Why News Corp.'s Hapless Clean-Up of Its Phone-Hacking Scandal Is Doomed
More than nine months ago, I predicted that News Corp.'s News of the World phone-hacking scandal would only escalate and could amount to "The End of Rupert Murdoch." I suggested that while News Corp. was likely big enough to be able to absorb the spiraling legal costs associated with the scandal without materially affecting its bottom line (the company gets most of its revenue from its non-newspaper operations, including 20th Century Fox), the real cost would be highly personal: The world's most powerful and feared media mogul would be going down.
Remember, the years-old phone-hacking scandal only really heated up last fall -- and is only coming to a boil now -- because Murdoch's archnemesis, The New York Times, rekindled interest in it with a major investigative feature in its Sunday magazine. As I wrote last Sept. 27:
News Corp. has a frightfully powerful war-room -- and Murdoch personally owns/controls much of the British press, which is why it took America's newspaper of record to convincingly turn up the heat on the News of the World crimes. ... What's really going to do in Murdoch is the distraction -- and the humiliation. The New York Times has not only gotten the better of him, it may just mobilize the British government to properly investigate News Corp. ... which is just not fair, because Rupert thinks he's the only one who gets to control British politicians!
I also pointed out Murdoch's age (then 79, now 80) and the reality of actuarial tables (the average Australian man lives 79.33 years).
Today, as my colleague Emma Hall reported, News Corp. has rather astonishingly announced the imminent (Sunday) closure of the 168-year-old News of the World, which Murdoch's son James, the company's deputy chief operating officer, pointed out in a prepared statement is "read by more people than any other English language newspaper." He went on to say that the "good things the News of the World does ... have been sullied by behavior that was wrong. Indeed, if recent allegations are true, it was inhuman and has no place in our Company."
Oh, the inhumanity!
He also says, "Wrongdoers turned a good newsroom bad and this was not fully understood or adequately pursued," and adds -- somewhat hilariously -- "I have decided that all of the News of the World's revenue this weekend will go to good causes."
All of this is happening, of course, because as the phone-hacking scandal grew truly obscene this week -- with the revelation, for starters, that News of the World may have hacked into the phone of a murdered girl, possibly hindering a police investigation and giving her parents the false hope that she was still alive -- advertisers began to run for the hills. Ford, General Motors, Lloyds Banking Group and Mitsubishi Motors all pulled advertising from the paper, and many others were sure to follow.
And so, facing a major meltdown, News Corp. is doing its best at containment. The problem is that it may be too little, too late. And it's glaringly inept, too -- on par with Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s attempt at containing the fallout at the Fukushima nuclear reactor.
Also: There's a hell of a lot of radioactivity to News Corp. beyond just News of the World.
A couple Fridays ago, as the New York State Assembly was on the verge of legalizing gay marriage (which I didn't realize at the time), I happened to come across a rather astonishing post on Buzzfeed titled "Actual News Headlines Vs. Fox News Headlines." I tweeted it that evening and it exploded, getting endlessly retweeted and driving nearly 1,000 page views to Buzzfeed (which I could see via j.mp statistics). The post showed how News Corp.'s Fox News spins stories originated by other news organizations, distorting them with hyper-partisan and even hateful headlines.
For example, "AP poll: Economic worries pose new snags for Obama" became "AP: Obama Has a Big Problem With White Women" on the Fox News website.
An NBC New York story headlined "NY Officials Want Schools to Teach About Unwanted Baby Laws" became "NYC Public Schools Teaching How to Abandon Your Baby?"
A story from Britain's The Voice headlined "Mandela Asks to Meet Michelle Obama" was respun on Fox News as "Michelle Obama Snubbed in Africa, But Looking Forward to Private Safari."
The next morning -- after Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed New York's gay-marriage act into law -- I woke up to more evidence of News Corp.'s surreal brand of spin. The New York Times had a huge page-one-spanning banner headline about this civil-rights breakthrough of national and international importance: "NEW YORK ALLOWS SAME-SEX MARRIAGE, BECOMING LARGEST STATE TO PASS LAW." The New York Daily News exclaimed "HISTORY!" in massive type above a photo of New Yorkers celebrating in the streets. Newsday went with "SAME-SEX MARRIAGE OKd" over another shot of jubilant New Yorkers. El Diario went with "APRUEBAN MATRIMONIO GAY" over a shot of two women holding hands.
This was the cover of News Corp.'s notoriously homophobic New York Post:
And over at Murdoch's Wall Street Journal, whose focus News Corp. ownership has broadened well beyond business in a bid to challenge The Times, there was no headline on page one at all. The news was relegated to the second blurb in the "What's News" news brief box. In other words, News Corp.'s flagship American newspapers -- staying true to the anti-gay agenda so often espoused on the Fox News channel -- actively chose to try to ignore and downplay history-in-the-making.
Murdoch & Co. may want us to believe that nastiness and deceit and reality-distortion were a problem only at one isolated British paper -- the News of the World, which is now being ritually sacrificed on the altar of public opinion in an attempt to appease the Gods of Wall Street , Madison Avenue and beyond.
But to extend the Fukushima radioactivity metaphor a bit further, this is not just about one News Corp. newspaper: What advertisers and consumers are realizing is that News Corp.'s brand of journalism -- and the very corporate culture in many of its newsrooms -- may well be rotten to the core.
Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. Follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.