Money Talking: Rupert Murdoch and Echoes of the Washington Post and Watergate

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That noise you heard this week from one side of the Atlantic to the other is the outburst of schadenfreude that greeted a declaration from a British parliamentary committee that Rupert Murdoch was "not a fit person" to run a major international company like News Corporation.

For those appalled by the noxious evidence of phone-hacking and payoffs, the conclusion seemed eminently justified. For those appalled by the journalistic practices of his media holdings, or by the immense political power he holds, the judgment was welcomed as the potential beginning of the end of his outsize influence over both journalism and politics. (Perhaps some held out the hope — for which there is at present no evidence — that there will be revealed crimes and misdemeanors on this side of the Atlantic that could jeopardize his American power centers.)

There is, however, another way of thinking about this story which might be useful to consider — especially for those who hold no brief for Murdoch as media baron or king-maker.

We are, after all, talking about an arm of government declaring that a purveyor of the media is unfit to lead — a declaration with potentially disastrous consequences for a media company.

So try a different scenario.

It is 1973 here in the United States. As the Watergate story proceeds, an arm of government  — a Congressional committee or perhaps the Federal Communications Commission — begins hearings into the behavior of the Washington Post. They solemnly eschew any interest in the paper's politics. They have learned, however, that two of their reporters, Woodward and Bernstein, may have violated the sanctity of the grand jury process. The investigation finds that editor Ben Bradlee knew or should have known about this possibly criminal behavior. (You may know that a just-published book about Bradlee has provided strong evidence of just such a violation.) It further finds that Post owner Katherine Graham willfully kept her distance from the practices of her editors and reporters, thus "creating a climate" where such behavior was either encouraged or tolerated.

Therefore, this committee or commission declares, Graham does not meet the test of character that would permit her company to own the radio and television licenses granted by the FCC.

In real life, as the Nixon tapes demonstrated, the president and his team were almost giddy at the prospect of punishing the Post by stripping it of its lucrative broadcast licenses. I doubt that many would have been reassured by the assertion that the company was losing these licenses not because it was looking hard at Watergate, but because of the possible unethical or even illegal means used in pursuit of that investigation.

You can call it too simplistic, but I have a visceral reaction anytime an arm of the government renders a judgment about who is and who is not fit to control a media empire, no matter how much I might share that view of the press baron. To to turn Voltaire on his head, "I may agree with what you say, but I disagree with your right to say it."

Each week Jeff Greenfield offers his take on business and the economy as part of WNYC's Money Talking.