The Times of London is the groundbreaking daily newspaper once known as “The Thunderer” because of the force and fury of its leading articles — or its editorial-opinion columns, as you prefer. Mr. Rupert Murdoch is the current proprietor of The Times, which he transformed from audacious broadsheet to pipsqueak tabloid. Under Mr. Murdoch’s watch, the once weighty content of the paper was also diluted, and then frothed and artificially sweetened, so that the tiny pages are now effervescent with gossip about tiny celebrities. These days, The Times is hard to differentiate from The Independent, or what remains of the other so-called serious dailies in the UK, and it’s impossible to imagine a time when the viewpoints espoused on its opinion page might have counted for anything with anyone, let alone having profoundly influenced the ruling classes.
In fact, the only person alive who might register any recognition of how far The Times’ status has fallen is the 81-year-old Mr. Murdoch. Far from thundering directives at a browbeaten nation via an eminent newspaper, he is now reduced to tossing out his opinions to bemused users of the text-message service Twitter. This more or less places him in the same category as any other octogenarian shuffling in slippers across the village green, scattering leftover bits of the morning’s toast in the hope of attracting pigeons.
Exactly how tragic a come-down is that for Mr. Murdoch? To have one’s status reassigned from Thunderer to Twitterer sounds awful, is awful. He continues in his overbearing fashion to tell people what to think and how to behave (well, how could any proprietor do otherwise?), except he no longer does so through the august pages of The Times of London, but now employs a medium that restricts his utterances to the same 140-character limit as his frightened employees, vengeful ex-employees, and circling law-enforcement agents. In other words, he is a de-balled Press Baron — only yesterday, possessor of all the ideas, phrases and means of production — now forced to line up and wait his turn to mount a soap-box in Speaker’s Corner, Hyde Park, amid all the huddled commies, cranks, zanies, and nutters.
Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one. That was the great line of the New Yorker’s media critic A.J. Liebling, his eternal verity handed down from generation to generation.
Until now. Who today would want to own a newspaper? They have become unimportant things, partially through being eclipsed by emerging technologies — but mostly because they’ve little to offer contemporary audiences, other than stale traditions and celebrity tattle. Today’s corporate newspaper proprietor enjoys only the freedom to stave off creditors, pander to potential advertisers, and squeal to investors about embracing a “digital first” strategy – two words which are code for, “I have absolutely no idea how we’re ever going to make any money out of continuing to publish this newspaper.”
Perhaps that’s the rationale for Mr. Murdoch’s taking to Twitter as “@rupertmurdoch” whenever he has something important he’d like to get off his chest.
Some recent examples:
On June 29: “Tough week, but went better than I expected.”
On July 1: “Watch Katie Holmes and Scientology story develop. Something creepy, maybe even evil, about these people.”
Again on July 1: “Since Scientology tweet hundreds of attacks. Expect they will increase and get worse and maybe threatening. Still stick to my story.”
And once more on July 1: “Met Romney last week. Tough O Chicago pros will be hard to beat unless he drops old friends from team and hires some real pros. Doubtful.”
Then, on July 2: “Romney people upset at me! Of course I want him to win, save us from socialism, etc but should listen to good advice and get stuck in!”
If the mighty press lord’s range of comments was not so pedestrian and mundane, they’d be inconsequential. That means he’s very much found a home on Twitter, where no one ever worries about whether the blather they’re serving makes any form of sense.
I have a friend who is a beloved instructor of something-or-other at a local community college here in Toronto, and he tweets at least once each day, usually in ALL CAPS, WITH PLENTY OF EXCLAMATION MARKS!!! He has somehow gathered thousands of followers, and I’m sure it has never occurred to my friend that his typographical affectations create the impression that he is a FRANTIC KIND OF WHACK-JOB!!!! But that is the wonderful thing about Twitter, a tool that places humble college lecturers on the same level as poets, philosophers, and self-aggrandizing billionaire media tycoons. Everyone is equal on Twitter: equally pointless. All thoughts and expressions are condensed and transitory, and no one, least of all @rupertmurdoch, will ever have anything to say that might require a nanosecond of your serious attention.
That makes it a marvelous contribution to the principles of democracy. Of course, it contributes not a single freaking thing to the practice of democracy, but, jeez-Louise, what exactly is it that you were expecting to get for nothing?