No, Actually, News of the World Won’t Happen Here

In a recent spasm of radio and TV interviews about #hackgate the last couple weeks, everyone wanted to know whether a News of the World scandal could happen here.

I mean, we’re just as bad, aren’t we?

After all, Howard Kurtz says: “British tabloid tactics are rampant in American journalism, too.”

The Wall Street Journal’s special committee on editorial integrity (true, rather hapless as oversight bodies go ) felt compelled to assure readers this morning that hacking and bribery do not, repeat not, take place even at my old paper, perish the thought.

But, actually, the answer is no, you won’t see a NotW-style scandal unfurling here anytime soon.

The first thing to keep in mind is the sheer scale of NotW-gate—rampant criminal activity on an institutional scale, an entire newsroom running amok, with, as we’re learning, active participation of top editors, including Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks (who herself told Parliament of paying police for information, before saying she couldn’t remember actual instances). On top of this, NotW includes senior News Corp. figures playing key roles in keeping the crimes under wraps, including Les Hinton who told Parliament he had checked thoroughly and found it was only a single reporter, and James Murdoch, now deputy COO, who authorized payments to hacking victims and was well-briefed on what it was about, despite what he told Parliament. (For a nice summary of #hackgate sins, see Chittum.)

So, first question: What’s the precedent in modern U.S. press history for anything like that? There isn’t one (true, there isn’t one in Britain either, but stay with me).

Some people, including Kurtz, try to cite the Chiquita Banana case as analogous. No, it proves the opposite point. In that case, the reporter, Mike Gallagher—so secretive about hacking into company officials’ voicemails—didn’t even tell his own partner, Cameron McWhirter, who later wrote about it for us (the link only goes to the top of the story; I’m trying to get a better one). The Wall Street Journal at the time reported sources saying that some of the hacking calls were made from a payphone near Gallagher’s house.*

Not only was Gallagher criminally prosecuted as a matter of course; not only did his paper, the Cincinnati Enquirer, run a massive, groveling, page one apology; not only did its owner, Gannett, fork over a $10 million-plus settlement; but to the everlasting shame of one and all, the paper also retracted the entire, 18-page project (which is still floating around out there, thanks to an environmental site called, even though the hacked voice mail touched only a fraction of the series. (A forthright New York Times piece by the excellent Douglas Frantz probed serious allegations against the company, which included harming workers with pesticide use, evading local land-ownership laws, and bribery.) The county convened a special prosecutor against the newspaper. Civil litigation ensued, etc. etc.

That’s one reporter, 13 years ago. And it was Armageddon. NotW is a whole news organization, 4,000 victims, over years and years, with knowledge, and perhaps complicity, running to the highest levels.

Sure, there are the famous fabulists, Janet Cooke, Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, Jack Kelley, and, I’m sure, plenty of others discovered and undiscovered. ABC staffers misrepresented themselves to go undercover for the Food Lion story. They were eventually vindicated, but it was literally a federal case. NBC staged the GM pickup truck Pinto explosion and didn’t let on.

Egregious screwups. But institutional scale criminality? No.

And consider something else. In 2006, the U.K.’s Information Commissioner’s explored, the illegal trade in private information (pdfs), mostly in the form of blagging, which is misrepresenting oneself or otherwise lying to get someone to reveal something they shouldn’t. The perps: mostly private eyes. The buyers: in many cases, journalists. In one major case, the ICO found fully 305 reporters had been buyers of ill-gotten info. The papers involved ran the gamut of the U.K. press scene (but not our heroes, the Guardian). Put it this way, NotW came in fifth! Murdoch’s paper, with a mere 182 transactions by 19 journalists, was a piker compared to the Daily Mail—952 deals by 58 journos! Even quality papers, the Observer (103 deals/4 journos), the Sunday Times (52/7). Even Marie Claire!

It’s like bangers and mash over there; it’s everywhere.

(For a good primer on British tabloid culture, read this new Anthony Lane piece in the New Yorker. UPDATE: For a better one, exploring the role played by Murdoch’s tabloids in British political life, read Anthony Barnett.)

In 1978, I thrilled to the Chicago Sun-Times “Mirage” series that had reporters set up a tavern to report on all the city inspectors who came to shake it down. The series was a blockbuster and led to all sorts of reforms, but it was denied the Pulitzer because of the deception it used. And the tactic has largely been shunned in the MSM ever since.

And I should mention that the American papers’ (non-criminal, but for Gallagher) misdeeds were at least in the service of trying to root out corruption, etc., not trying to get the skinny, as Nick Davies put in a different context, on “Bonking headmaster, Lonely heart, Dirty vicar, Street stars split, Miss World bonks sailor, Dodgy landlord, Judge affair, Royal maid, Witchdoctor, Footballer, TV love child, Junkie flunkie, Orgy boss,” etc. (Bonus material: see this great Telegraph collection of NotW hacked page ones.)

What makes us so great? We’re not. The point obviously isn’t that we don’t have serious journalism problems here. As I’ve written, one need only cite our pre-Iraq War coverage. And is there a more severe critic of pre-financial-crisis Wall Street coverage than yours truly? Well, sure, Danny Schechter. But I’m up there. These professional failures are in many ways far more consequential than British ethical failures and even legal violations.

And what about TMZ, Gawker, the National Enquirer, etc.? They pay for news. This is true. It’s another post, and it’s not good. But, again, no crimes. And not even much blagging. Gawker defends gossip, which is fine, and even paying for news, which is really, really problematic, to say the least (paying cops? do we really want to do that?) but it’s clear that the Gawk and the U.S. gossip press are an ocean away from NotW.

And what about News Corp.’s American properties? The FBI is looking into whether 9/11 victim’s phones were hacked, but even as alleged, it’s NotW, and the evidence for that is dodgy. Fox is accused of having a black ops office. On that, I’ll just say, Fox, unlike U.K. tabs, doesn’t rely on scoops for its bread-and-butter, just “fair and balanced” commentary. Indeed, the worst things it does to the discourse are legal.

A. C. Grayling had one of the better lines of the scandal when he accused Murdoch of taking NotW, and thus, all of British tabloids, “from the gutter into the sewer.”

Us, we’re still safely in the gutter.

But there’s trouble on the horizon.

*See” “Story of a Story: How Cincinnati Paper Ended Up Backing Off From Chiquita Series —- Enquirer Supported Reporter Until Voice-Mail Affair Forced a Costly Reversal —- Page 1 Apology: Never Mind”; By Alix M. Freedman and Rekha Balu; 7/17/98

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman. Tags: , , , ,