The News of the World
Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World is no more. A British tabloid once famed for its ability to humble the mighty with innuendo and ridicule, the paper fell victim to its own hubris, and now finds itself the target of ridicule and hate.
Waving the banner of freedom of the press, News of the World staff, under the questionable leadership of a now universally reviled Rebekah Brooks, mounted campaign after campaign of intrusive “investigative reporting” less about exploring the truth behind a story and more about discovering (and cataloguing for future use) the dirt beneath the untidy lives of its subjects. For a while, all was golden, as the mechanics of espionage predominantly targeted the high and mighty; mostly politicians who dared to question the paper’s authority, or its [Murdoch’s] political philosophy. But, as time passed and the model’s success cowed target after target into passive submission, the leadership basked in a sense of righteous superiority, and egos inflated. The targets shifted from the famous, to the common, and the paper’s investigative tactics took a darker path. With the revelation last week that the paper hacked into the phone of a kidnapped teenager – and deleted frantic voice messages from the missing girl’s parents so that they, the reporters, could collect information ahead of the police – the general public finally got a look at how business was done under the Murdoch banner, and the discovery made them a little sick to their stomachs. The British government, usually slavishly devoted to appeasing Murdoch’s minions, found itself all but forced to obey the will of the people that actually vote, and finally, after wailing and gnashing of teeth, agreed to launch investigations. Murdoch, already engaged in a tricky negotiation to acquire yet another British media arm with which to spread his message, sensed greater trouble on the horizon and decided to cut his losses and attempt to bury the controversy.
Within the space of about seventy-two hours, 168 years of journalistic history was erased from the face of the earth.
[I’m tempted to refrain from mentioning that dismantling of the paper will likely also mean the willful destruction of a substantial amount of critical evidence, but… what the hell. Consider this aside an homage to the journalistic style of the now defunct paper.]
Today the fallout from the controversy continues. Murdoch himself has arrived in London to declare that he is unwilling to terminate the services of Ms. Brooks (who was in charge of the paper at the time the phone hacks were authorized) stating he “won’t throw [her] under the bus.” [This is probably a wise decision on Murdoch’s part; what with all the other innocent people already under the bus, adding Ms. Brooks to the pile would only make it that much harder to drive out of the swamp.] News International stocks are plummeting, shareholders in the U.S. Have launched a revolt, and Murdoch’s targeted acquisition BSkyB has also experienced a fiscal hemorrhage. This latter point is likely to the one bright spot in Murdoch’s upcoming week; a low stock price for BSkyB means he’ll save a ton of money if the British government allows the deal to go through.
Update: It looks as if the British government is making noise about tanking the deal. Time and tide and money will see if that remains the case.
For the rest of us, though, the time has come to ask some pointed questions about what it is we want from our media, and whether the Murdoch model of selling scandal for scandal’s sake is worth the pain involved. News of the World made a whole lot of money appealing to its audiences’ baser instincts and morbid curiosity about the lives of the rich, famous, and socially deranged. Perversions both sexual and psychological never fail to attract eyeballs, and no matter how many people complained about the lack of “usable” content found within the pages of the News, Murdoch never had a problem moving papers off the stands, and money into his wallet. Will this be the case in the days and years to come? It’s probably to early to tell. Right now, the perversity on display is coming from within the house of Murdoch itself, and the man finds himself in the curious position of potentially profiting off a catastrophic personal failure. The same public that fed off the Murdoch diet of sin and semblance, is now feasting on a delicious dish of revenge served cold, and there may be yet more on the menu.
But is that what we really want? Isn’t this just more of the same? If, as McLuhan says, “the medium is the message,” just what does our modern media tell us about ourselves?
Most of the news media today operates with a frightfully low regard for both the public it serves and the institution it represents. Journalism used to be about finding the truth behind the lines; sorting through the pieces of a story information with care and concern, in search of the most historically accurate representation of the five “W”’s – the who, what, where, when, and why an event occurred. Nowadays, the focus is not so much on history as immediacy. The news of today is driven by a twenty-four hour cycle, where shock and awe attracts sponsors like shit attracts flies. Broadcasters like Murdoch operate on the assumption that audience attention spans have shrunk to the size of stunted gnats, and intellectual curiosity runs as deep as a coat of Paris Hilton’s nail polish. It’s a rather arrogant worldview, and one can easily see how its practitioners could slide so quickly from a position of custodial public trust to one of disdain and self-righteous entitlement. Simply put, Murdoch’s News of the World crew, behaved less like journalists and more like Mario Puzo’s Godfather – informing those they observed that files were being kept, and secrets readied to be revealed. “Toe the line, gentlemen,” they said, “Lest we unleash your very own demons against you.”
If we are to escape this kind of journalistic tyranny, radical changes in the way we both consume and process news are going to be required. The intellectually curious need to demand outlets that satisfy the ideals of journalistic integrity, and reject those that don’t. A bad news organizations cannot survive without advertiser revenues, and advertisers will not finance a network, newspaper, or magazine that no one is watching. Every time CNN runs a “headline” on the latest celebrity backslide, change the channel, and let them know why. Whenever a magazine or tabloid wastes gallons of ink on some supermodel’s sex tips, toss it back on the rack and grab an alternate choice, and raise a little hell in a letter to the editor. Reward the outlets that do good work by returning for more, and praising them where possible. Let them know that if they build it, you will come.
Finally, perhaps its time we accept the fact that people are just flawed; they always have been, and always will be. Accountability, a word bandied about by both the press and politicians with a fetishist’s abandon, is nothing more than a hypocritical illusion; a fantasy preached to choir of non-believers fully aware of the blasphemy within. Rather than face the fact that they are, in fact, human, and own up to mistakes with honor and integrity, the victims of News of the World cowered in fear; avoiding any semblance of responsibility for who they are. They became convinced that any sign of weakness would somehow lessen their power to hold the people’s respect, and by extension, their votes, and bent over backwards to serve outlets that insisted on revealing embarrassing, yet ultimately politically irrelevant facts.
We need to ask ourselves what is it that really matters to us when we seek to find an understanding of the world we live in. Do we want to bury our problems beneath a a mountain of celebrity trivia; hiding from our real lives because we’ve allowed the world to outstrip our intellect? Do we want progress toward a better future, or do we prefer the never-ending circular path of repetitious scandal and pointless blame? The News of the World tried, and failed, to make itself a king maker by betting big on the latter; secure in its perception that it was more clever than its audience. Now we see how horribly wrong such assumptions can go. Perhaps its time we the people to belly up to the table and ante in to the game of politics and power. The stakes have never been higher, and the time may never again be more ripe.