W. Joseph Campbell

Carl Bernstein, naive and over the top

In Debunking, Media myths, Washington Post, Watergate myth on February 17, 2012 at 2:20 pm

Rupert Murdoch, the global media mogul beset by scandal at his British tabloids, may be the greatest menace to press freedom in world.

So says Carl Bernstein, the former Watergate reporter for the Washington Post, in an over-the-top characterization of Murdoch and what he calls Murdoch’s “gutter instincts.”

Bernstein: Murdoch a press freedom threat

Bernstein was referring to the police and parliamentary investigations into practices at Murdoch’s London tabloids, inquiries that have led to the arrests of numerous employes and the closure last summer of the Sunday News of the World.

The suspected misconduct in Britain also may have consequences for Murdoch’s News Corp. under U.S. anti-corruption laws.

Bernstein, a frequent and frankly sanctimonious critic of Murdoch since the scandals broke in London last year, declared in a recent interview on CNN:

“It’s really ironic that the greatest threat to freedom of the press in Great Britain today, and around the world today perhaps, has come from Rupert Murdoch because of his own excesses.”

What a foolish, misleading, and naive statement: The “greatest threat to freedom of the press …  around the world today perhaps” is Rupert Murdoch.

Sure, Murdoch’s hard-ball tactics and raunchy media outlets are offensive to polite company.

But the 80-year-old mogul is scarcely the world’s leading menace to press freedom. To suggest that he is is to insult the nearly 180 journalists who are in jail because of their work in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

The true contenders for the epithet of the world’s leading press-freedom menace are many, and include the ayatollahs in Iran.

According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, Iran is the world’s leading jailer of journalists: Forty-two of the 179 journalists behind bars in late 2011 were imprisoned in Iran.

Journalists are in jail typically because their reporting in traditional or online media offended power-wielding authorities or violated censorship laws.

In Iran, CPJ points out, the “authorities seem intent on silencing any independent or critical voices.”

Bernstein’s naive remark also ignores Eritrea and China, where, respectively, 28 and 27 journalists were in jail in late 2011, according to CPJ.

The organization notes that other journalists “may languish” in Chinese jails “without coming to the notice of news organizations or advocacy groups.”

Bernstein’s comment about Murdoch likewise ignores the Castro regime in Cuba, which long has been a jailer of journalists. As many as 29 dissident journalists were arrested in 2003 in a sweeping crackdown on dissent. The last of them was released in April last year.

While CPJ counted no Cuban journalists in jail in late 2011, the organization says authorities there “continue to detain reporters and editors on a short-term basis as a form of harassment.”

Bernstein’s comment also ignored the Stalinist regime in North Korea, which ranks dead last in the annual Freedom House ranking of press freedom in the world.

Freedom House, a New York-based organization that promotes democratic governance, assesses levels of press freedom in more than 190 countries and territories on a scale of zero to 100 points. The more points, the worse the ranking.

Finland ranked first, with 10 points. The United States and Britain were rated “free,” with 17 points and 19 points, respectively.

North Korea ranked last, with 97 points.

The regime in Pyongyang “owns all media, attempts to regulate all communication, and rigorously limits the ability of North Koreans to access information,” Freedom House noted, adding that all journalists “are members of the ruling party, and all media outlets are mouthpieces for the regime.”

His recent remarks about Murdoch’s threat to press freedom were the latest of Bernstein’s over-the-top characterizations of the mogul whose media and entertainment company has holdings around the globe.

As the tabloid scandal in Britain exploded last summer, prompting the closure of the News of the World, Bernstein likened the misconduct to Watergate, the  unprecedented U.S. constitutional crisis that led to Nixon’s departure from office in disgrace in 1974.

But Watergate was sui generis. The scandal not only toppled Nixon but sent to jail 19 men associated with his presidency or his 1972 reelection campaign.

What’s more, as I discuss in my latest book, Getting It Wrong, the Watergate reporting by Bernstein and Washington Post colleague Bob Woodward was neither central to, nor decisive in, bringing down Nixon’s corrupt presidency.


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