Suspicions about the journalistic ethics of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. media empire seem to have been validated by revelations that Murdoch's British operations were involved in hacking cellphones and bribing police officers for information.
Murdoch doesn't try to defuse accusations of hyperbolization in news reporting to favor conservative views on Fox News and in the Wall Street Journal. But its news reports are not the reason for News Corp.'s dominance in the media marketplace. Rather, Murdoch possibly understands better than other media owners the nature of the market, gearing to entertainment and simplification of information.
In Britain, reporters and editors in Murdoch's News International operations - the now-closed News of the World as well as his London Times and Sun newspapers - are charged with hacking into personal digital phone and email files, with allegations that they bribed and otherwise co-opted police.
Murdoch's U.S. media venues including the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal so far have not been tainted with questionable reporting practices. But the FBI is investigating whether American privacy laws have been broken, and British lawyer Mark Lewis says he is representing three American sports celebrities in claiming their phones were hacked by reporters.
Whatever comes of the investigations, the claims in Britain only support the marketing approach that Murdoch has taken.
Other reporters and editors have violated laws and infringed on privacy rights, but in pursuit of political misconduct, demonstrated most notably by the release of the Pentagon Papers. News International's transgressions served no purpose other than commercial advantage. Hacking celebrity email and bribing police would produce titillating trivia - material intended less to provide essential information than to build audience.
Those editorial decisions say as much about the audience as it does about News International's journalistic ethics. Murdoch's media empire may be geared to the lowest common denominator in audience appeal. But it is also a commercial success, reporting $34.4 billion in revenues in 2011.
That comes from providing what the mass in a mass market want.
In his dissembling of the impact of the Internet in national conversations, "The Net Delusion," Evgeny Morozov argues that audiences - whether in democratic or authoritarian states, developed or underdeveloped countries - will select entertainment over information presented as "news."
It's what Nielsen ratings suggest when "American Idol" draws 18 million viewers while CBS' "60 Minutes" pulls 6.9 million (www.nielsen.com).
With more pervasive media platforms, such as tablets and iPods, options for audiences are expanded, likely assuring a less informed public. Morozov cites political scientist Markus Prior in observing that cable television "gave people the choice between consuming political news and anything else - and most viewers, predictably, went for that 'anything else' category, which mostly consisted of entertainment."
Prior, a Princeton professor, examined theories that new media venues allow individuals "to customize their political information" and thus "are less likely to encounter information that challenges their partisan viewpoints." But an element in the theory is a question of whether individuals will seek any political information ("News vs. Entertainment: How increasing media choices widens the gaps in political knowledge and Turnout," American Journal of Political Science, July 2005).
There is more information available, but surveys find no increase in political knowledge.
"People who like news take advantage of abundant political information to become more knowledgeable and are more likely to turn out," Prior said. "In contrast, people who prefer entertainment abandon the news and become less likely to learn about politics and go to the polls."
Despite its corporate name, News Corp. caters to those who prefer entertainment.
* Edwin Tanji is a former city editor of The Maui News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. "Haku Mo'olelo," "writing stories," is about stories that are being written or have been written. It appears every Friday.