Phone hacking just one in long list of journalism shenanigans
NEW YORK — Before the technology existed for Rupert Murdoch’s journalists to hack into phone records, past generations of dubious reporters have given readers 4-foot(1.2-meter)-tall furry creatures living on the moon, a bogus 8-year-old heroin addict and a non-existent interview with a sick president that won a Pulitzer Prize.
There’s a shameful history of reportorial misdeeds, of which the defunct News of the World and other News International properties are now a part. The mushrooming scandal in Britain involves accusations of bribery and Murdoch’s newspapers illegally obtaining confidential information about crime victims and even former Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
“It’s probably very near the top, if not at the top,” of serious scandals involving journalists, says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.
Many previous episodes involving reporters and editors were relatively isolated incidents, with one or two people deviating from accepted professional codes. “Here we have a pattern of scandalous behavior that is, over time, across multiple stories involving numerous people and top executives. That is extraordinarily rare,” Rosenstiel said.
The British press, particularly the tabloids, has a freewheeling history, and some actions that might be considered disreputable in the United States are merely viewed as mischievous, said Archie Bland, foreign editor of The Independent in Britain.
There’s no question the current scandal tops them all, considering it has already had the impact of shutting down the powerful News of the World newspaper, he said.
“It involves politics; it touches on the police,” he said. “I think it will have a profound effect on how journalists, particularly in the tabloid media, can operate.”
Fake American news reports reach back even to America’s Revolutionary War, when a Philadelphia newspaper reported in 1776 about a ragtag contingent of American colonists beating experienced British forces in battle. It turned out the American force was much bigger than reported, and the British soldiers far less experienced.
Maybe the most audacious example of trickery involved the New York Sun in 1835, which reported — on Page 2 — a fanciful story about a powerful telescope depicting life on the moon, down to creatures that had wings yet could also walk like humans. The Sun’s circulation soared and rivals tried to no avail to match the story. A few weeks later the truth came out. The Sun kept most of its new readers anyway.
Among the more spectacular journalism hoaxes was one played on the German magazine Stern in 1983, which paid $5 million to obtain copies of supposed World War II diaries written by Adolf Hitler. The diaries were later determined to be phony.
During the “yellow journalism” era of the 1890s, powerful publishers Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World and William Randolph Hearst of the New York Journal whipped up a frenzy with false or exaggerated stories about Spanish rulers in Cuba, leading to the Spanish-American War.
David Nasaw, author of the Hearst biography “The Chief,” recalled an incident from 1908 when the Hearst papers obtained — through a janitor, supposedly — letters sent from the Standard Oil Company to politicians in Washington. But Nasaw added that Hearst was interested in political, not personal scandal.
“Because Hearst had a complicated private life, to put it mildly, he didn’t think that mistresses and affairs belonged on the front page,” Nasaw said. “If a divorce was brought to court and there were official papers, you could write about it. Otherwise, you kept it private. Hearst and the rest of the barons had no problems revealing information that came to them in shady circumstances, but they only did so when there was a larger political question.”
Louis Seibold, a reporter for The New York World, won a Pulitzer Prize for a 1920 interview with President Woodrow Wilson, who had suffered a stroke. But it was false: Seibold had worked with the first lady and a presidential aide for a depiction of a leader far more in control of his faculties than he actually was.
Janet Cooke, Jayson Blair, Dan Rather, Patricia Smith and Michael Gallagher are all journalists involved in modern-day scandals.
Perhaps the episode that most closely resembles the Murdoch scandal involved Gallagher, a reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer. Gallagher was found to have illegally tapped into a corporate voice mail system for damaging 1998 stories involving Chiquita Brands International.
Cooke’s 1980 deception at the Washington Post pierced the heart of journalism, which was on a professional high following the Watergate scandal that took down the presidency of Richard Nixon. Cooke wrote a heart-wrenching piece about a child addicted to heroin and won a Pulitzer for it, then admitted the story was false when the Post later began questioning holes in her resume.
Other journalists, including Blair of The New York Times, Smith of The Boston Globe and Christopher Newton of The Associated Press, lost their jobs after they were found to have fabricated material.
At least to this point, the hacking incident has been more about the methods than the product: It hasn’t led to any substantive stories where the accuracy of the information is in question, said Barbara Friedman, a journalism historian at the University of North Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
The British journalists’ “conduct was abhorrent, but not the worst,” Friedman said. “In time, it may best be remembered for interrupting Murdoch’s efforts to acquire more media properties.” On Wednesday, Murdoch and his News Corp. withdrew a $12 billion bid for highly profitable satellite broadcaster British Sky Broadcasting when it became clear that it would not be able to overcome government and public outrage over the hacking.
Another episode that put journalistic conduct sharply in question came in 1966 when Philadelphia Inquirer publisher Walter Annenberg ordered a reporter to ask a Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate that he didn’t like, Milton Shapp, “isn’t it true that you’ve been in a mental hospital?” Shapp had not been hospitalized, but the newspaper put his denial of the non-existent story on the front page anyway. Shapp lost the election, but came back to win the post in 1970.
The Sky News Network in Britain had a 2003 report supposedly showing a live firing of a cruise missile from a British submarine during the Iraq war. It was later determined to be a fake, filmed when the ship was at port and the crew was acting for the cameras. The reporter responsible for the story later committed suicide.
In 2005, two Daily Mirror financial journalists in Britain were found guilty of profiting from stock market manipulation through their City Slicker newspaper column.
TV news has also had its share of journalistic misdeeds. The president of NBC News, Michael Gartner, resigned in 1992 after it was revealed that “Dateline NBC” had rigged a fiery crash of a truck to expose defects. CNN in 1998 had to retract a controversial story involving U.S. misdeeds in Laos during the Vietnam War era.
CBS executives lost jobs following a 2004 story questioning President George W. Bush’s National Guard service, an episode that eventually led to long-time anchor Rather’s unpleasant departure from the network.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.