Organized Gossip

The defendant in the ongoing Rupert Murdoch saga -- beyond the legendary CEO and his phalanx of muckrakers -- is the status of tabloid journalism itself. Make no mistake: Investigative reporting is on trial here, and Murdoch has as much to say about the legitimacy of his editorial swagger as he does about the role he played in the scandal that crippled his empire.

"I don't believe in using hacking, in using private detectives or whatever ... But I think it is fair when people have themselves held up as iconic figures or great actors that they be looked at," he testified during last week's Leveson Inquiry in London, when he aimed "to put certain myths to bed" about his beloved industry.

Call it Murdoch's Principle: A decisive repudiation of the means and a philosophical defense of the ends. The ability to investigate is sacrosanct, but newspapers have to play by the rules -- not just because there's a law, but because the legitimacy of investigative journalism depends on it.

Or, as Murdoch phrased it, phone hacking is "a lazy way of reporters not doing their job."

And that is the most fascinating judgment to emerge from the investigation: That the News of the World cabal belied the ethic, rigor and reputation of proper journalism.

Murdoch's name is now synonymous with a perversion of the journalistic ideal, an incarnation of the profession obsessed with information at any cost and unfettered by the constraints of law, propriety and a commitment to discovering the truth legitimately. Instead of interviewing sources, editors hacked phones; rather than shadow subjects, they bribed Scotland Yard. By placing a premium on transaction over investigation, The News of the World sullied an industry. The public, which vacillates between voyeuristic guilt and irrepressible lust for gossip, is now turning its nose. That blow to the journalistic ideal is the greatest casualty of Murdoch-gate.

This is a dark chapter in the rich history of tabloid reporting. Until the full extent of phone hacking at The News of the World emerged, the tabloid industry was actually enjoying a remarkable degree of prestige.

That prestige can be linked to none other than the National Enquirer. For its impressive work in breaking the news in 2007 that presidential candidate John Edwards had fathered a child with a staffer, misappropriated campaign funds and covered up the entire thing, the magazine was considered for a Pulitzer Prize in two categories: Investigative Reporting and National News Reporting.

Most remarkable about the National Enquirer's bid for the venerable prize was the swell of public support -- much of it from other members of the media, including these pages -- that conferred mad props on a magazine that is relegated to the tawdry fare of the supermarket aisle. A mix of vehement support and begrudging respect followed the magazine when Edwards finally confessed to the affair. Even the Washington Post recognized that "the tabloid scooped the rest of the media world."

In an insightful endorsement by The Huffington Post's Emily Miller, she lauded "the national importance of the Enquirer's reporting of John Edwards," a scoop that "shows the best of Americans' core values -- hard work, fairness and equality for all."

In other words, it wasn't just that the Edwards conspiracy was of immense political importance. The impressive detective work that went into the story -- from finding a source close to the subject, to a dramatic stake-out at the hotel bar, to a face-to-face confrontation with Edwards in the hotel bathroom -- is a respectable foil to the methods of the News of the World. There were no shortcuts, no hacks, no illegal payments. Just scrupulous evidence, smart checkbook journalism, and good old-fashioned legwork.

For that brief period, the tabloids enjoyed a well-deserved applause for their muckraking ways (though the Enquirer ultimately did not win its Pulitzer). The community lauded the Enquirer then, just as it's denouncing Murdoch now, in large part because the Edwards scoop was an exemplar of un-lazy reporting. Edward Eggleston was right: Journalism is, in fact, organized gossip. Take away that qualifier, and it's just the news of the world.