The American press all but ignores corporate scandal
when subject and the issues hit too close to home
Imagine this chain of events: A division of a large multinational company is accused of a pattern of corporate misconduct that includes surveillance, hacking into phones and bribery of law enforcement officials.
Dozens of employees are arrested over the course of a year, and seven are charged in one day with grievous criminal conduct. Add in that the company seeks to cover up its actions at every turn, in some cases reportedly bribing law enforcement officials, while some of its political opponents are singled out for surveillance and black ops. Let's further stipulate that the company may just be the most visible perpetrator in an industry that has lost its way.
It sounds improbable, like a John Grisham legal thriller about a corrupt law firm or a fast-and-loose brokerage house, but it actually happened at a newspaper company, of all things. Last week seven former executives at News International, the British newspaper division of News Corp., including Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks, were charged in connection with the phone hacking investigation, after years of denials.
If this happened in any other industry - the banking sector during the financial crisis, the oil companies after the BP spill, or Blackwater during the Iraq war - you would expect to see a full-court press by journalists seeking to shine a light on a corrupt culture allowed to run amok.
Now would seem to be journalism's big moment to turn that light on itself, with deeply reported investigative articles about how things went so wrong: the failures of leadership, the skewed values and the willingness of an industry to treat the public with such contempt. The Guardian correctly suggested that the arrests were unprecedented in the history of newspapers.
But because it is the news business and the company in the sights is News Corp., the offenders are seen as outliers. The hacking scandal has mostly been treated as a malady confined to an island, rather than a signature event in a rugged stretch for journalism worldwide. Collectively, the press in the United States put more time and effort into pulling back the blankets on the indiscretions of Herman Cain.
But journalism's ills don't live exclusively on Fleet Street or stop at British shores. While American newspapers don't publish in the hypercompetitive landscape that played a role in the tabloid excesses in Britain, the growing ecosystem of Web and cable news shares many of the same characteristics and, all too often, its failings. Economic pressures have increased the urgency to make news and drive traffic, even as budgets have been cut and experienced news professionals tossed overboard.
Ed Wasserman, a professor of journalism at Washington and Lee University, believes it is a mistake to draw a straight line between what has happened in Britain and troubles in the American press. But that doesn't mean that the news media are doing their jobs.
"I do think there's something specifically British in the hooliganism of News of the World and the other tabs there, including eavesdropping and petty bribery," he wrote in an email. "U.S. media corruption is different. In many respects it's far worse - herding, cozying up to sources, constantly fleeing for the middle, and reading off a very narrow news agenda."
There is no accusation here of a broad, corporate-sanctioned effort to break the law in pursuit of the news. But the pratfalls have been tough to miss, including fundamental lapses in ethics: Casey Anthony, accused of killing her 2-year-old daughter, was acquitted of that offense in spite of significant evidence. When it was revealed that ABC News paid for most of her legal defense, through payments for exclusive photos, very few eyebrows were raised.
The Wild West ethos that often prevails has led to some startling mistakes. After the Supreme Court health care ruling in June, Bloomberg News bragged that it had beat Reuters by 12 seconds in reporting the decision, but the public was less interested in who went first than the fact that both CNN and Fox News got it wrong. When speed is the priority, the truth can be run over in the rush. Not only was the Supreme Court ruling mauled in haste, but a Colorado Tea Party organization was falsely linked by ABC News to the deadly theater shooting in Aurora.
Emily Bell, a former editor at The Guardian and now a professor of journalism at Columbia, gives relatively high marks to the American press, but says that Web frenzy creates pressures on both the truth and the people seeking it.
"It is a similar situation to the UK with an overcrowded and overheated market and a great deal of pressure to be first," she said. "The Web heightens that pressure here and in some cases, it hasn't always led to good reporting."
Those who get it wrong spend a few days in the spanking machine and then it is back to business as usual, with very little thought as to why journalism keeps shooting itself and its readers in the foot - even in an age when there is more information on hand than ever before.
We depend on the Web to serve as a self-cleaning oven, revealing bad reporting and mistakes of fact and then fixing those pixels to reflect the current truth. But the big industrial-strength pat-down is barely in sight when it comes to the business of journalism.
The news media often fails to turn the X-ray machine on itself because, in part, journalists assign a nobility to the profession that obscures the flaws within it. We think of ourselves as doing the People's work and write off lapses in ethics and practices as potholes on the way to a Greater Truth.
The public isn't buying. According to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, in 1985, 34 percent of the respondents thought stories contained inaccuracies. As of 2011, that figure had almost doubled to 66 percent
(Lest we think that hacking can't happen here, last week a vivid reminder arrived: Michael Gallagher, a reporter who pleaded guilty in 1998 to hacking the internal phone system of Chiquita in pursuit of a story, went to court and successfully petitioned to have his criminal conviction expunged. It's like it never happened, except it did.)
For certain, it was good journalism - by The Guardian most notably - that revealed the scope of News International's transgressions in the first place. Some news outlets, including this one, have produced illuminating articles on both the scandal in Britain and journalism's lapses in general.
But the effort to get at the skewed culture at the core of the business has largely been missing. Now that the jig is up and criminal trials are scheduled, the reaction in much of the press has been underwhelming and defensive.
After Brooks and the othsers were charged last week, Chris Blackhurst, editor of the left-leaning Independent, worried about the chilling effect it might have on newspapers and said there might be instances when journalism needed to operate outside the law.
"The Independent hasn't hacked anyone's phone, but there might be a case where we felt that we had to," he said at the time.
When I read all the keening about how this might upend the entire industry in Britain, forcing a fundamental change in the business, I had one clear reaction: good.
Part of the reason the public has lost confidence in our product is that it sometimes does not merit it. If journalism is losing its way, that's a story that needs to be told over and over.
David Carr writes about the media for the New York Times.