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Timothy Karr

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Who's Afraid of Rupert Murdoch?

Posted: 05/10/2012 1:22 pm

The answer: the Federal Communications Commission and Congress.

While the media mogul was called before Parliament and hammered by regulators in the United Kingdom, few in the halls of U.S. power are willing to call News Corp. to account for the "culture of corruption" that has spread through its media empire.

Late Wednesday, Sen. Frank Lautenberg asked FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski whether U.K. findings of News Corp.'s "rampant law breaking" meant the FCC would revoke any of the 27 broadcast licenses granted to Murdoch's company in the U.S.

"It's not appropriate for me to comment," Genachowski told the senator, ducking any real commitment to investigate News Corp.

Genachowski's tone echoes that of House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, who has declined to investigate Murdoch in spite of mounting evidence that News Corp. has committed crimes in the U.S.

"This is a story about a unit in another country," Issa said during an interview on Murdoch's Fox News Channel. "And we want to make sure we don't enter the ground that is most inappropriate for us."

Meanwhile the News Corp. board -- a hand-picked circle of the Murdochs' closest allies -- refuses to take action against a chairman a British government committee deemed "not fit to run an international company."

On Wednesday, the board rubberstamped a vote of confidence in its leader, citing "Rupert Murdoch's vision and leadership in building News Corporation, his ongoing performance as chairman and CEO and his demonstrated resolve to address the mistakes of the company."

What Now for Murdoch?

So what's next? We're nearly one year into one of the biggest scandals in modern media. It's a scandal involving widespread criminal behavior and a subsequent cover-up by News Corp.'s most senior executives.

And yet very few of America's powerful are willing to call this U.S. company forth to respond to the serious allegations or answer for its misdeeds.

True, the Department of Justice is investigating possible breaches of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, but allegations against News Corp. don't end there:

The FCC

When granting broadcast licenses, the FCC must determine whether applicants meet good character qualifications in accordance with the Communications Act. But the agency has a dismal record on license renewals, and it rarely considers questions of character when vetting applicants.

Over the FCC's more than 75 years in existence, it has granted well over 100,000 broadcast license renewals while denying only four for failing to meet public interest obligations.

And while viewers regularly petition the agency to deny a broadcaster's renewal on such grounds, you would have to go back more than 30 years to find the most recent instance in which the FCC responded by pulling a license.

Steve Waldman, the author of the 2011 FCC study on the state of the U.S. media, attributes the dearth of FCC action to commissioners who "no doubt feared denying licenses would trigger contentious battles with broadcasters."

The FCC's Genachowski seems no different than his predecessors, thus far avoiding a confrontation with one of the largest holders of TV broadcast spectrum.

Congress

Congress has the power to subpoena people and gather evidence on issues of national concern. Most often congressional inquiries relate to government malfeasance, but News Corp., with its heavy reliance on government-granted licenses, could easily fall under that category.

Yet with only a few exceptions, members of Congress have refused to budge.

Parliamentary hearings and investigations in the U.K. have shed new light on numerous incidents of News Corp. misconduct, as well as the great lengths its executives will go to to cover up illegal activities. Parliamentary inquiries have also exposed the degree to which elected officials sought to curry favor with Murdoch and win approval from his numerous media outlets.

The government Q&A with Murdoch uncovered several secret meetings between Murdoch and Prime Minister David Cameron, who even interrupted a family vacation to take a jet to a sit-down with the corporate head aboard a family yacht off a Greek island.

The influence game in the U.S. is perhaps less exotic. News Corp. has also spent big to impress U.S. politicians, shelling out more than $61 million to lobby Washington and another $8.1 million in campaign contributions.

But the public's right to know shouldn't get lost in this exchange of money and favors. Congress should concern itself with questionable activity by a company that controls so much of our nation's media, and dictates so much of our political discourse.

The American people expect the media to uncover government and corporate vice -- not contribute to it.

It is Congress' responsibility to get our back, and investigate corruption and cover-ups of this scale.

 

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