W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘Murdoch’

Carl Bernstein, naive and over the top

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 17, 2012 at 2:20 pm

Rupert Murdoch, the global media mogul beset by scandal at his British tabloids, may be the greatest menace to press freedom in world.

So says Carl Bernstein, the former Watergate reporter for the Washington Post, in an over-the-top characterization of Murdoch and what he calls Murdoch’s “gutter instincts.”

Bernstein: Murdoch a press freedom threat

Bernstein was referring to the police and parliamentary investigations into practices at Murdoch’s London tabloids, inquiries that have led to the arrests of numerous employes and the closure last summer of the Sunday News of the World.

The suspected misconduct in Britain also may have consequences for Murdoch’s News Corp. under U.S. anti-corruption laws.

Bernstein, a frequent and frankly sanctimonious critic of Murdoch since the scandals broke in London last year, declared in a recent interview on CNN:

“It’s really ironic that the greatest threat to freedom of the press in Great Britain today, and around the world today perhaps, has come from Rupert Murdoch because of his own excesses.”

What a foolish, misleading, and naive statement: The “greatest threat to freedom of the press …  around the world today perhaps” is Rupert Murdoch.

Sure, Murdoch’s hard-ball tactics and raunchy media outlets are offensive to polite company.

But the 80-year-old mogul is scarcely the world’s leading menace to press freedom. To suggest that he is is to insult the nearly 180 journalists who are in jail because of their work in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

The true contenders for the epithet of the world’s leading press-freedom menace are many, and include the ayatollahs in Iran.

According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, Iran is the world’s leading jailer of journalists: Forty-two of the 179 journalists behind bars in late 2011 were imprisoned in Iran.

Journalists are in jail typically because their reporting in traditional or online media offended power-wielding authorities or violated censorship laws.

In Iran, CPJ points out, the “authorities seem intent on silencing any independent or critical voices.”

Bernstein’s naive remark also ignores Eritrea and China, where, respectively, 28 and 27 journalists were in jail in late 2011, according to CPJ.

The organization notes that other journalists “may languish” in Chinese jails “without coming to the notice of news organizations or advocacy groups.”

Bernstein’s comment about Murdoch likewise ignores the Castro regime in Cuba, which long has been a jailer of journalists. As many as 29 dissident journalists were arrested in 2003 in a sweeping crackdown on dissent. The last of them was released in April last year.

While CPJ counted no Cuban journalists in jail in late 2011, the organization says authorities there “continue to detain reporters and editors on a short-term basis as a form of harassment.”

Bernstein’s comment also ignored the Stalinist regime in North Korea, which ranks dead last in the annual Freedom House ranking of press freedom in the world.

Freedom House, a New York-based organization that promotes democratic governance, assesses levels of press freedom in more than 190 countries and territories on a scale of zero to 100 points. The more points, the worse the ranking.

Finland ranked first, with 10 points. The United States and Britain were rated “free,” with 17 points and 19 points, respectively.

North Korea ranked last, with 97 points.

The regime in Pyongyang “owns all media, attempts to regulate all communication, and rigorously limits the ability of North Koreans to access information,” Freedom House noted, adding that all journalists “are members of the ruling party, and all media outlets are mouthpieces for the regime.”

His recent remarks about Murdoch’s threat to press freedom were the latest of Bernstein’s over-the-top characterizations of the mogul whose media and entertainment company has holdings around the globe.

As the tabloid scandal in Britain exploded last summer, prompting the closure of the News of the World, Bernstein likened the misconduct to Watergate, the  unprecedented U.S. constitutional crisis that led to Nixon’s departure from office in disgrace in 1974.

But Watergate was sui generis. The scandal not only toppled Nixon but sent to jail 19 men associated with his presidency or his 1972 reelection campaign.

What’s more, as I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the Watergate reporting by Bernstein and Washington Post colleague Bob Woodward was neither central to, nor decisive in, bringing down Nixon’s corrupt presidency.


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Some dubious history from Frank Rich

In Media myths, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on August 1, 2011 at 9:50 am

Frank Rich, in a lengthy New York magazine screed about Rupert Murdoch, invokes the hoary media myth that William Randolph Hearst’s “papers famously fomented the Spanish-American War and perfected the modern gossip machine.”

I won’t quarrel much with Rich’s claim about “the modern gossip machine.” But the bit about the Spanish-American War represents a serious misreading of history.

In addressing such a dubious assertion as Hearst’s yellow press “fomented the Spanish-American War,” it’s useful to ask: How’d they do it? How was newspaper content translated into war policy?

Rich doesn’t say. He doesn’t pause to consider how it was that content of Hearst’s newspapers set an agenda for war that the administration of President William McKinley pursued.

