Journalism is not the best-understood work ever, and the movies haven’t always helped people to understand this strange occupation. The more sensationalistic among them would have you believe that we bribe sources for information, pay off critics to get them to shut up, and break into places to collect evidence.
For years, I’ve had to tell sometimes skeptical friends and family members that real journalists don’t do that. We are generally uncouth, sometimes lazy and screw up in plenty of other ways–not least when we drop stories because they seem too complicated or might make readers think we’re taking sides–but we don’t act like common criminals.
And now one of the biggest media companies in the world has made a liar out of me.
News Corporation’s British subsidiary, News International, is credibly accused of doing all of those things and more: bribing police for evidence, buying the silence of victims of its coverage and hacking into the voicemail systems of potentially thousands of individuals, including soldiers killed in action overseas and a murdered 13-year-old girl. It since appears to have tried to erase evidence of its own guilt. (If the Wikipedia entry is too long, the Poynter Institute and Pro Publica have posted more concise summaries of what’s gone down so far.)
Even by the sketchy standards of U.K. tabloid journalism, this is appalling conduct. Then consider that News International was so influential that police and politicians not only declined to press investigations but went out of their way to give jobs to former News executives, and we are approaching James Bond villain territory.
News Corp., as you may have heard, owns quite a few media properties in the United States. I don’t rank any of them near the level of its now-shuttered News of the World tabloid, but it’s sad enough to see the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page range from whiny to delusional on this issue while Fox News commentators try to pretend that this isn’t a story at all. That conduct suggests an organizational difficulty with looking in the mirror.
(Note that the Fox affiliate in D.C., WTTG, has had me on its news shows to talk about tech topics numerous times.)
I still say that this isn’t how real journalists behave, and I can testify that I never heard of any sort of News International-style abuse in my 17 years at the Post. But can I blame you if you now doubt me?