NewsCorp Strikes Back
WSJ has a blistering editorial seeking to put the NewsCorp hacking scandal in perspective.
Sandwiched in between paragraphs about its own high standards for journalistic integrity, WSJ has a blistering editorial (“News and Its Critics: A tabloid’s excesses don’t tarnish thousands of other journalists“) seeking to put the NewsCorp hacking scandal in perspective.
It is also worth noting the irony of so much moral outrage devoted to a single media company, when British tabloids have been known for decades for buying scoops and digging up dirt on the famous. Fleet Street in general has long had a well-earned global reputation for the blind-quote, single-sourced story that may or may not be true. The understandable outrage in this case stems from the hacking of a noncelebrity, the murder victim Milly Dowler.
The British politicians now bemoaning media influence over politics are also the same statesmen who have long coveted media support. The idea that the BBC and the Guardian newspaper aren’t attempting to influence public affairs, and don’t skew their coverage to do so, can’t stand a day’s scrutiny. The overnight turn toward righteous independence recalls an eternal truth: Never trust a politician.
We also trust that readers can see through the commercial and ideological motives of our competitor-critics. 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.
The prize for righteous hindsight goes to the online publication ProPublica for recording the well-fed regrets of the Bancroft family that sold Dow Jones to News Corp. at a 67% market premium in 2007. The Bancrofts were admirable owners in many ways, but at the end of their ownership their appetite for dividends meant that little cash remained to invest in journalism. We shudder to think what the Journal would look like today without the sale to News Corp.
In braying for politicians to take down Mr. Murdoch and News Corp., our media colleagues might also stop to ask about possible precedents. The political mob has been quick to call for a criminal probe into whether News Corp. executives violated the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act with payments to British security or government officials in return for information used in news stories. Attorney General Eric Holder quickly obliged last week, without so much as a fare-thee-well to the First Amendment.
The foreign-bribery law has historically been enforced against companies attempting to obtain or retain government business. But U.S. officials have been attempting to extend their enforcement to include any payments that have nothing to do with foreign government procurement. This includes a case against a company that paid Haitian customs officials to let its goods pass through its notoriously inefficient docks, and the drug company Schering-Plough for contributions to a charitable foundation in Poland.
Applying this standard to British tabloids could turn payments made as part of traditional news-gathering into criminal acts. The Wall Street Journal doesn’t pay sources for information, but the practice is common elsewhere in the press, including in the U.S.
The last time the liberal press demanded a media prosecutor, it was to probe the late conservative columnist Robert Novak in pursuit of White House aide Scooter Libby. But the effort soon engulfed a reporter for the New York Times, which had led the posse to hang Novak and his sources. Do our media brethren really want to invite Congress and prosecutors to regulate how journalists gather the news?
The reminder that journalism is a business and that Murdoch and company have been profitable and invested money into reporting when too many competitors have not is useful.
The general point about not using this scandal to excuse government bullying news organizations is also well taken. But I’m dubious of cries of “1st Amendment” in the context of a bribery scandal. The freedom from abridgment of the press has never extended into allowing media outlets to commit crimes.
I am, however, nervous about the calls I’ve hard over the weekend for the use of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and, particularly, FCC morals clauses to be used as hammers against Murdoch and Fox News. These tools are easily abused.