Misinformer Of The Year: Rupert Murdoch And News Corp.
“This is the most humble day of my life.”
That's how Rupert Murdoch began his July 20 testimony to Parliament about the phone hacking and bribery scandal that had already resulted in the resignations and arrests of key News Corp. officials.
Murdoch's son, James, was equally contrite. “I would like to say as well just how sorry I am and how sorry we are, to particularly the victims of illegal voicemail interceptions and to their families,” he told the committee. “It is a matter of great regret to me, my father and everyone at News Corporation. These actions do not live up to the standards that our company aspires to everywhere around the world.”
The story had begun spiraling out of Rupert Murdoch's control two weeks earlier, when the Guardian reported allegations that employees of Murdoch's London tabloid News of the World had hacked into the mobile phone voicemails of a British schoolgirl who had gone missing, and who was later found dead.
“I cannot think what was going through the minds of the people who did this. That they could hack into anyone's phone is disgraceful,” lamented Prime Minister David Cameron as the scandal quickly engulfed the U.K., and spread throughout Murdoch's global media reach. “But to hack into the phone of Milly Dowler, a young girl missing from her parents, who was later found to be murdered, is truly despicable.”
Allegations of phone hacking within Murdoch's newspapers had been simmering for years in the U.K., and News Corp. had been forced to make public apologies for the systematic invasions of privacy, often sponsored by News of the World and targeting celebrities, athletes and members of the royal family.
And while parts of the Dowler story have since been called into question, News Corp. agreed to pay her family 2 million pounds, and Murdoch himself delivered an apology in person. Moreover, the story set off a cascade of damning revelations that have continued to this day.
Evidence quickly tumbled out indicating the hacking been widespread, and that multiple, high-ranking executives had known about the intrusions. That meant previous explanations to Parliament, when Murdoch managers claimed the crimes had been limited, had been misleading at best. At worst, Murdoch chiefs lied to lawmakers in an effort to cover-up massive wrongdoing.
For years, Media Matters has documented the stream of purposeful misinformation that flows from Murdoch's American properties, most notably Fox News, where the misinformation has taken an epic turn for the worse under President Obama. Yet the corporate spectacle on display this year is even more troubling. This has been Murdoch overseeing a corrupt enterprise and one whose transgressions extend well beyond tapping into phone messages.
And for that dubious distinction, as well as for starring in a media unraveling that has attracted multiple police and government investigations on several continents, Rupert Murdoch and his international media behemoth are the recipients of this year's Misinformer of the Year award.
Culture of Corruption
This was the year the curtain was pulled back and long-held suspicions were confirmed: Murdoch's media business is a rotten one where lawbreaking appears to be endemic thanks to the culture of corruption Murdoch has cultivated for years; a culture where rules did not apply to News Corp.
And that includes fundamental rules of journalism and fair play.
When the hacking scandal caught fire this summer, Murdoch's Fox News did its best to downplay the salacious scandal, while Murdoch's Wall Street Journal worked hard to ignore its direct link.
On Fox's primetime opinion shows, hosts Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity appeared to have taken vows of silence in refusing to deal with the blockbuster story, a story at the normally enticing intersection of media and politics. From early July through mid-December, their shows aired a combined total of nearly 180 hours of original programming (or 10,800 minutes), and within those 180 hours they aired approximately eight minutes of Murdoch hacking coverage. Total.
Even Fox News' media watchdog program bungled the huge, breaking hacking story as hosts admitted during a commercial break, captured on a video posted online, that they were intentionally avoiding the hot topic.
When Fox wasn't, at first, ignoring the story it was spinning madly on Murdoch's behalf, trying to shoo people away from the sorry spectacle with lots of misguided, nothing-to-see-here-people pronouncements. One contributor warned that any attempt to investigate News Corp. would be proof of a partisan agenda inside the White House, ignoring the fact that a Republican Congressman from New York had been among the first to urge the FBI to look into News Corp. (After much criticism, Fox's news shows ultimately did begin covering the story more extensively.)
At the Journal, editorial and opinion pages became home base for Murdoch's public relations push-back effort in America, as columnists rushed to their boss' defense by obfuscating the facts of the scandal and lashing out at their boss' critics.
Meanwhile, the newspaper for the first week of the scandal refused to acknowledge that its publisher, Les Hinton, played a key role in the unfolding drama. Prior to be being tapped to run the Journal, Murdoch's longtime confidant had overseen his boss' British newspapers, including the notorious tabloids at a time when employees were hacking mobile phones at an extraordinary rate. Not only did substantial lawbreaking take place on Hinton's watch, but when called to testify before Parliament in 2007 and 2009 to discuss the hacking pattern, Hinton told a happy tale about how he was convinced that the company had been infected by a lone, rogue element.
