Furor over the news of the despicable phone-hacking incidents at Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World in Great Britain is likely to carry over to suspicions by the public all over the world that journalists lie, cheat, take payoffs, make payoffs and slant news coverage in order to create headlines and sell newspapers.

Say it ain’t so, Joe, to borrow the baseball lament about Shoeless Joe Jackson’s involvement in the Black Sox scandal in 1919.

It ain’t so.

Every profession has its rogues, some likable and some despicable. Those in charge of Murdoch’s paper and at the highest level of his company are ultimately responsible for reprehensible behavior such as this.

Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of Murdoch’s News International and former editor of News of the World, resigned on Friday, and Murdoch issued an apology.

Later in the day, Les Hinton, publisher of The Wall Street Journal and chairman of Dow Jones, resigned.

Hinton had preceded Brooks as head of News International and had the job when the hacking occurred.

The actions were abrupt departures from Murdoch’s stance all week long — that the paper’s transgressions of moral and ethical behavior had been minor.

“We are deeply sorry for the hurt suffered by the individuals affected. We regret not acting faster to sort things out,” said Murdoch.

He also said he would take “further concrete steps to resolve these issues and make amends for the damage they have caused.”

While the apology was better late than never, it came too late to salvage Murdoch’s credibility and reputation.

Before this happened it would have been possible to argue that he has had a notable career — taking risks, confronting controversy, and building and retooling media businesses that many have abandoned as dead.

That’s all changed.

At this point, it is difficult to know what he knew about the shoddy practices of his reporters and editors and when he knew it, but one thing is certain: A chief executive of any company sets the tone and whether he knows all the details of actions by his company’s employees day in and day out is inconsequential. The executive has to take ultimately responsibility for the actions of those in the company.

Murdoch set a tone that made actions such as those at the News of the World acceptable.

Early in my career in media and journalism, I worked for two men who ran a publicly held company of newspapers and radio and television stations. The business grew to become one of the most successful media companies ever. Ultimately, it was sold to Disney and broken up into smaller units, many of which were sold.

The company was noted for its decentralized management style. The chief operating officer of any of the newspapers or broadcast units made virtually all decisions locally. There was no set of rules or a book describing acceptable journalism or business practices.

Those who succeeded best had an intuition about how to behave based on the good example of ethical and moral behavior of the company’s top leaders, who led by example.

They set the tone and were able to do it subtly but forcefully.

Murdoch did not do that. His reputation and most likely his conscience will pay a heavy price.

Richard Connor is editor and publisher and CEO of MaineToday Media, which publishes the Kennebec Journal, Morning Sentinel and The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.


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