Rupert Murdoch's media empire, News Corporation, which includes American TV's Fox News, is extensive to the point of being global, and is coming unraveled. At first, the fallout from the phone and e-mail tampering scandal seemed like it was going to be contained to a few people getting fired across the Atlantic pond. Perhaps there would even be some collateral damage to a handful of underlings, but something different is afoot here.
So far, the head count is 10 arrested and seven resigned, with the most surprising arrest, so far, being Rebekah Brooks, now the former CEO of News Corp.'s British newspaper arm, News International, and thought to be Murdoch's top lieutenant. Brooks went to Scotland Yard on Sunday as a cooperating witness after resigning her post on Friday, only to find herself under arrest.
Laura Elston, a reporter for the British Press Association, was the first non-World News employee to be arrested. Andy Coulson, former press secretary to British Prime Minister David Cameron was also arrested, causing a few headaches for Cameron.
This was to have been his moment in an even bigger spotlight as Murdoch and son seemed poised to capture the British media plum, BSkyB, and spread the media tentacles even farther. After the news of the tampering broke, though, and the scale became apparent, Murdoch withdrew his bid.
The scandal has even spread to American shores with the news that families of the 9-11 tragedy may have had their personal lives illegally poked around in by News Corp staffers, all in the name of tabloid journalism. The knives are definitely out and the evidence seems to be bigger than anyone realized at first.
It's as if there is a backlog of people who had a grievance toward News Corporation, and had to get it off their chests. News Corp's reputation as a media bully has been whispered about very quietly for years, but most people thought it was better to stay out of the way, or as we're starting to see, maybe even participate. The worm has turned.
There is always a certain amount of caution that has to be taken when the media is reporting on itself, and particularly when the players involved are such lightning rods. However, there's a reason Thomas Jefferson said he'd rather see a free press than a free government. People believe what they read in the news, even tabloid news, and it quickly becomes fact or even legend. Even a false rumor mixed with a couple of grains of truth is hard to dispute, and can ruin a career or a reputation. No matter what is said later, someone brings up that first story that made the biggest footprint and the whole thing gets recycled again.
It's one thing to get a story wrong, while trying to do a good job, and another to set out with the intention of spreading gossip or outright lies and then label yourself a journalist.
Fox News talking heads were even caught on camera during an unguarded moment chuckling about the topic they weren't supposed to be mentioning, which also brings up another point. News is shaped just as much by what we don't say as much as it is by what does get reported.
This story has legs, as they say in the news business and it shows no signs of weakening. The rounds of lawsuits have already begun as well, which should ensure it will stay in the public eye for some years to come and may mean more details are eventually spelled out. But there's a smaller, more local lesson for the rest of us, who will never rise to the level of celebrity and are more interested in what our neighbors and friends are doing than a Senator or Hollywood star, as we should be.
There's a price to pay for dropping one's integrity and chasing after success at any cost. That's not to say that success is bad, because it isn't. Success is part of our heritage. However, if you're standing on high, toasting yourself because there's a pile of bodies underneath your feet, then that's not success. At least not an American definition, which includes a little common decency as well.
Martha's column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc., newspaper syndicate. E-mail her at Martha@caglecartoons.com.