By Clarence Page

It is with a mixture of outrage and envy that an old-school newspaper veteran like me views Great Britain's newspaper hacking scandal.

Even the most straight-laced reporters sometimes envy the fun that the scandal sheet folks must have, chasing scoops at any cost. The problem with the scandal that brought down Rupert Murdoch's News of the World is that the cost has proved to be much too high.

We certainly have had more than enough of our own pay-for-scoops scandals on this side of the Big Pond.

We have seen such dustups as the Cincinnati Enquirer's acknowledgement in 1998 that a reporter illegally obtained voice-mail messages from a company executive at Chiquita Brands. The newspaper paid $10 million and apologized.

More recently we have seen such questionable ethics as the $200,000 that ABC paid Casey Anthony for photos and video of her missing 2-year-old daughter, Caylee, a day before Anthony was charged with child neglect and endangerment. Anthony later was indicted for murder, a charge of which she was recently famously -- or, for many observers, infamously -- acquitted.

Yet, despite the many complaints from critics of about news media getting worse, the growth of media competition actually has improved the overall ability of media to get stories right -- and get them the ethically right way.

I entered journalism in Chicago at a time when veteran reporters and mythologized an earlier era when, as one old-timer put it, "we didn't let the truth or burglary laws get in the way of a good story." I heard about reporters and photographers who lied about who they were to get information from crime witnesses, disaster survivors or the relatives of victims.

I knew things had changed when a colleague was fired in the late 1970s for claiming over the phone to be calling from the medical examiners office -- then imprudently left our newspaper's phone number for a callback.

Yet, nothing in the media history of this country or the United Kingdom quite compares to the scandal in which News Corporation chairman Murdoch now finds itself embroiled.

The company shut down Britain's Sunday tabloid News of the World after revelations that people hired by the paper hacked into the cell phones of newsmakers who included, celebrities, the Royal Family, a young murder victim and British soldiers killed in Afghanistan.

Although two of the newspaper's employers were jailed for a similar eavesdropping scandal a few years ago, the final straw this time was the case of Milly Dowler, who was kidnapped and killed in 2002 at age 13. Her phone messages were reportedly hacked by a News of the World investigator, while police were searching for her. Some of the messages were reportedly deleted to make room for more messages, misleading police and parents into thinking she was still alive.

The resulting uproar has been great enough to threaten Murdoch's other enterprises, including his plans to take over British pay-TV firm BSkyB, worth around $14 billion.

The resounding lesson from this unfolding scandal might begin with this: When you constantly push the boundaries around a bonfire, you eventually get burned.

The cultural differences between our media environment and that of our British cousins is embodied in the "Page Three Girls." Nothing rattled my American stereotypes of staid, uptight, formal Britons more than to open a British tabloid and see a cheerful, topless young woman smiling back at me.

The "Page Three Girl" began at The Sun, another Murdoch paper, managed to survive the outrage of feminists and clergy and was immediately imitated by other tabloids. Readers seemed to enjoy the show, and outraged politicians were too cowed by the reputation-damaging power of Murdoch's media to push back very hard.

A similar chain permissiveness appears to have led to the hacking abuses, with much more dangerous consequences.

There's a warning here for journalists everywhere: Chasing scoops can be fun, but don't forget to take yourself and your audience seriously.


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World - Britain's Tabloid Scandal Sounds Familiar | Global Viewpoint