Schadenfreude -- or, as this blog likes to call it, SchadenMurdoch -- is an art form perfected by the chattering classes. Watching and chronicling the tragic fall of a media icon -- or, in this case, a media titan -- is as natural a process to the western media as the very act of communication. And so the media navel-gazing is in overdrive as Murdoch navigates himself from out of this messy imbroglio. The jury is still out as to whether or not Rupert will escape with his position atop NewsCorp intact, or his son free of an involuntary trip to the pokey.
The chattering classes, so intent on bagging their Murdoch, are missing out on the larger ethical question posed to journalism in the wake of the News of the World scandal, which is: Are there any limits to celebrity gossip?
Is there, first of all, such a thing as "gossip journalism"? Graydon Cater, the editor of the upmarket Vanity Fair, whose cover real estate is coveted by Hollywood, raised the hackles of media-ites when, in 2003, he received a $100,000 payment for having recommended novel A Beautiful Mind to producer Brian Grazer and director Ron Howard. The LA Times, covering this full-blown media event, noted that sources said that Grazer was uncomfortable about Carter's approach (awkward) -- though he ultimately authorized the money. One cannot fail to note that although Grazer had, a sa powerful producer, the option to say "no," one hundred large might be a small price to pay for keeping good relations with the editor of Vanity Fair (and making sure the invites to the VF Oscar party don't get lost in the mail). Further:
Asked whether Vanity Fair's ethical guidelines permit the editor to accept payments from people or companies covered by the magazine, Conde Nast Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications Maurie Perl said:
"You don't do any business on the side with people you're covering. You don't pitch projects to people your magazine is covering. You don't accept gifts," said Kosner.
"Graydon Carter is a great editor in chief. Chuck Townsend, president and CEO of Conde Nast Publications, and Graydon are completely on the same page regarding Graydon's editorship of Vanity Fair."
Others, however, say there should be a firewall between publications and the subjects they cover.
"When you're running an important magazine, there's an ethical line you just can't cross," said Ed Kosner, who has been the editor of Newsweek, New York magazine and Esquire, discussing the ethical responsibilities of magazine editors in general.
In the end Graydon Carter won, of course. The strongest argument was that entertainment magazines are in something of a different category than, say, political or even financial journalism. "Carter hasn't pretended to be the sort of objective journalist who occupies a cubicle at the New York Times since the '70s and '80s when he worked at Life, TV Cable Week, and Time—assuming that he did then," argued Jack Shafer at Slate. Shafer, in his rousing defense of Carter, laid out an interesting argument about entertainment publications that have always had something of a whorish relation with Hollywood:
The ethics cops walking the (Graydon) Carter beat don't seem to appreciate that Vanity Fair—like Wenner's Rolling Stone and (Tina) Brown's Talk—is primarily an entertainment book. Just because it dabbles in Hollywood investigation from time to time shouldn't distract us from its primary role as whore for the Hollywood beast. And for all the column inches dumped on Carter in these two stories, I see no real evidence that the magazine is any softer or harder on Hollywood than it's ever been.
In other words, for a long time the entertainment media and, more particularly, the "celebrity" media beat has occupied a different zone in the world of journalism than "objective" journalism. Should it?
Enter: Checkbook Journalism. Fast forward to today, a digital cosmos where celebrity gossip, spread online, is now a tremendously profitable business. Traditional media organizations that used to have strong foreign bureaus find themselves increasingly in direct competition for viewers with celebrity gossip. More people, they convincingly argue, are interested in the sexuality of Tom Cruise than in the minutiae of the budget talks. And Old Media find itself aggressively taking on some of the characteristics -- like paying for scoops -- of sites like TMZ. As the Iron Law of Emulation states, "organizations in conflict tend to emulate one another."
But checkbook journalism is mild. Weak tea, comparatively speaking. In the pursuit of "scoops" -- salacious pieces of information, of sexually explicit pictures -- on celebrities, and pseudo reality show kin, there appear to be no limits except that which can land one unceremouniously in the pokey. In Britian, curiously enough, it was the fact that News of the World went after victims, average working class people, that was the straw that broke the proverbial camel's back. Celebrities, it could be argued from a working class position, are rich -- salacious news and photos are permitted. But phone hacking the parents of a missing 13-year old girl? Phone hacking the families of 7/7 survivors? That's beyond the pale.
As Matt Frei of BBC America said on CNN's Reliable Sources this weekend: "I think the crucial thing that's happened this week is that, for the first time in the paper's century-and-a-half history, it has overstepped the line where it's taken on not just the celebrities or members of the royal family or politicians who are sort of considered to be fair game, even if there was a sharp intake of breath about the methods in which these stories were uncovered. But for the first time, it's taken on institutions that represent the readers themselves. You know, when you start talking about relatives of the 7/7 victims, when you start hacking the phones of relatives people who were killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, then you are messing with your very constituency, with the blue collar workers, mainly, who are your core readership."
Howard Kurtz today argues in an Op Ed that the race for eyeballs, pageviews, and ratings in the digital multiplatform era has broken down the walls between "entertainment" journalism and journalism itself, infecting the entire stream of information. From the Washington Post:
From Dan Rather’s report on George W. Bush and the National Guard, retracted by CBS, to NBC’s “Dateline” rigging a fiery truck explosion years earlier, there are episodes of reckless American journalism that would not seem out of place at a British tabloid. Then there is the parade of fabricators, such as Jayson Blair of the New York Times and Jack Kelley of USA Today, who deceived their publications, with editors later found to have missed blatant warning signs. And the journalists fired or suspended for plagiarism are too numerous to mention.
Even old-fashioned news organizations operate these days in a bubbling tabloid culture in which sensational tales (Weiner, John Edwards, Mark Sanford, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Tiger Woods, Casey Anthony) crowd out coverage of, say, health care and deficit talks. The line between high-minded and low-road journalism has all but vanished. When the Los Angeles Times reported that Arnold Schwarzenegger fathered a child with his housekeeper, it refused to name the woman — but Radar Online published her name and picture and other outlets, from ABC to the New York Times, quickly followed suit. The slippery slope of the Web makes it easier to justify our voyeurism.
In the end, the public’s indifference to how salacious stories are procured creates this lucrative market.The News of the World scandal has exposed the amorality of thinking of journalism, particularly celebrity gossip beat, entirely in terms of profitability. Thinking of journalism as wholly devoid of anything other than dollars and cents is as dumb as thinking of journalism wholly in terms of some nebulous, unprofitable civic duty. The answer lies somewhere in the middle.
Thinking of journalism -- particularly gossip journalism -- entirely as a business, uneasy questions arise. Is it OK to hire sleazy private investigators (not illegal, so far as I know)? Are paparazzi allowed to operate anarchically, until someones car crashes (until the car crashes, it's all good)? Is the threat of jail the only thing that should curtail a "celebrity gossip journalist's" industrious zeal? Should there be any ethical rules -- rules that go beyond the limits of criminal law -- that governs this profession?
Or am I being a prude? Is this just an academic 1am- in-the-morning "Ethics in Journalism" C-Span 3 type of conversation? Right now alls fair in eyeballs and gossip, so to speak. But will the scandal generate a conversation about the ethics of celebrity gossip reporting? Jeremy Peters in the Times cynically says no.
I unfortunately tend to agree.