Rupert Murdoch, Sheila Dixon, John Edwards -- the media and public shame

I have been thinking about media and public shame a lot lately. And events this week with Rupert Murdoch globally and Sheila Dixon locally have focused my troubled thoughts.

The litany of public figures who have been in the news lately for behaving shamefully is a long and sad one.


The indictment of former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards in June brought back the whole sorry saga of him fathering a child out of wedlock with a campaign videographer as his wife fought a cancer that would claim her life in 2010.

Last month also brought indictments for two workers in the failed campaign last year of Robert Ehrlich for governor. The two, Julius Henson and Paul Schurick, were indicted in connection with reprehensible election-night robocalls intended to keep voters from going to the polls.


Then, there was Anthony Weiner's Twitter disgrace and resignation from Congress. Let's leave that one right there.

Murdoch, of course, is at the center of a scandal that is playing out at a dizzying pace across his vast media empire in the wake of revelations that reporters and editors at one his UK publications had hacked into the voicemail messages of a 13-year-old girl who was murdered. They did the same to other victims and their families -- and Murdoch, at first, tried to stonewall the allegations.

Dixon, meanwhile, arrived back in the news last week when the Sun's Julie Scharper reported the disgraced former mayor had become an eminence grise in Baltimore politics -- a backstage adviser to numerous local politicians.

She is even said to be considering a comeback once the trerms of a plea deal allow her to run again for office. You might remember that the queen bee of political disgrace in Baltimore took gift cards that had been donated for needy families for her own greedy needs.

I will tell you this, as a Baltimore resident, I will never again vote for any of the politicians named in the story as having consulted with her. Shame on them. I would say shame on Dixon, too, but clearly she has no shame.

People often complain that we have become a culture without a sense of shame these days. And this is true to some extent.

Without shame, we are a rude, finger-flipping, nasty, selfish, coarse, me-and-my-family-only society that resembles an ugly reality-TV show more than the great nation that once saved the world. Instead of America, the beautiful, with waves of amber grain and all that, think America as "Jersey Shore." That's who we mainly are these days in far too many ways.

The media are one of the only areas of American life that sometimes still has the courage to try and rein in bad behavior by triggering a sense of shame.

And we have seen the pattern at play this week. It is almost always the same when it works.

First, there is some strong, fact-based reporting done, and then, the editorial writers, columnists and other analysts weigh in, adding a moral and cultural dimension to the issue until a sense of public outrage and/or shame is established.

Heads of top executives are rolling, publications are being shut down, abject apologies are being offered and investigations launched in the Murdoch scandal not because the 80-year-old press baron has suddenly found God. No, Murdoch is reeling because The Guardian newspaper in the UK and now the New York Times are pounding away at the scandal day and night.

The Guardian is the one that fought relentlessly with strong reporting to bring the darkness at the heart of Murdoch's UK publications to light. And now that the floorboards in the Murdoch newsrooms are being pried up by many hands, the world is starting to see the demons and smell the sulphur that power this dark empire of big ratings and massive tabloid circulation.


It was the same locally with the Ehrlich scandal.

Jayne Miller, at WBAL-TV, went on the air election night with the polls still open and reported the dirty-tricks calls. Then, in subsequent days, the Sun's Justin Fenton tracked down the source of the calls as Henson, a remarkable feat of reporting.

In the following weeks and months, Miller and I, among others, pressed Ehrlich for answers on the calls and insisted he shouldn't be on the air at WBAL radio until he supplied such answers.

He literally fled the station in December under questioning from Miller, and neither he nor his wife, Kendel, have been on the WBAL airwaves since. And local media are better for it.

The law might not consider Ehrlich guilty of the robocalls in any way that can be prosecuted, but an operative to whom his campaign paid $111,000 admitted being behind them. That is 111,000 bucks that the failed gubernatorial candidate doesn't seem to think should stop with him -- or for which he should be made to answer.

And you can see the same pattern at work in the Dixon case this week. First, came Scharper's strong reporting. Then, came an editorial in the Sun with a headline that aptly referred to Dixon as the "disgraced former mayor." And both were followed by letters of outrage about Dixon. You can read Scharper's story, the editorial and a wide sample of letters here.

What do you think? Should the media play such a role in creating a climate of public shame?

They don't teach that in journalism school as one of the roles of the press. But I think in today's America it is one of the most important roles we play.

Without it, the most craven politicians, liars, narcissists and thieves would have a free run to behave as badly as they want, and then cop a plea, keep their pensions and come back in a little while to do it -- and us -- all over again.

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