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.