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Why is the US Media Going Easy on the Rapidly Widening Murdoch Scandal?

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The US press appears to have the attention span of a gnat. The S&P downgrade, Euromarket driven stock gyrations, and the Republican presidential race jockeying have displaced older stories. Yet the News International phone hacking scandal is blowing up to Watergate-level proportions in the UK, with fresh evidence showing that Rupert and James Murdoch (at best) misled Parliament in their testimony last month. And since phone hacking appears to be widespread, not just at the now defunct News of the World, but potentially other News International entities in the UK, it isn’t hard to imagine that US news outlets also engaged in questionable and possibly impermissible conduct.

Yet the contrast between the US and UK coverage is marked, and it goes beyond the obvious explanation that l’affaire Murdoch is chock full of major domestic power players. The difference in presentation is marked. The stories in the Guardian, which did the real spadework, and the Independent (to pick two examples) are incisive, direct, and suitably scandalized. The latest stories in the New York Times and Bloomberg (to pick two counter-examples) have headlines almost designed to have the reader ignore the articles. And even if they do contain most of the facts, they bury the lead, so someone reading the first paragraph or two might decide they had the drift of the gist, when the real meat was much further in the piece.

The very high concept is the Parliament released a passel of documents that show that Rupert and James Murdoch lied in their recent testimony. They tried, as they have in the past, to claim that the phone hacking scandal was limited to one bad apple, Clive Goodman. The most deadly item published is a letter from Goodman claiming that hacking was widely discussed at News of the World editorial sessions until editor Andrew Coulson told staff to refrain (note from the mention, not necessarily the actual behavior). Yet James Murdoch claimed that a £243,000 payment to Goodman had nothing to do with the desire to protect the paper! If you believe that, I have a bridge I’d like to sell you.

For those who may need a playbill, Coulson became the communications chief for the current prime minister, David Cameron, on Rupert Murdoch’s personal assurance that he was clean. Ouch.

There are all sorts of other goodies in the documents. In response to a query from the Parliament committee, Harbottle & Lewis, disputed the Murdochs’ claims about its investigation. It stated that it had been engaged to perform a limited review, analyzing 2500 e-mails supplied by News International to see if they contained evidence that specific employees were aware of or engaged in phone hacking. The firm said their access had been restricted and their requests for more information had been denied. This is particularly significant because James Murdoch testified that he relied on the work of Harbottle & Lewis in his claim that he thought any problem at News International was limited to Goodman. And the law firm provided the version of the Goodman letter to the Parliament committee which included the accusation of widespread hacking; the one provided by News International had that section redacted.

Here is the headline from the main story on this development at the Independent:

Huge pay-off for reporter who kept quiet about scale of hacking. The opening paragraphs make clear what is at stake:

News International executives were told four years ago that phone hacking was rife at the News of the World and subsequently paid a jailed employee a quarter of a million pounds after he claimed that Andy Coulson authorised and then tried to hide the extent of it at the newspaper when he was editor.

Previously secret papers show that Rupert Murdoch’s most senior lieutenants paid the NOTW’s disgraced royal editor, Clive Goodman, £243,000 in compensation soon after he had made damaging accusations against the company and its senior staff.

Now admittedly this account does rely on readers knowing that News International executives, particularly the Murdochs, have tried the “see no evil, hear no evil” routine.

The Independent also has a long section at the bottom of the article showing extracts from the new documents and explaining what their significance is and what the next steps related to each might be. It’d clear, easy to digest, and engaging.

The Guardian finds the scandal so exciting that it had a live blog yesterday: “Phone-hacking scandal: live“. But it also has major subheads give you the main points quickly if you don’t want quite that much detail:

• ‘Devastating’ new evidence submitted to select committee
• Four-year-old letter alleges phone hacking ‘widely discussed’ at News of the World editorial meetings
• Select committee to re-sit on September 6
• Two new witnesses to be quizzed by committee

Another indicator: you know it’s bad when the headline at a government body is clearer than what you get in the US press. At the UK Parliament site which made the documents public:

Committee publishes further written evidence on phone-hacking. Understated but direct.

Now look at the anodyne headlines in the US.

News Corp.’s James Murdoch May Need to Explain Contradictions Bloomberg

Letter Counters Hacking Avowals From News Corp. New York Times

Both these headlines are fails. Bloomberg’s fails to mention “hacking scandal”; the “contradiction” could be about anything, say succession plans. The New York Times does include a key signifier, but “Counters Hacking Avowals” is MEGO (My Eyes Glaze Over) inducing.

