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Monday, July 18, 2011

All The News ... Add ...

The media stories about the British scandal involving revelations of wrongdoing by employees of News Corporations’s tabloids are almost as titillating as stories in his tabloids. It is fun to see Rupert Murdoch squirm, and we can all enjoy the tabloid press getting a dose of its own medicine, suffering from scandal and outrage, the very things it has curried for so long. It seems a pleasing and humorous comeuppance tale of what comes-round-goes-round symmetry.
The core of the story - ethical excesses by the tabloids in digging up and creating sensational stories - is hardly news in the long view of things.
Tabloids have always made their bones by marketing items about sex, crime, corruption, celebrities, and any combination of the above. Sensation sells, sex sells, bloody photos sell, and selling is their only reason for being, not information or reform, although those "journalistic" principles are the excuse.
Truth is that in the colorful and nasty history of the tabloid press in Great Britain, the U.S. or elsewhere in the world, Murdoch’s rags aren’t even in the top ten of sleaziest. 

In the early days of the Twentieth Century, Pulitzer and Hearst notoriously competed in the most bloodthirsty howling that headlines had ever seen. In the 1920's in New York and Chicago, the competition among daily tabloids was ruthless and unrelenting. Celebrity culture reached a zenith with newspapers creating stars from the headlines, from Babe Ruth to Charles Lindbergh to Rudolf Valentino to Al Capone, and destroying them, as exemplified by the crushing of comic Fatty Arbuckle by Hearst's misleading and sleazy reporting about his trial for manslaughter when a drunken starlet died after sex during a "Hollywood party" (though it happened in San Francisco). 
But the more dangerous aspect of the Murdoch story has not yet been mined by the media and may never be explored for fear of overturning the entire rotten structure of our "free press" or perhaps for fear of Murdoch's power to retaliate. 
Even so, the scandal is providing a clue as to one of the ways that Murdoch uses his power to gain more power. Like all in business, Murdoch needs influence to thrive. Of course, he makes monetary contributions to politicians in the millions. And he certainly encourages friendships with politicians that they know are important because kissing the ass of the a billionaire media mogul who can influence public opinion is wise policy for a politician.

But this is not news. Other media moguls throughout history have been influential in politics. For example, Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune was a power broker in the Whig, then Republican Party, in the mid Nineteenth Century, influencing policies and attitudes toward all of the great issues of the day: slavery, the Civil War, reconstruction, the western migration, the destruction of the Native American tribes.

In England, Alfred Harmsworth (aka Lord Northcliffe) was owner of The Times and Daily Mail. During World War I, after undermining the prime minister, Lord Asquith, by scathing editorial attacks and biased reports, he was rewarded by appointment as Director for Propaganda by the next prime minister, Lloyd George. This was appropriate because his newspapers had instigated the war with vicious anti-German reporting. Under Northcliffe’s lead, wartime restrictions on newspaper reporting of the blunders of British military leaders during the war was almost total.
(Harmsworth friend, Robert McCormick, owned The Chicago Tribune, which, during the 1930's was a vocal opponent of F.D.R.’s New Deal and was steadfastly isolationist until Pearl Harbor. Joseph Medill Patterson, McCormick’s cousin, bought The New York Daily News in 1919).

The real threat posed by Murdoch’s accumulation of power and his willingness to use it can be seen when you consider what J. Edgar Hoover did as director of the F.B.I.

Hoover ordered his agents to secretly investigate people he suspected of a wide variety of what he considered "wrongdoing". To him, this ranged from "sexual perversion" — which might mean extra marital affairs or homosexual encounters or a kept mistress or a mixed racial relationship — to "criminality" or "anti-American activity." These labels could include any suspicion of membership or contribution to or attending a meeting of any group that Hoover thought of as leftist or upsetting to Hoover's southern biased sensibilities.

Proving that knowledge is power, Hoover’s secret dossiers on F.D.R., L.B.J., and J.F.K. assured his continuing in office long after his negative traits as an administrator should have sent him into retirement. Files on important members of Congress and the media (including Hollywood) also insured that the Bureau itself would never be investigated, its budget never cut, and that the legend of its perfection would never be challenged — the myth of the F.B.I. was protected by extortion.

It is now becoming clear that Murdoch uses his tabloids in much the same way. His editors pay for information — no matter how obtained — not only for sensational stories about murders and celebrity gossip — but far more importantly, to get dirt about politicians. 

