It’s “Your Turn” to share your views about the stories Washingtonians are talking about ––from a rollback on federal health care subsidies to the name change of a Virginia high school named after a Confederate general.
It’s an age-old refrain: kids these days are rude, lazy, and disrespectful. But some insist that today’s trash-talking young people are a sign of an overall decline in civility. Others argue that our youth simply reflect a society that favors cable television shout-fests and music with X-rated lyrics. We explore kids, language, and whether how we talk reveals a deeper shift in values.
- John McWhorter Professor, Columbia University; Contributing Editor; The New Republic and City Journal; author of What Language Is (And What It Isnt, And What It Could Be)
- Valerie Gross President and CEO, Howard County Library, Maryland
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, what our language says about our values and whether children today are living in a new age of profanity. But first, beyond the war of words over one of the largest news organizations in the world, News Corp has essentially been on trial in British Parliament this week, fighting through the fallout of the scandal that erupted when some of its newspaper reporters were accused of illegally hacking into people's phones, including those belonging to a murder victim and to former Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIEarlier this month, we explored what this story is revealing about the nature of the British press where paying for access has long been accepted as part of the game. But this story's tentacles reach far across the Atlantic to the American media landscape and it reveals a few illuminating lessons about the nature of the news business in the United States. Joining us to pick through it all is Erik Wemple, media writer with the Washington Post. Erik, good to see you again.
MR. ERIK WEMPLEOh, thanks so much for having me on.
NNAMDIA lot of people were used to watching you beat up on the Post with your media criticism from the Washington City Paper, but now you're writing for the Post itself. And this week, you hosted your first online chat there. People were asking you questions about the fallout of the News Corp scandal and one person asked you, quoting here, "What makes phone hacking different from some of the techniques, including accessing private phone records that the Watergate reporters used to break their story?" You're a student of journalism history, what was your response?
WEMPLEWell, my response was News of the Weird is -- appears to have been the matter of policy that they phone hacked, I mean, the numbers of victims who were in the thousands. Bernstein, I believe, got someone to spill them a little bit of phone information. He had some sources at the Bell Companies. And so he got someone to spill -- it's an isolated incident so I don't think that he feels great about it. I don't think Woodward feels great about that.
NNAMDIYou -- I noticed on your blog that you directed the question to Bob Woodward himself. What was his sense?
WEMPLEWell, his sense was that, no, they didn't feel great about that. But at the same time, they were trying to break a cover-up. These people are later convicted of criminal wrongdoing and they were trying to break a cover-up. Again, he said, don't feel great about it. But I really do believe it's something of a slander or libel to even put the two incidents in the same sentence. What the News of the World did was a policy, an M.O., a standard operating procedure to hack into the voicemail and actually interact with the voicemail.
WEMPLEIn one -- okay, so we know of the Milly Dowler case where they interacted with the voicemail. To establish equivalency between that and Watergate is irresponsible, I'm afraid.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. What do you think that the News Corp phone hacking scandal reveals about the nature of the news business in the United States? 800-433-8850 or send us a tweet @kojoshow. American journalism has taken a few black eyes in recent years. Your colleague Paul Farhi quoted an analyst recently who made sure to mention Dan Rather's flawed reporting about President Bush's military service and Judith Miller's pre-Iraq War coverage for the New York Times.
NNAMDIBut you've said, you'll vote for the home team when it comes to media hygiene and that it's incredulous to compare the tabloid elements of the British press with American media. Why do you feel that way?
WEMPLEI think the Rather and the Judith Miller things were terrible and fatal, especially in the case of Judith Miller, which I think that you had sort of a revolving door, an echo chamber there effect where she reported on the, you know, sort of like the Iraqi exile community saying that Saddam Hussein was all weaponed up. And Cheney saying, well, the New York Times says this. And so that was a terrible, terrible cycle that she launched and that helped to send us to war.
WEMPLEBy no means am I trying to minimize that. I do think that those episodes are so well-known, in large part, because they are aberrations. And the fact of the matter is, the deeper you look into the things that the British tabs do, you realize that stuff that is at least proximate to what the phone hacking scandal is, is pretty commonplace in the UK. A lot of it is just really, really offensive to American journalistic standards. I don't think there's any question. I don't think it's even a close call.
NNAMDIWhat would you say to those people who say, hey, hey, hey, wait a minute here. American TV shows basically pay for access and for interviews, that covering people's airfare and paying for their hotel rooms qualifies as the same thing as paying for the story.
