of straight-to-video B-thrillers in which sexy women drag lustful men to their doom.)

But I stayed in Cleveland all this time. And, after a few years, NewsCorp pulled the plug on CineBooks, champagne toast notwithstanding.

So watching Mr. Murdoch's travails at this time is quite a melancholy experience indeed. I was that close...yet that far. As another publisher of mine, in France, once put it about my tangled freelance business arrangements, "Charles, you are lost in the play of giants." Now, had any of these people, HIRED me, conclusively, my loyalties would have been more certain. But none of them ever did any more than string me along as freelancing.

(Mr. Murdoch, if you are reading this, just know that for the right money and taking care of my suffering family, I would have taken the fall for the phone hacking. All my fault, all my idea, the boss knew nothing about it. I'd have been your Oliver North, Rupert Murdoch. And I wouldn't have engaged in any funny stuff with your Asian dragon lady spouse, either. Learned my lesson there the hard way.)

Even now, in his 80s, when even Peter B. Lewis is gone, Murdoch still hangs on like an old Aussie battler. Back in the 1980s eminent playwright David Hare wrote a one-man show about Murdoch entitled Pravda. It played the London stage with Anthony Hopkins (then unknown to most Americans) as a Rupert stand-in. I wonder what it might look like updated.

There is the PBS-Frontline documentary episode Murdoch's Scandal, which gives US viewers a phone-hacking-for-dummies perspective on what all the fuss is about. But if you dig into the video archives, there's an interesting, if quite one-sided documentary I'd recommend as amusing in view of the ongoing NewsCorp soap opera.

It's called OUTFOXED: RUPERT MURDOCH'S WAR ON JOURNALISM. Back in its pre-phone- hack-scandal era, in 2004, when Wendi Deng was just as popular as, well, Nigella Lawson, the documentary feature racked up unusually big numbers in its home-video debut, mainly thanks to heavy plugs in the alternative media, online and in Gary Trudeau's "Doonesbury" daily comic strip. Thus were more than 50,000 copies of OUTFOXED sold on Amazon alone in about two weeks. Numbers like that should make hometown Cleveland indie filmmakers weep.

OUTFOXED is a corrosive cocktail of liberal complaints, disgruntled-employee gripes and dirty laundry about Murdoch's Fox News cable channel. Many detractors, from respected anchor-elder Walter Cronkite, to usual-suspect political groups such as FAIR and, accuse Fox News of being a right-wing organ and Republic cheerleaders, parroting the Bush White House and the conservative bias of media mogul Murdoch and CEO Roger Ailes.

None of the bad guys are interviewed, nor are any official Fox spokespeople, though some fearful anonymous sources speak via electronically-distorted audio like mob witnesses. On that note, the overarching issue, not always kept in focus or perspective here but emerging later in the Occupy Wall Street era, is the corporate ownership of the media - nicely compared at the outset here to dons in THE GODFATHER dividing up territory.

The charge is that Fox, unchecked with a global audience, manufactures reality on the boss' orders, and reporters allegedly got Orwellian edicts handed down from on high that the American invasion of Iraq be spun in shining, positive terms. US Marine snipers were to be dubbed, more palatably, `sharpshooters,' and Ronald Reagan's birthday party was to be headline news; etc.

Filmmaker Robert Greenwald's creative editing (a Fox sin listed here) and other touches conspire to put the channel's acerbic ranter Bill "Shut Up!" O'Reilly and other quasi-newscasters in the worst possible light. It's a fun, scrappy Fox hunt and trip down memory lane to the divided America of the darkest Bush years - until Barack Obama could come around and start to make George W. Bush look almost good. Speaking of...come on, Greenwald, is Murdoch really worse than the Hearsts and Pulitzers of past eras? Moreover, as other commentators pointed out, Murdoch and his agencies actually put money into Democratic causes and PACs to an almost equal degree that he did for Republican ones.

Even though the phone-hack scandal unearthed an apparent focus on dirtying liberal UK politicians, all in all the Australia press baron seems to cultivate friends on both extremes of the political spectrum - as long as they've got power - and is content to play either side, as long as it sells his newspapers, markets his cast of celebrity pundits, or increases ratings. Which is, one might say, just the nature of the beast. Sorry, lefties, if Rupert never got around to keeping Air America going. Probably might have, had he not sunk so much into acquiring TV Guide.

So it may or may amuse you at this time to watch OUTFOXED at this late sell-by date. Needless to say, the documentary never names a lowly peon such as myself as a NewsCorp collaborator. And to think, I even wrote a movie review once suggesting that Leni Riefenstahl kind of got a raw deal (it was one of the few ones I did that my liberal editors at CineBooks avoided publishing). 

At least we can all agree it's going to be some sight to see when someone finally does a movie biography of Murdoch's life, un-fair and un-balanced though the script might be. Lucy Liu and Gong Li can have a martial-arts catfight to decide who gets to play Wendi Deng. While they're thus occupied, Bai Ling walks away with the gig.

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