Media empires ripe for misuse of power

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There's a caution in the spreading phone hacking scandal that has toppled Rupert Murdoch's media empire in Britain and brought down public officials from Scotland Yard to the British prime minister's office.

Not since the days of William Randolph Hearst has one man -- the 80-year-old Mr. Murdoch -- cast such a giant footprint on the American news landscape.

"I think it's a real lesson to us in the sense that when one company or one person has that much control and is willing to use it in any way necessary to sell newspapers, to sell television coverage, it has the potential to taint those involved," said David Harris, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law with an expertise in criminal law.

"We are seeing a huge growth in the industry of selling malicious information about celebrities, be they athletes or politicians, if the margins are there."

The Australian-born Mr. Murdoch has made his mark in the United States with seemingly endless News Corp. holdings that include Fox Broadcasting, Fox Sports, Fox News, the National Geographic Channel, among others, on TV.

In print, there is the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post and Barron's magazine.

He also has ownership in Fox Sports Radio Network, HarperCollins publishing, Foxsports.com, part ownership of online entertainment giant Hulu, as well as The Daily, an iPad-only newspaper.

Some fear the scandal abroad could fan suspicions that unethical tactics are part of the News Corp. company culture here.

"It's hard to imagine that even in a very protective environment such as the one we have in the U.S., that this short of thing could just happen," said Ken Gormley, dean of the Duquesne University as well as author and lecturer on the right of privacy.

The right of privacy, he said, was established in the U.S. in an 1890 article of the Harvard Law review to protect citizens against the yellow journalism of Hearst's era.

Fleet Street journalism has long enjoyed a rough-and-tumble sort of freedom. Although there is truth behind much of the glitz, in some cases it's acknowledged with a wink and a nod that those stories are little more than fiction.

"Red top" tabloids such as Mr. Murdoch's The Sun and the dearly departed News of the World, were infamous for getting the scoop at any cost. Playing "gotcha" with celebs, soccer players and politicians was one thing, but the case of Milly Dowler set in motion the downfall of one newspaper and numerous execs, including Les Hinton, Wall Street Journal publisher and chief executive of Dow Jones.

Milly was a 13-year-old schoolgirl who disappeared in 2002. Her body was found months later. Earlier this month, rival paper The Guardian wrote that News of the World had hired a private investigator to hack into the girl's cell phone voicemails. Worse, the paper deleted some of the messages to make room for more, which misled the family to believe she was still alive.

The public's horrified reaction to the report prompted Mr. Murdoch to shutter the 168-year-old News of the World and run a huge apology ad in last weekend's Sun.

Former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks, 43, resigned last week over the scandal, and lawmakers in the British House of Commons Tuesday attempted to discover what Mr. Murdoch knew and when he knew it in five hours of hearings that turned into a riveting spectator sport when a comedian assaulted Mr. Murdoch with a foam pie in his face.

Mrs. Brooks' resignation didn't come soon enough for Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, who told U.K. news outlets, "It is right that Rebekah Brooks has finally taken responsibility for the terrible events that happened on her watch, like the hacking of Milly Dowler's phone.

"But as I said when I called for her resignation 10 days ago, this is not just about one individual but about the culture of an organization."

Could it, does it, happen here?

One need look no further than the recent Casey Anthony circus in Orlando, Fla., to discover the blurred line between news and entertainment. Ms. Anthony earlier this month was acquitted in the murder of her 2-year-old daughter Caylee amid a sensationalized court drama that rivaled the O.J. Simpson trial.

"Well, everybody loves a good train wreck," Mr. Harris said, adding that such spectacles create inaccurate portrayals of our justice system. "You have people demonstrating outside the courthouse, threatening jurors with death -- now that is really bad."

For decades, the Fleet Street British press has reveled in the doings of celebrities, be they A-, B- and C-list. At Mr. Murdoch's request, what was once space-filler in the entertainment pages has moved front and center.

Changes at Wall Street Journal

Re-imagining the Wall Street Journal as a serious competitor for The New York Times was an expensive proposition for News Corp. that Mr. Harris called "a remarkable comedown for what has always been a high-quality newspaper.

"There have always been people who didn't like the Journal's editorial stance, but you could easily see that the news and the editorial sides were separate."

Now, he said, "it's kind of painfully obvious that they are behaving just like any other News Corp. property, at times serving as a mouthpiece for the company."

This week for instance, the Journal ran a defensive piece that could have been dictated by Mr. Murdoch himself and references the two publications -- The New York Times and London's Guardian. It read, in part:

"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 Journal piece also implied that Scotland Yard's failures to pursue the phone-hacking scandal were a greater offense than the crimes themselves.

The past week has been filled with a parade of startling news items, including the (unsuspicious) death of Sean Hoare, the News of the World whistleblower who helped The New York Times and London's Guardian with details of his former employer's phone-hacking methods.

Mr. Hoare's death was dutifully noted in a short story in the iPad's The Daily. But in general, News Corp. has been downplaying the scandal.

Most U.S. readers probably don't know or care about News Corp.'s latest woes -- after all, Fox News makes clear its political point of view, which doesn't exactly alarm like-minded viewers.

Still, somewhere, alarm bells are ringing. The state of New York recently awarded a $27 million no-bid contract to Wireless Generation, a Murdoch-owned company. Already in service in New York City, Wireless Generation keeps a database of students' names, ethnicities, addresses and test scores.

This has prompted concerned parents to reconsider the contract. On a larger scale, News Corp. also recently dropped its $12 billion bid for pay-tv network British Sky Broadcasting amid bad publicity.

"I think if there is any lesson to take away from this, it's that our press as an institution has a different tradition [than in the U.K.]," Mr. Harris said.

"But I think we have to watch what is happening in the peripheral," he added, noting that the Nancy Graces of the world -- whom many blame for the gross sensationalism over the Casey Anthony case -- have warped many peoples' perceptions of responsible journalism.

"That kind of stuff is beginning to infect us."


Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478.


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