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The Hacking Scandal and the Two Faces of Murdoch

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The News of the World phone-hacking scandal in Great Britain is getting juicier and more astonishing. The long-runner paper was summarily killed by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. in an apparent damage-control attempt; the legal investigation is widening; and the list of the paper’s purported snooping targets has widened to include crime victims, politicians and possibly police investigators and a former Prime Minister. Or even the Queen.

It’s also been an interesting story to watch American media reporters and commentators cover. On the one hand, it directly involves a company and a mogul that matter a great deal to U.S. media: Rupert Murdoch, head of News Corp., which owns Fox, The Wall Street Journal, 20th Century Fox and outlets like the New York Post. On the other hand, the investigation itself is largely confined to the U.K. for now, and it’s unclear whether there will be ramifications over here.

So much of the analysis this side of the Atlantic has stretched to raise the question, “Will the scandal have the same Earth-shattering consequences in America?” followed by the conclusion, “Well, not as far as we can see.” Which seems about right for now.

That is, there definitely could be consequences for the U.S. mediasphere down the road. If Murdoch loses control of his company, for instance, there could be management shakeups down the line, which could affect the balance of power, and maybe the content, of outlets like Fox News. A wounded News Corp., in defense mode rather than offense, would have ripple effects in the media business. But so far, that’s in the what-if-o-sphere.

Likewise, you could say that the story of hubris and the destructive culture of scoops and political influence is a commentary on the tabloid culture of America, as well as on the dangers of American media outlets becoming too entwined with politics (again, like Fox News). Sure: it certainly provides a rhetorical news hook for people who don’t like tabloid culture, the direction of journalism, big media corporations or Fox News to begin with.

But barring an actual phone-tapping scandal over here, or the equivalent, I don’t see American viewers and readers refusing to watch Fox News or read the Wall Street Journal in indignation over what other arms of News Corp. have done in Great Britain. (Though again, there is no telling where this rapidly-unfolding scandal will ultimately reach, so take that with a caveat.)

Still, it’s a stunning downfall to witness. And the whole thing, though it’s unfolding in the peculiar British newspaper market, is an example of something I’ve observed for a while: there are two Rupert Murdochs (and thus, two News Corps., and so on). There’s the political Murdoch—the conservative powerbroker who uses his newspapers in Britain to cultivate, promote and intimidate politicians in Britain, and who has given over Fox News as a conservative platform here. And there’s the newsman/businessman Murdoch, whose properties seek to turn as many bucks as possible through a combination of tabloidism and button-pushing entertainment. It’s why here on U.S. TV, Fox is the company that gives you both Bill O’Reilly and Glee—both the conservative moral outrage and the things for conservatives to be outraged over.

One surprising thing in this whole scandal is that it turns out the be the tabloid-business side of News Corp that landed the company in trouble, rather than the political one—though it’s obviously much more complicated than that since the sensationalism of the British tabloids and their political entanglements worked together there, to boost circulation while boosting political influence. It was synergy while it lasted; the question now is whether the company ends up losing both.

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