The yellow press in fact had no such agenda-setting influence. It was a negligible factor.

As I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, McKinley administration officials took no leads from Hearst’s newspapers.

They derided the yellow press, when they thought of it at all, and regarded it as a complicating factor in efforts to resolve a diplomatic impasse over Spain’s harsh rule of Cuba — an impasse that gave rise in April 1898 to the Spanish-American War.

The impasse arose from Spain’s brutal but ineffective attempts to put down a rebellion on Cuba that began in 1895 and reached islandwide proportion by 1898.

To tamp down the rebellion, Spain imposed a policy it called “reconcentration,” in which tens of thousands of Cuban men, women, and children were herded into garrisons towns and fortified areas, from where they could provide no aid or support to Cuban insurgents in the countryside.

Reconcentration” brought on widespread starvation, malnutrition, and disease. Tens of thousands of Cuban non-combatants died as a result of the Spanish policy which, as historian Ivan Musicant has written, “did more to bring on the Spanish-American War than anything else the Spanish could have done.”

The misguided policy, Musicant also noted, “turned public opinion enormously in the United States.”

Ultimately, then, as I wrote in Yellow Journalism, the Spanish-American War was “the result of a convergence of forces far beyond the control or direct influence of even the most aggressive of the yellow newspapers, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.”

I also noted:

“While the yellow press may have reported extensively on the consequences of Spain’s failures and missteps, it did not create them.”

So what? one might ask.

After all, Rich’s reference to Hearst and the Spanish-American War represented a small portion of a lengthy article about Murdoch. So why make a fuss about it?

Several reasons offer themselves.

For starters, the Hearst-Murdoch comparison, as I’ve pointed out previously at Media Myth Alert, is facile and inexact. The similarities between the two media tycoons are largely superficial.

Notably, Hearst had nothing akin to the global reach of Murdoch’s multimedia empire. And Hearst, unlike Murdoch, vigorously pursued political ambitions: Hearst ran repeatedly and mostly unsuccessfully for high political office during his late 30s and 40s, before giving up.

But a more important reason for directing attention to this dubious bit of media history is that Rich arguably should have known better: Few serious historians buy into the claim about Hearst and his newspapers fomenting the war with Spain.

And thinking it through, it doesn’t seem very logical: Could newspaper content be so powerful and decisive that it could push a country into war it otherwise wouldn’t have fought?

Does it really work that way?

Assuredly not.


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‘Economist’ indulges in media myth

In 1897, Debunking, Media myths, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on July 22, 2011 at 8:31 am

The latest issue of Britain’s Economist newsweekly carries a column that presents an intriguing discussion of “the madness of great men” — an affliction it says is common among media tycoons.

To buttress that point, the usually well-reported Economist turns to a media myth — the discredited notion that press baron William Randolph Hearst, the timeless bogeyman of American journalism, fomented the Spanish-American War of 1898.

Such claims about Hearst are often made but rarely supported by persuasive explanations as to how the contents of Hearst’s newspapers were transformed into U.S. policy and military action.

The Economist column offers no such explanation: Its assertion about Hearst is supported by no evidence.

The column, titled “Great bad men as bosses,” considers the serious recent troubles of media mogul Rupert Murdoch and introduces Hearst with a brief discussion of “what Norwegians call stormannsgalskap, the madness of great men.” (It also can be translated to “megalomania.”)

Stormannsgalskap,” the Economist says, “is particularly common among media barons, not least because they frequently blur the line between reporting reality and shaping it. William Randolph Hearst is widely suspected of stirring up the Spanish-American war to give his papers something to report.”

Widely suspected by whom?

No serious historian of the Spanish-American war period gives much credence to such claims.

As I wrote in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, the yellow press of Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer “is not to blame for the Spanish-American-War. It did not force — it could not have forced—the United States into hostilities with Spain over Cuba in 1898.

“The conflict was, rather, the result of a convergence of forces far beyond the control or direct influence of even the most aggressive of the yellow newspapers, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.”

The proximate cause of the war was the humanitarian crisis created by Spain’s bungled attempts to quell a rebellion that had begun in Cuba in 1895 and had spread across the island by 1898.

To deprive the Cuban rebels of support, Spain’s colonial rulers herded Cuban women, children, and old men into garrison towns, where thousands of them died from starvation and disease.

While mostly forgotten nowadays, that humanitarian crisis was widely reported in the U.S. press, and widely condemned by the U.S. government.

The disaster on Cuba “inevitably stirred outrage and condemnation in the United States,” I noted in Yellow Journalism.

And as a leading historian of that period, Ivan Musicant, has correctly noted, the ill-advised and destructive policy toward Cuban non-combatants “did more to bring on the Spanish-American War than anything else the Spanish could have done.”

