The Murdoch saga has, perhaps inevitably, created its own secondary narrative. This one involves Big Media, whose corporate loyalties and entanglements have raised suspicions about news organizations’ independence and objectivity.
In the two weeks since allegations of widespread hacking by Murdoch’s British newspapers broke open, claims of bias and suspicions of conflict of interest have flown from several directions. Given Murdoch’s extensive media holdings and his equally vast array of rivals and enemies, the story has raised a question: Can Murdoch get a fair shake in the media?
Murdoch’s U.S.-based media organizations — Fox News Channel, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post — find themselves in the almost no-win position of reporting a story that involves their boss. None have ignored the story, but critics have been quick to note that Fox News has devoted far less air time to its parent company’s troubles in Great Britain than its cable-news rivals, CNN and MSNBC.
At the same time, outlets such as the New York Times and NPR have also enthusiastically pursued the story, raising suspicions about their motives. The Times has a business interest at stake; it competes for readers and advertisers with the Journal and the New York Post. NPR, meanwhile, is still smarting from the beating Fox News dished out last fall after the organization fired commentator Juan Williams.
The Washington Post has a connection to Murdoch, too. The Post’s executive editor, Marcus Brauchli, was managing editor of the Wall Street Journal when Murdoch bought the paper and its parent company, Dow Jones & Co., in 2007. Brauchli resigned after only four months under Murdoch’s ownership, then joined The Post in mid-2008.
The Times helped revive what had been an almost dormant scandal last September by publishing a 6,000-word story on the subject in its Sunday magazine. The article disclosed that eavesdropping by journalists at Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid in London was far more extensive than had previously been acknowledged by British authorities. It also revealed investigative foot-dragging by Scotland Yard, the revered police agency, which had had a long and cozy relationship with News of the World.
Even before it published its story, the Times came under attack: News of the World’s managing editor, Bill Akass, accused the newspaper of seeking to injure a direct competitor. Several months earlier, the Journal had launched a New York edition, a venture some observers dubbed “a Times killer.”
Defending his paper’s coverage, Times editor Bill Keller wrote in an e-mail that the disclosures of the past two weeks have validated everything the paper reported last year and have gone well beyond it. “This was obviously a legitimate, important story,” he wrote. “If you follow the News of the World logic, no one was qualified to write about Murdoch properties except other Murdoch properties. Just about everyone in the communications business competes with some part of the Murdoch empire because it’s so vast.”