So, as men become more equal and individualism more of a menace, newspapers are more necessary. The belief that they just guarantee freedom would diminish their importance; they sustain civilization. — Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that after an extended tour of America in 1831. An aristocrat, de Tocqueville was fascinated with the young country, but not blinded to its impulsive nature nor swept away by its potential. But his shrewd analysis of the American character and its experiment in democracy still rings so true today that he is revered by many who span the political spectrum from left to right and in between. Pick up Democracy in America and open almost any page at random and you are sure to find something that perfectly encapsulates the current state of affairs.
Thus, his reverence for newspapers, back in the day, speaks volumes not only about how times change but also how newspapers themselves have changed. Can we imagine that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. empire would be the exalted sustainer of civilization? Could News of the World—or NotW as it’s referred to in media today—have risen above its screaming headlines and its contemptible practices to carry the standard of “journalistic integrity”? How many more times could those in power have bowed the knee to Murdoch before they finally summoned the courage to revolt? Don’t try to do the math: it’s a number arrived at only after the cup of iniquity finally overflowed and the public got fed up.
So it comes as no surprise that politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, sniffing the wind and catching the unmistakable scent of blood on the tracks, shot to their feet as one from behind their protective barriers and denounced the Prince of Darkness. He is to appear before Parliament for questioning, along with his loyal lieutenant, the flame-haired Rebekah Brooks (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Ginger Baker, renowned drummer for Cream of late 60s fame), CEO of his UK newspapers and newly resigned. Les Hinton, the publisher for Dow Jones, the parent company of the Wall Street Journal, also resigned and is widely expected to take the fall for Murdoch, loyal to the end even after some 50 years of working for him.
Reporters at the Journal, watching the tide of effluvia rising around them, are finding their worst fears confirmed: that they are being tarred in the public’s eyes with the brush of the New York Post and News of the World. And as the scandal spreads it tends to ignite fires in other places. The FBI may be launching an investigation into the possibility that 9/11 victims families may have had their phones hacked as well. There are a lot of conditional tones in that previous sentence because it’s simply not possible in these circumstances to separate rumor from fact. And that is one of the legacies of Murdoch’s brand of journalism.
There’s a certain justice in the prospect that the hunter may finally be snared in his own traps. For decades Murdoch has bullied, threatened, derided, and seduced politicians, while undercutting the competition and monopolizing the media channels. For those who were drawn to journalism after the Watergate scandal, and those who admired the integrity and courage of the Washington Post, editor Ben Bradlee, and reporters Bernstein and Woodward, watching Murdoch in free-fall is an odd experience. One doesn’t want to cheer because he has a reputation for coming back, zombie-like, from the grave. There is the temptation, as if it were even possible, to imagine a world without Fox News, without Roger Ailes, without Glenn Beck and the whole yelping, bug-eyed, pack of chatterati that pass for journalists these days. But there is also hope—an admittedly faint hope—that journalism as a profession can slough off these sleazy tactics, these millions expended on gossip and lies, and finally get back to the work of the Fourth Estate.
In the court of public opinion, a court that Murdoch’s media are particularly adept at manipulating, lives and careers can be flash-fried in a matter of days. Like popcorn or onion rings these spectacles are hot to the touch, endlessly consumable, and finally turn one’s stomach. We all suffer when the difficult work of searching for truth is jettisoned by news media in favor of chasing rumors into print. It may be too much to hope that this could be a cleansing moment for media moguls, a kind of moral epiphany for discourse in the public square, perhaps even a turning point for American democracy. Perhaps we should put the triumphantly swelling music on hold and aspire to something greater—a finely-tuned historical memory that puts this sorry episode in context and does not forget that it happened. Murdoch and others may be hoping that with our collective attention deficit we’ll turn away and be off to something else in a week or so. Then they could breathe a sigh of relief and get back to business as usual. After all, we’re consumers before we’re citizens, right? Maybe, just maybe for once, we could reverse that condition in favor of meaning over manipulation, memory over Mammon.