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Is Murdoch the World's McCaw?

I felt like a lunatic. There I was, a perpetually un-rested working mother, wide awake and giddy before sunrise. Sneaking out of bed and tiptoeing downstairs to watch a live feed of (woo-hoo! woo-hoo!) British Parliament. Grinning like a kid on Christmas morning. Giggling like a full-on fruitcake.

My gift: a pointed Parliamentary probe of media baron Rupert Murdoch. Reporters at his now-shuttered News of the World tabloid had for years been illegally hacking into private phone systems and bribing police as a means of news-gathering (read: gossip-mongering). And Murdoch — whose behemoth News Corporation owns Fox News and newspapers from the Papua New Guinea Post-Courier to The Wall Street Journal (as well as Tattoo and Truckin’ Life magazines, which tickles me) — was finally and formally being needled about his knowledge of the corruption. I relished every tense, awkward moment.

Why would I savor the sight of an old man being smacked around for unethical practices? It’s a learned response. I’ve developed a taste for watching arrogant, power-mad, billionaire newspaper owners get called on the carpet.

“He or she who controls the media, controls all,” says my friend Annie Bardach, a local resident and Newsweek reporter-at-large. “Check out what the Berlusconi monopoly did to Italy. That is the cautionary tale for all of us.”

The timing of the News Corp. scandal incited easy comparisons of Murdoch to Harry Potter’s Lord Voldemort. But for me, the incident conjured memories of the media mess that went down in Santa Barbara five years ago this month.

I was one of the many reporters and editors who left the Santa Barbara News-Press in 2006 because we couldn’t abide owner Wendy McCaw’s breaches of journalistic ethics. When McCaw began censoring local news and censuring her staff for following the tenets of our professional code — particularly fairness and accountability — a community outcry and eventual legal bloodbath ensued, prompting coverage in the New York Times and Vanity Fair, and spurring the documentary film Citizen McCaw.

Is McCaw the Murdoch of the Central Coast? Are the comparisons just?

Perhaps not. I admit to watching this thing through bitter-colored glasses. (See? Accountability. It’s easy!) I still seethe when I see the now-insubstantial News-Press in neighbors’ driveways, and I take an instant if infantile dislike to people who say they still read it.

So maybe the only true parallel between the two media scandals is the peculiar appearance of boyishly charming actor Rob Lowe in one (heads rolled at the News-Press when Lowe cancelled his subscription over the publication of his home address) and boyishly charming actor Hugh Grant in the other (Grant secretly recorded a News of the World reporter’s hacking confession).

In any case, the best thing about watching the Murdoch interrogation — besides the prankster who tried to pelt him in the face with a cream pie — was the inherent assurance that integrity still matters.

Successful news media can’t play fast and loose with ethical standards. At least they can’t do it forever. Because news without rules is just chaos with headlines. It’s profoundly useless.

That’s a concept we failed to make clear to McCaw, whose newspaper still omits stories about newsmakers who have dared to criticize her. And just this month, it published a scathing critique of the Santa Barbara Police Department — written by a man who was recently arrested by said police department. (See? Fairness. Apparently not so easy.)

Maybe Murdoch will get the message. Eventually.

“The mills of the gods grind slowly,” Bardach reminds me, “but they grind exceedingly small.”

In the meantime, it turns out a pie in the face can be surprisingly satisfying.

Published inColumns

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