The Economist’s additional claim, that Hearst stirred up the war “to give his papers something to report,” is laughable.

Quite simply, there was no shortage of news to cover in the run-up to the Spanish-American War.

As I wrote in Yellow Journalism, a “variety of other events figured prominently on the Journal’s front page in the months before the Spanish-American War,” including the inauguration in March 1897 of President William McKinley;  the brief war between Greece and Turkey; the headless torso murder mystery that gripped New York in the summer of 1897; the Klondike gold rush; New York’s vigorously contested mayoral election, and the Journal-sponsored New Year’s Eve gala to celebrate the political consolidation of the five boroughs of New York City.


Imprecise, overwrought Watergate analogies emerge in Murdoch scandal

In Cinematic treatments, Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 17, 2011 at 3:00 am

Meeting his Watergate?

Watergate has become a frequent though imprecise point of reference for the reporting scandal that has battered Rupert Murdoch’s media holdings in Britain, prompting the closure of a leading Sunday tabloid, the resignation of two executives prominent in his news empire, and groveling apologies in print.

The scandal, which centers on illegal hacking of cell phone voicemail, has come to called Murdoch’s Watergate, a characterization embraced especially by Murdoch’s  enemies in America, hoping that this imbroglio may finally brings down the tough old media mogul.

The phone-hacking scandal is “a debacle that features Murdoch starring in the eerily similar role as the one Dick Nixon played,” declared Eric Boehlert in an essay posted the other day at Huffington Post.

Carl Bernstein, who teamed with Bob Woodward in covering Watergate for the Washington Post, has notably promoted the Murdoch-Watergate comparison.

In an essay titled “Murdoch’s Watergate?” and published recently in Newsweek, Bernstein wrote, not surprisingly:

“For this reporter, it is impossible not to consider these facts through the prism of Watergate. … The circumstances of the alleged lawbreaking within [Murdoch’s] News Corp. suggest more than a passing resemblance to Richard Nixon presiding over a criminal conspiracy in which he insulated himself from specific knowledge of numerous individual criminal acts while being himself responsible for and authorizing general policies that routinely resulted in lawbreaking and unconstitutional conduct.”

But it’s imprecise, premature, and a bit overwrought to liken the phone-hacking scandal to Watergate.

It’s no Watergate. Not yet, anyway. And it’s certainly not clear that Murdoch authorized policies that “routinely resulted in lawbreaking and unconstitutional conduct.”

Watergate was sui generis, an unprecedented constitutional crisis that led in to Nixon’s departure from office in disgrace in 1974. He was the first U.S. president ever to resign.

In addition, 19 men associated with Nixon’s presidency or his 1972 reelection campaign went to jail for Watergate-related crimes. (Woodward once called Watergate “an immensely complicated scandal with a cast of characters as varied as a Tolstoy novel.”)

Rolling up a scandal of such dimension required, as I note in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, “the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.”

Even then, Nixon likely would have survived and served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most private conversations in the Oval Office of the White House. (Woodward has endorsed that interpretation as well. He said in an online chat at washingtonpost.com in 1997 that “if the tapes had never been discovered, or [Nixon] had burned them, he almost surely would not have had to resign, in my view.”)

Toppling Nixon was no certain outcome of Watergate, at least not in the first year or so of the slowly unfolding scandal. And bringing down Nixon wasn’t a consequence of the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein, hoary media myth notwithstanding.

The phone-hacking scandal — in which reporters and private investigators for Murdoch’s now-shuttered News of the World tabloid broke into the voicemail of scores of people — has been an occasion to conjure Watergate in another way. In a romanticized, glowing way that recalls Watergate as a golden age in American journalism.

The Houston Chronicle has given expression to the golden-age sentiment.

The newspaper declared in a tut-tutting editorial the other day that the phone-hacking scandal “is a very long way from the saga of All the President’s Men, the uplifting account of how two dogged young reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, with the backing of ethically responsible Washington Post management, broke the Watergate scandal in 1972 that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. It inspired a generation of new journalists to their mission and exhibited the finest aspects of the profession.”

All the President’s Men was Woodward and Bernstein’s 1974 book about their Watergate reporting. The book’s cinematic version came out in 1976 and helped solidify the mythical notion that the Post brought down Nixon.

It deserves noting that the Chronicle’s editorial errs in at least three respects.

One, the Post management was not always so “ethically responsible” during Watergate.

For example, top editors approved an ethically suspect scheme allowing Woodward and Bernstein to approach federal grand jurors hearing Watergate testimony and ask them to break their vows of secrecy. As the reporters wrote in All the President’s Men, the ill-advised overtures to grand jurors nearly landed them in jail.

Two, the Post did not break the Watergate scandal.

