Marshall McLuhan, Media Literacy & The Dirty Digger


August 10, 2011

“You know nothing of my work.” That’s how media scholar Marshall McLuhan demolished a pompous academic in his cameo role in Woody Allen’s Oscar-winning “Annie Hall.”

If you have never heard of such concepts as “global village,” “hot and cool media,” “medium is the message,” or “turn on, tune in, drop out,” then it’s for sure that you, too, know nothing of McLuhan’s work.

You probably also don’t know that McLuhan once lived in the Central West End, once taught English at St. Louis University, was married at the Cathedral Basilica, and was born 100 years ago on July 21, 1911.

Not to worry. Two lively academics who will fill you in on all of this are Jessica Brown and Art Silverblatt. They are president and vice president respectively of the Gateway Media Literacy Partnership (GMLP) and are forces behind “Media Literacy Week” this fall.

“Media Literacy Is The Message: The Legacy of Marshall McLuhan” is the theme of media literacy week. The November event will be a moveable feast of lectures, scholarly panels and film documentaries to be hosted by universities all over St. Louis.

Although much of the week will be focused on McLuhan’s ideas and their application today, panels will also take up topical media issues. These will include media treatment of labor in the wake of Wisconsin events and the big media story of 2011: Rupert Murdoch and the scandals rocking his News Corporation empire.

Murdoch’s troubles began with a hacking scandal in Britain on July 4. His newspapers were alleged to be bribing authorities for hacked voice-mail, including messages on the phone of a 13-year-old school girl who was murdered. Since July 4, there’s been a cascade of charges, including the hacking of 9/11 victims, more payoffs of police and politicians, and use of blackmail to quiet or to disgrace any Murdoch adversaries.

“Media literacy looks at the impact of ownership on media content,” noted Silverblatt, a professor at Webster University. “News Corp has grown so large that it can arm twist and terrorize the British government, including the Prime Minister. And its owner, Murdoch, must be studied as he really has become the William Randolph Hearst of our time.

“As the British judiciary uncovers more information, it may lead to some positive developments,” Silverblatt added. “At the moment, Brits are no longer afraid of Murdoch’s media monster. It could have an impact on his media here, and perhaps we in the U.S. can revisit the idea of the public responsibility of the press and ways to diversify media ownership.”

“The Dirty Digger”

I had the good fortune of landing in Britain on July 6, and when I told the passport authority I was visiting for a conference of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors (ISWNE), she was giddy: “You’ll have lots to discuss about the Dirty Digger.”

Brits have dubbed Murdoch as the “Dirty Digger,” because of all the lives he’s ruined with his tabloid scandal sheets digging up dirt. My distaste for Murdoch media began in 1975 when I was a grad student with Mizzou’s London Reporting Program.

His London Sun papers sported bare-breasted Page 3 Girls. I’m no prude, but such photos belong in skin magazines, not daily papers. Sun money helped Murdoch acquire more media properties in Britain – and in America, with his purchase of the New York Post and Fox properties.

Biographies of Murdoch note how he has traded favorably tilted news coverage in exchange for political capital in building his empire. Among those doing his bidding: Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Jimmy Carter, Newt Gingrich and more.

Gingrich will always be under the shadow of the $4.5 million book deal he got from the Murdoch publishing empire about the same time Gingrich, as House Speaker, helped Murdoch bypass U.S. restrictions on foreign ownership of broadcast properties.

As litigation and court actions pile up against Murdoch’s crumbling British media monopoly, what will be the impact on his Fox News operation here? The U.S. Justice Department is now looking at allegations of hacking private conversations of 9/11 victims.

McLuhan said news availability on a world scale has transformed us into a global village. So is the undisputed media mogul of that village now in deep trouble in America? Stand by for updates. Turn them on, tune them in, but don’t drop out – to paraphrase McLuhan.

Rupert Murdoch

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