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Maria Armoudian

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The True Scandals of Murdoch's News Corps Are Much Worse Than Phone-Hacking

Posted: 08/08/11 09:54 AM ET

As British lawmakers pressure CNN's Piers Morgan to testify in the ongoing News of the World hacking scandal, and as more revelations emerge about the breadth and depth of the hacking, media professionals should not squander the opportunity to take note of the more profoundly damaging scandal that Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation has wrought. That is the damage it has done to their profession and to the institution of journalism itself. And that damage, unfortunately, carries with it ripple effects that are contributing to much longer lasting societal and planetary ills.

Take the environment, for example. A few decades ago, journalists were the ones who acted as the bridge between scientific knowledge and the public. As noted in Grist this week, reporters back in the 1950s were helping audiences to the dangers of climate change.

"Today, more carbon dioxide is being generated by man's technological processes than by volcanoes, geysers, and hot springs," wrote Waldemar Kaempffert in the New York Times in 1956.

Every century, man is increasing the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere by 30 percent--that is, at the rate of 1.1 degrees Celsius in a century. It may be a chance coincidence that the average temperature of the world since 1900 has risen by about this rate. But the possibility that man had a hand in the rise cannot be ignored.

A year later, in 1957, Robert C. Cowen explained in the Christian Science Monitor:

Industrial activity is flooding the air with carbon dioxide gas. This gas acts like the glass in a greenhouse. It is changing the earth's heat balance. . . . Every time you start a car, light a fire or turn on a furnace, you're joining the greatest weather 'experiment' men have ever launched. You are adding your bit to the tons of carbon dioxide sent constantly into the air as coal, oil, and wood are burned at unprecedented rates.

But journalism has changed, led in large part by News Corporation. Thoughtful reporting, bolstered by the two-source minimum rule to assure factuality has been replaced with rumor-mongering, emotional appeals and attacks on people's characters -- precisely the opposite of what ethical journalism should be. After News Corporation media outlets relentlessly attacked climate scientists -- who incidentally are doing societies an enormous favor by studying and informing us about our very survival -- the public began to doubt scientifically established facts about the earth's climate. In a few short years, polls showed a precipitous drop -- more than 30 percent -- in their understanding about climate change.

Given that Mr. Murdoch, himself, has acknowledged the seriousness of climate change on his News Corporation website, why would his media outlets continue to disseminate rumors and untruths that were damaging to persons and the planet itself? In part, it is the media model itself -- the publicly-held, profit-only structure that drives the entity's relentless thirst for more and more market-share at any cost. Unfortunately, the financial success of this inaccurate style has diminished coverage at other outlets too. Even CNN and CBS used suggestive teasers that belittled climate scientists' integrity, and with it, the entire body of work on climate science.

In the end, all of the scientists who were publicly ridiculed during the so-called Climategate were absolved of any wrong-doing, and the integrity of their work confirmed. But the damage had already been done -- to their reputations, to the esteem of science itself, to the environment, as mitigating policies were shelved.

There is too much at risk now to continue down the path of a News Corps style of media. It may take abandoning the publicly-traded, exclusively for-profit model as the primary source of journalism. And there are other models, which should be explored by ethical media professionals who wish to take back their profession form unethical or corrupt forces.

Maria Armoudian is the author of Kill the Messenger: The Media's Role in the Fate of the World.