Following the practices of spy agencies such as the FBI, the media pays informants (some of whom have ties to such organizations) to act as "agent provocateurs" to create the story by procuring the sex, drugs, situations to entrap subjects -- celebrities or politicians -- into the compromising and embarrassing poses, for cameras, tapes, and computers. 

Some of these stories are published, ending careers of some -- as cabinet members have been snared in the time-honored way (remember Profumo). But the rest are kept in secret files, stored as a deterrent to government interference with the Murdoch empire: regulations, denial of licenses, anti-trust investigations, tax breaks — any of the innumerable issues that billionaire business people need to control.

In the U.S., the influence of News Corp, Fox News — including Dow Jones, The Wall Street Journal, the Fox chain of broadcast stations — is enormous and growing. Its ties to the Republican Party are well known.

It employs and supports past and future candidates, personalities, commentators in interlocking influence peddling and policy creating panels. It channels vast sums of money for its purposes, curries influence, carries enormous weight simply because of its ratings — Fox News cable channel is by far the highest rated (over CNN and MSNBC).    

The New York Post, when I was a boy, was the liberal afternoon tabloid in a city with plenty of right wing representation, namely The Daily News. Murdoch turned The Post into a right wing scandal sheet, reporting on sex, celebrities, crime.

Just as the abuses of power that Nixon threatened represented a far greater danger than the transgressions that popular memory has chosen to trivialize under the misleading label, "Watergate," Murdoch's "hacking" scandal underestimates the danger his conduct presents.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

All The News That Fits

Nancy Grace with open mouth
Although I reject the dangerous practice of drawing generalities from highly publicized criminal cases, the recent Casey Anthony trial had one salutary effect, at least for my consciousness raising.
I was exposed for the first time to Nancy Grace, who comments for HLN TV (a CNN affiliate). This woman is depicted as a "reporter" of the trial proceedings. In truth, she is a leader of a lynch mob. Her bias against the defense is open and vitriolic, amounting to self-righteous hatred.

Doing some research, I discovered that she had been a prosecutor in Atlanta for ten years, during which she was cited several times by Georgia appellate courts (not the most liberal forums one can find) for prosecutorial misconduct, including acts which concealed from the defense the presence of suspects other than the accused she was prosecuting, and for extreme and misleading arguments.

Later, when she turned to television "journalism" (the word sticks in my throat), she destroyed a mother of a missing child during an interview in which she implied that the woman was to blame for her child’s disappearance, after which the woman committed suicide. Grace reacted with pleasure, calling the suicide the product of a guilty conscience although the woman had never been accused by police of any wrongdoing.

Undeterred, Grace wrote a book in which she lambasted all criminal defense lawyer, calling them pigs and equating them to Nazis. The book thus sold well, even though it was later revealed that she had plagiarized whole chunks from other sources.

Grace is still employed, and in fact her broadcasts have high ratings.

Now, the news is full of reports regarding Rupert Murdoch’s run-ins with British politicians. The Australian "news magnate" whose American empire includes the Fox chain of television and radio channels as well as The Wall Street Journal (part of The Dow Jones Co.) and The New York Post, among others, shut down his British tabloid, The News Of The World, amid accusations that his employees had conducted a pattern of illicit activities, including hacking into the cellphone voicemails of murder victims.

The scandal exposed other practices of his papers involving politicians. The rag reveled in sex gossip, revealing the secret lives of celebrities, with "investigative" tactics that included paying informants for dirt and photos, secret taping, bribing, embarrassing. The Conservative Party prime minister admitted that he and his party’s reluctance to criticize Murdoch and his publications was in part due to their support.

The other part was fear, not just fear of opposition, but fear of being targeted by Murdoch and his tabloids. No public person is immune to ridicule if his or her private life is examined with the microscope. One woman MP who dared to criticize the tabloid on feminist grounds for exploiting female nudity was ridiculed mercilessly in the News Of The World.

This is not the first recorded instance of an overbearing press in the history of the world.

It should be remembered that these Murdoch tactics of intimidation were used in the 1950's to destroy the careers of any person accused or rumored to be communist, or socialist, or leftist, or pinko, or fellow traveler ... or a civil rights activist ... or trade union member ... or supporter of the ACLU

In the golden age of the movies, Frank Capra was the sentimental guardian of American values. His movies are remembered for their somewhat simplistic and optimistic view of American society. In a series of now classic films, he placed an idealistic and naive American against a powerful, cynical, manipulative tyrant.

