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Murdoch's Watergate Unravels

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Does Rupert Murdoch now know the panic Richard Nixon must have felt when the Washington Post broke the story in 1972 that a $25,000 cashier's check earmarked for the Nixon campaign wound up in the bank account of a Watergate burglar. Or when it was revealed that Nixon's Oval Office had a taping system that recorded all his conversations. Or when John Dean told investigators he had discussed the Watergate cover-up with President Nixon three dozen times?

Pick your Watergate reference at will, but one thing is certain: The long-simmering phone-hacking story that has been hounding Murdoch for years took a dire turn this week for News Corp. and it suddenly has the possible makings of a career-defining debacle for the partisan media mogul. It's a debacle that features Murdoch starring in the eerily similar role as the one Dick Nixon played.

Like Nixon during his Watergate demise, the hacking story appears to have thrown Murdoch into a free fall with no safe landing spot in sight. There doesn't seem to be any maneuver or strategy available to him at this crucial juncture that will make the blockbuster story go away, even for a price. And like Nixon, whose aides couldn't stop the Watergate bleeding, Murdoch is being hounded by a dogged newspaper determined (and perhaps able) to take him down, as well as by aggressive prosecutors.

And like Nixon's team, Murdoch's News Corp. has recently been unable to make stick the claim that the wrongdoing, and the knowledge of the wrongdoing, does not reach up to the very most senior levels of the company.

In other words, there's a perfect storm where loud portions of the British press, Parliament and the public opinion are raging against Murdoch this week and demanding someone finally take corporate responsibility for News Corp.'s abhorrent behavior, rather than desperately trying to find ways to kick accountability down the road.

It's true that over the years Murdoch has courted controversy and proven masterful at escaping lasting damage to his reputation or bottom line. But Murdoch is a stranger to being boxed in and being left unable to change the larger conversation. And Murdoch is a stranger to finding himself -- as he has this week -- virtually without a single independent ally who will publicly vouch for his company.

Notes longtime Murdoch-watcher Jack Shafer at Slate: "I can't think of any jam that Murdoch has gotten into that's tighter than this one."

Meanwhile, I'd suggest that like Nixon's crooked White House, the phone-hacking scandal perfectly captures a larger News Corp. culture at play and that it, therefore, cannot be dismissed as some sort of anomaly. These weren't just rogue elements at work within the Murdoch media empire. Instead these were elements that reflected a dark Murdoch ethos, where serial mendacity isn't just embraced, but often celebrated.

Just ask Glenn Beck, who for more than two years was welcomed onto Fox News to tell every conceivable falsehood, and launch every possible personal smear, that his fervent imagination could conjure up. It was only after his ratings fell and advertisers abandoned him that Beck was shown the door.

Or just ask Fox News boss Roger Ailes who, according to a New York Times report earlier this year, was once caught on tape urging an employee to lie to federal investigators.

Meaning, it makes perfect sense that it's News Corp. that finds itself at the center of this galloping controversy because, quite frankly, it's inconceivable that any other global media company would ever allow its employees to consistently misbehave the way Murdoch allows his lieutenants to skirt common sense rules.

Wrote The Nation's Alexander Cockburn, even before the latest hacking revelations:

What began in Britain in 2005 as "a third-rate burglary" of voicemails, supposedly limited to a criminal invasion of privacy by a News of the World reporter and a private investigator, has flowered beautifully into a Level 7 scandal that threatens the careers of two of Rupert Murdoch's top executives, not to mention the heir apparent to the News Corp. empire, James Murdoch.

Third-rate burglary, indeed. Again and again the hacking story harkens back to Watergate and understandably so, with its convicted criminals, cover-ups, cash payments and crumbling alibis.

Amazingly, events this week are spinning so quickly out of Murdoch's control that they're outpacing the Watergate timeline. After all, Nixon's slow-motion collapse, in the end, took months to choreograph. His final farewell came long after most observers concluded the president was guilty of a cover-up, and wasn't going to survive his second term.

And up until this week, Watergate's molasses-slow approach seemed similar to Murdoch's hacking scandal. Remember, this story first broke six years ago.

And like Watergate, while Murdoch's team suffered some early public relations blows they seemed effective in keeping the scandal mostly at bay. For instance, in 2007, a News of the World reporter and a private investigator went to prison for hacking the phones of royal family aides. The next year News of the World paid out more than $1 million to settle two phone-hacking cases. And of course at the time, longtime Murdoch aide Les Hinton, currently CEO of the Dow Jones Company, assured members of Parliament that he'd found no evidence to suggest any widespread wrongdoing inside News Corp.

The story was thought to be so well under control that Andy Coulson, editor of News of the World during the heyday of the hacking, was actually tapped to be Prime Minster's David Cameron's top media advisor. That's how little traction the hacking story had gotten. (Think Nixon's `72 landslide re-election win despite the fact the Washington Post had already sketched out, on its front pages, the rough outlines of the Watergate crimes.)

All that changed on Monday with the Guardian exclusive about how an investigator working for Murdoch's tabloid had hacked into the mobile phone voice mails of a British schoolgirl who had gone missing, and who was later found dead. Not only were the voice mails hacked, but some were deleted in order to make space for more. The deletions at the time gave the girl's family false hope that their daughter was still alive, and confused investigators about her whereabouts. The move also may have destroyed crucial evidence.

Since Monday, all hell has broken loose.

Go here to read the Guardian's real-time blog from Tuesday that tick-tocked the avalanche of unfolding phone hacking developments and try to recall the last time any news organization found itself on the receiving end of so many leaks, scoops, and jaw-dropping exclusives.

The hacking story is now on a steep downward slope and gaining momentum each day. If history is any guide, News Corp. may one day be looking for someone to fill the Barry Goldwater role in this saga and finally break the news to the despondent boss that there's no way out.

Crossposted at County Fair, a Media Matters blog.