In early July, when major news organization around the world were detailing Hinton's previous ties to the hacking scandal, Murdoch's Journal played dumb. In fact, the first time the Journal truly detailed Hinton's association with the hacking scandal was on the day the Journal reported his resignation as publisher... because of his association with the hacking scandal.
It was just another example this year of a Murdoch newsroom answering to a higher calling -- protecting its corporate boss.
Quid Pro Quo
"News of the World Made Criminality An Industry," ABC News announced in July. But that was too limited. This year, large sections of Murdoch's News Corp. faced accusations of criminality and other unethical behavior.
All year long stories spilled out about Murdoch news executives allegedly flaunting the law, like claims that Fox News' Roger Ailes was caught on tape urging an employee to lie to federal investigators, and a Murdoch newspaper executive allegedly trying to buy a vote in the Australian parliament with the promise of friendly news coverage for a local politician.
In October, the publisher of The Wall Street Journal Europe was forced to resign after it was revealed he'd been overseeing an elaborate scheme to boost circulation across the continent, in part by getting the Journal to publish favorable stories about a company that was secretly buying up the newspaper in bulk for as little as one cent per-copy. Worse, the Journal's publisher in the United States knew about the scam but did nothing to stop it. Plus, a Journal whistleblower in Europe was fired soon after he raised concerns about the unethical circulation plot.
And then there were the newly unveiled stories of immoral, although not illegal, behavior conducted under the Murdoch banner. For instance, former teen British pop singer Charlotte Church last month alleged that, as a 13-year-old, she was approached to sing at Rupert Murdoch's wedding. But instead of paying the singer's $160,000 fee, a deal was suggested, and struck, where Church would sing at the nuptials for free and be compensated with the promise of favorable press coverage from Murdoch's media outlets.
Former British morning television anchor Ann Diamond wasn't so lucky. She claims Murdoch ordered his tabloid editors to “go after” her and her family after she accused the media mogul's tabloids of ruining people's lives. The tenacious campaign against Diamond, featuring brazen bouts of harassment, lasted nearly 20 years.
The public outcry over the hacking story in Britain triggered a response from U.S. officials who initiated an investigation. Initially, at the urging of some members of Congress, the FBI began looking into a British press allegation that an investigator working for Murdoch's British properties had tried to hack into the phone of victims of the Sept. 11 terror attacks in hopes of accessing frantic messages left by loved ones.
Also under examination is whether any of the phone hacking in Britain extended to the United States when targeted celebrities traveled here, as well as the question of whether News Corp.'s hacking employees in Britain, who paid the police for "crime exclusives," violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which prohibits any U.S.-based company or its employees from paying off foreign officials in order to gain a commercial advantage. (Those police scoops certainly gave Murdoch's tabloids an advantage.)
A Hacking Pattern In The U.S.?
The U.S. investigators are also scrutinizing whether there's a larger pattern of corruption within News Corp. in the United States. One Murdoch company in particular, grocery coupon and marketing giant News America Marketing, has been accused of computer hacking and anti-competitive practices.
In fact, a News America attorney admitted in court that company computers were used nearly a dozen times in a three-month period to hack into the secure websites of a competitor -- a competitor who had sued and claimed News Corp. stole proprietary information in an effort to drive the company out of business. The competitor's founders claimed Murdoch's News America CEO had threatened to “destroy” them if they ever tried to compete with him directly, and warned ominously, “I work for a man who wants it all, and doesn't understand anybody telling him he can't have it all.”
A News America whistleblower, who left the company with a briefcase full of documents alleging dirty business practices, later testified that Murdoch's CEO threatened to replace “bed wetting liberals” inside the company who were overly concerned about doing the right thing. News Corp. subsequently spent millions of dollars trying to keep a whistleblower quiet, driving him into bankruptcy as he tried to spread the word about Murdoch's anti-competitive practices in the United States. (Federal officials investigating News Corp. recently reached out to the whistleblower.)
We also learned that, just like with the original phone-hacking scandal in the U.K., where News Corp. initially bragged about the internal investigation it undertook (an investigation that later appeared to be more like a cover-up), News Corp. in the U.S. initiated a "deficient," half-hearted investigation before concluding the identity of the computer hacker would remain a mystery. (As part of its probe, News Corp. only questioned one employee and searched just a single company computer for clues.)
News America's conduct could come back to haunt News Corp. in the wake of the federal investigation: Murdoch recently spent nearly $700 million settling three lawsuits brought against his coupon company, charging anti-competitive and price-gouging practices.
