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Is Fox News in trouble?

Some people believe a good reporter will do anything to get a good story.

It isn't so. Good reporters aggressively make use of sources, file Freedom of Information Act requests, wear down uncooperative gatekeepers with phone calls and e-mails, and generally use every legal and ethical means at their disposal to get important stories.

But there are lines they don't cross. Good reporters don't hack people's mobile phones to get their voice mail messages, for one thing, as employees of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. are under arrest for doing in England. They don't interfere in murder investigations or try to bribe government officials, either.

So far the scandal is limited to News of the World, a Murdoch-owned newspaper that shut down recently when the extent of its illegal activities came to light. But as Eliot Spitzer, writing in Slate, points out:

So how does all this concern Americans? First, it is hard to believe that the misbehavior in Murdoch's media empire stopped at the water's edge. Given the frequency with which he shuttled his senior executives and editors across the various oceans—Pacific as well as Atlantic—it is unlikely that the shoddy ethics were limited to Great Britain.

Much more importantly, the facts already pretty well established in Britain indicate violations of American law, in particular a law called the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The Justice Department has been going out of its way to undertake FCPA prosecutions and investigations in recent years, and the News Corp. case presents a pretty simple test for Attorney General Eric Holder: If the department fails to open an immediate investigation into News Corp.'s violations of the FCPA, there will have been a major breach of enforcement at Justice. Having failed to pursue Wall Street with any apparent vigor, this is an opportunity for the Justice Department to show it can flex its muscles at the right moment. While one must always be cautious in seeking government investigation of the media for the obvious First Amendment concerns, this is not actually an investigation of the media, but an investigation of criminal acts undertaken by those masquerading as members of the media.

Because News Corp. is incorporated in America, it is subject to the FCPA, Spitzer writes. An investigation could lead to revocation of FCC licenses for News Corp. operations in America -- including Fox News -- even if there's no evidence of American Murdoch employees engaging in similar acts.

Is this too harsh?

On the one hand, news organizations should follow the law and simple ethical principles. If Murdoch's company tacitly approved the behavior uncovered at News of the World, it may deserve more punishment than closing the newspaper -- which the company already did -- would bring.

On the other hand, though, if the actions were limited to News of the World employees, and not part of accepted practices at News Corp., it's hard to see how the American operations deserve to be sanctioned.

What do you think?  

Posted on Jul 14, 2011 at 12:18 PM


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