And the articles are light years apart from their UK counterparts. All you learn from Bloomberg is that James Murdoch may have to go back to Parliament again. Since execs just about never get roughed up by Congress and even when they do, it seems to be empty theatrics, this hardly seems very serious. Here is how the article begins:

A trove of documents and statements released by the U.K. Parliament in the News Corp. phone-hacking scandal implicates top former executives while contradicting testimony of Chief Operating Officer James Murdoch on what and when he knew about the illegal practices.

The contradictions mean Murdoch may be called to Parliament to answer more questions about a confidential settlement he approved with Gordon Taylor, according to a statement issued by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which is investigating the scandal. Taylor, the chief executive officer of the Professional Footballers’ Association, was a victim of hacking by News Corp.’s defunct News of the World tabloid.

The documents and statements prompted lawmakers to request explanations for inconsistencies from several executives, including Andy Coulson, the tabloid’s former editor, and Les Hinton, who recently resigned as publisher and CEO of Dow Jones & Co. and had led News Corp.’s U.K. publishing unit.

You have to get to the fourth paragraph to learn about the Goodman letter (no mention of the probable bribe) and the fifth to learn that is looks to be a smoking gun. And as too often happens in Bloomberg stories on complicated topics, the piece is disjointed. I suspect a lot of readers would lose patience part way through.

The New York Times piece starts off in a workmanlike manner, but stunningly omits key elements that would let US readers know why the revelations are important:

An influential parliamentary committee investigating phone hacking at Rupert Murdoch’s now-defunct tabloid, The News of the World, released a potentially damning four-year-old letter Tuesday claiming that hacking was routine and “widely discussed” at the paper, a direct contradiction of repeated assertions by the paper’s owners and editors that until recently they were unaware of the breadth of the problem.

The letter, from Clive Goodman, a former News of the World royal correspondent who briefly went to jail in 2007 for intercepting voice mail messages of members of the royal household, is important because it challenges the claim by Mr. Murdoch’s News Corporation that until last December it believed that the hacking was limited to one “rogue” reporter — Mr. Goodman — and that it had conclusively investigated the matter. Mr. Goodman sent the letter, including the now-redacted names of others he said knew about the hacking, to the company after he was fired.

There is NO mention that James and Rupert got up and made serious misrepresentations to Parliament weeks ago! Instead, we are led to believe, in the next paragraph, that the big implication is that this letter is awkward for the prime minister:

The disclosure is a further embarrassment to Prime Minister David Cameron, who has already been ridiculed by his political rivals for his decision to hire a former News of the World editor, Andy Coulson, as his director of communications.

It isn’t until paragraph eight that you get a not terribly direct reference to the idea that these documents included material that was seriously at odds with some of the Murdochs’ testimony:

The parliamentary panel, the Commons committee on culture, media and sport, said that in light of Mr. Goodman’s letter and other documents, it would re-call for further questioning at least four former employees of The News of the World. It also said it might re-call Mr. Coulson as well as Rupert Murdoch’s son James, who runs the News Corporation’s European and Asian operations

It isn’t until the end of paragraph ten that the Times finally says that some of the material “cast[s] doubt on previous assertions by the Murdochs and other company officials.” The balance of the story does provide a good summary of the main revelations, but by then many readers would have abandoned the piece, not expecting such juicy material.

Most important, neither of the US pieces point out the real stakes: this isn’t about whether the Murdochs have to sweat under hot lights. James Murdoch may not survive as a News Corp executive, and the scandal calls succession plans and ultimately the Murdoch control of critical parts of the News Corp enterprise into question, at least in terms of acting as hands-on managers. US readers are missing both a riveting scandal and potentially a sea change in the world’s most powerful media enterprise.

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46 comments

  1. attempter

    They’re probably doing the same thing, and if they’re not they certainly see nothing wrong with it. They regard such conduct as the prerogative of elites. By definition only a bottom-up hacker, etc. (like Assange or Bradley or Anonymous) can be doing anything wrong.

    Cf. Derrick Jensen’s Premise Four:

    Civilization is based on a clearly defined and widely accepted yet often unarticulated hierarchy. Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower is nearly always invisible, that is, unnoticed. When it is noticed, it is fully rationalized. Violence done by those lower on the hierarchy to those higher is unthinkable, and when it does occur is regarded with shock, horror, and the fetishization of the victims.

    Of course the most glaring recent example of this has been the media coverage and general pseudo-middle class attitude toward the London uprising.

    1. NOTaREALmerican

      Ugh. Brilliant reply.

      (Nothing new…
      (Kinda makes following…
      (Now I’m depressed…
      (What the point of…

      hmmmm….