In Britain, that's the least of Murdoch's problems. The Misinformer of The Year is trying in vain to salvage his reputation.
“Fox News Lies”
2011 was also the year in which Fox News -- one of News Corp.'s most visible, influential, and profitable brands -- lost the ability to claim that it is a legitimate journalistic organization.
Last winter, as massive demonstrations against Governor Scott Walker's anti-union legislation engulfed the Wisconsin state house, Fox waged a war on workers. Fox exaggerated the compensation of public employees and wrongly blamed them for Wisconsin's budget problems. The network distorted public opinion on the issue and smeared labored leaders.
Conservative misinformation is, of course, nothing new for Fox. But this time the victims fought back, repeatedly chanting "Fox News lies" and "Tell the truth" during Fox's live coverage. And how did Fox respond? The “news” network apparently fabricated an “assault” by pro-union protesters on its lead Wisconsin reporter.
“A Premise That Privately I Found Rather Far-Fetched”
The Wisconsin protesters were right. Fox really does lie. And less than a month later, we released audio of Bill Sammon, a top Fox executive, admitting as much.
Speaking to a conservative audience in 2009, Sammon boasted that he had lied repeatedly during the closing days of the 2008 presidential campaign when he speculated on-air “about whether Barack Obama really advocated socialism.”
“Last year, candidate Barack Obama stood on a sidewalk in Toledo, Ohio, and first let it slip to Joe the Plumber that he wanted to quote, 'spread the wealth around,' ” said Sammon. “At that time, I have to admit, that I went on TV on Fox News and publicly engaged in what I guess was some rather mischievous speculation about whether Barack Obama really advocated socialism, a premise that privately I found rather far-fetched.”
Indeed, in the weeks leading up to the 2008 election, Sammon -- then Fox's Washington deputy managing editor -- used his frequent appearances on the network to tie Obama to “Marxists” and “socialism.” Sammon also pushed his Fox News colleagues to join in. He sent an email to staffers highlighting what he described as “Obama's references to socialism, liberalism, Marxism and Marxists” in his autobiography.
Sammon's “mischief” apparently earned him a promotion. In 2009, he became vice president of news and Washington managing editor -- the official overseeing Fox's supposedly credible political reporting.
Last year, sources with knowledge of the situation in Fox's Washington bureau told us that Sammon was using his new position to “slant” news coverage to the right. Those allegations were confirmed by a series of leaked emails in which Sammon pressured Fox's supposedly neutral journalists to adopt Republican talking points on health care reform; misrepresent scientific data in order to cast doubt on climate change; and distort an Obama speech in order to portray the president as soft on terrorism.
Fox was sufficiently embarrassed by the Sammon emails that Jon's Stewart's reference to them was carefully edited out of an interview he gave to Fox News Sunday. And without explanation, Sammon suddenly stopped appearing on Fox broadcasts. But that doesn't mean that Sammon isn't exerting influence behind the scenes. He has apparently played a key role in preparations for Republican presidential debates on Fox this year. And with the general election fast approaching, he is no doubt planning more “mischief.”
The Fox Primary
The ethical nightmare surrounding Fox's coverage of the 2012 election goes far beyond Bill Sammon. When the year began, Fox was actually employing five potential Republican candidates, providing them not only with salaries but also with millions of dollars' worth of free airtime.
And Fox's journalists have their own financial relationships with the candidates. Jim Pinkerton, for example, has used his position as a regular contributor to Fox's media ethics show to discuss Michele Bachmann, the other Republican contenders, and President Obama. But what he chose not to disclose -- until Politico reported it -- was the fact that he had been paid to “partner” with Bachmann on her recently released book. Pinkerton told Media Matters that he kept the financial relationship secret at the request of “the publisher, the candidate, the campaign.” Amazingly, though, Pinkerton said that he did inform his supervisors at Fox, and they approved of the arrangement.
Then there is Dick Morris, who has received money this year from the campaigns of at least three Republican presidential contenders -- a fact he chose not to reveal (until he was questioned about it by the AP) while speaking positively of each of them on Fox and attacking their critics.
So why does Rupert Murdoch put up with these conflicts of interest?
Probably because it would be hypocritical not to. In April, Fox Business Network spent three days promoting a controversial oil shale venture being undertaken in Israel by a company called Genie Energy. Then in July, Fox News broadcast two reports discussing a Genie oil shale project in Colorado. In none of the reports did Fox bother to mention that Murdoch serves on Genie's “strategic advisory board” and holds an equity stake in the projects.
It's that corrupt approach to journalism that has earned Murdoch and News Corp. the 2011 Misinformer of the Year award.