Fallout of News Corp. Scandal in the US?

In the US, the deleterious effect of rampant commercialization is the real scandal. 

James Hamilton
11 March 2012

Phone-hacking and payoff scandals by News Corp. tabloids continue to rock the UK, bringing down major media companies and fracturing public confidence in heretofore (largely) trusted institutions. What fallout -if any - might this have in the US? Might similar conduct by media companies in the US ever have similar consequences in the US?

It’s a difficult question. Firstly, contrasting legal/regulatory and business environments make simple comparisons spurious. Libel laws in the US, for example, are more favourable toward the defendant than the plaintiff.

The US lacks any truly national newspapers (the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have something like a national circulation, but only among a very privileged upper crust of readers). And, of course, the BBC has no counterpart of equivalent stature in advertising-crazed American media industries.

Traditions of tabloid publishing themselves are also quite different. British tabloids by comparison to those in the US circulate to a broad range of readers, and for which public crusades comprise a visible part (yes, only a part) of the editorial mix. But US tabloids are wholly crass, shrill and crude, without a whiff of public-minded conscience. They operate entirely in the realms of fanzine (first views of Justin Bieber’s new hair-do), melodrama (the latest dirty dealings of spurned celebrity lovers) and fantasy (two-headed alien babies born to the current TV-show starlet).

As a result, and contrary to UK tabloid readers, US readers have as high an expectation of truth in US tabloids as one would have in late-night television advertising. US tabloids operate wholly on readers' willing suspension of disbelief, similar to what thrill-seekers do to ‘get into’ a horror movie in order to shiver to all the scripted chills. 

What’s more, tabloid writers in the US are not generally considered journalists in the highfalutin, professional, ethical sense of the term. They can’t offend by breaking the rules or not meeting readers’ expectations that they should mind an ethical standard below which they should not stoop.

Because US tabloids make no pretense to champion high-minded public causes, US readers don’t expect them to. No one in the US is surprised when US tabloid writers are caught doing what they are supposed/expected to do: prying into private lives and poking their noses, camera lenses and recorders as far as possible into other people’s business just to sell stories. When you’re already sprawled on your back in the gutter, you don’t have to worry about falling down.

This is not to discount some fallout from the UK tabloid scandal that has taken root in the States. Due to the long arm of US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act , Mark Lewis who represents a number of plaintiffs has argued that US anti-bribery provisions apply to US-based companies whose employees engage in banned practices even outside the US. To connect the dots, the defunct News of the World was owned by News International, whose owner in turn is US-based and publicly owned and traded News Corp.

But, this legal wrangling is hardly the stuff to pry the typical American up from his or her couch, run to the window, and yell like Peter Finch in the film, ‘Network’, ‘we’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore!’

Indeed, the only trans-Atlantic insight the UK tabloid debacle seems to offer regarding whether disgust with tabloids in the UK may be duplicated in the US has to do with how publications set reader expectations. Only when a news organization seeks by desire or design to trumpet itself as a ‘professional’ news organization is it bound by the ethics and the expectations that come with such a claimed status. When it stoops below them, watch out.

US tabloids occasionally forget this lesson. While the US tabloid the National Enquirer has on occasion been recognized for scooping other publications regarding the seamy behind-closed-doors actions of public figures, the 2002 Elizabeth Smart kidnapping (in which a teen girl was kidnapped from her parents’ house and later found alive with her abductors after suffering nine months of sexual and mental abuse) is a very different case.

This horrific situation was of course red meat in the maws of US tabloids. To get a jump on its competition for an insider story, the National Enquirer paid two local newspaper reporters $10,000 each for what the American Journalism Review calls a ‘salacious’ story about skeletons in the Smart family’s closet. It included such tidbits as police investigators believing one of the family members staged the kidnapping to cover up their own nefarious designs on the teen girl. The headline was pure tabloid: ‘Utah Cops: Secret Diary Exposes Family Sex Ring’.

One wee problem - the story and its sources were fabricated. The reporters lost their day job at the local newspaper, and the editor of their day-job newspaper was fired. The Enquirer, which published the phony story, had some serious egg on its face and public apologies to make.

One might argue that, despite being utterly despicable, this still doesn’t reach the severity of claiming that parents murdered their own daughter, and that this difference in severity explains why there was not the same backlash directed at journalism in the US over this story. But accusations of violating the sanctity of family, virginity, ethics, morality, and civilization would still seem to be plenty severe.

Indeed, the reporters and the Enquirer were scorned. But the bulk of scorn was heaped upon the individual reporters, not the industry as a whole, largely because their ‘real’ job was working at a ‘real’ newspaper, and how could ‘real’ journalists stoop to such levels? John Hughes writing in the staid Christian Science Monitor (14 May 2003) harrumphed about professional journalism being ‘defiled’ by ‘such tawdry ethical lapses’.

By contrast, if the same story had not been presented as legitimately reported and sourced, but had instead been hatched in the bowels of a tabloid’s editorial conference room and presented as fantasy conjecture, US readers certainly would be disgusted, but would simply shake their head and wearily repeat ‘what else would you expect?’.

This is hardly the earthquake that’s occurred due to News Corp’s shenanigans. No national inquiries. No countless commentaries about the future of journalism.

And, yet, US readers’ faith and trust in journalism—tabloid or otherwise—continues to skid. In a 2010 poll by the Gallup organization, only about one-quarter of respondents expressed a ‘great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of faith in newspapers and television news.

While this may have something to do with journalistic ethics, it has at least as much to do with the incessant and accelerating impact of commercialization. The commercial model of funding that was ironed out in the earliest days of mass publication continues today to hemorrhage due to economic challenges not so much from online content aggregators, but more so from the growth of online and mobile advertising at the expense of print.

More steps need to be taken to insulate journalism (and all media production) from commercial pressures. One innovative approach is to fund a public-media trust through such means as spectrum-use fees, and diverting a percentage of advertising sales each year into a subsidy to be used to support noncommercial media.

Without this freedom from commercial pressures, journalism and its claims to disinterested truth will always be suspected of pandering or shaping news to attract readers. Or bribing public officials to gather it illegally. Whether or not the earthquakes rattling the UK reach News Corp here in the US is still uncertain. But the deleterious effect of rampant commercialization is the real scandal. 

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