As a figure in Murdochian history, I hasten to add, I am merely a footnote—like countless other News Corp. journalistic nemeses. Even a Times reporter who wrote a routine news story on a Fox News ratings lull was punished by having his headshot distorted into an anti-Semitic caricature worthy of Der Stürmer for display on the morning show Fox & Friends (a misnomer if ever there was one). Other victims have had it far worse, including the often-defenseless obscure citizens who cross O’Reilly’s radar screen because they have views he abhors, at which point his producer stalks them for an on-camera ambush. (It was left to the Post, however, to trash a former O’Reilly Factor producer with whom he settled a sexual-harassment suit in 2004.) O’Reilly’s now-departed tag-team partner in Fox News vigilantism, Glenn Beck, excoriated the nearly 80-year-old CUNY sociologist Frances Fox Piven so often in the past few years (mostly for an essay she had written about poverty in 1966) that she had to fend off death threats. George Tiller, the Wichita abortion doctor who was called a “baby killer,” among other epithets, on 29 episodes of The O’Reilly Factor, was assassinated while at church in 2009.
News Corp. bullying has inflicted real damage on America no less than on England. And as the British were in denial concerning the severity of Murdoch’s impact until the Guardian uncovered the Milly Dowler story, so America still is in denial. We’ve become so inured to Murdoch tactics over the years—and so many people in public life have been frightened, silenced, co-opted, or even seduced by them—that we have minimized his impact exactly the way his publicists hoped we would, downgrading News Corp. misbehavior merely to tabloid vulgarity and right-wing attack-dog politics. But there’s a real difference between the tabloidization of America—which is, and no doubt always will be, unstoppable—and the Murdochization of America, which still might be stopped.
The outré partisanship, the tabloid sleaze, the Washington lobbying, even the “fair and balanced” propaganda— these misdemeanors are red herrings.
It’s not just because Roger Ailes once worked for Richard Nixon that Watergate analogies abounded as News of the World and then the key Murdoch executives Rebekah Brooks and Leslie Hinton were abruptly sacrificed in the family’s efforts to save Rupert and James. Carl Bernstein, more attuned to those echoes than anyone, got it exactly right when he wrote in Newsweek that “too many of us have winked in amusement at the salaciousness without considering the larger corruption of journalism and politics promulgated by Murdoch Culture on both sides of the Atlantic.” And not only “liberal” journalists feel this way. Conrad Black, the right-wing Canadian media mogul who has lately been in prison for fraud, recently described Murdoch in the Financial Times as not merely a “tabloid sensationalist” but “a malicious mythmaker, an assassin of the dignity of others and of revered institutions, all in the guise of anti-elitism.” Or as the former Bush speechwriter David Frum said more than a year ago, “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us, and now we’re discovering we work for Fox.”
But for all the American attention showered on the News of the World scandal since the Dowler hacking emerged on July 4, there’s still a tendency in some of our press to portray the parade of outrageous revelations as idiosyncratic and exclusively British phenomena: Murdoch summoning prime ministers as if they were personal lackeys; the successful squelching of the Scotland Yard hacking investigation and the subsequent hiring of that investigation’s lead officer as a columnist at Murdoch’s London Times (where he then defended his own farcical investigation as having left “no stone unturned”); the Murdoch tabloids’ cruel treatment not only of the Dowler family and of Gordon Brown’s 4-month-old son with cystic fibrosis but of thousands of other hacking victims, most still not identified, from the royal family to the terrorist victims of the 7/7 tube bombings. But what happened in England hasn’t stayed in England. Most, if not all, of these British horrors have precise counterparts in Murdoch’s American history. What we don’t know yet, because few have looked, is which pieces of the corruption may have crossed the line into illegality.
The wholesale buying of elected officials is such a staple at Fox News we don’t think twice about it anymore. While it has long been routine for retired politicians, former officials, and semi-retired campaign operatives to join the ranks of American print and television journalism—whether on ABC (George Stephanopoulos), CNN (Donna Brazile, William Bennett), or MSNBC (Chris Matthews), or in the Times (from William Safire to Peter Orszag)—only at Fox were four active potential presidential candidates literally on the payroll (Palin, Huckabee, Gingrich, Santorum) for chits that can be cashed in should any of them end up in or near the White House. (And you can bet if any of them do, Murdoch will not be entering through the back door.) Karl Rove, who has held sinecures at both Fox and The Wall Street Journal since leaving the Bush administration, is hardly comparable to, say, James Carville and Mary Matalin bloviating on NBC’s Meet the Press once their respective campaign duties for Clinton and Bush the First were over. Unlike them, Rove remained a major political player after his White House tenure, presiding over political fund-raising organizations that assembled $71 million in 2010, including $25 million spent on some 30,000 ads attacking Democratic candidates and supporting Republican ones. (He’ll be even more active in 2012.) John Kasich, elected governor of Ohio last year, is a former Fox News host who made 42 Fox appearances as he contemplated running and another sixteen appearances as an active candidate, thereby making him, as Tim Dickinson of Rolling Stone put it, “the first candidate of the Fox News Party.” Fox routinely publicized tea-party rallies at its inception even as News Corp. donated $1.26 million to the Republican Governors Association. This isn’t mere partisanship—which MSNBC also practices—but tantamount to a GOP–Fox News merger.