The New York Times posted a surprising column by international columnist Roger Cohen that appeared in its international edition Tuesday, “In Defense of Murdoch.” That would be media mogul Rupert Murdoch (a name loathed by all good liberals)whose vast empire of newspapers and television news is under siege after allegations of phone hacking including missing teens, police officers, even a former prime minister.
Fair warning: This column is a defense of Rupert Murdoch. If you add everything up, he’s been good for newspapers over the past several decades, keeping them alive and vigorous and noisy and relevant. Without him, the British newspaper industry might have disappeared entirely.
This defense is prompted in part by seeing everyone piling in on the British hacking scandal, as if such abuses were confined to News International (we shall see) and as if significant swathes of the British establishment had not been complicit. It is also prompted by having spent time with Murdoch 21 years ago when writing a profile for The New York Times Magazine and coming away impressed.
Among those “piling in” on Murdoch has been the Times itself, which has featured various angles of the story on its front page for five out of the last seven days, plus multiple stories in the International News section on every aspect of the sleazy saga.
The Times was far less aggressive in its coverage of an American media scandal, the September 2004 attempt by the CBS News show “60 Minutes” to bring down George W. Bush with forged documents. CBS News anchor Dan Rather was disgraced when his piece on Bush's Vietnam-era service record backfired when it was shown documents purporting to prove Bush had gone AWOL from the National Guard were in fact not from the early '70s but were recent creations done with Microsoft Word.
Cohen, being a Times columnist (who was not too long ago a reliable Israel-basher and apologist for Iranian dictator Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) works in some obligatory hits on the “right-wing demagoguery” of Fox News, Murdoch's news network in the United States.
Before I get to why, a few caveats. First, the hacking is of course indefensible as well as illegal. Second, Fox News, the U.S. TV network started by Murdoch, has with its shrill right-wing demagoguery masquerading as news made a significant contribution to the polarization of American politics, the erosion of reasoned debate, the debunking of reason itself, and the ensuing Washington paralysis. Third, I disagree with Murdoch’s views on a range of issues -- from climate change to the Middle East -- where his influence has been unhelpful.
So why do I still admire the guy? The first reason is his evident loathing for elites, for cozy establishments, for cartels, for what he’s called “strangulated English accents” -- in fact for anything standing in the way of gutsy endeavor and churn. His love of no-holds-barred journalism is one reason Britain’s press is one of the most aggressive anywhere. That’s good for free societies.