Ever since the News of the World affair blew up last week, media outlets have obsessed over how well News Corp.’s many outlets have covered the story. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer is only the latest to board this packed train. Here’s what Blitzer said at the outset of his package on Fox News Channel’s coverage: “The network has apparently gone out of its way to avoid a lot of reporting on its parent company’s troubles.”
Now there’s a “promotable” story, as they say in the TV biz. It’s total garbage.
Even though Rupert Murdoch owns more media properties than you can list on a page, there’s still enough of what the British call “media plurality” to ensure penetrating coverage of the scandal. Too, it’s unfair, unnatural, and stupid to insist that News Corp. cover News Corp. How many penetrating investigations of CNN has Wolf Blitzer aired?
Ages ago, Slate editor Michael Kinsley addressed the conflict of interest involved in covering Microsoft. These words, from December 1997, should kill all stories in the pipeline about News Corp. on News Corp.:
[I]t would be silly and dishonest to insist that Slate does or can treat Microsoft just as we would if it were not our employer. (And the same is true for any journalist working for any company with varied interests.) The reality of ownership affects Slate in a couple of ways, we think.
First, we cannot actually forget that we work for Microsoft. The most we can aspire to is to imagine successfully how we would treat Microsoft if we didn’t work for it. But this is an artifice, and it is not foolproof. There is the temptation to take the company’s side, and the contrary temptation to prove one’s independence with ostentatious criticism. Since editors and writers get their ideas from their surroundings,Microsoft probably looms larger in Slate’s editorial landscape than it does in that of other magazines. On the other hand, the simplest and always tempting solution to conflict-of-interest concerns is to take a pass on some Microsoft-related topics that you would otherwise treat. Although we do the best we can--and we think our best is pretty good--it would be an amazing coincidence if the result of all these opposing temptations and self-conscious calculations was exactly the same quantity and slant of Microsoft coverage as if there was no connection.
Second, Slate will never give Microsoft the skeptical scrutiny it requires as a powerful institution in American society (any more than Time, once again, will sufficiently scrutinize Time Warner). We can come pretty close to neutral reporting and analysis of news developments in features like “Today’s Papers” and “The Week/The Spin.” At the other extreme, if we discover that Bill Gates murdered Vince Foster, or a similar megascoop, journalistic bravado will easily triumph over corporate loyalty. But in the middle ground--entrepreneurial and analytical journalism--no institution can reasonably be expected to audit itself. The standard to insist on is that the sins be of omission, not distortion. There will be no major investigations of Microsoft in Slate.