WEMPLEYeah, paying for information is a problem here, I do believe. But the level of respect for privacy in the American media, I think, is much higher. When you pay people for information, they come forward, they give it to you. What we're talking about with News of the World and, you know, is -- I think it's pretty widespread in Britain. It's just zero respect for privacy. And the editors of these tabs justify it all the time as being in the public interest.
WEMPLEYou always hear them. There's a Press Complaints Commission code on journalistic ethics and anything can be justified in the name of public interest. And it's the most flexible, malleable, corruptible standard that you've ever heard in your life. You just heard Andy Coulson...
NNAMDII was about to say, give me some examples.
WEMPLEAndy Coulson testified before Parliament and the News of the World editors, you know, the News of the World brain trusts were being asked whether they pay police for information. And Andy Coulson shrugged his shoulders and said, well, if it's in the public interest, we would, you know, go ahead, and within the law. And then the MP, I believe was Chris Bryant said, well, it's illegal. And Andy Coulson responded, well, we do it within the law. So it was just -- it was a comical sort of exchange from two people who, clearly, were not speaking the same language or in the same ethical universe.
NNAMDIIf in our journalistic culture it was revealed that some media or some medium was routinely paying police officers for information, how do you think it would received here?
WEMPLEI think there would be a scandal on the, you know, on the magnitude of the phone hacking scandal in Britain. And remember, too, that this is not all about paying cops. I mean, paying cops is, as I said, a pretty commonly understood way of doing business on Fleet Street. And if this all were about paying cops, we wouldn't know a thing about it because it wouldn't rise to the level of, you know, the Transatlantic scandal.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Erik Wemple. He's a media writer at the Washington Post and taking your calls. How has the News Corp phone hacking scandal affected your overall opinion of the American news industry? Are you more or less trusting of the news you read, watch and listen to? 800-433-8850 or go to our website, join the conversation there at kojoshow.org. David Carr of the New York Times reported earlier this week about an arm of News Corp called News America Marketing, a vehicle that is used to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to do damage control in other controversies that have hounded the company. How would you assess the pattern of behavior that News Corp has demonstrated in terms of how it responds to controversy?
WEMPLEYeah, well, I mean, I think the reflex response in News Corp is to pay off. You pay someone to go away. You give them -- whether it's in pounds or dollars, you give them tens of thousands of dollars or hundreds of thousands of dollars. It's happened over and over again and you always nail them down to a carefully constructed apocalyptic confidentiality agreement because you don't want them to speak up.
WEMPLEIt's one of the central parts of the British -- of this phone hacking scandal is this guy Gordon Taylor and all the MPs want Gordon Taylor. He was a former -- I believe he's a football executive, soccer executive over there in Britain. And he was paid off over phone hacking and all the MPs want News Corp to release these people from their confidentiality agreement so they can get to the bottom of it.
WEMPLEWell, that's not happening or it hasn't happened yet. But basically, the reflex response, pay them off, watch them go away, avoid the scrutiny, avoid the sunlight of a judicial proceeding and just sweep it under the rug.
NNAMDIWell, let's say there are other kinds of corporations that do that all the time. Is it different when a media corporation, especially a media corporation that is in the news business, is it different when that kind of corporation does it?
WEMPLEI think, obviously, there may be a higher level of hypocrisy, but media companies do it all the time. News Corp is not particularly unique in this respect. They do it all the time. I just think that there's -- News Corp being so huge and being so sharp-elbowed and, you know, unethical that they kick up a lot of these problems. There's -- the more you look, the more you see people that they've paid off and held to a confidentiality agreement. And so it's pretty widespread. It seems to be as close as you can get to company policy.
NNAMDIIf you've already called, stay on the line. We will get to your call. Allow me to ask a few more questions of Erik Wemple before I do. The number is 800-433-8850 or you can send us a tweet @kojoshow. You watched every minute of the hearing before Parliament on Tuesday. Rupert Murdoch and his son and Rebekah Brooks all offered apologies of different sorts. What do you think of those apologies? Were they sufficient?
WEMPLEWell, I think you mentioned David Carr. He said they took -- they apologized for everything and took responsibility for nothing. There are two halves of -- anytime you're a leader, you have to, one, say you're sorry. That's easy. Anybody can say they're sorry. But attributing the problem, taking responsibility for it or saying this is my fault, it resulted from a failure on my part or I should have done this, that's the difficult -- that's the more difficult half of the exercise.
