Murdoch scandal staining rest of media
On my semi-annual visit to friends and family in the Midwest, I was asked time and again how frequently American news media hack into the mobile phones of unsuspecting celebrities, politicians and crime victims.
The answer, so far as I know, is hardly ever, if at all – because most newspapers couldn’t afford to hire technically savvy private eyes and because most television news directors are insufficiently imaginative to do anything more than train a camera on something that's burning as they are about to go on the air.
The other reason that systemic hacking would not occur in the United States is that most of the mainstream media companies adhere to a reasonably well developed and widely shared sense of ethics that includes, among other things, the commercially prudent practice of obeying the law.
This is not to say American journalists don’t play the angles from time to time. Reporters, this writer included, have been known to eavesdrop on unsuspecting individuals or read untended documents left casually in sight. Back in the day in Chicago, I felt duty-bound to join a gaggle of reporters who followed negotiators in a labor strike into the men’s room in hopes some news, among other things, would leak during the bio break.
My alma mater, the Chicago Sun-Times, even went so far as to buy a bar in 1977 so it could surreptitiously film shakedowns by city inspectors to dramatize, to no one’s surprise, the petty corruption endemic among the payrollers. The secret project – which took place before I joined the paper – was denied a Pulitzer Prize because of the sting tactics involved in reporting the story. But at least no laws were violated.
Even if the hacking scandal is found to be a problem unique to the wild and wooly News Corp. operation in the United Kingdom, it comes at a time that trust in the press is near an all-time low.
Only 28% of Americans have confidence in newspaper and television news, according to a Gallup Poll released last month. This is down from the 39% of Americans who trusted newspapers when Gallup started asking the question in 1990 and down from the 46% of U.S. citizens who expressed confidence in TV news when Gallup started quizzing them in 1993.
The erosion of trust in the American press is one factor in the steady decline of audience for both media. Waning confidence also has contributed to the sharp drop in newspaper advertising revenues in recent years – a calamity that likely will be visited on local TV as soon as Internet-to-television broadcasting is perfected.
Accordingly, the News Corp. scandal is not merely a remote tragedy that couldn’t have happened to a more deserving guy than the arrogant and mercurial Rupert Murdoch. Because this story will be grabbing headlines for a long time to come, it is a clear, present and potentially growing commercial danger to American media companies.
To counteract the damage Murdoch’s toxic journalism is doing, American media executives proactively need to tell their readers and viewers that this stuff isn’t happening here. Then, they need to spell out the policies and procedures they have in place – and whatever else they plan to do in the future – to make sure that it never does.
And this self-serving diatribe in the Wall Street Journal is not what I would suggest.