How Rupert Murdoch Dragged Media Into the Swamp

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Rupert Murdoch

How his profit mania dragged news into the muck

At long last, Rupert Murdoch has made it onto the Mount Rushmore of whiners. The recent house editorial in his defense by the Wall Street Journal (which he owns) contains some of the most deliciously absurd calls for sympathy and pity ever expressed in a public forum, far surpassing such classics as “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore” and Imelda Marcos wailing about how “It’s the rich you can terrorize – the poor have nothing to lose.”

Now, right up there with those great figures in the history of whining, comes Rupert Murdoch. He didn’t write the WSJ editorial, but he might as well have. The piece has been interpreted around the world as being something very like Murdoch’s true thoughts on the scandal. Andrew Neil of the BBC put it this way: "This, from Wall Street Journal, is closest to what Rupert Murdoch really thinks. Pretty defiant."

And this is the money quote from the WSJ editorial:

The Schadenfreude is so thick you can't cut it with a chainsaw. Especially redolent are lectures about journalistic standards from publications that give Julian Assange and WikiLeaks their moral imprimatur. They want their readers to believe, based on no evidence, that the tabloid excesses of one publication somehow tarnish thousands of other News Corp. journalists across the world.

Seeing a Rupert Murdoch publication whine about the meanness and editorial excess of other media companies is almost indescribably hilarious. For sheer preposterousness, I struggle even to come up with credible rivals to this editorial passage. In the ballpark, maybe, is John Wayne Gacy’s famed post-arrest complaint: “I see myself more as victim than perpetrator – I was cheated out of my childhood."

Critics all over the world are using the News of the World scandal as an opportunity to do what should have been done years ago, which is indict Rupert Murdoch in the court of public opinion. He will surely take a severe hit for this scandal, and there’s still no telling yet just how far the revelations will end up going. As Felix Salmon cannily noted, all the efforts so far to keep this scandal isolated to a few reporters, or to a few reporters and maybe an editor, or perhaps just to one publication, have failed.

“In each case,” Salmon wrote, “the scandal proved bigger than News Corp. would have had us believed.”

For all we know, Rupert Murdoch or his sons or other high-ranking News Corp. officials may end up personally inveigled in this affair. Given the monstrous political influence of Murdoch and his companies – this idiotic game of chicken our government is now playing with America’s credit rating is one of countless policy disasters that I believe can be traced directly or indirectly to the insane propaganda that is a consistent by-product of Murdoch's nihilistic quest for profits – that would be a world-shaking development.

But I suspect already that the opportunity to draw real lessons from this affair is going to be missed. Even if Murdoch and News Corp.  go down, the basic problem that he represents is going to remain.

The News of the World scandal represents a step over an important moral line for the commercial media. In the constant effort to make money, companies like New Corp. have for decades now been sinking to ever-lower depths to find sensational material. In this case they actually committed a crime in an effort to crank out eye-grabbing copy. But morally, I’m not sure what’s worse: hacking into voice mail accounts, or doing things like outing news that Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s baby son has cystic fibrosis.

The former Prime Minister recently recounted how he and his wife were in tears when Rebekah Brooks, who would eventually be arrested for conspiring to intercept communications, called Brown to tell him she knew about his son’s condition and was planning on doing a story on it.

Brown didn’t say this information came from hacking, but he did accuse other Murdoch publications of trying to access his legal files and medical records.

So what’s worse: the fact that these companies may have illegally seized information? Or the fact that they appeared to have absolutely no restraint when it came to how to use that information?

Years ago – and I’m obviously not old enough to remember this, but I believe it to be true – the move to make money riding a private tragedy like the CF diagnosis of the Prime Minister’s son would have been a very difficult moral decision for any news editor to make. Editorial boards everywhere had the discretion to reject that kind of money-making business, and I think most did. Maybe I’m being naïve, but that had to be more true decades ago than it is now.

But thanks largely to people like Murdoch, most editors and reporters don’t have that discretion anymore. Or, to put it another way, those who insist upon that discretion don’t make it to positions of influence anymore.

Once the media business made the collective decision to always put money above editorial judgment, I think scandals like the News of the World affair became inevitable. Because once media companies abandoned the notion that their business was somehow different from other money-making businesses, that there were no longer places they wouldn’t go to generate product, it became inevitable that the corporate media game would become nothing more than an all-out, relentless quest for sensational, titillating material.

And if you look at newspapers and TV stations as mere businesses, not as public institutions with unique ethical standards, then you’ll notice a few things very quickly. One is that the Edward R. Murrow model of responsible news is kind of a sucky commercial product. Nobody who is in it for the money is going to ride that horse voluntarily.

The other is that the converse to the Murrow model is resoundingly true: that such things as hatred, resentment, narcissism, fear, secret lusts, and, yes, Schadenfreude have limitless markets, and businesses based upon sales of those things can compete with anything, from investment banking to consumer retail to drug trafficking. People will not stop what they’re doing to listen to a lecture about the dangers of dioxin poisoning, or corruption in Pentagon contracting. But they will stop to gawk at a headless body hanging out of the windshield of a wrecked car.

This was the basic insight that propelled Murdoch to his fortune. Once he committed to that style of business, the business of helping viewers indulge their desire to be titllated, scandals like this became inevitable. To me it’s similar to the problem of insider trading and front-running on Wall Street. When information equals money, and everybody in the business is all about money, pretty soon lines are going to be crossed to get information.

There has to be something else that guides the individuals in these businesses – ethics, morality, patriotism, some non-commercial human thing – that prevents them from taking that step over the line. We have to make it okay for editors to listen to that other part of themselves when making decisions about what to print and what not to print. Whether or not Murdoch broke the law, he definitely did more than anyone else on earth to screw that up for everybody in the news business. I just wonder if he’ll be busted enough for that in addition to whatever else he specifically did in this one scandal.

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