Will Murdoch scandal make us pull back from Brit tabloid values?

Websites and news networks have stepped up practices like paying police and newsmakers for information

  • Earlier this month, Rupert Murdoch speaks outside the hotel where he met the familly of murdered teenager Milly Dowler in central London. Since the scandal broke, News Corp Chief Executive Rupert Murdoch has repeatedly apologized to victims of phone hacking at one of his British tabloids.
Earlier this month, Rupert Murdoch speaks outside the hotel… (PAUL HACKETT, Reuters )
July 22, 2011|By David Zurawik, The Baltimore Sun

As the scandal that sunk Rupert Murdoch's News of the World continued to unfold last week, one of the questions that loomed was whether there would be any fallout on this side of the Atlantic.

What most American analysts were wondering was whether evidence would show that employees in Britain or at one of Murdoch's U.S. properties like the New York Post had hacked into the voice mails of family members or victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — or paid off police for information on celebrities and others here or abroad.

While those questions have yet to be answered, there is ample evidence that some of the sins of British tabloid journalism have already found their way into the American news media — as well as into our popular culture. And that's a truth we are reluctant to acknowledge, because it cuts so hard against a smug conventional wisdom within the media that our journalistic standards are vastly superior to those of the Brits.

But consider the preoccupations and news-gathering methods of publications like the National Enquirer or such celebrity-gossip websites as TMZ. Harvey Levin, founder of that Hollywood operation, has acknowledged that his organization pays for photos and videos and provides "tips" to those who provide his website with useful information or stories.

Some analysts see little difference between what's being characterized in the Murdoch scandal as bribing police to obtain phone or personal identification numbers and giving a sheriff's deputy in Southern California a "tip" for sharing documents that detail an arrest or incident of domestic abuse. Documents and images from cases involving Mel Gibson, Rihanna, Chris Brown and Michael Jackson are among the ways that TMZ has made its reputation. The practice is widespread and said to be growing.

"For tabloids like the National Enquirer and some celebrity-scandal sites, the standard operating procedure involves paying people for photos and information," says Sharon Waxman, former New York Times West Coast correspondent and founder of thewrap.com, a Hollywood-based news organization that covers media and the entertainment industry. Waxman says thewrap.com does not pay for information.

"It's been that way in recent years, and they've gotten away with it because it mainly involves celebrities," she adds. "And no one seems to care too much because the celebrities are complicit in a way. They're playing along. It's a symbiotic relationship."

And while the National Enquirer or a celebrity website might have been considered an unreliable source of information by mainstream media just a few years ago, that is no longer the case, according to Rem Rieder, editor of the American Journalism Review, which is based at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"One area of movement in the tabloid direction involves not just these stories getting into the mainstream media, but the extent to which they do," Rieder says.

"An example of that would be the Tiger Woods story, which was broken by the National Enquirer and was actually pretty solid. But what happened after that was a flurry of stories, rumors and maybe-stories that lots of very respectable news organizations picked up without checking, just attributing to whatever source said it," says Rieder.

"And it seemed like every day there was another woman saying she had a relationship with Tiger Woods. And it was very discouraging to see how much of this was picked up by some of the best news organizations without any of the traditional investigating or sourcing that we would expect."

That's one way mainstream popular culture has become infected with the British tabloid virus, according to analysts. But an even more direct effect is seen in the way networks and cable TV channels these days are paying large sums of money for exclusive interviews, access and information, and hardly making an effort anymore to disguise it — under the ruse that they are only paying "licensing fees" for photographs connected to news events.

ABC News recently reaped record ratings for Diane Sawyer's exclusive interview with Jaycee Lee Dugard, the woman kidnapped as an adolescent and held captive for 18 years. But it is now known that ABC News paid more than $100,000 to Dugard for "home movies." The criticism the network has since received for that is nothing compared to the millions of dollars earned in advertising from a prime-time audience that measured 14 million for the interview on a night that might otherwise have featured reruns.

Less expensive but more egregious in the minds of some is the more than $10,000 ABC News paid Meagan Broussard, for photos, emails, Facebook messages and logs of cellphone calls. She was one of the people to whom former New York Rep. Anthony Weiner sent lewd photos. Of course, ABC News got an exclusive interview with Broussard as well.

ABC News is not alone. All of the network news divisions do it, particularly with their morning shows.

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