      1. attempter

        The point is that people shouldn’t believe a word the corporate media says. If you’re already at that point, then you weren’t the target audience of the comment. In that case you should add to it or clarify it as needed.

    2. Patrick

      The reaction of the state apparatus in their haste to convict and sentence, almost equates with drumhead trials, is in sharp contrast with their lack of activity on the banking scandals that dwarf the economic damage done by the riots.

      The underclass can only get the attention of the elites with violent actions. That has been the mechanism through out the ages. Governments, ruling elites do not fear the voters, they fear the mob.

  2. kris

    Great post.
    As a US expat in the UK, I am surprised at how little it is covered back home. This should be of major interest to Americans at home purely on the merit of the story in the UK. On top of that, the possibility (though not proven) that News Corp USA divisions also participated in this practice is a bombshell.

    1. Charles Norrie

      We note this with US treatment of UK news stories all the time.

      For instance, in the UK it is generally understood that Mr Magrahi (sic), the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing was framed by the CIA. Few people yet go as far as me and say that Iran and the US working together carried out the bombing to give Iran its one and only only revenge for the deliberate shooting down of the Iranian Airbus

  3. Typing Monkey

    Yves,

    I’m not sure I understand the point of this piece. Is it to show that US papers are substandard? That’s pretty obvious by now–just yesterday, other posters have already remarked on the difference in quality of der siegel’s Soros interview compared to the complete tripe that American interviewers churn out, for example.

    I don’t believe that the American papers are doing any worse with this story than any other issue–the average american newspaper reader still barely understands what a CDO is, or what the robosigning scandal is about (if you don’t believe me, ask around…). There’s a vague idea that Goldman Sachs acted badly (probably due to Tabibi), but I think that’s about it. Hell, the average American newspaper reader still probably doesn’t even know about contemporary scandals such as Operation Fast and Furious.

    The Murdoch story will no doubt eventually “come to America” when it can be told in a breathless gossipy narrative akin to an OJ Simpson or Clinton blowjob scandal. I wouldn’t expect much until that occurs, though–at least not on this side of the Atlantic. In the meantime, let the papers dwindle to the status of irrelevancy–god knows they deserve it, and have relentlessly worked to attaining it.

    1. Typing Monkey

      Come to think of it, mentioning that at least one of the Murdochs and their executives probably got head (“*gasp* perhaps even multiple times!!”) at some point between the first hacking and the present day might start generating more stories.

      I’m still not sure why the ease with which this hacking was done is not a major cause for concern and coverage, btw–are people really that glib about their expectations to privacy?

    2. Moopheus

      I have to say, it does seem that the main complaints of the post could be made about mainstream newspaper coverage of just about anything these days. What suggests they’re going above and beyond on this issue in particular?

    3. Yves Smith Post author

      No, this is markedly worse than normal.

      1. This is a major major political scandal with implications for the US. Even if the US media isn’t all over it like a cheap suit, the coverage should be better. And this is a MEDIA story, the reporters themselves ought to be natively further down the curve!

      2. Look at the habits of the press. Anything sensationalistic, and this story is LOUSY with sensationalistic tidbits. is usually featured prominently in headlines and early paragraphs of a story to pull readers in. The press here seems to be bending over backwards to write pieces that do cover the bases but pour anesthetic over the headlines and opening section.

      3. You should not accept how lousy the media is generally.

  4. Schofield

    Murdoch runs a tax evading, espionage and fascism promoting business. I’m sure he’s not unique in America.

  5. sleeper

    Ahh – US News reporting

    It’s pretty simple really just waltz in fashionably late, do a quick google search of most viewed “news” crank out a piece and knock off for a few beers.

    The US news (except for maybe Maclachey) does the minimum actual reporting which consists of mainly “he said – she said” and “lets you and him fight”.

  6. DH

    If it’s not good enough for Nancy Grace or there’s no blond, pretty, missing teens, or red meat for another base, then forget about it.

  7. Jim3981

    Oh yeah Yves!

    The Media is the main lever the Elite use to manipulated the people and politicians. A form of PSYOPS if you will.

    It goes further than that I think though.

    What is the NOTW tabloid as an undercover organization to dig up dirt on congressman and senators? Phone hacking, Computer hacking, private investigator work. All under the guise of being news? In reality however, NOTW is an extention of the Elites that can dig up dirt on people the Elites need to control in the future.

    You cross the Elites, and BANG! That little thing you thought had been hidden in the closet comes out in the newspaper!

    So lets say if Anthony Weiner wasn’t voting the way the Elite would like, boom! You get Weiner Gate.

