The news media’s obsession with an attempted “pie-in-the face” attack on Rupert Murdoch at yesterday’s parliamentary hearing has a lot in common with its focus on the allegations of phone-hacking, police payoffs, and political intimidation by Murdoch’s News Corporation: The scandal is almost as irrelevant as the “pie” assault to the real danger facing the public sphere–not the crimes, but the perfectly legal kind journalism that prompted them.
Recently a former student of mine told me how a much higher standard of journalism had been impressed upon him when he was starting out as a reporter for the pre-Murdoch Wall Street Journal in 2005. A news editor emphasized to him the importance of “making that last call” to a person he was writing about to make sure that the story would be fair as well as right.
“Never forget,” the editor said, “you may be this guy’s last judge and jury in the court of public opinion. Once the story’s launched, he’ll have no clear court of appeal.”
To which my student added a year later, as Murdoch was acquiring the paper, “Murdoch doesn’t have the instincts to sustain something as fragile as the old Journal‘s late-night pangs of guilt, second guessing, and self-doubt that keep journalists honest and on the ball.”
Serious journalism does require “making that last call,” even to an elusive or nearly forgotten person on one’s list. It means climbing a tenement’s stairs a third time to see what may have changed, or catching the look on an administrator’s face the instant you pop your question.
A good journalist brings that depth of commitment to a story, along with the appropriate contextual information, public memory, and reportorial skill. When a reporter from the German magazine Der Spiegel told me in 2003 that Fox News reporters in Baghdad had borrowed sandbags from American soldiers and piled them on the roof of their hotel to stage an on-camera impression that they were reporting from a battle elsewhere, I was reminded that Murdoch’s News Corporation isn’t so interested in serious journalism.
No large news organization in the world, in fact—at least none that’s as large as or larger than those influenced by Vladimir Putin in Russia or Silvio Berlusconi in Italy or the Communist Party in China—tries as brazenly as Murdoch’s globe-straddling News Corporation to generate and even fabricate news or to subvert good reporting of news so cynically and powerfully—and hurtfully, to both its subjects and its audiences.
Sure, all journalism is only a rough draft of history. And its drafting can be compromised by any news organization that’s market-driven enough to reach past its readers’ and viewers’ brains and hearts toward their lower viscera on its way to their wallets. But no other news organization has matched Murdoch’s lust to capitalize on large audiences’ susceptibility to being groped—and, yes, to “enjoy” it.
By playing on this all-too-human temptation to displace our hopes and fears onto celebrities and scapegoats, Murdoch’s journalism accelerates self-fulfilling prophecies of civic decay in every body politic it touches. It reduces citizens to consumers and then blames them for their discontent: “People wouldn’t buy what he’s selling if they didn’t want it. If you don’t like it, switch the channel, buy a different paper!” said a student in the Yale seminar I teach on journalism, liberalism, and democracy.
Murdoch himself couldn’t have said it better. “All newspapers are run to make profits. Full stop,” Murdoch told his biographer William Shawcross. We’re back to Adam Smith’s much-loved aperçu that it’s not the benevolence of the butcher and the baker that gives us a good dinner but their self-interest, and ours. And, really now, how different is reporting from cooking?
Quite different, as Britons have recently been reminded. News organizations owe citizens a lot more than whatever they can induce them to want to “buy.”
The currents Murdoch is riding are even more powerful and dangerous than he is. The scandals involving phone-hacking, police-bribing, and politician-intimidating that are now engulfing his News Corporation are only symptoms of a syndrome, familiar throughout history, in which certain leaders artfully titillate, frighten, and stampede polities that seem ripe for it.
Thucydides chronicled it in ancient Athens. And in Edward Gibbon’s telling, the Roman republic succumbed to its first emperor, Augustus, because he understood that “the Senate and the people would submit to slavery, provided they were respectfully assured that they still enjoyed their ancient freedom.”
The founders of our own republic, reading Gibbon’s account (then hot off the presses), worried that their new republic would end not with a coup but a dictator’s smile and swagger if the people became so tired of the burdens of self-government that they could be either jollied along or intimidated into servitude, or both.
Ben Franklin warned that the Constitution “can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall have become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other.”
How might that happen? “History does not more clearly point out any fact than this, that nations which have lapsed from liberty to…slavish subjection have been brought to this unhappy condition by gradual paces,” wrote founder Richard Henry Lee.
And Alexander Hamilton founded the New York Post in 1801 because he saw a need for information and commentary to help Americans “decide the important question,” as he’d put it in 1787, “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”
In 1977—after Hamilton’s New York Post had had some distinguished editors, including the poet William Cullen Bryant and my cousin, the crusading liberal journalist James Wechsler–Rupert Murdoch, looking to grope a new body politic, bought the paper. He began answering Hamilton’s question loudly by turning the Post into a daily reminder that his native Australia and been founded not as republic but as a penal colony.
The more Murdoch has profited by stroking and stoking people’s inclinations to fear, mistrust, and resent one another instead of lifting their sights and reminding them they can till common ground, the more he’s subverted our founders’ efforts and hopes.
That’s why, even if his minions had never hacked a phone, bribed or intimidated a police officer or politician, or broken any other law, everyone who cherishes a republic, here or in Britain, should by now have used their own freedom of speech to denounce and discredit him and public officials who enable and fawn over him.
The solution isn’t to curb Murdoch’s freedoms of speech, with regulations on “the press” as such. But citizens and news organizations that still have a civic mission can certainly press one another and our political leaders, whom Murdoch has controlled by stampeding too many of their constituents, to withdraw the discretionary waivers and other indirect subsidies that facilitate his growing domination, if not monopolization, of public speech.