Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The demand for scandal

"Sorry, sorry..." Rupert Murdoch's view of his media empire's role in society. (As only Monty Python can tell it.)

Oh, the horror; the horror, we all say, as the details continue to emerge from Rupert Murdoch’s journalism scandal in the United Kingdom.

Yes, the acts apparently committed by “journalists,” were heinous. Among the worst were hacking into private e-mail accounts, including that of a 13-year-old kidnapped girl later found dead. Already, one “red-top” tabloid, Murdoch’s 168-year-old News of the World, has closed over the scandal, and one of its former reporters and a whistle-blower has died, likely by his own hand in one way or another.

But the deeper issue is that the U.K.’s red-tops thrive because enough of the public demands scandal and sleaze. It’s equally true in the U.S., of course. Fortunately, there are still committed journalists who slog away at their craft, even when the trail is obstructed and incessantly uphill.

The Guardian newspaper’s Nick Davies is such a reporter. From his garage in a village in southern England, Davies has been unleashing scoop after scoop on the News of the Worlds’ misdeeds, often to the sound of silence. Instead of an English uprising against the scandal sheets, there was a collective yawn. There were payoffs by the newspaper to keep people quiet.

“ … the public seemed indifferent,” reports National Public Radio’s David Folkenflik. “Its hunger for gossip and scandal made News of the World the nation's top-selling paper.”

That finally changed just days ago when Davies revealed the News of the World had hacked into and erased the voice mail of a 13-year-old kidnapping victim, who was eventually found dead. At last, the outrage came and within days the News of the World announced it would be closing.

For Davies, however, it’s been a lonely and occasionally bitter years-long process during which he was often pilloried as someone who couldn’t move on.

“People kept on saying that I was obsessive, and maybe that's true,” he told NPR.

Without that obsession, however, News of the World likely would have continued its illegal, immoral and unethical practices and people would have continued buying and reading it.

News, like most other things in business, operates on supply and demand. Where there’s a demand for gossip, innuendo, skewed reporting, and misleading or downright false information, there will be a supply. Other tabloids will fill the vacuum left by News of the World.

Dwight Allman, a high school friend of mine, now a professor of political science at Baylor, put it better than I ever could:

“A free press presumes a polity which takes the office of the informed citizen seriously; recognizes and values honest reporting on issues that have real merit; and casts scorn on all who prostitute journalism to the prurient tastes, or the narrow self-interest, of those elements in society which have yet to rise to the level of a genuine citizenry.”

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