In both "Meet John Doe" and "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" the bad guy was a corrupting newspaper publisher (both played by Edward Arnold) who aimed to subvert democracy and to gain power. (In the more humorous "Mr. Deeds Goes To Town" press ridicule is depicted as responsible for helping a corrupt lawyer’s attempt to destroy the naive and idealistic Deeds who wants to give away his fortune to deserving unemployed men).

Capra’s model for these baddies was certainly W.R. Hearst, who was notorious for using the power of his news empire to destroy his enemies, whether political or personal, or just for the exercise. He understood that sensational accusation — whether accompanied by evidence or not — was good for circulation. His tabloids outdid his competitors in lurid misrepresentation, innuendo, patriotic humbug, jingoistic slanted reporting, and in creating stories where none really existed.

At its best, the press (now widened to include "media") have benefitted society. The Progressive Movement of the early 20th Century would not have achieved as much without the muckraking journalists in many cases leading the way to reform relating to issues such as food and drugs, working conditions, poverty, housing, child labor — reforms which in the 21st Century our corporate culture may finally get its wish list granted to reverse.

There have been important highlights in the television age. Ed Murrow famously exposed McCarthy’s evil. Walter Cronkite capped TV news coverage of Viet-Nam with his reporting and opinion. The Washington Post’s investigative reporters are justly credited with exposing Watergate. Occasional local and national reporting is worthy of the title "journalism".

The U.S. Supreme Court has given the First Amendment’s "press" and "speech" provisions a position of preference among the amendments that constitute the Bill of Rights. The court thus puts high barriers against censorship, even going so far as ruling recently that corporate contributions to political campaigns and violent video games are protected speech.

The reasoning for this is the idealistic dictum that goes as far back as the Enlightenment, that the free exchange of ideas is essential for a free society. Jefferson assumed that the more knowledge the better the chances for democracy to work: an educated and informed electorate would usually do the right thing.

Yet, until I researched Nancy Grace on the internet, I had read no newspaper or television reports disclosing her lack of credibility or her character. I wouldn’t expect that so-called respected news outlet, CNN, or investigating and exposing her flaws. After all, they own her and she makes money for them. But even competing media has not bothered to jump on this. MSNBC which shows such pleasure in nipping at FOX cable news for its transgressions, has not touched her. None of MSNBC’s liberal commentators have taken her on.

I suspect that the reason has something to do with a dogma of the news business that goes as far back as Pulitzer and Hearst. When reporting on criminal cases, the defendant is always presumed to be guilty. Almost a hundred years ago, Hearst’s tabloids famously destroyed Fatty Arbuckle who was tried (and eventually acquitted) of manslaughter in a sensational "Hollywood party" case.

One unanswered question is what effect the internet will have. Greg argues persuasively that the broadening of available sources of information is a net (no pun intended) positive. Since no Hearst or Murdoch can control the entire internet, I see his point. Attempts to commercialize, organize or censor the free flow of information is dangerous. It may soon become the only trustworthy source of free information.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011


A proposal.
Some time ago I proposed a new reality show, a televised execution.

I thought the time was ripe for this ultimate melodrama, the real life death of an evil criminal.

Now, following the Casey Anthony trial on Twitter, Facebook, TRU TV, and other social network and cable outlets, the trial before the execution is ready for prime time.

So, here’s my pitch:

TITLE: "I, THE JURY" (with apologies to Mickey Spillane).

Simple high concept:

Don’t worry about constitutional objections. Not a problem.

Our Supreme Court is far more concerned with protecting and broadening the rights under the First Amendment: religion, press, speech, even if primarily commercial speech, corporations are "people", and the Second Amendment right to own and carry weapons of mass destruction than the less important provisions of the Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Amendments (look them up, yourselves — before they disappear — I know you probably never learned about them in school).

After all, this is the ultimate of free speech and democracy. "The public’s right to know" trumps the mere technicality of the defendant’s right to a fair trial. As the current appellate courts remind us, a criminal defendant is not entitled to a "perfect trial."

Think of the possibilities for commercial tie-ins.

Product Endorsements:

(1) Lawyers’ wardrobes, accessories (Mont Blanc pens, computers, smartphones ...).

(2) Sales of rights for films, books, blogs.

(3) Ad placements in the courtroom.

I am so sorry that my legal career is winding down on the verge of this most wonderful era of criminal law.