The ability to foresee an age before it unfolds is a rare insight given to few mortals. One such person was Marshall McLuhan, and Thursday, July 19th, marks the 100th anniversary of his birth. A day to stop and measure the man.
Michael Valpy has done so in this excellent article in the Globe and Mail. He observes that the communications oracle, renowned during the 1960s when few understood what he was talking about, is seldom thought of today when we can all appreciate, with hindsight, what he meant when he spoke of the “global village” and “the medium is the message.”
I feel privileged to have known Marshall McLuhan, who died on Dec. 31, 1980, at the early age of 69. He’d suffered from a brain tumor for nearly twenty years, something that often led him to eccentric statements that undermined the reputation he had built up with his early works, such as The Mechanical Bride, The Gutenberg Galaxy, and Understanding Media.
My sharpest memory of the man is from the evening in the late 60s when he spoke to a meeting of Canadian Sigma Delta Chi, the journalistic fraternity. I was president of the Canadian branch at the time. It was a unfortgettable occasion to be in the presence of this brilliant man (I was never his student).
The most memorable statement I recall McLuhan ever having made dealt with something that would become familiar to us all as the Internet — almost thirty years before the advent of this new communications technology.
“Why do we buck traffic jams to get to the office every day?” he asked. “It’s because of the files, they’re all down at the office. But we could all access these at home, by broadband. Why don’t we do it?”
When we opened the new office of Argyle Communications on Bloor Street in Toronto in 1995, I got the idea of dedicating our boardroom to McLuhan’s memory. Son Eric McLuhan kindly facilitated a gift we made in his memory to the McLuhan Centre for Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto, and we duly christened the room which bore on one wall an impressive photo of the man.Pretty cool!
Here’s an old CBC-TV clip from those days:
Brave new electronic world
Would Marshall McLuhan have been distressed at the closing of the second-largest book store chain in the United States? The decision by Borders to shutter its 399 stores, laying off 10,000 employees, sounds as yet another echo of the death knell of the book. After spending months in bankruptcy, and failing to turn up a buyer, there was apparently no other choice than to shut down the stores.
Poor decision-making by Borders management was a factor in the closing. The company ignored the impact of the E-Book on its business. While Barnes and Noble and, in Canada, Chapters Indigo were promoting their own E-Book readers, and Apple’s IPad was winning millions of converts, Borders stood still. It missed the opportunity to make up, via E-Book sales, the revenue being lost from the declining sale of hard copy books.
How to get a book review
English Lissa Evans has found a clever way to ask for her book to be reviewed. See it here.
Last word of a TV journalist
They’re saying it’s “gone viral” — the WordPress blog by former CTV journalist Kai Nagata on why he quit his job. A litany of unhappy conclusions on what it means to be in the TV news racket these days. You can read it here.
Update: Murdoch drops BSkyB bid.
Rupert Murdoch’s problems with the News of the World and his bid to buy the rest of British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB) are but the latest examples of how media barons are inclined to overreach themselves. Their frenetic efforts to grow ever bigger often lead not just to excess, but to collapse.
Examples include Robert Maxwell, the Czech-born British publishing tycoon who died, apparently a suicide, by falling from his yacht while cruising off the Canary islands. He’d risen from poverty to become the lord of the London Daily and Sunday Mirror, the New York Daily News, and the publisher Macmillan. After his death it was revealed he’d looted the company pension plan for money to shore up the shares of his company.
The exploits of Canada’s own Lord Black are well-known. He lost Hollinger International, which included the London Telegraph, the Jerusalem Post, and a chain of Canadian papers including his start-up, the National Post. In September, he’ll go back to jail to finish his prison term for fraud and obstruction of justice.
One of the biggest media barons of all was William Randolph Hearst, whose newspaper, magazine and broadcasting empire ruled American society and politics through much of the first half of the 20th century. Most famously remembered for his role in promoting the Spanish-American War of 1898, his early life has been chronicled by Ken Whyte, the first editor of Black’s National Post, in The Uncrowned King (Random House Canada). Today’s Hearst Corp. is still a force in American media, although incomparably less influential than during Hearst’s lifetime.
Interest in Rupert Murdoch is of course sparked by the scandal over his late and unlamented News of the World. This episode is turning out to be as damaging to the British political establishment as it is to Murdoch’s hopes of expanding his empire by the full acquisition of the UK’s most profitable satellite broadcasting service. It reveals a society of craven political operatives in both the Conservative and Labor parties who begged at Murdoch’s knees for his support.
Because the current Prime Minster David Cameron won that support, and even hired a former News editor as his spokesperson, he’s the one who is in almost as much trouble as Murdoch. It’s no surprise that Cameron is backing a Labor party motion urging Murdoch to withdraw his BSkyB takeover proposal.
Ever the resourceful player, Murdoch has taken some desperate steps to protect his interests. He’s opted for a longer review of his take-over bid by the UK Competition Commission. This means a closer examination, but also one that gains time for the current scandal to die away. And he’s set aside 5 billion pounds to buy back NewsCorp shares, thereby strengthening their market value; this may help to quiet a group of dissident shareholders.
For all of Murdoch’s embarrassments, his biggest problem could be these same shareholders. A group has sued his NewsCorp, accusing it of large-scale governance failures that allowed the phone hacking scandal in the first place. It was unhappy shareholders, one should recall, who triggered the events leading to Lord Black’s downfall.
The seasoned American writer Michael Wolff dissects Murdoch’s life and personality in The Man Who Owns the News (Broadway Books). Murdoch, an Australian, has for years been the pre-eminent global media baron, with operations all over the world. His American properties include the Wall Street Journal and the tabloid New York Post, plus FoxTV. He would probably be in Canada but for our legislation which prevents foreign media ownership.
It was Murdoch’s acquisition of the venerable London Times, Wolff writes, “that turned him from a vulgarian operating at the margins of the business into, well, a threat to truth.” In America, Wolff adds, his take-over of the Wall Street Journal “is the ultimate fuck-you to the people who have always believed they embody respectability.”