Tuesday, July 19, 2011

No, Wall Street Journal, News of the World is nothing like Wikileaks

As Rupert Murdoch scrambles to contain the phone-hacking/police bribery/government corruption scandal which threatens his entire British media empire, News Corp's US operations are desperately trying to prevent the crisis from staining their American brands as badly as it has in the UK. So far, the prevailing strategy of Murdoch organizations like Fox News and the Wall Street Journal has been to obfuscate the issue until the average viewer either doesn't understand the extent of the criminal activity in the News Corp empire, or simply decides it's too complicated to care about.

While Fox went the more ostentatious route of associating News of the World with a group of hacking victims while discussing the story, the Wall Street Journal simply chose to compare the now-defunct tabloid to another news organization caught up in a hacking-related scandal: Wikileaks. On Tuesday, WSJ foreign affairs editor Bret Stephens claimed News of the World and Wikileaks are "largely the same story."
In both cases, secret information, initially obtained by illegal means, was disseminated publicly by news organizations that believed the value of the information superseded the letter of the law, as well as the personal interests of those whom it would most directly affect. In both cases, fundamental questions about the lengths to which a news organization should go in pursuit of a scoop have been raised. 
Both, in short, are despicable instances of journalistic malpractice, for which some kind of price ought to be paid. So why is one a scandal, replete with arrests, resignations and parliamentary inquests, while the other is merely a controversy, with Mr. Assange's name mooted in some quarters for a Nobel Peace Prize?
Of course, it's worth noting that in order to make his analogy, Stephens is forced to do what many pundits and politicians will not -- explicitly recognize Wikileaks as a news organization and Julian Assange as a journalist. It's also hard to imagine how News of the World believed the voicemails of celebrities, 9/11 victims and a murdered 13-year-old were just as valuable as evidence showing Hillary Clinton's State Department encouraged US diplomats to spy on foreign leaders, but I suppose everyone has their own priorities.

However, while the premise of Stephens' analogy is merely forced, his question is simply ludicrous. It wasn't a scandal when Wikileaks compromised and embarrassed the most powerful government in the world? Bradley Manning was imprisoned in inhumane conditions for months after being arrested for allegedly leaking the documents, and is still being held at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas --  is Stephens suggesting News Corp executive Rebekah Brooks' arrest and treatment was in any way similar?

In a way, Stephens' column reads like an overview of logical fallacies. After beginning with the false analogy, he then moves right into ad hominem by associating Assange's argument with the trumped-up rape charges against him. Beyond that, Stephens simply attacks a particularly unconvincing straw-man argument before going off on a victorious tangent about media bias, as if that settles the matter.

Though Stephens' argument is at least better constructed than Fox & Friends' ham-handed attempt at misdirection, both conclude with the supposition that the media are simply ganging up on News Corp, and we should get back to stories that "really matter" (like Casey Anthony). Additionally, both defenses show the extent to which News Corp employees will go to run interference for their bosses. Stephens claims to have "nothing but contempt for the hack journalism practiced by some of the Murdoch titles," yet the Wall Street Journal and Fox are just as guilty by trying to whitewash what is essentially a years-long international criminal conspiracy.

Oh yeah -- to top it all off, Stephens actually ends his column by ominously predicting that Murdoch critics' "day of reckoning is yet to come." I mean seriously, who does that?

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