Journalism was once a completely respectable profession.
Good reporters are trained writers, and for me one of their real virtues has always been that they write well -- sometimes extremely well -- on a tight deadline. Anyone who has struggled for years writing a novel -- as I have, on several occasions -- must of necessity marvel at the ability of a good journalist to tell a story, have it edited, perhaps re-write it and have it re-edited, all in a matter of a few hours before going to press or online. This is a charmed talent, for which I have spent my entire writing life admiring good journalism.
Now we have Rupert Murdoch, although, to be sure, he represents nothing new. His empire is simply the latest prime purveyor of so-called "yellow journalism." Originally the child of a circulation battle in the 1890's between Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal, yellow journalism sacrificed truth in favor of sensationalism in order simply to sell more papers. It was a business ploy, not an example of high journalistic ideals. Now, with Murdoch leading the way, journalism in many instances has fallen victim to the same wish for sales, and has descended, again, from the high ground it should occupy.
For Murdoch, reporters are not journalists; rather they are opinionated editorialists. They do not seek the facts and are not fair in their judgments. They hack cell phones. Apparently they buy off police officials. They turn the injudicious selection of certain facts to the service of their long-ago received -- or dictated to -- political ideologies, gather themselves together for the word-processor or camera, and once those things are turned on, they opine. This has all been documented and argued over for many years. But for the past decade or so, the yellow media have become so yellow that journalism itself barely exists there.
What once was a healthy respect for good journalistic practices has become a rabid pursuit of blowhardism and personal hubris. But scandal mongering is not good journalism. Nor are rant, loud interruptive voices, prurient-minded salaciousness or disrespectful sneers. And also, we might add, what Robert Reich recently called "the wrecking-ball Right" is not journalism at all. It is a sampling of everything above (blowhardism, etc.) gathered into one.
The courts will sort out whether Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation companies have been guilty of the seriously criminal actions of which they are being accused. But there is one other issue that should be kept in mind. High journalistic standards matter, especially when we're talking about a healthy democracy. So do careful research, a respect for opposing ideas, the exchange of ideas and respectful debate. Good writing matters. The truth, as difficult as it may be to discern, matters.
All these have been sunk into the mire that the yellow media have caused with these recent scandals. Murdoch's tears of confession and contrition in the past few days are those of a crocodile. It's on his watch that all of the alleged crimes were committed.
The expatriate American journalist Larry King (not the talk show host) once wrote that "the British media [are] as untroubled by logical inconsistency as they are by a shortage of facts, lack of knowledge, or deficiencies in spelling, punctuation, and grammar." The same could be said of contemporary yellow media as a whole.