News of the World scandal: US journalism shrugs
- 8 July 2011
- From the section US & Canada
As the News of the World ends publication over a massive phone hacking scandal, Rem Rieder, editor of the American Journalism Review, explains some of the differences between the American, and the British approach to journalism.
Talk about damage control.
We in the US are used to seeing people thrown under the bus when scandal breaks out at news organizations.
But we're not used to seeing entire newspapers thrown under the bus.
James Murdoch's announcement that News International was closing the News of the World after a final edition this Sunday was a truly dramatic response to the burgeoning controversy over the paper's phone hacking epidemic.
The US has had no shortage of media scandals. The public tends to view journalists and news organisations with a cynical eye.
But the sheer gall of listening to the phone messages of missing teenage girls and relatives of terrorism victims - and deleting some of them - has shocked even the most jaded media critics and consumers here.
Eavesdropping on politicians or actors like Sienna Miller and Jude Law is bad enough.
But this vulture-like behaviour strikes people as off-the-charts in the sleaze department.
Our media scandals tend to focus on things like plagiarism and fabrication.
The New York Times was deeply embarrassed in 2003 when a young and highly regarded reporter named Jayson Blair was found to be liberally engaging in both.
The episode led to the ouster of editor Howell Raines, but the Times, the nation's leading news outlet, continues to publish.
Despite the occasional misfires, the US media pay far more attention to ethical standards than they did 50 or 60 years ago. Misbehaviour is generally dealt with swiftly.
And while Rupert Murdoch's tabloid New York Post displays an often clever, high-energy flair, overall the US newspaper climate is quite staid compared with the world of the rough-and-tumble London tabs.
For example, paying for stories - "checkbook journalism" - has generally been frowned upon by mainstream news organizations.
It has been more the province of supermarket tabloids like the freewheeling National Enquirer.
But in recent years, some television networks have eased the ban.
Rather than paying for stories, though, they say they pay licensing fees for photos belonging to sources sought to discuss the flap du jour.
The ABC television network recently paid $15,000 (£9,400) for pictures that Meagan Broussard, a college student and single mother, sent to Anthony Weiner, a congressman brought down by a social media-based sexting scandal.
Most critics tend to see paying licensing fees as opposed to paying for stories as a distinction without a difference.
The notion of hacking into cell phones - in its unscrupulousness if not its technology - harks back to an earlier version of US journalism, back in the 1920s and 30s.
The era is brilliantly captured in director Howard Hawks' 1940 masterpiece film, His Girl Friday.
In the movie, based on a 1928 play about Chicago journalism by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, journalists hide an escaped convicted murderer in a roll-top desk so they can exclusively tell his story.
Compared with those bygone days, or the anything goes world of Fleet Street, US journalism is relatively tame.
Journalism here, as everywhere else, has been changed irrevocably by the internet.
If rock 'n' roll never forgets, as Bob Seger put it, journalism never sleeps in the fast-paced 24/7 online news culture.
Some worry that the furious battle to be first, particularly in the hyper competitive worlds of political and financial journalism, makes inaccuracy and shallowness more likely.
Others argue that the web is self-correcting and that quick early bursts can be deepened by additional reporting.
While it was an isolated instance rather than a campaign, hacking was the cause of one major US media scandal.
Back in 1998, the Cincinnati Enquirer published a powerful 18-page investigation on Chiquita Brands International, accusing the fruit company of bribing foreign officials and mistreating its workers in Central America.
But the piece quickly unravelled when it turned out one of the reporters had illegally tapped into the company's voice mail system and listened to dozens of messages left for various executives.
The paper renounced the story in a front-page apology, agreed to pay Chiquita more than $10m (£6.2m) and fired the reporter.
As for the future, US media watchers wonder what the impact will be on Rupert Murdoch.
The buccaneer-like Mr Murdoch has a thick skin and doesn't seem to care what his "respectable" critics say about him.
But as more details emerge about the hacking and other allegations of impropriety - like payoffs to Scotland Yard - and if the behaviour appears to be truly institutional, will the Teflon mogul be dinged at last?
Rem Rieder is editor and senior vice president of American Journalism Review. He previously held editing and reporting positions at six US newspapers, among them the Washington Post.