Murdoch, rivals alike face questions about coverage of hacking scandal

July 17, 2011

The phone-hacking scandal surrounding Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. has just about everything: charges of political favoritism, allegations of hidden corporate agendas, high-level media wheeling and dealing, would-be conflicts of interest.

And that’s just the news organizations covering Murdoch, not the story itself.

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.”

The Times, he said, “has been careful to make sure our reporting is solid, our presentation is fair, and that the tone does not suggest some kind of agenda. We do that with any story, but we’ve been a little extra vigilant because we don’t want to give readers the impression this is anything but a big, fascinating news story.”

The story got new legs over the past two weeks with a series of scoops by the British Guardian newspaper, including the revelation that News of the World had hacked the phone of a missing 13-year-old girl later found murdered. The Guardian stories caused public outrage, and set in motion the demise of the tabloid paper and resignations and arrests of News Corp. executives. But the paper — a left-leaning rival of Murdoch’s conservative-supporting British papers — has also had its motives questioned.

“News International tried for two years to characterize the Guardian’s pursuit of the story as the unhealthy obsession of a commercial rival with a political agenda,” Guardian deputy editor Ian Katz wrote in an e-mail, “but now that the scandal has touched just about every corner of British public life it’s a duck that plainly won’t fly.”

“The radicals at the Guardian have clearly salivated to ruin Old Man Rupert,” said Tim Graham, director of media analysis at the Media Research Center, a conservative watchdog group based in Alexandria. The American media, he said, have joined in: “It’s blatantly obvious that this pile-on . . . is all about Murdoch and his perceived noxious effect on American politics and media.”

Graham singles out NPR, which has received funding from “Murdoch-hating” billionaire financier George Soros, as having “a special financial interest in going after Murdoch’s media properties.”

“We’re making decisions about the coverage of the News Corp. story, as we do with all stories, based on its importance and news value,” said Dana Davis Rehm, NPR’s head of communications. “This is very big news with global impact, and we’re really proud of our coverage.”

The non-Murdoch media’s larger goal, Graham said, is “to rid America of the Fox News Channel,” which has provided a prominent platform for conservatives.

It’s certainly clear that Fox has covered Murdoch’s troubles differently than its cable rivals, MSNBC and CNN. Over a 10-day period ending Thursday, Fox News devoted 37 segments to the hacking story, according to Media Matters for America, a liberal watchdog group that has long been critical of Fox and Murdoch. This was fewer than half the number of stories aired by MSNBC (85), and fewer than a third as many as CNN (124).

Fox News has had two awkward moments in regard to the story. The first last week was during a segment of its media-criticism program, “Fox News Watch,” in which panelists said they intended to avoid discussing the subject (“I’m not touching it,” panelist Cal Thomas said in a comment caught by cameras during a break).

The other occurred Friday, when “Fox & Friends” host Steve Doocy and a guest, public-relations executive Robert Dilenschneider, defended News Corp. and agreed that the media had devoted too much attention to the story. Dilenschneider went on to denounce hacking, but lumped News Corp. among its corporate victims rather than citing the organization as a perpetrator. (Fox News representatives didn’t respond to messages requesting comment.)

Speaking generally, Joe Foote, dean of the University of Oklahoma’s journalism program, notes that there is a long history of news organizations “shielding” their corporate parents from embarrassing episodes. “Just because this exceptionally high-profile story demands that news outlets owned by a corporate parent perform well,” Foote said, “it doesn’t mean that the media can be expected always to report objectively on their own organizations.”

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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