Liberals have been overdosing on schadenfreude as they watch Rupert Murdoch and other News Corporation executives squirm under questioning about the News of the World hacking scandal. The defense that all British tabs have done similarly awful things isn’t working, because most of the previous hacking and snooping has been at the expense of royals and other elites rather than the ordinary victims at the heart of this story. But, as Americans chime in with their often politically motivated disgust at Murdoch and his minions, Carl Bernstein’s rant is of particular interest. His role in uncovering the Watergate scandal is still widely considered the gold standard of investigative journalism.
Few denunciations of Murdoch have been louder or less temperate than those of Bernstein but, as Mickey Kaus writes in a brilliant takedown of Bernstein at the Daily Caller, the former star reporter of the Washington Post is in no position to complain about journalists who break the normal rules of civilized society in pursuit of a story. As Kaus notes, in All The President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein say they used the latter’s contacts in the phone company to obtain private calling records of individuals. This was both unethical and illegal, but nobody minded.
That’s the rub. While everyone claims to be shocked and angered at unethical journalistic practices, our willingness to either hang or honor the journalists in question tends to rest on the people they are investigating. So long as reporters go after unpopular figures such as rich people or royals or politicians you don’t agree with, anything goes. But if journalists go outside the box while ferreting out information about people you like or perceive as innocent, then the only remedy (as is the case with those associated with News of the World), is jail.
To note the hypocrisy of critics like Bernstein or the political motivations of many of Murdoch’s critics is not to excuse what happened. But let’s not pretend the current feeding frenzy at Murdoch’s expense has anything to do with a belief in privacy. There is no object difference between the practices of the Post’s heroic pair (whose various methods of snooping were the moral equivalent of hacking today) and that of Murdoch’s despised crew. The only distinction between Woodward and Bernstein and the British tabloid snoops are the objects of their curiosity. Journalists who break the rules to bring down unpopular politicians win Pulitzers. Those who do so to snoop on the families of crime victims may end up in prison. Perhaps most of us are comfortable with that outcome, but let’s not pretend this is based on any objective standard of conduct.