Phone hacking? Wiretaps? Bribes to public officials? And all to gather tawdry scoops on celebrity scandals and crime victims? It all started with Rupert Murdoch, right?
In our 46 years in the news business, everything we’ve see unfolding in Britain with Murdoch’s media empire we’ve seen before, and much closer to home.
We’ve written a lot about the miscarriage of justice that was the Roman Polanski case, and how pressure from his pals at the Hillcrest Country Club led Judge Laurence J. Rittenband to renege on a plea and sentence agreed to by all parties involved in the case.
We’ve also mentioned that we were offered $25,000 — a lot of money in 1977 — for details on the young woman at the center of the case. The very American tabloid in question wanted an ambush photo and details of her private life, information we could’ve provided but didn’t.
But it doesn’t end there
Let’s begin with a story reported 11 July by Molly Hennessy-Fiske of the Los Angeles Times:
UCLA Health System has agreed to pay $865,500 as part of a settlement with federal regulators announced Thursday after two celebrity patients alleged that hospital employees broke the law and reviewed their medical records without authorization.
Federal and hospital officials declined to identify the celebrities involved. The complaints cover 2005 to 2009, a time during which hospital employees were repeatedly caught and fired for peeping at the medical records of dozens of celebrities, including Britney Spears, Farrah Fawcett and then-California First Lady Maria Shriver.
Violations allegedly occurred at all three UCLA Health System hospitals — Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica UCLA Medical Center and Orthopaedic Hospital and Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital, according to UCLA spokeswoman Dale Tate.
The security breaches were first reported in The Times in 2008.
UCLA, is of course, a public institution, funded by California taxpayers.
Back in the early 1990s, we knew a fellow who freelanced for television tabloid shows, regularly feeding them updates on, among other things, celebrity hospitalizations. Here’s what he told us:
“You know how I do it? I go to the hospital employee parking lots and I look for the oldest, rustiest, most beat-up car, then wait around to shift change and see who gets in it. I follow him until he stops somewhere, then I find out if he’s got access to patient records. If he does, I slip him some cash and promise a lot more when he gets me what I want.”
We also talked to a fellow who had installed a wiretap on the phone lines of so-called “Hollywood Madam” Heidi Fleiss, and listened to tapes of famous Hollywood stars and producers talking to Fleiss and her stable of prostitutes.
While the illegal tapes couldn’t be used, the leads they provided were.
The DADT tabloid rule
The rule of thumb in the business is don’t ask/don’t tell. Don’t ask how the scoops were obtained, and don’t tell your readers and viewers about the corrupt nature of the enterprise you represent. All that matters is the “get,” the fruit of the poisoned tree.
Just as in the case of Murdoch’s private eyes, most of these folks weren’t on the staffs of the tabloids, televised and tabloid, but worked on spec, feeding their scoops to the highest bidders.
Every single tactic practiced by Murdoch’s minions has long been practiced here in the United States.
“Blagging” is an ancient art in the tabloid world, pretending to be someone trustworthy in order to worm out secrets no one would tell to a scandal sheet. Back in 1960 or thereabouts, we read an expose in one of those Hollywood celebrity magazines our mother devoured, perhaps Hollywood Confidential, in which they had recruited a drag queen to lure Raymond Burr, then a huge television star, into making advances. They never mentioned that Burr was gay; they left that assumption to the reader.
And back before cell phones went digital, every tabloid feeder scanned the airwaves in celebrity hot spots, looking to capture analog scoops.
The simple fact is that as long as we, the people, salivate over salacious scandals, there’ll be plenty of unscrupulous folks out there willing to rake in the big bucks the media are willing to pay for the latest, hottest dirt.
And let’s be clear. We don’t utterly reject the use of the scandalmonger’s tool kit.
The finest reporter we ever met wiretapped his own publisher to get the evidence needed to established collusion between publisher and organized crime, evidence then used to force the publisher to print what he otherwise wouldn’t have printed, evidence of organized crime penetration of powerful public institutions.
But the reporter’s aim was, in our minds, noble: The exposure of vital information about civic institutions that wouldn’t be revealed or even investigation by law enforcement because it too had been corrupted by those very same forces. It was a last resort, and vital for the functioning of a healthy democracy.
The reporter never published what he discovered about his boss. That wasn’t the intent. The only aim was to ensure that the public was served.
But bribing public hospital employees to find out about the health of some celebrity or innocent crime victim? Come on, folks.
So if folks are eager to bring out their knives to dismember the vile Murdoch media empire, they should also be looking closer to home at a media culture that feeds our basest, primate instincts.