Every journalistic scandal, large or small, needs someone to demonize, one person to receive most of the blame for what went wrong. And so it is that Rupert Murdoch has been called to account for the egregious conduct at a newspaper his company owned in Great Britain.
Beyond that, Murdoch and his media holdings in the United Kingdom have become a symbol of media power too big to ignore, able to intimidate prime ministers, police officials and many others. All, regardless of political persuasion, at one time or another sought his support, his advice, even his friendship.
If there is to be one lasting effect of the phone-hacking scandal that has embroiled the United Kingdom, replete with high-profile Parliamentary hearings and a wide array of investigations, it may be that Murdoch and his News Corp. will no longer be able to wield outsize power and influence over government officials and policy. Politicians have scrambled to distance themselves from Murdoch. There are not likely to be any more backdoor visits to 10 Downing Street.
However, those who believe it was unprecedented that Murdoch accumulated so much power in Great Britain (mainly through ownership of the Times of London and the Sunday Times, along with two tabloids, the Sun and the recently shuttered News of the World) have forgotten history.
Lord Beaverbrook, owner of a string of newspapers including the Daily Express in London, which at one point had what was believed to be the highest daily circulation in the world (3.7 million), was known as the Baron of Fleet Street. In 1918, Prime Minister David Lloyd George made him the government's minister of information, and before and during World War II he was an adviser to Winston Churchill, holding key positions in Churchill's government. There were occasional grumbles in Parliament about a media baron being so close to officialdom, but nothing like what Murdoch has confronted.
In the United States, concern about the influence of Murdoch and News Corp. has never reached the level it has in Britain. But there have been worries that the stridently reactionary, even irresponsible commentary on some of News Corp.'s Fox News Channel programs has unduly influenced voters and some politicians.
And clearly the company, the second largest media conglomerate in the world (after Disney), owns a potentially worrying large swath of American media. In addition to Fox News, its holdings include 27 television stations, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, Twentieth Century Fox, book publishing and myriad other media investments. But the same could be said of other large American media conglomerates.
There were many fears that with News Corp.'s 2007 takeover of Dow Jones, Murdoch would undermine the sterling journalistic reputation of its Wall Street Journal. Instead, he has added staff and expanded news space, and the Journal atypically has had consistent circulation gains and now has the largest daily circulation (2.1 million) in the nation. As for fears that Murdoch would meddle with how the Journal does its journalism, the paper's editorial features editor, Robert L. Pollock, who occasionally bumps into Murdoch since their offices are on the same floor, says the only thing approaching direction that he got from Murdoch was: "All things equal, he prefers shorter articles to longer ones." There have been critics, notably New York Times columnist Joe Nocera, who wrote a stinging column contending the Journal has been "Fox-ified." And the Journal's defensive editorial about the scandal engulfing Murdoch's British empire was widely derided.
For my part, I have never been a big fan of the style of journalism practiced by the tabloids (including Murdoch's) in the U.K., but also – albeit less stridently – at the New York Post and on various Fox news outlets. I will say the one local Fox television station I occasionally check in on, WBFF in Baltimore, has a local news report that seems to be straight-shooting and more serious than some of the folderol that mars most local television reporting.
I find I read the Wall Street Journal now more carefully than I did when it was primarily a business newspaper, and the culture coverage in the weekend edition is as good as can be found anywhere. Still, the Journal doesn't seem to have as many deeply sourced investigative articles as it once did, and its only Pulitzer in the Murdoch years was for editorial writing, although it has been among finalists in public service.
Overall, whatever the failings of some Murdoch publications, it is clear his heart is in newspapers, which I appreciate. When others are wary about investing in newspapers, he plunges in and keeps low- or no-profit newspapers going. In this he reminds me of the Hearst Corp., which for decades kept money-losing dailies alive in Boston, Baltimore, Los Angeles and Seattle, without any hope for success. Why? For no other reason, I suspect, than that newspapers were the start and the soul of the company, and it was reluctant to close them. Hearst eventually gave up in those cities, but it had a noble run. We'll see what Murdoch's run turns out to be.