    What about John Edwards? I bet he pissed off some Elites.

    Look at Ron Paul, the Elites don’t like him by the way the news coverage goes.

    1. Jim3981

      Just watch the commentary at the bottom of Bloomberg TV during the financial news. At least half of the captions at the bottom of the screen is SPIN.

      David Brooks of the New York times is always a guest on “Meet the Press”. He is so aware of the intracies of politics I wonder if he isn’t creating policy himself. Although even David seems to be waking up at the utter lack of ability for the GOP to do anything good for the country and it’s people.

    2. Jim3981

      correction:

      What if News Of The World was really an undercover organization to dig up dirt on congressman and senators?

  8. mitchw

    The story needs more visuals for us. That’s why we saw Murdoch and Rebecca walking and smiling so much(good B role). What are words?

  9. Paul Tioxon

    Yves, you can scarcely blame the US media for not conveying the scope and implications of the News Corp scandal. I mean, the giddy over the moon British public scarcely got over the royal wedding before they started to burn their nation down. What would you expect from the people over here so far removed from the wedding of the century?

  10. lee

    I am fascinated by the way the WSJ is covering the story. Of course we knew that when Murdoch got his grubby hands on the Journal he would ruin it — just like he ruined the Times of London. Yesterday’s Journal headline: Letter “suggests” Hacking Widely Discussed…

    Unless I’m reading the news reports wrong the letter doesn’t “suggest” anything. It affirmatively states that hacking was widespread. Yes this is nitpicky but I do not see “suggest” in the articles written by the other news organizations.

  11. Weedhopper

    Simple. Every journo in America is afraid that he or she will someday need a job from Mr. Murdoch. They might be right.

    1. kravitz

      That’s the absolute truth. Plus, there are too many co-mingled media ventures for any company to tick off Fox. For all the competition, it’s kinda incestuous in media.

      Why, for example, does ABC News rely so much on Fox Business hosts for ThisWeek? And what else would NBC do with ‘House’?

      Though last night’s roasting of Pierce Morgan was wildly funny, it probably went over many heads just because most didn’t know the references. (America’s Got Talent Wild Card show, FYI.)

  12. Dikaios Logos

    Even more than having the attention span of a gnat, the U.S. media has become a clique of mindless followers. The ranks of supposedly elite journalistic institutions are even more into Ivy League pedigree than finance and consulting are. And while today’s Ivy League is less about inheritence than it once was, it is even more about duitiful affirmation of the ideas of the powerful. I know many reporters and editors in these organizations, and even when they are aware of their publications errors, they put scant effort in correcting them.

    One piece I saw recently in the U.S. press on News Crop, particularly its U.S. ops, appeared in adweek. Check here to see, “How Bad is News Corp:
    http://www.adweek.com/print/133928

  13. John Emerson

    I think people are too quick to assume that other media owners are significantly better than Murdoch. In a lot of ways he sets the standard for everyone else.

  14. Jerrydenim

    New York Times eh?

    That wouldn’t be the same New York Times that’s part of the rabidly liberal ‘lame-stream-media’ that’s dedicated to destroying Fox news and anything remotely benefiting conservative politics would it?

    1. Hugh

      If there is a liberal New York Times, it exists in a different dimension because it bears no resemblance to the one we have which cheerlead the Iraq war and has called for cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

      What is really lame is to call the media liberal. It’s not. It’s just a tool of the kleptocrats. Calling it liberal is a complete misrepresentation. It is distraction. It is rather like calling Obama “socialist”. I wonder if those making the charge ever consider the irony of it. Obama has continued Bush’s policies and in many cases has even taken them further. So if Obama is to the right of Bush and Obama is a socialist, that makes Bush a communist, right? Why doesn’t the right talk about that?

    2. mk

      No, that would be the NYT that supported Judith Miller and BUSHCO claims of WMDs in Iraq THAT DIDN’T EXIST and got us into this stupid war that we’re still fighting and paying for.

  15. Hugh

    I agree with the sentiments expressed above. I often say that the principal weapon in class warfare is distraction, and the media are primary means by which this distraction is accomplished. It is not just about what they cover and don’t cover. It is also about what they choose to cover a lot (the atmospherics of any political story, the debt ceiling negotiations or the Presidential horse race, for example) and what they choose to give only cursory coverage to (anything of substance). And of course, in true Upton Sinclair tradition, what they mostly do is miscover, spin, and propagandize what they are paid to.

