Futurists know that change does not take place in linear fashion. Rather, change occurs more at an exponential rate. In a process, the innocent mistake made early on affects many future steps unless the mistake is immediately detected and corrected. On the positive side, it’s kind of like the wise savings tool of compound interest: your nest egg grows collecting interest on the interest. A positive reputation continues to grow the public’s goodwill if it is supported by ongoing positive actions.
I was reminded of this the other day when the Space Shuttle Atlantis completed its final mission, ending an amazing period of 35 years of space discovery and adventure. The Space program also led to likewise far-reaching scientific breakthroughs.
This milestone in human achievement was fortunately marred by minimal loss of human life (considering the huge risks involved), the most precious of cargoes. But the race to space and beyond let us explore the boundaries of our earthly planetary home. This required a boldness and élan not seen in America in a very long time. Perhaps the same thing can be said of another modern day global entrepreneur – Rupert Murdoch.
This energetic and hard-driving Australian is never to be taken lightly. He has set out to build a media powerhouse, and accomplished this wildly ambitious goal. Where they once said the sun never sets on the British Empire – the same can be said about this plucky Australian. Time and time again, rivals have underestimated him, and paid the price for being asleep while this watchful buyer swept in and picked up the prize.
Few honest publishers would not express wonder and amazement about the fact that Murdoch has held it all together thus far. The company he built and tried to hand off to his progeny is complex and extensive, from titillating tabloids like the News of the World (now replaced by The Sun) to the top financial paper on earth, Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal.
His venture into TV broadcasting and filmmaking are akin to the likes of a modern day William Randolph Hearst. Not only is Murdoch the king of a media empire, he also presides over the tidal wave of influence and power that such an empire brings. To paraphrase once again: when they said the sun never sets on the British Empire, it might be more aptly said for Murdoch that the sun never sets until he says it does. This type of unbridled power can become destructive in the wrong hands, so caution is always advised in its deployment.
Murdoch’s influence is so great; his newspapers can make or break presidents, prime ministers and financial markets. It is said that media does not tell us what to think but what to think about. In Murdoch’s case, he and his editors and producers tell us, in one way or another, what to think about – perhaps more than anyone on earth.
The great fib of publishing is that they leave the editorial aspect of the media up to the expert journalists and editors, and the publishers do not meddle in politics. If you believe that, then read no further – I have a bridge in Brooklyn I want to sell you.
Media has the power to shape policy and it has the means to color our thinking on an issue. This is why the whole Murdoch controversy is so salacious and tasty. Murdoch’s tale is replete with parallels in Shakespeare. He is the elder King Lear watching his back from would-be familial rivals. Like Shylock, he can be avaricious and calculating – not willing to spend a dime more than necessary to get a deal done. And like Julius Caesar, he has a foot in both the old world and modern times of the Internet. Murdoch is either a victim of all his excoriations of the past (people waiting to get revenge) or his organization has become so complex and unwieldy that the right hand does not know what the left is doing.
In the world of tabloid journalism – the ends (getting the exclusive inside track) may justify the means (invading people’s privacy through wiretaps and illegal eavesdropping). In the world of ethics, it doesn't. The term journalistic ethics may be an oxymoron but Murdoch realizes transgressions on the news side of his empire can halt his global business expansion – something no media mogul can afford.
With that said, Murdoch is not quite ready for them to sing “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport” on his grave. Reputation lessons for Murdoch:
1. The captain of the ship is responsible for the actions of his or her crew. So… part of the blame for any transgressions will stick to Murdoch.
2. Apologies ring hollow if they are not accompanied by actions. Murdoch’s enterprise needs to be reformed. Either he should do it himself or it will be forced upon him by outraged regulators, public officials and the general public (increasingly concerned about their privacy).
3. Reputation building and protection is a long-term game but a collection of small mistakes and mishaps can become a tsunami of crisis. Murdoch needs to be reminded that even the most glorious of empires can have bad ends.
4. To reinforce number 2, actions speak louder than words. Murdoch should move to do good.