I was asked an interesting question earlier today by a BBC producer who wanted to know about the American angle to the hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World. Could this type of thing happen in the American press? she asked.

My immediate response was to say that it wouldn’t. The American press is a different beast. We have stricter ethical standards. We’re stodgier. Competition is tough, but it’s much less fierce.

But thinking about it a minute I had to start hedging on us. Was I being naive? First of all, it has indeed happened here before, in at least one instance. In the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Chiquita banana scandal in the late 1990s, a reporter illegally accessed Chiquita voicemails to help his investigation into widespread corporate wrongdoing and later pleaded guilty to two felonies.

While that was an isolated incident, I at least had to qualify my answer with an “at least not something so systematically criminal as what has gone at the News of the World.” Those British tabloids are insane.

And then I had to acknowledge that we have our tabloid newspapers here too. But they’re far less powerful than those in the UK with far fewer readers. This country has five times as many people as the UK, but even Murdoch’s New York Post, as close to a British-style tabloid as we have, has a circulation of just half a million. News of the World has five times that. The Sun has six times the circ.

Here’s John Gapper of the Financial Times on British newspaper culture, and how it differs from the dominant media culture in the U.S.:

Standards on British tabloids have indeed been diluted over decades by the distorted incentives on editors and reporters. The rewards for bending rules - whether by plagiarising others’ work, making up quotes and stories, or illegal invasions of privacy - were higher than the risks of getting caught…

While Fleet Street editors do their best to see no evil, those in the US are far more inclined to discipline or fire reporters who behave unethically. The fact that your career could well end humiliatingly if you misbehave is a strong incentive to do the right thing.

(I should note that Britain has some quality newspapers, not least of which is the FT itself, but tabloid circulation far exceeds that of so-called quality papers like the FT, the Guardian, and The Times. So I don’t think I’m out of line saying the tabloid culture is the newspaper culture there.)

But what about places like the National Enquirer and TMZ in the U.S.? How far will those publications go to get a scrap of news on a hot story? We know they pay for news, which is a no-no at serious American news organizations that aren’t news divisions of TV networks that launder payments through “licenses.” Paying for news is an ethical question, though, not a legal one—unless you’re doing something like bribing police for information, which Murdoch’s folks did repeatedly.

I don’t think these folks would go nearly as far as News of the World did. But I don’t really know, do I? And the competition for scraps of celebrity “news” sure seems to have gotten much more heated here in the past decade or so and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down.

One thing I think I do know for sure, though: If an NotW-like scandal came out here, even from a company as powerful as News Corp., the culprits wouldn’t have the police, government, and the rest of the media falling all over themselves to cover it up for them. The good thing about our tabloid culture is that it’s mostly separate from our hard news culture. And, relatively speaking, the good thing about our news culture is that it’s more diversified than in Britain, diluting the power of any one press baron over public life.

That I can say that about our own consolidated corporate media says a lot about how topheavy it is over there.


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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.