Hacking is a media scandal, but no reason for a federal crackdown

News that the FBI is investigating allegations that 9/11 victims might have had their voicemails hacked by reporters sure seems like a fitting response to the cascade of revelations of wrongdoing at Rupert Murdoch’s now-defunct London tabloid, News of the World.

No doubt, it would be atrocious if newshounds had pawed at messages left for those who died abruptly that day, messages never heard by the people they were meant for. Or eavesdropped on the words of the terrified victims themselves during their last moments.

It’s such a cruel invasion the privacy that whoever’s responsible should be found and punished, it would seem.

But I’m uneasy. I don’t like to see detectives in newsrooms, demanding information from reporters about their sources and newsgathering practices. Cops believe quite a lot of what the press does is wrong: Using leaks, for instance, or protecting the anonymity of sources, or scrutinizing the police.

You don’t have to be a fan of Murdoch’s Fox News or his New York Post or any of his British papers to wince at having their editors interrogated about exactly how well, or how foolishly, or even how recklessly their reporters covered the frantic aftermath of 9/11—how they tried to find people who might illuminate the horror.

And, hey, who’s doing the investigating? Why, it’s those staunch friends of the Fourth Amendment over at the FBI. My my, a good thing the Bureau doesn’t have any post-9/11 privacy invasions of its own to answer for, after the USA Patriot Act took the gloves off federal agencies. Maybe the National Security Agency will help; the NSA knows all about eavesdropping, thanks to their unending surveillance of domestic phone traffic, which none dare call hacking.

Still, the hypocrisy might be acceptable if there was good evidence that 9/11 victims or their survivors actually were hacked. But is there?

Apparently the allegations derive from a story published July 11 by The Daily Mirror, a fierce tabloid rival of Murdoch’s. The Mirror reported that “a former New York City cop … alleged he was contacted by News of the World journalists who said they would pay him to retrieve the private phone records of the dead.”

Not good. But reading on, it seems nobody from the Mirror actually spoke to this ex-policeman, who’s now a private investigator. It was “a source,” who is not described further, who conveyed the PI’s story, which was that News reporters approached him in hopes of getting the phone records of British victims.

The ex-cop, according to the Mirror’s source, refused. “He knew how insensitive such research would be, and how bad it would look.”

So, let’s recap: We have a tale in a competitor’s paper attributed to an unnamed source, who says he was told by a former New York cop, also unnamed, that somebody from the News of the World—never identified—asked him a decade ago for help in hacking 9/11 phone records. (Not messages, records.) And he didn’t. So, as far as anybody knows, nothing more happened.

For this we’re calling out the dogs?

We live in a time when the personal sphere is under constant assault by agencies of the state and by marketers who have transformed the Internet into a vast mechanism for gathering hitherto private data about each of us. In that environment, using paper-thin evidence of questionable journalistic conduct to justify a high-profile criminal investigation is indeed bizarre, and to me, attests to an agenda very different from vindicating privacy rights.

Press bashing is a pastime that has a broad fan base within our political elite, across all ideological persuasions, who would quietly cheer if distasteful practices abroad were used to discredit and bully U.S. journalists. 

That said, I do think that the UK scandal is a challenge for U.S. media, which routinely pay lip-service to the curative powers of self-regulation without actually exercising any, except when managements have been so embarrassed they have no alternative.

Even though phone hacking is not in the newsroom tool-chest here, this is still a perfect moment for news organizations to come clean to the public about just what their staffs do and don’t do, and why.

New technology has opened up alarming new opportunities for accessing information that was never intended for public gaze, from your precise whereabouts to your taste in movies. Which techniques are used, which are never used, which may be used if conditions warrant?

Many organizations have begun to address such matters internally, and it’s time to open up that conversation and listen to the public. Even if law enforcement finds no evidence of hacking, new frontiers of intrusiveness beckon, and they can be perfectly legal without being right.

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2 thoughts on “Hacking is a media scandal, but no reason for a federal crackdown

  1. Senor Wasserman,
    I’m an avid reader who can relate to being bashed by political elite. Which begs the question: For relaxation, should I take a month off and sit back in Bali, or find a waterfront cabin in the Keys? Looking forward to your guidance, and hope all is well.

    Chuck Rabin, a fan.

    1. I haven’t been to Bali yet, but by all accounts it’s one of the world’s truly great destinations. I love the Keys, but unless you fish, or you aspire to becoming an alcoholic, I’d recommend Bali hands down. And if you truly have a month, and want to break up the trip, I strongly recommend a two- or three-day stopover in Hawaii, in Hanalei on the north coast of Kauai.

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