With the News of the World phone hacking case currently at trial, we take a look at Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, which has been shaken since the scandal broke. Brooke speaks to NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik about his new book “Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Former News Corp employees Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson and six other defendants are now on trial for hacking the phone of missing teenager Milly Dowler in 2002. Milly was later found dead. The hacking, which her parents interpreted as Milly using the phone, gave them false hope and scandalized the nation. Here’s from the BBC:
CORRESPONDENT: The defendants are lined up in order of the charges, some accused of phone hacking, some of paying public officials for stories and some of hiding evidence from the police, Mrs. Brooks, with all three.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: To recap, Brooks and Coulson were editors for the now defunct News of the World tabloid, once a tent pole of Rupert Murdoch's media empire. The hacking scandal has shaken Murdoch’s empire like an earthquake, causing parts to break off and others to crumble. However, the notable American properties, Fox TV and Fox News Channel and the Wall Street Journal continue to thrive. And the New York Post isn't going anywhere.
NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik’s new book, Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires, dives into the intricacies of Murdoch's holdings and character, and he finds that they contain multitudes.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: And he’s certainly a conservative, no doubt, but he's also a pragmatist, and he sees ways he can do business from people from the center left, like Hillary Clinton, when she was running for Senate in New York in 2000 and 2006, like Tony Blair in the UK. Tony Blair flew to a small island off Australia to indicate that he would show deference. Similarly, when there was the question of would the UK join the euro, the common currency of Europe, which Tony Blair very much championed as an idea, Murdoch was dead set against it. Blair didn't change his policy but what he did do is he says, I’ll put it to a public vote. So he set a major obstacle in his own path, as a way of showing Murdoch that he would take his concerns into account.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let’s do a rundown of some of your scoops, David. Start with the attempts by the chiefs at the now-Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal to muzzle coverage of the News of the World’s hacking scandal. Reporters at the Wall Street Journal determined that reporters at the News Of the World had messed with their own coverage to protect themselves but the people at the top of the Journal were trying to squelch it.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Absolutely. You know, about a half-dozen times, Robert Thomson, the handpicked chief news executive at the Wall Street Journal, a fellow Australian, essentially a surrogate son to Rupert Murdoch, he tried to kill it. And then at a certain point he kept raising the bar on what they would have to publish.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: The headline that would have been in the first paragraph was pushed way down to the ninth paragraph. It was softened. It is to the Wall Street Journal's credit that a story that was damaging the Rupert Murdoch business interests in UK in 2011 got in the newspaper so prominently. But it's not to the credit of Robert Thomson. He chose basically protecting his mentor over protecting the newspaper's integrity at a pivotal moment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now let’s into the dirty tricks. One of the notable dirty tricks was played on a reporter for Crain's New York Business named Matthew Flamm.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Flamm was reporting on just a ratings bump that CNN had experienced and enjoyed in 2008. There was that hard-fought primary in the Democratic Party between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and it really raised CNN's ratings vis-à-vis Fox.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Which had been the ratings leader.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Which had been [LAUGHS] crushing the ratings since about 2001. Fox didn’t want this written about. They took action against Flamm. They didn't respond to his request for comment. But he received an email from the private Hotmail account of a senior producer at The O'Reilly Factor, and she said, you know, I know you've been asking about this. It's true. They’re flipping out here. They’re gonna replace the anchors at the conventions with Bill O'Reilly. It’ll be the first time somebody who's an opinion host will be hosting that. It’s a big change for us. He couldn't get a second source to confirm it, finally said to his editors, what do I? They said, you know, why don’t we just do it as a blog post. And that was a journalistic mistake. Within an hour and a half, a top PR executive for Fox News denounced him, by name, saying he couldn't be trusted. It was outrageously untrue. He calls back the person, finally reaches her at The O'Reilly Factor, and he says, what the heck happened here. And her response was, who are you?
And he says, what are you talking about? I just got this email. She says, I – I don’t know what you’re saying.
Similarly, there's a reporter for the New York Times, Tim Arango, who was doing a very similar kind of story about the ratings bump CNN had experienced that season. What they did was leaked to gossip blogs, one of which posted a story saying Tim Arango had just come back from being treated for substance abuse and had claimed that he had done soft stories about various television executives, in the desperate hope to get a TV job. Well, that last part there doesn't seem to be any truth to, but the first part actually was true. He had just come back for treatment for cocaine abuse. They did this just to wound him for something that had nothing to do with his journalism and it was part of his private life.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So let’s move now from dirty tricks to sock puppetry.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: There's a long stretch, years where people working for Fox News PR were not only supposed to spin and send out press releases and get good publicity for their people, but late at night they were supposed to be on the blogs, responding to every negative and even neutral blog posting, no matter how large or small the following that that post might have. So one person said she had over 20 aliases that she used to file these comments. Another person had over 100 aliases. They had to use laptops that had been bought from secondhand stores and repurposed and not purchased on corporate credit cards because their bosses didn't want it traced back to Fox News or the News Corp. They didn’t just respond to the postings. They responded to other people's comments.
So one PR person described getting a call, being woken up at 2:30 in the morning, by the woman who’s now the head of PR for Fox, Irena Briganti, and she said, why are you embarrassing me like this? And the person said, what do, what do you mean, having been just woken up.
And she says, you know, you haven’t responded to comment #67, or whatever it was.
- on this posting.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wow. The weird thing about Fox News is that it operates exactly the way many people think that all media operate, as a conspiracy to shape the message. A case in point, Roger Ailes watching the election returns decided that the channel had to change its stance on immigration. And you report that he lectured the senior staff on a conference call, next time Sean Hannity shows up, he says:
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: My thinking has evolved on immigration, something like that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: You know, and when Roger Ailes says something, you can usually expect to see it show up often on Sean Hannity. I think the show that is, in some ways, most in sync with his outlook is Fox and Friends, the chirpy morning show that nonetheless is relentlessly on message –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: - to where Ailes wants to be.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So he's still a political guy, as he was back when he worked for Ronald Reagan. But who told Fox News Channel's talking heads to ignore the polls and keep projecting Mitt Romney as the eventual winner of the election?
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: I think Fox's experts and analysts got in sort of this sealed information loop. I thought it was very telling that you had people like Dick Morris who, after the election said, well, you know, I felt that it was my obligation to try to give hope to the Romney folks on the off chance –
- it might actually pull something off. The actual pollsters for Fox News itself, they commissioned polls that were pretty accurate, but they didn't have those guys on very often.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I have always said that Murdoch cares much more about the health of his business than he does about any political position. But then I think, well, maybe he just loves this kind of crazy showmanship journalism. Is it all about ink? I'm just spinning my wheels in the hamster cage, ‘cause I can't come up with a moral to this story.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Well he gave a talk in 1989 in Britain at a very prestigious lecture series in which he said, a public service is any service that you can provide, within the law, that the public is willing to pay for. And his tabloids absorb that to such a degree that over the decades they dropped the “within the law” part and they said, whatever the public is willing to pay for is a public service. When you lose the “within the law” part of that equation that Murdoch set out in ’89, suddenly the lines between right and wrong become almost invisible.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: David, thank you very much.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: No, thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: David Folkenflik’s book is called, Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires.