Rupert Murdoch has captured headlines with his recent phone hacking scandal. The media mogul, who owns News Corporation and a myriad of subsidiary media organizations, has had to testify on charges that he was involved with illegally obtaining information by hacking into personal phones. While these charges seem scandalous and unethical, it pales in comparison to the ethical violations committed by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer.
Both of these men are now cemented in journalism schools across the nation as news icons to be worshiped and they have prestigious awards named in their honor. Will Murdoch follow in their footsteps? Is his empire likely to suffer because of these allegations, or will he someday be named one of the great journalists of all time?
In the late 1890s, Hearst who owned New York Journal, was in a bitter rivalry with Pulitzer’s New York World. This competition led the two newspapers to indulge in what is now known as “yellow journalism.” The two men would often print sensational stories and sometimes fabricate the stories completely in order to gain more readers. Hearst is famously known for saying that he didn’t want to report the news, he wanted to make the news.
New York, in the summer of 1897, was wrapped up in a scandalous murder tale involving William Guldensuppe, a masseur who had disappeared and later reappeared in scattered pieces throughout the city. What was never found, however, was his head. In the days prior to fingerprints and DNA, the head was needed to identify the body. To Hearst and Pulitzer, this was the perfect opportunity to generate readership by indulging in the sensationalism of the story. Hearst offered a $1,000 reward for the head and even went so far as to form his own “Murder Squad” of civilians.
Not to be outdone, Pulitzer’s World stole evidence from the Guldensuppe murder scene by “shaving off a piece of floorboard, testing it, and proclaiming BLOOD IN THE HOUSE OF MYSTERY,” according to Slate Magazine. They even hired divers to search the river for the head.
Children were often reported as having sighted the mysterious head. One report claimed that Tommy Cooper, a boy, had spotted the head in the river, got scared, and threw it back. These reports lead police to a dead end, though, mainly because Tommy Cooper didn’t exist. In fact, the head would reappear throughout the city whenever the papers encountered a slow news day.
Furthermore, allegations emerged that one of the two newspaper editors had hired a couple of utility workers for a dollar an hour to lay bogus evidence throughout the neighborhood.
Though the fabrication of stories is seen as unethical, the two men never had a reason to stop. In fact, their ploys were generating so much readership that they were putting other, more respectable, newspapers either out of business or on the brink of bankruptcy. The New York Times struggled to fight off bankruptcy itself. With the Guldensuppe scandal, Hearst nearly doubled his circulation.
Naturally, with such readership success, the yellow journalism papers began featuring less core news, such as business and religion stories, and focused on more sensationalized stories. But Hearst, according to Slate, knew what his readers wanted to read.
"The public," he reminded his staff, "likes entertainment better than it likes information." To Hearst, a newspapers duty is “not confined to exhortation, but that when things are going wrong it should set them right if possible." Yellow journalism had turned everything into a war: everyday featured another conflict and sense of panic.
As detestable as these claims are, the two men succeeded in overcoming their ethical flaws to become brandished as two of the greatest journalists of all time. Their stories have been told and retold, and every journalism student aspires to emulate them.
Their life has been immortalized in fiction as well. Orson Welles’ famous film, “Citizen Kane,” was loosely based on Hearst’s life; also, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead has a character based on him. Pulitzer is portrayed by Robert Duvall in the 1992 Disney musical, the “Newsies.” He also helped start Columbia University’s top-tier and award-winning journalism program; and the Pulitizer Prize, named in his honor, is considered the top prize awarded to outstanding journalists.
With the advent of technology, however, Murdoch’s now tarnished legacy may not follow the same path. While no one can predict the future, readers today have become more savvy in detecting ethical violations and as a result are less likely to forgive errors.
However, if Murdoch can convince ordinary British readers that he has made a sizable contribution to media diversity in Britain, then he may have a chance. He could also remind the public that several newspapers, including the cherished Times, the oldest published newspaper in English, would not exist had Murdoch not committed millions of pounds to subsidize its losses. By gaining favorability with the public and reminding them of his contributions, Murdoch may have a chance to ride out this scandal and survive. However, it’s likely to be an uphill climb for the media mogul and only time will reveal what course his legacy will take.