Sunday, July 17, 2011

Murdoch Most Vile

Let’s put my biases out front right away—I’m not a fan of Rupert Murdoch. If the investigations of Hacker-gate on both sides of the Atlantic bring down his media empire, I would not shed a tear.

My antipathy toward Murdoch is both professional and personal. It precedes his creation of the vile news outlet known as Fox News (can we really call it a legitimate news outlet?). It began with his 1976 purchase of the NY Post.

I grew up reading The Post. In the 1950s and 1960s, The Post was an afternoon tabloid, liberal and progressive in editorial slant, yet a sensational police- and fire-chasing paper. My parents would buy The Post on their way home from their factory in Manhattan, usually stopping at a newsstand on the southbound side of Flatbush Avenue just before Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn.

At first I’d devour the comics—Nancy, Mutt & Jeff, Dennis the Menace. As I grew older I matriculated to the sports pages where Maury Allen, Vic Ziegel, Milton Gross, Paul Zimmerman and Leonard Schecter romanced my interests in baseball, football and the occasional boxing story centered around Floyd Patterson or Sugar Ray Robinson. Next I delved into the social columnists: Leonard Lyons, Earl Wilson, Sidney Skolsky. Finally, with more maturity, I absorbed the political mavens: James Wechsler, Max Lerner, Mary McGrory, Art Buchwald, William Buckley, Drew Pearson, Jack Anderson, Murray Kempton, and a newcomer, Pete Hamill, hired to counter Jimmy Breslin’s man-of-the-street prose in The Daily News. It was a column by Wechsler, a review of a revival of the play The Front Page, that triggered my interest in being a reporter.

When Dorothy Schiff sold The Post to Murdoch, I was crushed by the changes he wrought. I stopped reading as the paper became more sensational in its reportage and more conservative in its editorial leaning. Even after Dave Banks became my best friend back in 1979, I continued to boycott The Post. Dave, you see, was one of Murdoch’s British imports. He succeeded in helping spice up The Post, but then Murdoch dealt me and Gilda, who had befriended Dave’s wife, Gemma, a fateful blow.

Casually asking Dave if he missed his family back in England, Murdoch became wary he’d lose him to a rival back home when Dave replied in the affirmative. So he shipped the Bankses back to merry ol’ England, Dave to work on The Sun, leaving Gilda and me far from merry. He later sent Dave, Gemma and their children Tasha and Tim, to Australia for seven years, giving Dave the ability to say he worked for Murdoch on three continents and making him one of the most sought after commentators in Britain on the trials and tribulations of the News Corp. publishing empire, its chief executive, Rupert Murdoch, and the assorted so-called journalists who have befouled the pact that should exist between news organizations and the public. Indeed, during our recent vacation together in Israel, though he’s semi-retired, Dave’s Blackberry beeped continually with requests for interviews, a few of which he granted to BBC Radio.

Naturally we talked about Hacker-gate. No one loves a scoop more than Dave, or an article that tweaks the high and mighty, be they politicos, royals, or celebrities. But violating a person’s privacy, when not in the national interest, as seems to have repeatedly happened at Murdoch’s News of the World and possibly other properties under his domain, was activity beyond the pale, Dave asserted.

For several days in Israel the four of us discussed the similarities between Watergate and Hacker-gate, Gilda noting both scandals came to light with seemingly small incidents, a sort of rabbit hole that widened into an elaborate warren of nefarious and illegal activity.

Follow the money.

Just as Deep Throat exhorted Bob Woodward and his colleague Carl Bernstein to pursue the money trail in their Watergate investigation nearly 40 years ago, money is a key, in my mind.

Reporters and editors of the News of the World tapped into the cell phones of thousands of public and private individuals in a frantic chase for scoops in the cutthroat media circus of Great Britain. The News of the World reportedly paid a private investigator as much as 100,000 pounds sterling a year to hack phones. The editor of the paper during part of that time, Rebekah Brooks, claims she did not know about the hacking.

My question is, who approved the expense accounts authorizing payments for the hacking? When the first bill was submitted, didn’t anyone question what it was for? Assuming a lower level editor signed off on it, didn’t senior management, including Brooks and the paper’s controller and auditor, question how and why £100,000 was spent? What, they might have asked, did we get for our £100,000?

It is inconceivable they did not know. It is intolerable they condoned this breach of journalistic ethics. Brooks has resigned as head of Murdoch’s publishing interests; she was arrested today.

As is so often the case in today’s media world, a scoop of cash is the only way to get a scoop of news. But, as Dave pointed out to us, his reporting background instilled in him an understanding of journalism principles lacking in many of today’s media elite. Too often, he believes, chief editors of British papers have been named whose only pedigree has been experience on the entertainment beat. These young editors cared more about packaging than content, about splashy headlines than accuracy, about beating the competition than integrity.

Several of the principal characters in the Hacker-gate scandal are entertainment and public relations firm alumni, including Brooks, current British prime minister David Cameron and his former press aide, Andrew Coulson. Coulson. Sounds a lot like Charles “Chuck” Colson, the convicted Watergate conspirator who counseled Richard Nixon. Let’s not forget that among Nixon’s key advisors were chief of staff H.R. Haldeman and press secretary Ron Ziegler, both former advertising executives. Ah, the Watergate links abound.

I haven’t even touched on Fox News as a reason to put a lid on the poison Murdoch has spread throughout journalism and politics in America and Great Britain. Let’s save that for another day.

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