Britain’s phone-hacking scandal and the power of newspapers

A few years ago my old boss, David Laventhol, had an extended conversation with Rupert Murdoch about newspapers. It was after some sort of big-deal journalism dinner, and they talked long after the tired waiters wished they’d go. David had a storied career in newspapers. He helped invent the Style section of the Washington Post when he was a young editor there. He was editor and publisher of Newsday, publisher of the Los Angeles Times and president of Times Mirror, finishing his career with me at the Columbia Journalism Review.

As David tells the story, Murdoch had endless questions about the tiniest details of the production and distribution of dailies, from press types to paper weight to payroll.

They talked about newspapers because they loved them. What’s interesting to consider is why. I strongly suspect they loved them for different reasons, or perhaps for very different applications of the same reason.

In a strange way, Murdoch has done newspapers — those beleaguered products of the past — a large favor. He has reminded us all of their singular power. Even in their weakened form compared with a few years ago, newspapers are simply better than any other part of our vast and rapidly changing media system at the job of digging and finding things out.

Newspapers don’t like to think about it much, but that ability confers power. When News Corp. shut down the News of the World last week, some financial analysts said it would be no big deal if he sold off the entire print portion of the empire; it is the weakest part of the portfolio, they pointed out. Shareholders would be delighted. But they were speaking in terms of financial returns, not in terms of power.

If he knows anything, Murdoch knows the power that newspapers have. His entire history is about using them to accumulate more power. By this year, he had accumulated enough power in Britain that his own man, Andy Coulson, got installed at 10 Downing Street, as Prime Minister David Cameron’s chief spin doctor, at least until the phone-hacking scandal drove Coulson out.

Consider this: In 2006, Rebekah Brooks, then the editor of the Sun — who resigned Friday as chief executive of News Corp.’s British company, News International — called Gordon Brown, who would soon become prime minister, to tell him that her paper was about to break a story reporting that Brown’s infant son, Fraser, had cystic fibrosis. Brooks would now have us believe that this was about prompting a public discussion about cystic fibrosis. If you think so, I will sell you the London Bridge. It was about who should be afraid of whom.

Here in America we don’t talk a lot about power. And especially since the digital revolution has weakened them, many newspapers shy away from using their power. They try to be all things to all readers. They focus-group. They neutralize and soften both their reporting and their opinion.

For just one example, consider the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where blazing editorial columns were a beacon during the civil rights era. In 2009, the paper decided to quit endorsing candidates in elections because “we have heard from readers — and we agree — that you don’t need us to tell you how to vote.” Really? As Atlanta’s alternative paper, Creative Loafing, put it, the “true reason” for this fold was the Journal-Constitution’s ongoing “attempt to render the paper devoid of any opinion that could offend anyone.” Like so many papers in the U.S., the Journal-Constitution tries to muffle its own power.

That’s one choice to make, of course, though I think it’s the wrong one — it is to pretend not to be what you are. All newspapers have power, if they report in any depth at all. Even small weeklies in small communities can have great power within their communities. They should use it.

But for what? One lesson of the great scandal unfolding in Britain is that newspapers can choose to use their power for bread and circuses, like the News of the World, and to accumulate more and more power. That works, at least until it doesn’t. Or they can use their power for public service — to explain, to encourage and shape honest debate, and best of all, to expose the abuse of power of any kind, even of other news outlets. In the end, the public will appreciate that, and perhaps repay the kindness with loyalty.

The Guardian, the 279,000-circulation daily that labored away pretty much alone for two years on the phone-hacking scandal, is a case in point. Reporter Nick Davies’ first investigative piece about the abuses inside News Corp. ran in July 2009, and he just kept plugging away. Now his story has exploded in a most satisfying fashion, and even Rupert Murdoch probably has a better appreciation than he did before of the power of the daily newspaper.

Mike Hoyt, the executive editor of the Columbia Journalism Review.

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