Notes of a Reporter at Large • 07-28-11 PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Friday, 29 July 2011 16:10

Lessons from a Scandal

By Mel Lavine

Special to the Times

In the fallout from the tabloid scandal in Britain, the New York Times invited its readers to a dialogue on media practices, bias and influence in the United States.

The idea was inspired by a letter to the newspaper from Richard Stein, a retired professor of English at the University of Oregon. Stein asked, “Do British parliamentary inquiries into Rupert Murdochs’s media empire offer any lessons for the United States? Perhaps, if they alert us to the power of a ‘political-journalistic complex’ no less dangerous than the ‘military-industrial complex’ that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned about half a century ago.”

He asks if “similar abuses have been committed here or do Fox News and others scrupulously observe the rule of law on this side of the pond?”

And he wonders whether our own elected officials are “too cozy with representatives of a news industry that is supposed to ‘cover’ them.”

As you might have guessed the answers are all over the place. According to the sampling published Sunday, readers gave spirited opinions on the connection between press and politics. They ranged across the spectrum of political beliefs.

Which brings me back to my days in daily journalism. I have no tales of hacking or other scandals to relate. But in the chase for news I did learn that sometimes the relationship between public officials and reporters can look too cozy. In the Reagan years I was startled to see White House correspondents and administration bigwigs dining festively together in a Washington restaurant. It may have been perfectly proper. Perhaps someone’s birthday. The old network hand I was with saw nothing unusual in the picture. But it looked bad to me. In Eureka, you’d catch it if someone caught you having lunch with the mayor.

The old network hand I mentioned had covered a major office in the Nixon days headed by a very important person. Over time, they got better acquainted, doing small favors for one another. Knowing the old network hand as well as I did, I couldn’t imagine his doing anything perverse. But I was shaken nonetheless to hear him talk about it.

What I take away from the Murdoch affair is not just the hacking, but perhaps a greater danger to a democratic society. Even after everything that had happened, as the New Yorker pointed out, Murdoch “would still be able to intimidate British politicians.” We’ve learned the media mogul was not only a concealed visitor to 10 Downing Street since David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party, has been in power, but he was also on friendly terms with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the former Labor prime ministers before Cameron.

Can such power to “intimidate” our highest officials be wielded here? In a response to the dialogue he called for, Stein cites a 2004 book by Ben H. Bagdikian, “The  New Media Monopoly.” It found, Stein writes, “that more than half of the radio and television stations, daily newspapers, magazines, publishers and movie studios in the United States were owned by five companies.”

Mel Lavine was a television producer for many years with NBC News and CBS News in New York. Contact him at his e-mail address: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

 

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