Manegold Sizes Up the Murdoch Scandal

Thursday, July 21, 2011 - 13:09

Catherine S. Manegold, visiting senior lecturer in English, is an award-winning journalist and author who covered international affairs, politics, social issues, and wars as a staff writer with the New York Times, Newsweek, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. In 1993, she was part of the Times staff awarded the Pulitzer Prize for that newspaper’s coverage of the terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center. Given her background, and current scholarly focus on journalism ethics, Questioning Authority asked Manegold for her take on the British tabloid scandal that centers on Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.

Questioning Authority: As a journalism ethics scholar, what is your assessment of the phone hacking scandal?

Catherine S. Manegold: These days, trashy and irresponsible reporting practices and half-baked tabloid news stories designed only to grab reader attention are too often confused with serious work. They are not the same; but as publishers push for profits in a difficult media environment, and the public dumbs itself down and settles for news as entertainment, the lines too often blur. In this case, the hacking into the voicemail of a murdered child, appalling as it was, was only one aspect of a more complex problem with far-reaching effect. Ultimately, what we are seeing here is evidence of a disease that had spread into the British political system and Scotland Yard. I hope this mess will be a powerful reminder of the damage wrought by an out-of-control press. News is not entertainment. It affects lives and moves cultures. That is why this scandal is so important.

QA: Are you surprised by the severity of the response (from both Parliament and the public) to the phone hacking scandal?

CSM: I am cheered by the severity of the response. A reckless media jeopardizes the health of every citizen. Anyone who is following this disaster closely will see how this case rather elegantly proves the point. 

QA: Do you feel that Murdoch had to shut down News of the World in response to the scandal?

CSM: Murdoch has proved time and again that he will go to extraordinary lengths to expand his power base. Cutting out this cancer was drastic, given the history of the tabloid, but it will not be enough. It should not be enough. It was merely a transparent ploy for survival.

QA: In addition to News of the World's demise, Murdoch has abandoned his bid to take over Sky News. Will this scandal have a lasting impact on News Corp.'s holdings and its overall perception by investors and the public? Will the company, and therefore Murdoch, be able to survive this?

CSM: It is hard not to see this as a real turning point. But I will leave it to the brokers and stock pickers to predict whether News Corp. will be heading up or down. Certainly Americans have overlooked egregious ethical mistakes in the past, especially when those mistakes are attached to corporate behavior, not personal peccadilloes. Has the investing public suddenly smartened up about all this and found their ethical compass, too? I’m not sure I want to take that bet.

QA: The British tabloids have long been noted for emphasis on salacious material. Do you feel this scandal will have an impact on the way that British tabloids report on, and more specifically formulate and investigate, their stories?

CSM: This will likely tone things down for a while. But I doubt the scandal will change the nature of the British tabloids--or our own, for that matter. More likely, it will shock individuals in the private sector into line by wrecking some important careers while at the same time making the public more aware of the damage done by this kind of unethical reporting. The phone hacking was a matter of gaming a technology, and responsibility for that lies in the newsroom alone. But much of this scandal involves relationships between people in and out of the newsroom colluding in unethical practices. Responsibility can’t fall solely on the press in those cases. In newsrooms, though, I have to hope this very public whipping will make every editor think twice about the work they do and the way in which they do it.

Reading today's headlines, though, I'd have to say that the saturation coverage of Rupert Murdoch's wife's little swipe at the pie thrower is not giving me a lot of confidence that--sweeping and important as it is--this scandal is going to wake anyone up.

QA: Let's expand the scope to the British government. Prime Minister David Cameron has also had to defend himself due to the scandal because of his relationship to News Corp. bigwigs since he entered office--most notably his hiring of former News of the World editor Andy Coulson as his communications chief. What does this say about the influence/role of the British media within British society?

CSM: There are myriad reasons why societies always try to control the press. There are also reasons why the press should resist that control. The reality, though, is that relationships between reporters and politicians are often very cozy and sometimes problematic. Coulson’s hiring was a basic violation of the separation of government and the press. But this sort of thing happens all the time. The White House boasts a long string of communications chiefs who first cut their teeth in the newsroom. Jay Carney, who serves as President Obama’s press secretary today, was a correspondent with Time for 20 years before making the leap to government. Traditionally, this arrangement allows politicians to tap the skills of individuals who understand very well how the media works and have powerful connections they can use. That said, you have to wonder about a prime minister who reaches for the tabloids for a communications chief. It is an odd choice, as though President Obama had tapped someone from the National Enquirer.

QA: Anything else you’d like to add about the scandal or its potential impact on journalism?

CSM: It is terribly important to understand that over the past several decades, the American media landscape has been transformed by a sweeping series of corporate takeovers. The Internet balanced this phenomenon by generating thousands of novel news outlets. That sounds good on its face; but on the Web, credible information is often indistinguishable from political spin, commercial hucksterism, and false claims. More and more, this slipshod excuse for news is becoming part of a mainstream press in which the distance between the tabloids and serious news outlets is constantly narrowing--and ethics are thrown to the wind.

For me, the most important takeaway here is that "infotainment" masquerading as news, and media monopolies choosing profitability over integrity, weaken democratic institutions by leaving citizens agitated, confused and easily manipulated. Bombarded by a welter of opinion, gossip, and spin, they seek shelter in polarized political camps and echo chambers of the like-minded.

It is almost painfully quaint these days to talk about one's "duty" as a citizen. Yet citizenship does imply duty, a duty that can only be responsibly exercised by an informed and engaged public. Serious journalists have been concerned about corroding standards for a very long time. But real change will only come when governments take action to break up media monopolies whose highest principle is the bottom line. It will take enormous will to effect this sort of change. Doing nothing is easier. Maybe, though, just maybe, this media soap opera will spur the British government and our own FCC to act. The greater likelihood is that the whole affair will merely end up as one more pie-throwing contest in which sideshows go viral and minor characters like Wendi Deng are lionized while the more important underlying issues are ignored. Let's hope, for once, it isn't so.