Since 1917 the Pulitzer Prizes -- named for their creator, the 19th-century press baron Joseph Pulitzer -- have been awarded to encourage excellence in journalism. I happen to think that more could be accomplished with a prize for the worst in journalism. It should be called the Murdoch.
The first Murdoch would go to Rupert Murdoch himself, a media mogul who has single-handedly lowered the standards of journalism wherever he has gone. His New York Post and his Fox News Channel are blatantly political, hardly confining Murdoch's conservative political ideology to editorials or commentary but infusing it into the news coverage itself. It does this, of course, while insisting it does nothing of the sort.
The most repellent of Murdoch's products is the New York Post. (Full disclosure: My syndicated column appears in the competing New York Daily News.) The Post was the paper that, in the name of Americanism, called for a boycott of entertainment figures who opposed the war in Iraq. Under the headline "DON'T AID THESE SADDAM LOVERS," the paper's Page Six column on March 19 listed "appeasement-loving celebs." Among them were Tim Robbins, Sean Penn, Laurence Fishburne, Samuel L. Jackson, Susan Sarandon and Danny Glover. In some cases, the Post called for a boycott of their movies, never mind who else was in the movies or worked on them.
This is hardly Americanism. In the first place, none of the celebrities can fairly be called a "Saddam lover." They merely opposed the war. Second, they were not appeasers because, as the Bush administration itself said, this was a war of choice, not self-defense. Finally, dissent should be encouraged, not punished. This is how we learn. This is how we conduct a debate.
But the Murdoch way of conducting a debate is to yell treason or something very close to that. His organization did so, for instance, in a New York Post column that virtually called Peter Arnett, the former MSNBC correspondent, a traitor for what he said in his now-infamous interview with Iraqi state television. Arnett made himself impossible to defend, but bad judgment or even craven obsequiousness to a source (the Iraqis) is not treason. It is merely bad journalism.
The Fox News Channel thought otherwise. In a promotional spot, it said of Arnett: "He spoke out against America's armed forces; he said America's war against terrorism had failed; he even vilified America's leadership. And he worked for MSNBC."
Only the last sentence is true. The rest is such a stretch, such an exaggeration, that it amounts to a lie. Arnett never mentioned the "war against terrorism" and he never "vilified America's leadership." He was critical of the Bush administration -- but so was I on occasion, and I supported the war.
No single column could do justice to the injustices of the Murdoch empire -- or to its strange omissions. It went after Arnett with a vengeance but barely mentioned that its own reporter, that burlesque of a journalist, Geraldo Rivera, was given the boot by the military for essentially reporting the position of the unit he was with at the time. Must have been a busy news day.
It would be fun to imagine how the Murdoch press would cover Murdoch. It might have noticed that he abandoned his Australian citizenship and embraced America, apparently to comply with an FCC rule that prohibited foreigners from owning more than 25 percent of a TV license -- a touching immigrant saga. He dropped the BBC from his Star TV satellite operation in China because Beijing had a problem with its unbiased reporting. The New York Post and Fox might call him what they repeatedly called the French and others -- a "weasel." Alas, that would be editorializing.
Pulitzer and even William Randolph Hearst were pikers compared with Murdoch, the first truly global media baron. He controls 175 newspapers around the world, with 40 percent of the newspaper circulation in Britain. He owns satellite TV worldwide and, in America, a movie studio and book publisher as well as newspapers and TV outlets. His political influence is immense as well as baleful. MSNBC now has conservative hosts, and all the cable outlets either flew the American flag somewhere on the screen or in some other way insulated themselves from potential criticism from the right.
A piece of me admires Murdoch. He is a buccaneer, a risk-taker who, seemingly, cares not one whit for the opinion of journalists such as myself. But as the war in Iraq has shown, he has infected American journalism with jingoism and intolerance. For that, he gets the very first Murdoch Prize -- a formal citation listing his sins and a bucket of slime with his name on it. It is well earned.