First, there was the frenzied coverage of the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Then came the media-gasm brought on by the Casey Anthony trial. And now we have the phone-hacking scandal currently hacking its way through the UK's corridors of power (complete with a pie-throwing protester and Wendi Deng Murdoch fearlessly going MMA Mama Grizzly).
My first reaction to the ever-widening UK scandal was disgust. My second was amazement, as the sophisticated country where I went to college has increasingly taken on the trappings of a seedy banana republic, where Policeman A is investigating Suspect B, but also having dinner with him -- and Politician C hires Suspect B because he's good friends with Editor D, who was at Politician C's wedding. And round and round the connections and the corruption go. It's elite Britain modeled on an organized crime family.
And now that the revelations and resignations are coming faster and reaching higher, there's a distinct end-of-empire feel to things. Britain has the dubious distinction not only of being the country most associated with loss of empire, but of managing to keep losing it over and over again in new and ever more inventive ways.
As for the details of the scandal itself -- and the coverage of it -- it's worth noting that the media organization at the center of it wasn't some new media upstart or unsupervised blogger of the sort the traditional media are always wringing their hands over -- worried that said upstarts haven't properly absorbed the ethics of their media elders. Instead it was a very traditional media elder, indeed one that was 168 years old. I should say, of course, a former very traditional media elder -- an elder that was brought down with blinding speed, at least in part, because of new media.
As we are seeing more and more frequently -- and in more and more arenas -- new media can be the ultimate tool for holding people and institutions accountable. Within hours of the revelation that News of the World reporters had accessed the voicemails not just of celebrities, politicians, and royalty but of murder victims and the victims of the 7/7 terrorist attacks, a Twitter campaign using the hashtag #NOTW sprang up and immediately became a phenomenon. It was the online equivalent of a rallying cry: across the world people were using it to unite and gather around a common cause. At its peak, the #NOTW hashtag was getting nearly 75,000 tweets per hour.
Many of them were targeted at persuading News of the World's advertisers to abandon the paper. The social media campaign proved effective: advertisers did pull their support, and Rupert Murdoch quickly pulled the plug.
And new media played a role in killing the bid by News Corp. to take over all of BSkyB. One of the reasons the Murdochs withdrew their bid was that nearly all of Parliament, and the leaders of all three major parties, were urging them to do so. And one of the reasons why these politicians were suddenly against the deal was because politicians are particularly good at reading the tea leaves -- and social media are the ultimate tea leaves.
So not only do social media allow citizens to more fully engage with the news, and thus become a part of the story, they also allow political leaders -- who in recent years have become increasingly deaf to the real concerns of the people -- to more directly hear them. Whether they want to or not.
Over the last few decades, our political leaders have acted as if their real constituency is the nexus of lobbyists and special interests that has crowded ordinary citizens out of the public debate. Social media are becoming a very effective battering ram the public can use to force its way back in.
Social media are also increasingly becoming the place to go for funny commentary about the news in real time -- before Jon Stewart comes on. On Twitter, for instance, there's currently a hot meme in which people are combining takes on the Murdoch case with Shakespeare. You can find them with the hashtag #shakespeare4murdoch. Entries include:
"If we Murdochs have offended/Think but this: News of the World is ended." -@HESherman
"Friends, Romans, countrymen. Lend me your phones." -@zahirriaz
"For never was a story of more woe/Than this of Murdoch and his CEO." -@MitchBenn
Even funnier -- though unintentionally this time -- was the coverage of the scandal on Fox News' Fox & Friends, which James Fallows deemed "the most incredible thing Fox News has ever done." Basically, they knew they had to say something about the case, but they decided to join in on the indignation by making News Corp. the victim. Maybe that bizarro defense will work for all the News Corp. staffers being indicted.
More laughable still was the Wall Street Journal's editorial defiantly defending Murdoch and the paper's just-resigned former publisher Les Hinton -- despite, as HuffPost Media's Jack Mirkinson put it, News Corp. spending days "abjectly apologizing for the criminal behavior inside the company, with Rupert Murdoch personally leading the way in signed, full-page ads that ran in every national newspaper in Britain."
One final social media wrinkle: before trying to nail Rupert Murdoch with a pie during his appearance at Parliament, protestor Jonathan May-Bowles apparently tweeted: "It is a far better thing that I do now than I have ever done before #splat". After the incident, his ex-girlfriend took a swipe at him via Twitter, changing her profile to "Not funny, Not Clever, Not Your Girlfriend."
Before switching media scandals, it's also worth noting that while the phone hacking was perpetrated by a media outlet, the scandal would never have come to light if it wasn't for the dogged efforts of another media outlet, The Guardian, which has made such a strong commitment to its digital future. With the police, politicians, and prosecutors apparently too bound up in their clubby, toxic ecosystem, The Guardian, led by reporters Nick Davies and Amelia Hill, diligently stuck with this story for years and brought the truth to light.
In the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, there were plenty of sordid details and breathless accounts for the media to feast on but, in this instance, the media frenzy actually took a back seat to the frenzy of the prosecutors. According to the New York Times, the office of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, fearing that DSK would flee, pushed aggressively for a quick indictment. The speed of the prosecution added fuel to the media coverage.
But even without it, the story had plenty of elements that warranted national coverage -- the head of the IMF, a leading candidate for the presidency of France, being accused of rape. There were, of course, examples of sensationalist media over-reach, such as the story in the New York Post accusing the alleged victim of being a prostitute -- for which the paper is now being sued.
And a French outlet -- not an American one -- just reported that DSK went on, as the Daily Telegraph puts it, a "sex binge" to "let off steam" before the French election. I guess he's never heard of jogging. Or hotel porn.
The Casey Anthony trial, on the other hand, was the apotheosis of media sensationalism -- a classic example of the press whipping itself into a lather. As Poynter's Julie Moos notes, the week of the verdict, Anthony was the top media story, surpassing President Obama, the debt crisis, the death of Betty Ford, the NOTW shutdown, and everything else.
Yes, a sensation-filled murder trial like Anthony's is always going to get a certain amount of coverage (see OJ, Robert Blake, Phil Spector, the Menendez brothers, etc, etc). But this one hit Balloon Boy proportions. And the excuse is always: hey, we're just giving the public what it wants. But, as the Columbia Journalism Review's Alysia Santo asks, "All this outrage leaves the nagging question: Which came first, the public interest in the trial, or the 24/7 news coverage?"
And when a story consumes as much media oxygen as this one, it's fair to wonder: what's the opportunity cost? What's not being covered as a result? In the all-too-predictable post-mortems posing the rhetorical question, "did the media overdo it?", we seldom ask, "what are the stories on which the media might be under-doing it?" We know what they overplayed; what did they underplay?
Inevitably, the media will claim that we are drawn to stories like the Anthony trial because of "the human element." But, in fact, pretty much any story that involves humans can have a human element. And, with a just little more work, one can find plenty of "human elements" in the lives of the over 25 million unemployed or underemployed Americans.
How great would it be if all the news anchors and pundits who, in the last month have emoted about their legitimate concern for mistreated children like Caylee Anthony, gave even a fraction of the emotion -- and air time -- to the 15 million children in America who are currently living in poverty? We were all moved and horrified by the death of Caylee. By telling the stories of some of those 15 million, this capacity for empathy that we're all so clearly capable of could move us to action and save an awful lot of children from lives of quiet -- and not so quiet -- desperation.
Perhaps with the rise of social media, and the blurring of the distinctions between media producers and media consumers, those millions of human stories, so often lost in the cacophony of scandals -- some worthy of page one coverage, some not -- will get their time in the spotlight.