Some Balance on Press Snoops, Please

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The Providence Journal

Some Balance on Press Snoops, Please

For those of us who have spent the greater part of our lives writing for newspapers and magazines, these are trying times. Big dailies are being sold at rock-bottom prices, world-renowned periodicals are permanently closing their doors, and reputable journalists are left to beg, borrow and blog for increasingly tiny sums of money.

Yet despite all the bad news, there are still reputations and money to be made in our beleaguered trade. Jeff Bezos’s purchase of The Washington Post is the most prominent example of a wealthy businessman seeking influence and acceptance by associating himself with an honored name, while Warren Buffett’s investment in newspapers in distressed locales like Buffalo shows there’s value in run-down media for smart people who just want to make a profit.

Meanwhile, a few media barons survive for whom journalism is a mixed enterprise — a cross between a moneymaking family business and an avocation. Nowadays, the three most powerful of them are Rupert Murdoch, S.I. Newhouse, and the soon-to-be-ex-mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg. Nobody would mistake these men for William Randolph Hearst — they don’t have the same kind of charisma and neurotic ambition — but they do share the trait of globe-straddling hubris.

Murdoch has been criticized, and rightly, for his low ethical standards and vile sensationalism. That being said, I think he’s too easy a target; I’m not all that bothered by the phone hacking that has landed two of the Dirty Digger’s (as he was dubbed by Private Eye) former subordinates in London’s criminal court. As a former police reporter, I sympathize with the journalists who find themselves pressured to get the dirt and details that everyone wants to read but no one respectable admits to enjoying. On the grand scale of perfidious misdeeds by the press, eavesdropping on a crime victim’s cell phone seems fairly tame compared with, say, Judith Miller and The New York Times helping to start a catastrophic, ongoing war in Iraq.

Newhouse is another matter. Heir to a newspaper fortune built by his father, this press lord has chosen to funnel profits from his chain of dailies into the purchase of high-quality magazines such as The New Yorker and Vogue. I don’t begrudge Newhouse his glossy empire, superficial though it is, because it’s a good deal more constructive an activity than spending billions on yachts, mansions or overrated modern art.

But what about the supposedly benign billionaire Bloomberg? “Mayor Mike,” as he’s solicitously referred to by some, has mostly gotten a pass from media critics, since besides making money his interests seem to lie more in politics and public service than in journalism. A “nice” Republican who used to be a Democrat, Bloomberg appears almost shy next to Murdoch. His Bloomberg News service seems for the most part to be reliable, though its recent decision not to publish two stories that would have angered the Chinese government makes me doubt the company’s honesty and courage.

What I don’t doubt is that Bloomberg’s original financial-data business — the Bloomberg Terminal — places him in a serious, permanent conflict of interest with his news-gathering operations, which include television, radio and magazines.

When the scandal erupted last May about Bloomberg reporters tapping into Bloomberg Terminals leased by Wall Street firms to track their usage — in order to get a jump on the competition at the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal and elsewhere — my first thought was about Murdoch and his domestic servants, Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks.

How was terminal tapping at upscale Bloomberg News any less unethical than phone hacking at downscale News of the World? Why was Bloomberg Editor-in-Chief Matthew Winkler’s assurance that such dodgy snooping by his journalists would never be repeated allowed to pass, while Murdoch’s former employees stand trial and the British press potentially faces unprecedented regulation in the form of government licensing?

In the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations, can we really believe that none of Bloomberg’s 2,400 editorial employees will have further access to anything on the Bloomberg “professional service” terminals?

Moreover, what guarantee is there that Bloomberg journalists — if they have access to the same information at the same time as the Bloomberg terminal clients — aren’t shading their stories about companies and stock offers to benefit themselves?

A reporter or editor discerns what he believes is nervousness at Goldman Sachs about a particular stock that’s starting to tank, so he tips off a friend to sell the stock short and then writes a negative story about the company. It’s not out of the question that this could also occur by checking usage patterns on Bloomberg Terminals at the Federal Reserve, concerning bank-lending rates, for example.

With nothing much to do after leaving City Hall on Jan. 1, Bloomberg may be expected to expand his media empire — he is said to be interested in buying the very trustworthy, very independent Financial Times, arch rival of Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal. Maybe the British Parliament should examine the ethics of Bloomberg L.P. before such a thing happens, and before it punishes a bunch of newspaper hacks who just wanted a good story.

John R. MacArthur

John R. MacArthur is the president and publisher of Harper’s Magazine. An award-winning journalist, he has previously written for the New York Times, United Press International, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the Wall Street Journal. Under his stewardship Harper's has received eighteen National Magazine Awards, the industry's highest recognition. He is also the author of the acclaimed books The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America: Or, Why a Progressive Presidency Is Impossible, The Selling of Free Trade: NAFTA, Washington, and the Subversion of American Democracy, and Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War. He lives in New York City.

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