WEMPLEIt's the half that Rupert Murdoch and James didn't even venture into. Rebekah Brooks, also an executive who recently resigned, is arrested. She also basically punted on that question. So if you believe Rupert Murdoch, James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks, this is people who betrayed them. Now, these people who betrayed them all happen to be on a very, very low working level of these newspapers. So if you believe them, no one in the leadership or executive position was responsible.
NNAMDIThe buck stopped way down...
NNAMDI...near the bottom.
NNAMDIHere is -- put on your headphones, Erik. Here is...
NNAMDI…Don in Woodbridge, Va. Don, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DONOh, hi, Kojo, thanks a lot for having me. I'm just kind of curious how much evidence there is of this. I mean, I heard your guest speaking about it earlier, but how much evidence there is of this -- sort of what happened in the UK regarding the phone tapping, how much evidence -- is this as widespread as the press would have you believe? Because the impression the press -- not that I'm defending Rupert Murdoch by no means, who, again, I despise.
DONBut is this yet another media perp walk of Rupert Murdoch, much like what was done with Strauss-Kahn, for example, with the media trying to embellish? Or is it really as widespread as the media would have you believe?
WEMPLEI think the latter is closer to what I think reality is. There were six garbage bags of files, thousands and thousands of documents documenting how many people were subject to the phone hacking. I believe Scotland Yard has estimated or there's been estimates bandied about that there are 4,000 victims of phone hacking. And they've gotten in contact at least the last time I heard with 170 of them. I think it's fair to say it's widespread. I don't believe that this is an affair that's a fabrication of the media, especially considering the ten people have already been arrested.
WEMPLEThe three inquiries. It's pretty serious business, and it's pretty well-documented. You know, it's instructive to hear when all the allegations are being thrown about that News Corp officials don't challenge any of the narrative. They don't challenge any of the basic facts, any of the basic allegations against their company. They're just trying to contain the damage at this point.
NNAMDIWell, the Wall Street Journal editorial page printed a piece earlier this week that accused its competitors of expressing a bit of Schadenfreude with all of this. What do you make of how the different pieces of the News Corp family are responding to this story?
WEMPLEI mean, I would say that's a typical corporate behavior. I think it's unspeakable, unethical, wrong, lame...
NNAMDITo accuse your competitors of taking delight...
WEMPLEYeah, I mean, come on...
NNAMDI...in your demise.
WEMPLE...I mean, come on. I mean, what are you going to do? You have news being generated in London. You have news being generated in New York. You have basically two sources on different sides of the ocean and you have to cover the news. There's news that's popping up -- all the FBI is starting to investigation, oh, Rebecca Brooks resigns, oh Rebecca Brooks is arrested, oh there's a serious fraud office that's going to investigate this. There's just too much news. There is no way you can't cover that news. And it's all straight up, you know, most of the stuff is just straight up coverage.
WEMPLENews organizations are basically gassed trying to keep up with this news cycle. It's crazy. They're exhausted. It's not even been -- in my view, it hasn't even been a big editorializing binge by the presses, just been trying to keep up with the facts. I feel, in this particular case, each fact doubles as a condemnation. So I can understand why the Wall Street Journal thinks they're Schadenfreude, is just because the facts -- as Harry Truman said, you know, I'm telling the facts and they say -- they think it's hell.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Don. We move on to Anthony in Burtonsville, Md. Anthony you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANTHONYYeah, hello, Kojo, how are you? Thank you very much. This is beautiful. Listen, I just have to say I agree 100 percent that there's a difference between the American level of our understanding of what privacy is on the British level. However, let's not forget that I believe the CEO of the Dow Jones Wall Street Journal was -- has actually resigned because of this very same handle. I think he's a part of it. So if we think that it hasn't come across the Atlantic, then we're really kidding ourselves about globalization.
ANTHONYCorruption is globalized just as well as good governance is globalized. And News Corp representatives who talk about good governance, they should be sued by their shareholders because they paid $1.5 million in payoff to people to settle. And there are -- their chief executive saying that they don't know that a $1.5 million -- I mean, what level of authorization requires something for a CEO to know that it's happening? I mean, really. That's ridiculous, $1.5 million and he doesn't know.
NNAMDIErik Wemple, at this point, how far do you expect...
WEMPLEThose were -- I think those were great points, by the way.
NNAMDIHow far do you expect this is all going to go? Do you think it's a situation serious enough to affect News Corps American properties like the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post or Fox news? Anthony made the point that the head of Dow Jones resigned behind it.
