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In the Media, How Many Wrongs Make a Right?

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Years ago, in the wake of Watergate, I wrote a novel titled The Henderson Equation which dealt with the following premise:

If media, meaning a powerful newspaper, had the persuasive power to bring down a president, why is it not possible for a newspaper to create the president of its choice?

Some people who have recently read that novel have suggested that I was prescient, since the action of the story centers around a powerful newspaper who, after bringing down a president and flushed with power, attempt to create a president of their own choice. Admittedly it was a kind of roman a clef suggested by the Washington Post's bringing down Richard Nixon. (See this post in my archives).

They point out that the book parallels the current mess in the UK where editorial executives of the now defunct The News of the World, once a diamond in the crown of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, are accused of countenancing illegal Internet hacking, phone tapping and bribery to enhance their stories, get a jump on their competitors and target politicians who they deem unworthy.

In the Watergate episode two young reporters at the Washington Post, Woodward and Bernstein, supported by the Post's crusading editor Ben Bradlee, and with the approval of its management, spent extraordinary time and effort to expose unethical conduct in Nixon's campaign for re-election in 1972, resulting in high level people going to jail for malfeasance, lying, and assorted illegal acts and violations.

There is no question that Nixon's duplicity deserved censure or worse. To make matters more bizarre, he had tape-recorded his own malfeasance by invading his own privacy. He and those around him were clearly guilty. The issue for the media poses the old question: "How many wrongs make a right?"

Above all other considerations, the high minded effort to expose the "truth" about the corrupt practices employed by Nixon and his cohorts, the underlying motives of the owners and editors, however righteous and moral, was a deliberate and focused exercise of media muscle to enhance its power, prestige and earnings and, at the same time, expose chicanery, which they and many of us now assume has become the grand mission of contemporary journalism.

In the case of the Washington Post, they did it because they could. They chose their target and proceeded through obtaining information by subterfuge, deception and clandestine means to gather the evidence that destroyed the Nixon Presidency. One can only speculate why they chose Nixon, although in retrospect it seems obvious. They truly hated him.

Is anyone really shocked by the revelations of the apparent abuse of power by Murdoch's editors in the conduct of their editorial business? The objective of any media is to reach ears and eyeballs of its audience. Every media on earth employs similar tactics in varying degrees, despite legal checks within their administrative structure. A determined reporter in search of a story is like a bloodhound. Once they have caught the scent, he or she is unstoppable. It is in their DNA. Editors salivate over a "scoop."

That may seem like an absurdly blanket indictment, but the competition for stories fishing for those ears and eyeballs is intense, and the technological loopholes to obtain information are endemic in the news business and everywhere else. Face it, the barriers to privacy are crumbling, offering often irresistible temptations to determined journalists.

Wiretapping, hacking into computers, bugging targets, bribing sources for inside information, or whatever new incarnation is invented, has been a rogue element of the media business from its beginnings. If we could ask Thomas Jefferson, he might offer some insight into this fact. He was the target of a newspaperman on the grounds, allegedly true, that he was cohabiting with his underage slave.

Yes, there are laws on the books that make many of these tactics illegal, but Freedom of the Press is sacrosanct and insists on its integrity despite attempts to tarnish it by over ambitious media people who might well employ "wrongs" to expose "rights." Their defense mantra is that they are seeking "truth". They probably are, and some will try any means, legal or illegal, to get at it.

Motives get very murky when media presses the button to go all out to "expose" alleged wrongdoing, however deserving of scrutiny. Would the Washington Post have gone all out to bring down Richard Nixon if the people who ran it admired him with the same fervor that their editors loved Jack Kennedy? Would Bill Clinton's affair with a young intern have been exposed from within if he had no political enemies?

In retrospect, did bringing down Richard Nixon's presidency establish the bar on political integrity and corruption, and serve as a warning to others to beware? The media's eagle eye is watching. May I suggest that the reader google "political corruption in America from Nixon to Obama" to see if that exposure has repressed such deceptive and illegal political conduct.

Prescient? Hardly. It is an old story repeated ad infinitum. Is the perfect the enemy of the good?

As to the question about how many wrongs make a right, is there a morally pure answer?

Even God hiccupped over that one.

Warren Adler is the author of 32 novels and short story collections published in numerous languages. Films adapted from his books include "The War of the Roses", "Random Hearts" and the PBS trilogy "The Sunset Gang." He is a pioneer in digital publishing. For more information please visit www.warrenadler.com.