If Rupert Murdoch were an evil alien, a mass murderer, or a child molester, his press coverage would look pretty much like what he’s been getting lately. That so much of the media attacks on the man has been generated by people who are competitors (like the Guardian, New York Times, Bloomberg) and/or political adversaries explains a lot.
Even so, the criticism is extraordinary. Take, for instance, the published opinions of the editor of the American Journalism Review, Rem Rieder. Just this month, the gentleman has written no fewer than eight pieces.
From earliest to most recent, here are the titles: “Murdoch Under Fire”; “The Escalating Murdoch Scandal”; “For Murdoch, a Shocking Reversal of Fortune”; “The Inevitable Departure of Rebekah Brooks”; “Les Hinton, The Latest Casualty of the Phone-Hacking Scandal”; “The Wall Street Journal Careens Off the Rails”; “The Murdochs in the Lion’s Den”; “The Incredible Shrinking Rupert.” Rieder’s WSJ piece is particularly noteworthy for what it says about his own editorial judgment:
It’s a truly shameful editorial…. The Wall Street Journal, stung by the ouster of its publisher last Friday in the fallout from the massive scandal that has engulfed its fellow Murdoch properties in Britain, has come out swinging wildly at the company’s critics….
When Murdoch acquired the Journal in 2007, there was much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments on the part of many people who are not enamored with Murdoch’s brand of journalism….
The Journal no doubt has changed. It is much less distinctive, with less emphasis on the quirky page-one features that helped make it special. It devotes much more attention to political coverage, and some have seen a decline in the comprehensiveness of its business coverage.
Not to be outdone, Politico has covered the British tabloid story with even greater interest, and a lot more venom. Two pieces published the same day, July 20, are representative of the whole. In a display of his usual subtlety and sophistication, Roger Simon penned “The Evil of Rupert Murdoch,” while Neal Gabler relieved himself of “Rupert Murdoch: Journalism’s Mubarak.” Gabler’s piece is especially valuable for its cool erudition:
Most people realized that Murdoch was something of a conniver, that he was a bully, that his media empire was designed in the most self-serving ways…. But the telephone hacking scandal in Great Britain and the other attendant revelations reveal that Murdoch was something more than a garden-variety journalistic despot. He appears to have been a journalistic terrorist as well, a journalistic KGB, a journalistic mobster whose minions used blackmail – overall a journalistic thug.
And for those whose preference runs to government-funded journalism, NPR weighed in with people like David Folkenflik, on “Morning Edition”: “The News of the World was less than 1 percent of News Corp., but it could – just could finally (emphasis added) drag the company out of the Murdochs’ grasp.”
Apart from the abject and transparent piling on – something that, in the current political and economic environment is probably to be expected, though not venerated – there is a deeply serious side to this affair that journalists of all political stripes and circumstance should heed: As a matter of law and policy, what goes around comes around.
Take, for instance, the federal investigations in this country now being launched or considered by agencies like the FBI and the Justice Department. The gravamen of these investigations is that (1) News Corp.’s British journalists have committed acts that put the parent company in harm’s way of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act; and/or (2) that there is a need to follow up on the rumor that News Corp. journalists may have attempted to hack into the cell phone calls of 9/11 victims.
Never mind the absurd overreach in attempting to apply the FCPA to newsgathering techniques used by foreign reporters, however unethical, or the fact that, as reported by Dean Starkman in the Columbia Journalism Review, the only news story that “purports to offer independent evidence” of the 9/11 hacking is “bollocks.” Imagine what would happen if examples such as these became established precedents for government investigations of the media.
In the same way that the Democrats’ use of the parliamentary maneuver called “reconciliation” is certain to be used by the Republicans to undo Obamacare, if and when they acquire control of Congress and the White House, so too would Republicans use the FCPA, and stories like the 9/11 rumor, to initiate investigations of disfavored media organizations.
In time, history will tell us which was worse: tabloid reporters who bent all journalistic rules to acquire some salacious tidbits, or the journalism establishment that, by its desire to gain commercial or political advantage, stood by while the U.S. government bent rules and regulations in a way that diminished the independence of the press.
The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.