Murdoch scandal: How are his big US media outlets covering it?

Although the media baron has adopted a contrite tone in Britain, his flagship holdings in the US have so far taken different approaches to the Murdoch scandal.

Akira Suemori/AP
A pedestrian looks at his cell phone outside a electronics shop in London with TV screens showing Rupert Murdoch testifying at a select committee on the phone hacking scandal.

Media baron Rupert Murdoch may have had his testimony before the British Parliament interrupted by a shaving cream pie, but he opened his remarks Tuesday eating another kind of pie, saying, “This is the most humble day of my life.”

Indeed, for about a week now, the head of the scandal-besieged News Corp. has tried to send a more contrite message. But while his response seems to have shifted in Britain, the memo appears to be having a bumpy ride across the Atlantic to his flagship US holdings.

The Wall Street Journal, owned by Mr. Murdoch since 2007, ran a lead editorial on Monday that media analysts have characterized as a mixture of defiance, deflection, and denial. The editorial reads in part: “It is up to British authorities to enforce their laws.”

Later on it says, “We also trust that readers can see through the commercial and ideological motives of our competitor-critics. The Schadenfreude is so thick you can't cut it with a chainsaw.”

Meanwhile, Fox News, another News Corp. media outlet, has served up more than 90 segments on the Murdoch scandal, which centers on phone hacking at the now-defunct News of the World, a British tabloid also among the News Corp. holdings. Yet some media critics, including James Fallows of The Atlantic magazine, have found fault with Fox News’s coverage.

In an online article Saturday, Mr. Fallows pointed to a July 15 segment on “Fox & Friends” that lumped two computer hackings, targeting the Pentagon and Citibank, together with the phone hacking done by News of the World. Bob Dilenschneider, a guest on the show and public relations expert, said, “Citigroup and Bank of America – are they getting the same kind of attention for hacking that happened less than a year ago that News Corp. is getting today?”

Fallows writes: “I submit that this could not happen at any other news organization. Rather, it could not happen at a news organization. It happened at the agitprop operation known as Fox News.”

The New York Post, another key News Corp. holding in the United States, has offered a half dozen or so short stories on the phone-hacking scandal in the past two weeks. As of Monday morning, The New York Times, which is not affiliated with News Corp., had published about 100 pieces on the scandal. The Wall Street Journal had published 35.

“This is about the future of the fourth estate,” says Richard Levick, president of Levick Strategic Communications in Washington – whether the public has lost faith in the media and whether journalism will take the lead in demanding the highest standards possible. “We have The Wall Street Journal interviewing its own corporate boss [Murdoch], saying that he has handled the crisis well, with no rebuttals,” he says.

“It’s embarrassing,” says Jeff Cohen, a journalism professor at Ithaca College in New York, referring to The Wall Street Journal’s editorial. Mr. Cohen, who was a paid commentator on Fox News for five years, says that just when that newspaper ought to take the lead in full transparency and self-reflection, “all they are doing is full damage control.”

The Wall Street Journal did not return requests for a response. Fox News also declined to comment, in particular on The Atlantic article by Fallows.

Circling the wagons is certainly understandable, says Jeff Rice, who is joining the writing, rhetoric, and digital-media faculty at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. “Markets do matter,” he says in an e-mail. “To pretend otherwise is not to be honest about journalism as a business.”

However, damage control without transparency will ultimately hurt all News Corp. products, says Leonard Steinhorn, director of the Public Communication Division at American University in Washington.

The Wall Street Journal is correct in saying that politicians should tread carefully in asking for investigations that possibly could abridge press freedoms, says Mr. Steinhorn, noting a further comment in the editorial. “But if the business side of a newspaper engages in influence peddling and buying off politicians and other forms of corruption,” he says via e-mail, alluding to what has been alleged in Britain, then it is “equally dangerous” if The Wall Street Journal were “to hide those practices behind a veil of press freedom simply to exonerate its corporate owner.”

However, late on Tuesday, Murdoch sent a letter to News Corp. employees that promises a future of accountability. His team has formed “an independent Management & Standards Committee, to determine new standards that will be clearly communicated,” the letter reads.

“[W]e will emerge a stronger company,” he adds. “It will take time for us to rebuild trust and confidence, but we are determined to live up to the expectations of our stockholders, customers, colleagues and partners. We are determined to put things right.”

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