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Think Again: News Corp. Hacking Scandal Still Hiding in Plain Sight

SOURCE: AP/Matt Sayles

Rupert Murdoch and his wife Wendi arrive at the 69th Annual Golden Globe Awards, Sunday, January 15, 2012, in Los Angeles.

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Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. is still battling to keep secret a series of what Bloomberg News terms “new claims being made by victims of phone hacking at its News of the World tabloid in preparation for a group trial scheduled for February.” News Corp., “the New York-based company controlled by Rupert Murdoch,” the story notes, “is trying to move on from the scandal after the civil case and a parallel criminal probe that began last year revealed a cover up and led to the closure of the tabloid and the arrests of more than 60 people.”

And no wonder. Who knows how far and deep this scandal goes? Another wrinkle in it comes to light almost every day. And yet, despite all the attention it has received, the story remains under-reported.

Rupert Murdoch is almost certainly the most powerful person in the most influential business on earth. And yet he is treated as a kind of innocent bystander to the criminal activity allegedly undertaken in his name. In a column entitled “Journalism’s Misdeeds Get a Glance in the Mirror,” The New York Times’s David Carr describes the following chain of events:

A division of a large multinational company is accused of a pattern of corporate misconduct that includes surveillance, hacking into phones and bribery of law enforcement officials. Dozens of employees are arrested over the course of a year, and seven are charged in one day with grievous criminal conduct. Add in that the company seeks to cover up its actions at every turn, in some cases reportedly bribing law enforcement officials, while some of its political opponents are singled out for surveillance and black ops. Let’s further stipulate that the company may just be the most visible perpetrator in an industry that has lost its way.

Carr was speaking specifically about the most recent developments in the ongoing investigation and prosecution of Murdoch’s lieutenants, which has now extended to criminal charges leveled against seven former News Corp. executives including Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks, both former editors of News of the World. As Carr notes, with some credulity:

If this happened in any other industry — the banking sector during the financial crisis, the oil companies after the BP spill, or Blackwater during the Iraq war — you would expect to see a full-court press by journalists seeking to shine a light on a corrupt culture allowed to run amok.

Well, maybe. In fact it would all depend on who was connected to whom and how. After all, if a news organization were owned by, or had reason to fear retaliation from, the potential subject of an investigation, these days its reporting might not go down that way. Recall that the editor of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, took the exceedingly unusual step of phoning Bill Keller at The New York Times about The Guardian’s incredible scoops on the phone hacking scandal because nobody else would touch the story and he couldn’t figure out why. The New York Times stepped up to the proverbial plate but most of the rest of the media continue to ignore it.

Meanwhile, the hacking scandal just keeps growing in scale and shock value. As The New York Times report on the recent arrests put it, we have not only:

industrial-scale phone hacking, but also checkbook journalism that is alleged to have included payments rising into the tens of thousands of dollars to public officials, including police and prison officers, and a cover-up that prosecutors say persisted long after the heat of public anger was focused on the miscreants. Together, prosecutors say, it is a tally of wrongdoing that is likely to yield many more criminal cases in the months ahead.

Fully 2,615 people have been notified by Scotland Yard that they may have been targets of the Murdoch team’s voicemail hackings. Most were people whose business is none of anybody’s business, despite the attention paid to high-profile targets such as Brad Pitt Angelina Jolie, Paul McCartney, Sienna Miller, and Wayne Rooney, perhaps Britain’s best-known professional soccer player. And yet what is the reaction among journalists? As The New York Times reports, it is the worry that “Hacking Charges Seen as Chill on British Journalism.”

Once again, it feels necessary to say that the alleged crimes of Murdoch’s various tentacles are so far entirely journalistic. But the more egregious truth about his Fox News unit, at least, is this: Fox News is not in the news business. The TV and cable news outfit is in the political power and propaganda business, actually lying, shading the truth, and leaving out vital information or purposively editing tape for the express purpose of misleading its viewers.

Yet this also is true, to one degree or another, of Murdoch’s other so-called “news properties.” Indeed, here is yet another example of the corruption of The Wall Street Journal, both in the service of Murdoch’s right-wing politics and the interests of his pseudo-journalistic empire, since the media magnate took over the largest U.S. daily newspaper in August 2007. And yet to take just one example, media reporter and columnist Howard Kurtz remains more than willing to treat his column as an adjunct of Murdoch’s PR machine.  

Journalists by and large remain afraid or for some other reason unwilling to call attention to this and pretend, instead, that the Murdoch organization, whose top officers are alleged to be deeply involved in thousands of likely criminal acts all in the alleged service of “journalism,” is doing their own reputations, and profession, no favor.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.

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This is part of a regular column: Think Again

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