WEMPLEYeah and that's a good point. I mean, that what you're looking at with the news, News Corp is a multinational company. They -- what Murdoch does is he takes his people from Australia, pops them in -- plugs them in, in New York, takes people from Britain, plugs them in, in New York and vice versa. I mean, it's a great sort of -- it's a frequent flyer approach to management. And so, yes, Les Hinton, who was over there as a news international executive in London, was later brought in to run the Wall Street Journal.
WEMPLEAnd when he was in London, he told parliament -- I believe it was in 2007, he told parliament that the investigation had found that the -- that this was a one rogue reporter, basically, very limited phone hacking and that turns out to have been wrong, which is basically the basis for Les Hinton's resignation. As to how -- where it goes from here, it's -- if -- I have no idea. I really have no idea. There are 10 criminal investigations ongoing. It could go up or down from here. It's instructive to note that the News Corp stock is basically recovered in, you know, in the wake of Murdoch's testimony before parliament.
NNAMDISee, here's the difference between you, a reporter, and a pundit. This is why you're not a pundit. This is why you're not a pundit. Pundits never say, I have no idea.
WEMPLEWell, I don't, I don't. I mean, I'm not that tapped into, you know, the British government, the British system, to know where it will head from here. You know, the interesting thing about -- what's so interesting about it is that this thing has been revealed, like, once in 2006, there's more in 2007, there's a big spurt of news in 2009 and it never really mushroomed until two weeks ago. So it's basically been unpredictable to begin with and I would be lying if I told you other...
NNAMDIHere's a question, I think, a lot of people have. Gabriel in Reston, Va. has it. Gabriel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GABRIELThank you, as a not very computer knowledgeable person, I wondered if somebody could briefly explain how somebody could hack into the telephone records of, for example, this girl...
NNAMDIInto her voicemail?
GABRIEL...already dead, had been murdered?
NNAMDIHow do they -- how do you hack into somebody's voicemail?
WEMPLEYeah, they had contacts at the telecom company and in the police to help them get the pins, as far as -- at least that's according to my reading of the thing. So it's private -- they basically hired a private investigator who basically lives in voicemail and he had contacts that could get him access codes and the like. Mind you, this is not like wire tapping. He is not listening to live conversations. He's listening to recorded voicemail messages.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Gabriel. You got to the Post right as it was weathering a controversy of its own former reporter, Jose Antonio Vargas, who told the world earlier this summer that he is an illegal immigrant. That he lied to people at the Post and other places where he worked to cover up his immigration status. How do you think this story reflects not only on Vargas as a journalist, but how you think it reflects on the Post and other news organizations that hired him and stood by his work in the past?
WEMPLEIt obviously was, you know, for the Post -- just when I came in there, this was an issue. It was just before I launched the blog. Not a day -- not necessarily a bright day for the Post. I do think, however, the main thing about it is that the story never appeared in the Post. I'm not 100 percent sure exactly why that story never appeared in the Post. Paul Farhi, I thought, wrote a very good story about this in which he said that some editors had some concerns about the manuscript that Vargas has submitted. In particular, there was an omission where he failed to disclose something about a driver's license in the state of Washington. My...
NNAMDII never quite understood exactly where that fit into the narrative.
WEMPLEWell, the -- apparently, you know, obviously, one of his central dramas, as an adult here without papers, was how to get a driver's license. Apparently...
NNAMDII figured that.
WEMPLE...he got an Oregon driver's license much younger. I believe it expired, maybe -- I think, maybe, he got one in Washington. Anyhow, there was a key detail about Washington state and driver's license that was not in the manuscript. They confronted him about it. My only point is that whenever you're dealing with first person journalism with a narrative, with a sort of a memoir-ish tale and you find the slightest bit of flimsiness in the factual construction thereof...
NNAMDIThat's what you said.
WEMPLE...you kill it.
NNAMDIYou said the moment...
WEMPLEYou kill it.
NNAMDI...your narrator shows the smallest sign of shiftiness, spike the piece.
WEMPLETell the writer you've lost confidence in the story and move on, which is what we have to do right now. We've run just about out of time. But we got this tweet from jskarp "How many more pushups can Wemple do than Kojo?" I don't know who told them I'd do pushups, but I do. How many do you do?
NNAMDII know you're a pushup fiend.
WEMPLEI'm a very, very committed to pushups. I...
NNAMDIHow many do you do per day?
WEMPLEI do about 200.
NNAMDIGood grief. I do 60 at a time and generally that's about it for me.
WEMPLEIs that right? Okay.
NNAMDIYep, Erik Wemple is a media writer...
NNAMDI...at the Washington Post. Good to see you again.
WEMPLEGood to see you.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we will have a conversation on civility and kids. Too much profanity? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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