Monday, July 18, 2011

Murdoch scandal staining rest of media

Like an unchecked oil spill, the toxic and oozing News Corp. scandal is staining the already less than stellar image of the rest of the press, too.

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.


Blogger jdvorkin said...

Alan - as a member of the Organization of News Ombudsmen (a still kicking group of 60 independent news ombuds in 24 countries) we think that there is value in this role, now more than ever. Ombuds give credibility to a paper or a broadcaster. Having an ombuds actually pays for itself by reducing the amount of work performed by media lawyers. NOTW of course would never have such a position. The tabs always claimed they have no need for an in house watchdog since their readers rarely find anything wrong. Before I took the job at NPR in 2000, I called a highly regarded editor at a MAJOR American paper, seeking his advice on this different career move. He assured me that it would be good for NPR and good for me if I took the job. I asked him why his paper did not have an ombuds. He replied, "We don't need one. We have editors." Two years later that paper was obliged to create a public editor after a plagiarism scandal rocked American media, much like NOTW is shattering the British.

6:00 PM  
Blogger PE Eye said...

Newspapers here don't directly hack into people's phones. But they're quite happy to use emails, documents, voice messages, whatever, that someone else might have obtained through unsavoury means. Julian Assange is the worst offender, but it goes back to the Pentagon Papers and maybe even earlier. Yes, it's a question of degree, and the British tabloids are especially sleezy, but there's far too much holier than though among journalists in the US.

4:41 AM  
Blogger Ramblin' Man said...

It seems a little misleading to state that only 28 percent of Americans have confidence in newspaper and television news. The figure from Gallop was for "a great deal/quite a lot" of confidence. The Gallop report was headlined "Americans regain some confidence in newspapers, TV news."

There is a very broad segment of the poll called "Some" confidence. Newspapers and TV both scored 40 percent in that area meaning that 68 percent have at least some or quite a lot of confidence in newspapers. 67 percent for TV.

In this poll, confidence is not the same thing as trust. People weren't asked "do you trust newspapers." They were asked to list the amount of "confidence" they have in a variety of areas including newspapers and TV. Because of the bad publicity regarding wholesale layoffs at newspapers, one easily could speculate that a person might not have complete confidence. That is not the same as whether they trust the news. I know a lot of people who I trust emphatically but I don't have 100 percent confidence in them for one reason or another.

A previous Gallop poll (Sept. 2010) asked about "trust and confidence" in mass media. In that poll, 43 percent reported "great deal/fair amount." You can see that when the word "trust" is added to "confidence," you get different numbers. I suspect those polled were thinking more about trust in news than in confidence in the industry because of the way the question was posed. But last month's report was not couched in terms of trust in the news.

Further, the lowest tier of last month's Gallop poll rated "very little/none" confidence. "Very little" is still some, so we have to assume that the "some" category is more confidence than "very little." As you can see, we don't really know what "some" means. It's really too broad to be interpreted; it's somewhere between "a lot" and "very little."

This poll was really a comparative with other industries. Newspapers/TV still rated far above Congress for "confidence." Media also rated higher than banks, organized labor, big business and HMOs.

To use this particular poll in comparison to News Corp.'s ethical behavior is a bit irresponsible, I think. It's an apples and oranges comparison. And it's downright inaccurate to use the 28 percent figure alone as a measure of confidence without looking at the 40 percent who expressed "some" confidence.

7:04 AM  

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