The signal crime of Watergate — the burglary in June 1972 at Democratic National Committee headquarters — was interrupted by police. Within hours, news was circulating of the arrest of five burglars at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C.

The Post’s article about the break-in appeared beneath the byline of Alfred E. Lewis, a veteran police reporter, and it drew heavily on information from investigators.

In subsequent Watergate reporting, moreover, the Post exposed  neither the cover-up of crimes linked to the break-in, nor the payment of hush money to the burglars. Nor did it break the news about Nixon’s secret audiotapes.

Three, the claim that coverage of Watergate “inspired a generation of new journalists to their mission” is exaggerated.

Watergate produced no enrollment surge in journalism programs at American colleges and university. Enrollment growth in fact had begun well before Woodward and Bernstein wrote their first Watergate-related story in 1972.

Still, as I note in Getting It Wrong, the notion that Woodward and Bernstein inspired a generation of students to take up journalism “lives on despite its thorough repudiation in scholarly research.”

Like many media-driven myths, the tale of inspiration is almost too good not to be true.


Many thanks to Instapundit
Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post.

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‘News of World’ closure breaks link to 19th century yellow journalism

In 1897, Debunking, Year studies on July 10, 2011 at 12:04 am

The abrupt closure of Britain’s largest Sunday tabloid, Rupert Murdoch’s raunchy, scandal-ridden News of the World, breaks a link to the yellow journalism that flared in urban America at the end of the 19th century.

Jail-breaking journalism

I’m not referring to the News of the World’s tabloid flamboyance, which certainly evoked the typographic boldness of William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, a broadsheet that was the leading exemplar of American yellow journalism.

The link went deeper than appearances.

The News of the World was an heir to Hearst’s activist-oriented, participatory journalism — a self-engaging, self-promoting style of newspapering unheard of these days in the United States.

As I note in my book The Year That Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms, Hearst’s Journal at the end of the 19th century sought to set a standard for the American press, insisting, I write, “that newspapers were obliged to inject themselves, conspicuously and vigorously, in righting the wrongs of public life, and in filling the void of government inaction and incompetence.”

The year 1897 brought memorable evidence of Hearst’s style of activist journalism.

In the summer that year, Hearst deployed a phalanx of Journal reporters to solve the grisly case of headless torso murder in New York.

Later that year, a reporter for the Journal broke from jail in Havana a 19-year-old political prisoner named Evangelina Cisneros. The Journal — and more than a few other U.S. newspapers — celebrated the breathtaking breach of international law.

For the Journal, the Cisneros jailbreak (see image, above) was “epochal” and represented the “supreme achievement” of its paradigm of activist journalism.

It acknowledged that freeing Cisneros had violated Spanish law and flouted international convention — and the Journal seemed delighted to have done so, saying:

“The Journal is quite aware of the rank illegality of its action. It knows very well that the whole proceeding is lawlessly out of tune with the prosaic and commercial nineteenth century. We shall not be surprised at international complications, nor at solemn and rebuking assurances that the age of knight errantry is dead. To that it can be answered that if innocent maidens are still imprisoned by tyrants, the knight errant is yet needed.”

That sort of willingness to wink at illegality was demonstrated by the News of the World well before it became swept up in a cellphone-voicemail hacking scandal that brought about its demise.

Final edition

The News of the World, which published its final issue today, had been for years one of the world’s most controversial titles, due in part to its activist-oriented undercover operations, ostensibly undertaken to bring drug dealers, fugitive financiers, and other criminals to justice.

As I noted in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, the targets of the News of the World often were “small-time celebrities and wayward sports figures dabbling in modest quantities of illegal drugs. The undercover methods were criticized as entrapment and dismissed as ‘a kind of investigative reporting without much investigating.'”

I also described a notorious case in 1999, in which reporters for News of the World “posed as wealthy Arabs and enticed a British earl to buy cocaine and share the drug with them. A detailed report about the peer’s conduct — he was depicted as drunkenly snorting cocaine with a £5 note — soon after was splashed across News of the World. He was arrested and convicted of selling drugs.

“But the presiding judge declined to send the peer to jail, citing the subterfuge of the News of the World. If not for the journalists’ sting, the judge observed, the crimes likely would not have been committed.”

Such outlandishness hinted at the tabloid’s more recent and more egregious misconduct of breaking into the cellular phone voicemail of hundreds of people, including members of Britain’s royal family and perhaps victims of the terror attack on London’s subway system July 2005.

Phone-hacking, of course, wasn’t an element in the repertoire of the yellow press of Hearst or of his mean-spirited rival, Joseph Pulitzer. Nor did they did bring on the war with Spain in 1898, as is often alleged.

But on occasion they turned to deception, misrepresentation, and self-motivated activism in pursuit of their lusty brand of big-time journalism.


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