The current telephone hacking scandal in England has brought on a parliamentary inquiry (still ongoing) into Rupert Murdoch’s media empire practices, the arrests of several of his reporters and editors (and those who actually did the wiretapping or provided police assistance), resignations, interrogations--and the closing of his 168-year-old News of the World, a newspaper with more than two million circulation. The media practices of Murdoch and his wide-flung News Corp. have been a frequent focus of attention in "Ethicalia: A Compendium of Global Ethical Minutiae" published in this magazine over the years; and this seems to be a good time to excerpt and review some of the more interesting cases involving Murdoch’s empire we’ve brought up during the past dozen years. Summary: It does not appear to be a pretty picture.
The New York Post, the Chimpanzee Cartoon and the Murdoch "Apology" (Spring 2009)
After all the commotion in February about the New York Post cartoon that depicted two policemen, after shooting a chimpanzee, saying, "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill," Post chairman Rupert Murdoch insisted that the cartoon by Sean Delonas "was not meant to be racist, but unfortunately, it had been interpreted by many as such." In short, although Murdoch apologized to readers "who felt offended or even insulted" it was not the paper's fault if some people chose to misinterpret the cartoon and its caption. Since there had been a story about the shooting of a violent chimpanzee in nearby Connecticut that the New York media had covered shortly before, and since the economic stimulus bill had been the first legislative victory of new President Barack Obama (the nation's first African-American president), and since racists had likened African-Americans to monkeys for hundreds of years, Murdoch's surprise over the reaction to the cartoon may not be surprising.
It's worth remembering here that this is the same Murdoch whose Fox network 10 years ago received the Golden Sewer Award from the conservative media watch group Empower America (then headed by William Bennett) in recognition of the network's "outrageous contribution to the degradation and coarsening of our culture and its unswerving dedication to the pursuit of profit above principle." At the same time, Empower America gave Murdoch himself a lifetime achievement award for his leadership in this field.
It's hard to stop a person from doing what he/she does best.
Fox Hunts for a Sense of Humor (Spring 2004)
Matt Groening, creator of Fox Entertainment's The Simpsons, said that Fox News last October threatened to sue the makers of the animated show because of an item on The Simpsons' satirical news ticker. Fox News allegedly was not amused by the crawl that said "Do Democrats cause cancer? Find out on foxnews.com" because it thought it made fun of the news operation at Fox. "Fox said they would sue the show and we called their bluff," Groening said, "...We didn't think that Rupert Murdoch would pay for Fox to sue itself.” Fox News denied a lawsuit threat was ever issued, but a new Fox policy no longer allows fake news tickers on the bottom of a cartoon's screen "because it might confuse the viewers into thinking it's real news." It certainly makes sense for Fox to not want anything to detract from its "real news" product—they report, we decide. Hallelujah!
Death Threats: A Bad Goal of the Tabloid Press (Fall 2004)
The Swiss referee who disallowed a last-minute British goal that cost the British national soccer team advancement to the next round of Euro 2004 found himself in danger when The Sun, England's largest-circulation daily tabloid, printed his address, phone number, E-mail address and private information about his family. Death threats prompted the police to advise him to leave his home for a while. The referees' union and tournament organizers strongly supported the referee and his right to make decisions on the field with impunity, but The Sun planted a British flag in the referee's yard and the House of Commons considered (but eventually tabled) a motion criticizing the quality of tournament refereeing. An impartial referee might rule that The Sun's action was offsides and should have received the red card.
Harry Potter and the Magic Scoop (Fall 2005)
As the whole world was agonizing over which character would be killed in the then-soon-to-be-released Harry Potter book last summer, a reporter and a photographer of The Sun in England were involved in a scuffle with two men who allegedly had copies of the book, the BBC reported. The two literature-loving men were arrested on "suspicion of theft and firearms offenses" and two copies of the embargoed book were recovered. A Sun spokesperson proudly said that the company employees "met with the two men with the intention of obtaining the book so it could be returned to the publisher and the police could be informed." Here's a good deed that went unpunished. The publisher of the Potter book must have been very grateful.
Squid pro quo (Fall 2007)
The New York Times reported that Richard Johnson, editor of [the Murdoch-owned] New York Post's gossip Page Six, admitted in May that he received $1,000 cash payment from a New York restaurateur whose name regularly appeared in his column. Post Editor Col Allan said that Johnson made a "grave mistake," and he "was reprimanded." "There is no, and never has been, any quid pro quo," Allan said. The Times said that in the two years following the "gift" the restaurant or its owner was mentioned at least "15 times in Page Six, almost always favorably." At the risk of appearing ungrateful, shouldn't Post editors be curious enough to ask what prompted the "gift"?
News Sources on the Payroll…or Checkbook Journalism? (Spring 2011)
Is there anything wrong with a news medium putting regular news sources on its payroll? Apparently, in a capitalist democracy it's allowed without raising too many eyebrows. The Associated Press says that some important Republican leaders, such as Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, all of whom are said to be considering running for president, have been hired by Fox News for various "news analysis" roles. Supposedly, it is written into their contracts that the agreement becomes void if/when one of these "analysts" becomes an official candidate for office. Does that give Fox an unfair news gathering advantage or is Fox placed, as AP's television writer David Bauder called it, in "a unique position of influence"? Most likely. Does it put Fox's competitors at a disadvantage if, by contract, these politicos are not allowed to give interviews to other news organizations? Again, most likely. Either of these questions should pose an ethical question to both Fox News and its politician contributors/analysts/commentators. Unless, of course, in an era of bareknuckle politics, neither side can be bothered by such niceties.
- "Ethicalia: A Compendium of Global Ethical Minutiae” is a regular feature in Media Ethics. Readers with verifiable contributions for future issues (all subject to editing), or comments on the entries chosen for this issue, should send them to Manny Paraschos, c/o Media Ethics.