News Corp vs. Its Critics

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JONATHAN CHAIT JULY 18, 2011

News Corp vs. Its Critics

[Guest post by Alex Klein.]

Today’s Wall Street Journal editorial has the title “News and its Critics”—obviously, it’s missing a word. The piece’s real title should be “News Corp and its Critics,” or even better, “News Corp vs. its Critics.” It’s a piece by News Corp, for News Corp. The problem is, the ugly 1044-word attack on the company’s “competitor-critics” alternates between catty defensiveness, a drunk beat poet, and utter incomprehensibility. One can only stand in awe of a conglomerate that would mass print an “aw-shucks” apology across one country while sending the Journal to do its dirty work in another. Some of the editorial's phrases are almost self-parodying:

The overnight turn toward righteous independence recalls an eternal truth: Never trust a politician.

The Schadenfreude is so thick you can’t cut it with a chainsaw.

Especially redolent are lectures about journalistic standards from publications that give Julian Assange and WikiLeaks their moral imprimatur.

But, beyond redolence, imprimaturs, chainsaws, and Schadenfreude, the editorial’s argument—insofar as one is discernible—is so dishonest that it has the opposite of its intended effect. You come out of the piece trusting News Corp and the Journal far less than you might have before.

The first “point”:

Phone-hacking is illegal, and it is up to British authorities to enforce their laws. If Scotland Yard failed to do so adequately when the hacking was first uncovered several years ago, then that is more troubling than the hacking itself.

Of course, when “the hacking was first uncovered several years ago,” News Corp did a more than adequate job of bribing British authorities to keep them at bay. As David Carr pointed out yesterday, the company’s fondness of drowning legal problems in hush money has been pervasive, far from the domain of a single tabloid. “We didn’t get caught” is about as bad an excuse as they come, especially with the tactful omission of “…because we bribed the police.”

The second point is a dicey defense of resigned Journal publisher Les Hinton, which fails to mention the reason for his resignation: ostensibly, the two times he stood before the Houses of Parliament and said that only one News International journalist had ever hacked a phone.

The piece then moves inexplicably into self-defense mode, claiming that, well, even if News Corp is a bit unsavory, the company has improved the Wall Street Journal. Of course, a revitalized Journal must be of great consolation to hacking victims, who must also “shudder to think what the Journal would look like” under the dreary Bancrofts. And so we breeze right along to find the paper arguing for the legality of paying sources for information. But “the Wall Street Journal doesn’t pay sources for information.” So who does? Other News Corp outlets?

Again, we move on too fast to find out, and close with the same shoddy reasoning that Murdoch himself has already aired out in the Journal’s pages. Namely, that News of the World’s behavior constituted nothing more than journalistic overreach, and that cracking down on News Corp means inhibiting freedom of the press:

Do our media brethren really want to invite Congress and prosecutors to regulate how journalists gather the news?

News Corp outlets broke the law. And yet, the word “crime” is not mentioned once in the editorial. The Journal goes for a brazen euphemism, instead claiming that the tabloid’s “excesses” do not damage the reputation of its sister outlets:

The News of the World's offense—fatal, as it turned out—was to violate the trust of its readers by not coming about its news honestly. We realize how precious that reader trust is, and our obligation is to re-earn it every day.

The News of the World’s “offense” was to commit crimes, then lie and bribe to cover them up. “Trust” is a convenient, slippery term for the Journal to use. But surely, a paper of such clout must realize that its readers know the difference between breaking trust and breaking the law. At any rate, it’s likely that News Corp is soon to find out for itself.

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posted in: jonathan chait, news corp., news international, news of the world, wall street journal, alex klein, julian assange

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