The only sort of power a news organization can wield safely is the power to persuade.
Every other sort — no matter how high-minded or expedient the reason for taking it up — is a kind of slow poison that twists the souls of the journalists involved and, ultimately, makes their enterprise dangerously self-interested and unaccountable. That’s the fundamental lesson to be taken from the spectacle of the Murdoch meltdown now underway in London.
The 80-year-old Australian-born Rupert Murdoch is the unrivaled press baron of our era, who through his acquisitive will and insatiable avarice has assembled a media empire, News Corp., that spans the globe. Though Murdoch is now an American citizen, his company’s deepest roots are in the press culture of Britain’s Fleet Street. News Corp., in fact, still controls nearly 40% of Britain’s newspaper market, as well as maintaining a controlling interest in its leading pay television service, BSkyB. (Its hope to expand that interest is now in jeopardy.)
The scandal involving the reporting methods of Murdoch’s British newspapers continues to unfold on an increasingly lurid scale. Initially reported to involve the hacking of a handful of cellphone voice-mail accounts belonging to princes and celebrities, there are now allegations that thousands of such accounts were illicitly tapped and that bribes were paid to police officers for information on the royal family and others, according to the Guardian newspaper and BBC. The medical records of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s ill child may have been illegally obtained, along with his bank records.
More stunning still, on Tuesday the New York Times reported that the Scotland Yard investigators assigned to probe the News of the World’s alleged illegal activities may have had their own phone accounts hacked by the paper, and may have been intimidated into short-circuiting their inquiry by threats that embarrassing personal information would be published.
Some allegations involve Murdoch’s Sunday Times and the Sun as well as the now-dead News of the World. That’s significant, as is the fact that News Corp. is known to be a highly centralized company. Murdoch is a hands-on manager, and his lieutenants operate in a similar style. That raises the question of what, if anything, the scandal signifies for News Corp.'s U.S. holdings, which include the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, Fox News and Fox Broadcasting.
Murdoch’s American-based top executives and editors — many of them Australians and Britons — are famous for their desire to instill a bit of the “Fleet Street spirit” in their U.S. publications. The media cultures of the two countries, however, are substantially different. To be fair, despite the anxiety that surrounded Murdoch’s purchase of the Wall Street Journal, the paper has become a broader and more lively one since he took over — though even its literary and cultural coverage is noticeably inflected with conservative politics.
That said, America’s media culture has become coarser and more vulgar and politically divisive since Murdoch became a force here and began pushing U.S. journalism closer to the British model. The New York Post’s focus on salacious gossip and celebrity helped launder what essentially had been a supermarket tabloid sensibility into the mainstream media, as did the place Fox Broadcasting’s stations made for such coverage. Fox News played a key role in legitimizing the notion of partisan news coverage and political commentary as not just normative but somehow inevitable.
News Corp.'s unquestioned financial success has taken other media organizations — many essentially unmoored from their own values by the stress of technological change — down these same paths. Pre-Murdoch, could we really imagine a dubious gossip website and syndicated TV program such as TMZ being regularly quoted by mainstream media? Would CNN have given license to one of its news personalities to campaign for a guilty verdict in a criminal trial — and to excoriate a jury for disagreeing with her — as it has done with Nancy Grace in the Casey Anthony trial?
The seeds of Murdoch’s British newspapers’ abuse of trust and power were sown in a media culture whose essentials — salacious celebrity coverage, gossip, overt partisanship — have infiltrated our own under his influence. The meltdown in London ought to be a wake-up call.