Murdoch follies remind Chicagoan of ‘Bozo’s Circus’

The last time we heard from our man in London he was briefing us on plans for the royal wedding in April. Now he’s turned his attention to more serious matters — the growing scandal surrounding Rupert Murdoch’s media empire.

Fred Weintraub, the veteran Chicago television executive who’s been living in London for the past three years, has been tracking the story since it broke and covered the hearings last week investigating corruption involving Murdoch’s newspapers, British politicians and the police. He’s been taking it all in with an eye on what it could mean for Murdoch’s holdings in the United States — including the Fox Network, Fox News Channel and two TV stations in Chicago.

In addition to blogging about it on his Worldly Fellow website, Weintraub has been reporting back home for Weigel Broadcasting’s First Business and You & Me This Morning and for Steve King and Johnnie Putman’s overnight show on Tribune-owned news/talk WGN-AM (720).

“Sitting in on a special session of the House of Commons with Prime Minister David Cameron was like watching three hours of Bozo’s Circus,” Weintraub told me Monday. “It started earlier in the week with a pie in Murdoch’s face, and ended with a special session of Parliament where 136 comments were made and nothing appeared to get done.”

Whether the scandal has any impact in this country will depend on the outcome of an FBI investigation into allegations of phone hacking of 9/11 victims and their families by Murdoch’s News Corp. journalists. If criminal activity is proven, Murdoch’s television stations (including WFLD-Channel 32 and WPWR-Channel 50 here) could be at risk since the FCC requires station owners to be “of good character” in order to maintain their broadcast licenses.

“For the UK, an unethical relationship between the police, media and politicians appears to be the way that journalism has always been done,” Weintraub said. “The big question is: Will this change the way journalism is done in the UK, and are there any lessons that journalists should be learning in the United States?”

Murdoch arguably had his greatest impact in Chicago during the two years he owned the Sun-Times in the mid-1980s. (“He landed on the Chicago Sun-Times like a bug-eyed monster from outer space and extruded poisonous slime,” Roger Ebert recalled vividly on his blog recently.) For most of us working there, it was a stressful, uncertain time. But as columnist Mark Brown pointed out, some of the owners who followed Murdoch (especially Lord Black of Crossharbour, aka Prisoner No. 18330-424) turned out to be a lot worse.

Back then Murdoch had his sights set on bigger deals, including the acquisition of WFLD and the other television stations that were the nucleus of the Fox Network. In order to comply with federal regulations, he was forced to sell the Sun-Times (which he did — at a huge profit — to a group headed by then-publisher Robert Page). The Sun-Times never fully recovered from the damage Murdoch and his minions did in those two short years.

As far as I know, nothing ever went on at the Sun-Times during the Murdoch regime to compare with the journalistic crimes now being uncovered in England. But the loss of prestige — underscored by the mass exodus of some of the city’s most illustrious journalists — haunts the newspaper to this day.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)