Forget WikiLeaks, which threatened U.S. lives and diplomatic relationships around the world! The Murdoch tabloid scribes in England have engaged in yellow journalism! The outrage!
The scandal enveloping Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper empire is huge, with editors being carted off to the clinker and top police officials resigning. The journalist who blew the whistle on alleged phone hacking has turned up dead, though police are saying that there is so far no evidence of foul play.
New York Republican Peter King at one point even called for a U. S. investigation of the Murdock practices, saying, “t is revolting to imagine that members of the media would seek to compromise the integrity of a public official for financial gain in the pursuit of yellow journalism.” Yes, those helpless officials tempted by practitioners of…yellow journalism!
Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal, which is owned by Murdoch’s News Corp., must have known that he risked being called a toady by defending his paper in an op-ed piece. But the points he makes are nevertheless excellent:
How does this year’s phone hacking scandal at the now-defunct British tabloid News of the World-owned, I hardly need add, by News Corp., the Journal’s parent company-compare with last year’s contretemps over the release of classified information by Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks and his partners at the New York Times, the Guardian and other newspapers?
At bottom, they’re largely the same story.
In both cases, secret information, initially obtained by illegal means, was disseminated publicly by news organizations that believed the value of the information superseded the letter of the law, as well as the personal interests of those whom it would most directly affect. In both cases, fundamental questions about the lengths to which a news organization should go in pursuit of a scoop have been raised. In both cases, a dreadful human toll has been exacted: The British parents of murdered 13-year-old Milly Dowler, led to the false hope that their child might be alive because some of her voice mails were deleted after her abduction; Afghan citizens, fearful of Taliban reprisals after being exposed by WikiLeaks as U.S. informants.
Both, in short, are despicable instances of journalistic malpractice, for which some kind of price ought to be paid. So why is one a scandal, replete with arrests, resignations and parliamentary inquests, while the other is merely a controversy, with Mr. Assange’s name mooted in some quarters for a Nobel Peace Prize?
No, I am not defending the methods employed by Murdoch’s reporters. They were despicable. But the more colorful journalists have been snatching pictures of the deceased off walls and engaging in these practices since time immemorial. What is going on here is that the posh press and those who want them to remain information gatekeepers have-at long last-a good shot at punishing Murdoch for intruding into their sacred precincts.
You know this is the case when the Washington Post publishes a piece by Hustler magazine founder Larry Flynt (!) chastising Murdoch because his reporters “went too far.” We should ask former Rep. Bob Livingston, whose career ended just as he was about to ascend to the Speaker of the House’s chair, when Flynt revealed a sexual lapse. But that was okay: Livingston was a Republican. The glee out there has far less to do with journalistic practices than with the long-awaited chance to expell the interloper from the groves of journalism. The powers that once were are bothered a great deal more by the heretic Murdoch than the Hustler.
As columnist Anne Applebaum points out, this is just a very British tabloid scandal-nothing new. As such it is (for me) sort of fun to watch. What makes it different is the attempt to get Murdoch and close the door on dissenters who don’t buy into the values and prejudices of the mainstream media. (Disclaimer: I spend a few happy years toiling for “Page Six,” the gossip column of Murdoch’s New York Post. I never did anything illegal, though I do remember interviewing a famous plastic surgeon about his emotional problems just as he was headed into surgery. I was glad it was my face that wasn’t being lifted that day.)