Corporations, like all human organizations, develop distinct cultures. A set of shared values evolves that controls what a company is willing to do in the pursuit of profit — and most important, what it is not. Most often, those values are driven by senior management. To succeed in that environment, employees must conform to the internal — explicit and implicit — rules of behavior.
Watching Murdoch père et fils dissemble and deflect in the bright lights of international media scrutiny this week was like seeing a disappointing full monty. Once the robe was opened, there was a lot less there than we had expected. Rupert was monosyllabic and imperious; James tried to charm and mouthed empty words. Wendi Deng's athletic defense of her 80-year-old husband from a shaving-cream assault drew so much attention because it was the only visceral moment in an otherwise anti-climactic parliamentary hearing.
By the time former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks made her appearance before the committee, the Murdochs' defense strategy was clearly visible: plausible deniability. Both Murdochs and Brooks tried to position themselves as innocent bystanders, unaware of the phone-hacking practices and bribery of police officials by their reporters in pursuit of scandal. One doesn't have to go very far to imagine that Murdoch underlings worked with few restraints on their behavior.
Like a putrid flower, each new petal of fact releases a foul odor that further defines the span and depth of what might be the largest criminal enterprise ever involving a journalistic institution. The ripples threaten to become a tidal wave: 10 arrests so far, the resignation of England's top cop, more resignations and one death (maybe coincidental) among senior and former News Corp. officials, the abrupt shutdown of a 160-year-old tabloid, an FBI probe into Murdoch practices in the U.S. and a Conservative government in Britain so damaged that its survival is a serious topic of discussion.
A Shiner on a Bruised Industry
As Pulitzer-winning columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. has pointed out, the hacking and bribery scandal is not just about the Murdochs and their sleazy business practices; it is a black eye on an already fragile industry. For this American journalist — who has worked in a dozen newsrooms over a long career — the concept of breaking into the voice mail of anyone — not just celebrities, royals and victims of crimes — is simply unfathomable.
There's a vast difference between investigative reporting, which is based on slow, painstaking — and legal — efforts to acquire information versus tapping into voice mails and bribing police officers to provide information about the whereabouts of celebrities and others. Even ambush interviews on street corners, while disturbing, fully disclose the reporter's actions and intent to the subject of an investigation.
What proper journalists don't do is misrepresent themselves, break laws and recklessly invade the privacy of victims. For a long time, the British public seems to have accepted that royals and celebrities were fair game, but efforts to tap the voice mail of the family of a little girl who was kidnapped and later found murdered seem to have pushed Brits into outrage. When her voice mail box was full, reporters for the News of the World were alleged to have erased some messages to make room for more, giving her family false hope and even affecting the course of the police investigation.
An Early Taste of Murdoch Culture
I worked at the New York Post in the 1970s before it fell under the spell of Rupert Murdoch. The paper was an openly liberal tabloid that covered underdogs, unions and minorities sympathetically. The standing joke in the newsroom was that when the world ended, the Post headline would read, "World Ends: Jews and Blacks Hurt Most."
The Post, founded by Alexander Hamilton in 1801, was owned by Dorothy Schiff, a genteel, rich, liberal woman who would later be a model for Mrs. Pynchon, the genteel rich, liberal publisher on Lou Grant, the late-1970s CBS show about a fictional newspaper. Mrs. Schiff received visitors in a boudoirlike office with antiques and floral wallpapered walls. She served tuna-fish sandwiches, whether the guests were presidential candidates seeking the Post's endorsement or the three or four black reporters on staff she occasionally invited to her office to discuss their gripes about the paper. She always insisted that she was well-informed on what "the blacks" were thinking or feeling about important issues. We young turks suspected that she consulted her black chauffeur, who sat on the plastic-covered front seat of her limousine.
I had left the New York Post before Murdoch acquired the paper in 1976, but the change of tone at the Post was sudden and remarkable. Its politics turned 180 degrees to the right. But more important, the attitude toward people of color became downright nasty. Murdoch's Australian editors published brutish caricatures of black people; some pundits brushed it off as Aussie brashness. The paper relentlessly challenged the competence and intentions of New York's first black mayor, David Dinkins — an aggressiveness that would not be evident in its coverage of his white successors, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. The negative racial tone reached a peak in 2009, when the newspaper published a cartoon of a dead monkey and made a link to President Obama's stimulus package.
For years at a time, the Murdoch Post had no black or Hispanic reporters. The "Australians" brushed off questions about diversity. When they did hire minority journalists, the hires ended up suing the paper, complaining about the toxic atmosphere in the newsroom, where they alleged that star reporters like Steve Dunleavy regularly shouted racially derogatory language.
And then there are the broader business practices of Murdoch's News Corp. empire. While the impetus for the FBI investigation is the allegation that phones of 9/11 victim families may have been hacked, there are plenty of other incidents suggesting that Murdoch's company has long behaved as badly in America as in England. In a remarkable article in the New York Times earlier this week, David Carr reported that, in the U.S., "the News Corporation has paid out about $655 million to make embarrassing charges of corporate espionage and anti-competitive behavior go away." The charges included hacking into computer systems at a company called Floorgraphics, anti-competitive behavior and violations of anti-trust laws.
When you understand what Rupert Murdoch is willing to let happen at his other entities, it puts Fox News into perspective and explains how the "fair and balanced" slogan has long been network boss Roger Ailes' attempt at irony. The network has served as a platform for attacks on President Obama's race, birthplace, competence and commitment to America. Fox News has practically created the Tea Party movement, legitimizing it faster than any previous populist or third-party movement through constant sympathetic coverage. It has played a large role in cheapening political dialogue in America and rewarding those holding extreme views with prime-time exposure.
A grand unified theory of Murdoch corporate culture emerges from all this evidence — the sleaze, the recklessness, the disinterest in the truth in pursuit of the sensational, protecting right-wing interests and feeding the basest instincts of the population. It first came to light at the News of the World but reaches into all the recesses of News Corp.
Just a couple of weeks ago, before the London press scandal took center stage, the New York Post was in full bloom in the Dominique Strauss-Kahn rape case. Having done a complete turnaround from daily crucifying "Le Perv," the Post declared that the former IMF chief's accuser worked as a prostitute at the hotel where the incident is said to have occurred, a charge that neither law-enforcement entities nor any other media outlet could verify. The woman has filed a libel suit. For Murdoch and his minions, it was just another day at the office.
Joel Dreyfuss is managing editor of The Root.