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Will Murdoch scandal make us pull back from Brit tabloid values?

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As the scandal that sunk Rupert Murdoch's News of the World continued to unfold last week, one of the questions that loomed was whether there would be any fallout on this side of the Atlantic.

What most American analysts were wondering was whether evidence would show that employees in Britain or at one of Murdoch's U.S. properties like the New York Post had hacked into the voice mails of family members or victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — or paid off police for information on celebrities and others here or abroad.

While those questions have yet to be answered, there is ample evidence that some of the sins of British tabloid journalism have already found their way into the American news media — as well as into our popular culture. And that's a truth we are reluctant to acknowledge, because it cuts so hard against a smug conventional wisdom within the media that our journalistic standards are vastly superior to those of the Brits.

But consider the preoccupations and news-gathering methods of publications like the National Enquirer or such celebrity-gossip websites as TMZ. Harvey Levin, founder of that Hollywood operation, has acknowledged that his organization pays for photos and videos and provides "tips" to those who provide his website with useful information or stories.

Some analysts see little difference between what's being characterized in the Murdoch scandal as bribing police to obtain phone or personal identification numbers and giving a sheriff's deputy in Southern California a "tip" for sharing documents that detail an arrest or incident of domestic abuse. Documents and images from cases involving Mel Gibson, Rihanna, Chris Brown and Michael Jackson are among the ways that TMZ has made its reputation. The practice is widespread and said to be growing.

"For tabloids like the National Enquirer and some celebrity-scandal sites, the standard operating procedure involves paying people for photos and information," says Sharon Waxman, former New York Times West Coast correspondent and founder of thewrap.com, a Hollywood-based news organization that covers media and the entertainment industry. Waxman says thewrap.com does not pay for information.

"It's been that way in recent years, and they've gotten away with it because it mainly involves celebrities," she adds. "And no one seems to care too much because the celebrities are complicit in a way. They're playing along. It's a symbiotic relationship."

And while the National Enquirer or a celebrity website might have been considered an unreliable source of information by mainstream media just a few years ago, that is no longer the case, according to Rem Rieder, editor of the American Journalism Review, which is based at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"One area of movement in the tabloid direction involves not just these stories getting into the mainstream media, but the extent to which they do," Rieder says.

"An example of that would be the Tiger Woods story, which was broken by the National Enquirer and was actually pretty solid. But what happened after that was a flurry of stories, rumors and maybe-stories that lots of very respectable news organizations picked up without checking, just attributing to whatever source said it," says Rieder.

"And it seemed like every day there was another woman saying she had a relationship with Tiger Woods. And it was very discouraging to see how much of this was picked up by some of the best news organizations without any of the traditional investigating or sourcing that we would expect."

That's one way mainstream popular culture has become infected with the British tabloid virus, according to analysts. But an even more direct effect is seen in the way networks and cable TV channels these days are paying large sums of money for exclusive interviews, access and information, and hardly making an effort anymore to disguise it — under the ruse that they are only paying "licensing fees" for photographs connected to news events.

ABC News recently reaped record ratings for Diane Sawyer's exclusive interview with Jaycee Lee Dugard, the woman kidnapped as an adolescent and held captive for 18 years. But it is now known that ABC News paid more than $100,000 to Dugard for "home movies." The criticism the network has since received for that is nothing compared to the millions of dollars earned in advertising from a prime-time audience that measured 14 million for the interview on a night that might otherwise have featured reruns.

Less expensive but more egregious in the minds of some is the more than $10,000 ABC News paid Meagan Broussard, for photos, emails, Facebook messages and logs of cellphone calls. She was one of the people to whom former New York Rep. Anthony Weiner sent lewd photos. Of course, ABC News got an exclusive interview with Broussard as well.

ABC News is not alone. All of the network news divisions do it, particularly with their morning shows.

"We've had some very highly publicized instances of networks paying for interviews, and what's interesting to me is that there doesn't seem to be much of a negative reaction," Rieder says. "In fact, I remember one of the networks basically saying this is what you have to do to survive. It was in connection with the Anthony Weiner story. And I think that's a significant form of slippage. I mean, this is not the National Enquirer essentially paying for news, it's the big three networks."

And they are primarily playing catch-up in that regard with the cable news channels, according to Stuart Levine, a Hollywood-based assistant managing editor at Variety, the trade publication that covers show business.

"They're in competition with the cable networks," he says. "I mean, look at Nancy Grace and all the headlines she made with the Casey Anthony case. I think the networks feel like they're losing a lot of their luster and their news gathering to the HLNs and the CNNs and the MSNBCs. And I think they feel they just have to step up and do what they have to do to get the interviews. Not that she will, but if there was an interview with Casey Anthony at this point, how much would the networks be willing to pay for that?"

Even though the News of the World scandal and its effects on America media are only in the earliest stages, with the U.S. Justice Department readying subpoenas for investigations into possible hacking of voice mails and bribing of foreign officials, one moral can already be drawn: Ethics do matter. For all its highly rated channels like Fox News and huge-circulation tabloids, Murdoch's multibillion-dollar global empire is at risk because of the unethical and, perhaps, criminal behavior.

And yet, few analysts think the intense media discussion surrounding the scandal will result in a more ethical American media.

"I remember back when Princess Diana was killed," says Levine. "There was this big hue and cry in London: 'We've got to stop this. We're literally killing these people. It's hurting everybody.'"

But after a few months, the talk stopped, and the bad behavior resumed.

"And now, here we are again," Levine says. "I mean, now there's this hue and cry from News Corp., saying, 'We're going to change our ways, and we're not going to do this anymore. We've seen the light, and we're apologizing.' But you know what? Three or four months from now, they might not be phone hacking, but there's not going to be any less of [a] thirst for what they were doing."

If not more ethical, then maybe less criminal.

"I think we have to differentiate between unlawful and unethical — between people who hounded Princess Diana or who hound celebrities in a lawful but maybe unethical way, and those who break the law," says Michael Ventre, a Los-Angeles-based freelance journalist who covers show business for msnbc.com and Variety.

"I think to some degree, this scandal will have a positive effect, because I think what went on with News of the World was criminal behavior — behavior against the law," says Ventre. "After this implosion at News Corp., I think any news outlet that even had a thought of tapping phones or hacking into other peoples' phones will think twice, because they see what's happening now."

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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