07/22/2011 06:23 pm ET Updated Sep 21, 2011

Murdoch's Journalism

Sorry, but the "I can't know everything" defense Rupert Murdoch put forward in the evolving phone hacking scandal is about as credible as a headline in one of his tabloids.

An exasperated and sometimes discombobulated Murdoch offered his plea in recent parliamentary hearings, saying he couldn't run News Corporation, a multinational company with payroll of 53,000, and be held responsible for the conduct of every single employee.

If some of his journalists, Murdoch said, hacked into the voicemails of thousands of British citizens, as they are accused of doing, he couldn't possibly keep a close eye on them because he is too busy running a global media empire.

On the surface, that sounds plausible. After all, if a CEO such as Murdoch spent his day trying to determine if a reporter on a paper that accounts for less than one percent of News Corp's revenues had hacked into someone's cell phone, shareholders would have something to complain about.

The trouble is Murdoch's job goes far beyond keeping track of the scoops and scandals of his employees. He is the CEO, the man at the top responsible for setting the tone and culture that drives the conduct of everyone in the organization.

And if you create an anything-goes culture where reporters and editors are rewarded for lurid stories and scarlet headlines, then you are also responsible if some of them hack into cell phones of murdered teenagers or bribe bobbies in a breathless pursuit of a story.

Murdoch is not one of those tycoons like Chicago real estate billionaire Sam Zell. Zell bought the best collection of daily newspapers in America and told employees of the Los Angeles Times in February, 2008:

"I'm not a newspaper guy. I am a businessman and, so, therefore, I know that all that matters in the end is the bottom line, because if you don't have a bottom line, you don't have a viable newspaper."

His comments showed that he didn't really understand that a newspaper is more than a company with a bottom line.

But Murdoch is a newspaper guy, and he understands that the reverse of what Zell said is equally true: You may not have a bottom line if you don't have a newspaper. Murdoch also understands that a newspaper is different; it is public institution that must earn and maintain a modicum of respect with its readers, even if it's a splashy tabloid.

The real question here is what happened when reporters came to editors and told them they had one of those salacious stories that Murdoch loves -- the kind that includes details of the personal lives of celebrities and commoners alike.

At every newspaper where I've worked, an editor would ask a reporter for the source of those scandalous tidbits, particularly since they involved extraordinary details that only could have come with access that is rare for most journalists. And if the reporter said used illegal means like phone hacking, the story would be dead, period.

If the reporter said he paid off the police to get the details, another allegation leveled at Murdoch's journalists, the story would suffer the same fate.

The point is that conduct exposed by the News of the World scandal enveloping Murdoch was never tolerated at newspapers where I and most other journalists I know have worked. And that's because ingrained in the culture of those institutions was a respect for the integrity of the information in a story and the reporting -- the backbone of sound journalism.

That's not to say that newspapers in America and elsewhere don't have their faults. A few years back, a Cincinnati Enquirer reporter hacked into voicemails while doing a story on Chiquita Brands International Corp. The controversy not only overshadowed the credibility of his story, he eventually pleaded guilty to illegally hacking into the company's voice mail and was sentenced to five years probation on felony charges. His paper paid more than $10 million in damages for his conduct.

Supermarket tabloids in the U.S. pay for information. So do tabloid television shows such as TMZ. The New York Times recently reported that ABC News, a highly respected news organization, paid Meagan Broussard a $15,000 "licensing fee" for lewd photos that former Rep. Anthony Weiner sent her before they interviewed the young woman for a story. To anyone who says that's not the same as bribing police, I say: Slippery slope ahead.

Corporations routinely pay hush money to those in-the-know, too, just as News Corp. has been accused of doing in the scandal. The company picked up substantial legal fees for Glen Mulcaire, a private investigator under contract to the News of the World when it hacked phones of royal family staffers, and for Clive Goodman, the tabloid's royals reporter who was jailed in 2007 in connection with the hacking. Mulcaire has refused to talk publicly about the hacking, although that may change since News Corporation now says it won't continue to pay Mulcaire's legal bills.

Nonetheless, it's a safe bet that any hefty severance payments to former News Corporation executives leaving the company during the scandal also carried "non-disparagement" clauses common at many corporations around the world. Such clauses routinely prohibit the former bosses from saying anything bad about the company if they want to get their money.

The culture of any organization is set at the top. Everyone down in the ranks looks to the leader of a company or organization for clues about what is and what is not accepted.

Murdoch defended Rebekah Brooks, a former CEO of News International and editor of the News of the World, when some of the hacking occurred, down to the wire, despite her reputation as an aggressive editor with Murdoch's taste for splash and skin. He backed her even after he shuttered the paper in a desperate effort to contain the scandal. She left the company only after the scandal threatened Murdoch's business.

So what kind of message does that send to the troops below? The man at the top sets the agenda at News Corporation and any other organization, and there is no question about who sits at the top of News Corp. It is Rupert Murdoch.