The political class in Washington DC is still grappling with the revelation that Fox News, owned by media magnate Rupert Murdoch, attempted to secretly recruit and bankroll its own presidential candidate this year.
Meanwhile, the media world is trying to digest the morally reprehensible decision by another of Murdoch’s media companies, the New York Post, to put the photograph of a “doomed” man on its front cover.
All of this, of course, comes in the context of an independent investigation into the operations of Murdoch’s media outlets in Britain.
That study concluded last week that the company was “reckless in the pursuit of sensational stories ‘almost irrespective of the harm.’”
So far, the response here in the US has been muddled to the point of incoherence.
The Washington Post put the story about Fox’s effort to recruit General David Petraeus for a White House bid in its style section.
Politico ran a cheerful piece suggesting that the whole affair is a sort of inside joke, with everyone in on the gag that Murdoch is perpetrating on America.
In various treatments of the story, Fox New senior executive Roger Ailes is described variously as “wily,” “sharp-tongued” and a “man who makes his own rules.”
In fact, Murdoch and Ailes are liars and cowards. They are corrosive and aberrational elements in America’s civic discourse.
Together, they are also among the chief architects of the unraveling of the modern Republican Party. Fox’s embrace of fact-free propaganda from “death panels” to “birtherism” has helped transform the conservative base into a kooky fringe.
These latest disclosures raise the ante considerably.
The main thrust of Bob Woodward’s story is that Ailes dispatched one of his “news analysts” to Afghanistan to interview General David Petraeus.
Ailes used the opportunity to send a secret message that Fox executives would manage and bankroll a Petraeus presidential campaign.
This alone would be an extraordinarily serious breach of faith. For a political operative from a media company to attempt to counsel a four-star general, urging him to break ranks with America’s commander in chief, is astonishing.
But the messenger — a former Republican candidate for New York’s Senate seat — also spent a significant amount of time offering to secretly shape Fox News coverage to Petraeus’s liking.
“So what I’m supposed to say directly from him to you, through me, is first of all, is there anything Fox is doing, right or wrong, that you want to tell us to do differently?” Kathleen McFarland asked.
Here’s what the McFarland transcript tells the millions of people who rely on Fox for their information: The network will skew information to favor the powerful. The network will enter into secret arrangements with political figures.
The people hired by Fox will pretend to be informing audiences about life-and-death matters, from war to poverty to healthcare reform.
But in fact they will often be secret operatives, carrying out the undisclosed political agenda of Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch.
We also know from these latest revelations that these men are willing to hack the telephones of a grieving family, in order to pursue tabloid scoops. They will splash horror on their front pages, sparing no thought to decency or civility.
This isn’t about Murdoch’s empire being conservative. There are plenty of professional, factual and honest conservative news outlets in America.
This is about Murdoch’s company being a propaganda organization, a deeply cynical political operation led by individuals who are — and this is the kicker — profoundly immoral.
Some will point out that this is nothing new, only a distillation of what we have long known about Fox News and Murdoch’s wider agenda.
In an interview with Politico, NYU journalism professor suggested that there are “no ramifications because everyone, inside of Fox and outside, understands that the Fox News Channel is a political organization that does news and makes money.”
“Bob had a great scoop, a buzzy media story that made it perfect for Style. It didn’t have the broader import that would justify A1,” Liz Spayd, the Post’s managing editor, told POLITICO.
That’s a cop-out. Millions of Americans aren’t in on the con. They’re not willing collaborators in the deception. They don’t have any idea the kind of deception Murdoch and Ailes are perpetrating.
The Leveson commission in Britain suggested that some kind of body be created to monitor egregious behavior by media companies. I think this, too, is a dodge.
This isn’t about “the media” writ large. It’s about one company, one set of executives, one secret agenda.
So what should be done? I don’t think we need a new watchdog body, or commission, or oversight board. Rather, I think it’s time for the journalism culture to draw a line in the sand.
It’s time for those of us who believe in the power of factual and ethical reporting to kick Murdoch’s entities and operatives out of the club.
Award ceremonies, dinners, professional organizations and academic gatherings – they should all close their doors, firmly and publicly.
It should be made clear that reporters who choose to work for Murdoch’s empire will see their resumes permanently tainted by association.
No editor or news director can know with certainty what role those “journalists” played, what orders they followed, what ethics they compromised.
The fact that they chose to work for men like Murdoch and Ailes, on the other hand, offers a great deal of clarity about their professional values.
Media outlets should also be deeply cautious about following Fox News’ media agenda on stories that range from Obamacare to Benghazi. All too often, Murdoch’s politically-motivated manipulations have shaped broader coverage.
Really, this kind of proposal is common sense and long overdue.
Just as we would never dream of allowing political operatives to submit their campaign ads to a journalism award competition — or corporations to submit their infomercials — we should refuse to allow Murdoch’s operatives to participate.
Without taking these steps, the larger media culture becomes part of the con.
By inviting Fox News and the other Murdoch subsidiaries to take part in our professional activities,we give them cover and legitimacy.
And when we wink and shrug at their dishonesty, we do ourselves an even greater disservice. We embrace the notion that real and ethical journalism isn’t worth fighting to preserve.
We embrace a cynicism about our own work that is — and I think this is an important part of Murdoch’s larger manipulation — toxic. He empowers his own brand of sleazy manipulation by lowering the standards of everyone else.
I don’t have any illusions that a public shaming will cause Murdoch to reform his empire.
But it might go a long way toward shoring up the courage, the long-standing values, and the deeply damaged reputation of American journalism.