W. Joseph Campbell

Posts Tagged ‘News of the World’

Carl Bernstein, disingenuous

In Debunking, Washington Post, Watergate myth on July 11, 2011 at 8:56 am

Carl Bernstein, he of Watergate fame, writes scathingly and at length in the latest Newsweek about the phone-hacking scandal that has shaken Rupert Murdoch’s media operations in Britain and prompted the closing of London’s largest Sunday tabloid, the News of the World.

Bernstein (Newseum photo)

Inevitably, Bernstein invokes the Watergate scandal of 1972-74– but conveniently skips over the borderline illegal conduct he and his Washington Post colleague, Bob Woodward, engaged in, in asking federal grand jurors to break their oaths of secrecy and discuss Watergate testimony.

Bernstein writes in Newsweek that “it is impossible not to consider” the News of the World phone-hacking scandal “through the prism of Watergate.”

He adds:

“When Bob Woodward and I came up against difficult ethical questions, such as whether to approach grand jurors for information (which we did, and perhaps shouldn’t have), we sought executive editor Ben Bradlee’s counsel, and he in turn called in the company lawyers, who gave the go-ahead and outlined the legal issues in full.”

That story’s a lot messier than Bernstein lets on: The private entreaties to Watergate grand jurors in December 1972 angered the federal judge hearing the Watergate cases and nearly landed the reporters in jail.

As described in All the President’s Men, Bernstein and Woodward’s book about their Watergate reporting, none of the grand jurors was cooperative but the reporters’ overtures were reported to the federal prosecutors, who informed the chief judge of U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia, John J. Sirica.

The judge was livid.

According to All the President’s Men, Edward Bennett Williams, the Post’s top lawyer, went to lengths to persuade Sirica — known as “Maximum John” for the stern sentences he imposed — not to throw the book at the wayward reporters.

“John Sirica is some kind of pissed at you fellas,” Williams was quoted as saying in the book. “We had to do a lot of convincing to keep your asses out of jail.”

Being sent to jail would have interrupted and may well have ended their reporting on Watergate. (The myths surrounding Bernstein and Woodward’s work are discussed in my latest book, Getting It Wrong.)

It wasn’t as if Bernstein and Woodward and their editors at the Post were oblivious to the hazards of inviting grand jurors to violate their secrecy vows. They were well aware of the risks of what they described in All the President’s Men as “a seedy venture.”

The Post’s editors consulted on the scheme — among them Bradlee, Managing Editor Howard Simons, Metropolitan Editor Harry M. Rosenfeld — all entertained “private doubts” about approaching grand jurors.

The Post city editor, Barry Sussman, was described in All the President’s Men as fearing “that one of them, probably Bernstein, would push too hard and find a way to violate the law.

“Woodward wondered whether there was ever justification for a reporter to entice someone across the line of legality while standing safely on the right side himself. Bernstein, who vaguely approved of selective civil disobedience, was not concerned about breaking the law in the abstract. It was a question of which law, and he believed that grand-jury proceedings should be inviolate.”

But they went ahead anyway, desperate for leads in the slowly unfolding scandal.

Their overtures to the grand jurors drew a tongue-lashing from Sirica in open court on December 19, 1972.

“I want it understood by the person who approached members of the grand jury that the court regards this matter as extremely serious” and “at least potentially” contempt of court, Sirica said.

The judge, though, did not mention the reporters by name, saying only that the entreaties to grand jurors had been made by “a news media representative.”

Reporters covering the hearing buzzed with speculation as to whom Sirica was referring.

Bernstein and Woodward deflected suggestions that they had made the improper overtures. “We … engaged in our own cover-up,” Woodward was quoted as saying in Alicia Shepard’s Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate.

The reporters wrote in All the President’s Men, which came out in 1974 just as Watergate was nearing its climax, that in seeking out the grand jurors, they “had chosen expediency over principle and, caught in the act, their role had been covered up.”

To be sure, their dubious conduct was not in the same league as the rank illegality of News of the World’s phone-hacking.

But Bernstein was more than a little disingenuous in soft-pedaling how he and Woodward solicited information from Watergate grand jurors.


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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