    In general, American media concentrate on distraction. If it is something worth concentrating on, they avoid it. One element in this that makes them loath to investigate Murdoch seriously is that NewsCorp is one of their own. If they shine a light on it, they shine a light on themselves. If they discredit it, they discredit themselves. So they downplay the Murdoch story. They treat it as a UK story without much relevance to them or interest to an American audience.

    I am reminded of the military analyst story of a few years ago. Network and cable were using retired military people as their analysts of our various military involvements. What they were not telling their audiences was that these analysts had positions in defense companies that benefited from these actions or that they were receiving special treatment from and access to the Pentagon that was conditioned on they’re giving a positive assessment to what the Pentagon was doing. In other words, they had multiple conflicts of interest which destroyed their credibility and objectivity. This was a story that got big play in the blogosphere but in the MSM was mostly treated with anger and a kind of defensive jingoism. The upshot was the story died. The analysts stayed, and the ongoing conflicts of interest were ignored.

    Our media don’t investigate the PTB, and they don’t investigate themselves. End of story, literally.

  16. Peter Luria, Esq.

    Thanks for the detailed coverage. At least two additional issues merit Naked Capitalism’s readers’ serious attention. One of Murdoch’s “journalistic entities” is incorporated in the U.S. and therefore unquestionably subject to U.S. law. Federal statutes make any form of electronic surveillance (presumably including phone hacking)without judicial authorization a criminal offense. To the extent Murdoch’s firm systematically and routinely violates federal criminal law by engaging in electronic spying it is a racketeering organization subject to civil and criminal liability under RICO. Secondly the Delaware Chancery Court has promulgated a series of “best practices” for corporate directors. These practices include keeping detailed corporate minutes about decisions concerning fundamental corporate policy. Did the Murdochs explain in their corporate minutes with whom they consulted to determine the propriety of payoffs to specific individuals as well as the actual advice they received? If not , they are in breach of their fiduciary duties of loyalty and competence to the firm and its shareholder. NOW ASK YOURSELVES: WILL THE POLITICAL GOVERNING CLASS IN THE UNITED STATES ENFORCE THESE LAWS AGAINST THE MURDOCHS? IF NOT WHY NOT?

    1. New Jack Times: "The Kennedy Hit"

      You, me, Yves, Jane, Dick and everyone else can be “phone hacked” at anytime in the US, without warrant. More apt is to call this wiretapping. An interesting aspect of the title of this piece implies that the “media” should go harder on “Murdoch” when much controversy has come from their “engagements” with MI6. FUX was the state mouthpiece for the destruction of Iraq for jimminie-chrissmas, I’m not sure we can go all RICO on US foreign policy. The News inc. is an important industry, sometimes people get fired. Nothing to see here, move along.

  17. Fíréan

    re : NOW ASK YOURSELVES: WILL THE POLITICAL GOVERNING CLASS IN THE UNITED STATES ENFORCE THESE LAWS AGAINST THE MURDOCHS? IF NOT WHY NOT?

    Because as the predominant Main Stream Media they know the “truth” behind every story they ever broadcast or printed ?

    Am i getting close ?

  18. barrisj

    FBN is worthy of a story in itself…they must recruit at high-end “escort” agencies to get those chicas who prowl the stock exchange floors doing stand-ups. And, what’s with all the female “reporters” in the studio perched on those bar-stools flashing acres of thigh? Just too silly for words.

  19. niat holder

    I agree,w/ Hugh and hondje…another to drop dead was George Webley.May he rest in peace. The “hacks” are intercepted surveillance, spying and it’s done on digital slave units in concert with satellites phones. A small Boeing owned company designed these for CIA,NSA (many 3 letter agencies) and police “counter-intelligence “. Illegal to own in UK and no mention of this,the dead whistleblowers or a lucid report is purposeful obsfucation. Why? Because it will lead us all to look back to many years of terror,remote controlled false flags and evidence of an alternative Truths. Eyes Wide Shut.

  20. prufrock

    I write from Ur-modern Italy, the place so deepily involved in back-to-the-Middle-Ages power schemes that you could forget it is really a champion of modern world.
    Here you got Berlusconi’s leadership which mainly relates to a sort of feudal heritage with a flavour of mafia style but as he’s been a success story in the media business… that poses a few questions and themes. I enjoy the idea that the News of the World scandal depicts reality as it is also in much more upscale and exclusive clubs like the London’s ones: a really astounding sequence of badly corrupted spin doctors flowing since the Blair Rule.
    That tells something, for sure, but we can also jump to conclusion that closes any argument: no democracy, no debate, no free speech is anymore available so… what are we talking about (I mean, excluded we enjoy this way to spend time)?

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