Amid hacking scandal, Murdoch-owned Tampa Fox station WTVT-Ch. 13 exerts news independence
As the FBI begins an investigation into whether staffers at Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. hacked into the telephones of victims from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the spreading scandal throws a sharp spotlight onto every corner of the international media mogul's businesses.
Including the Tampa Bay area.
Because local Fox affiliate WTVT-Ch. 13 is owned by Murdoch's News Corp. — just like the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, book publisher HarperCollins, the Fox News Channel and 26 other TV stations of various affiliations across America.
But unlike the Post, which faces its own allegations of unethical favor-peddling and agenda-setting in its coverage, people who have worked at WTVT said they felt no agenda-setting or unethical influence from News Corp. over their reporting or news content.
"I never felt any pressure to follow an agenda, and we always stood for Big J journalism — we did things ethically, fairly, and we always got both sides of the story," said Frank Robertson, an anchor at WTVT for 21 years who retired from the station amid cost-cutting in 2009. "We certainly never hacked into phones; I wouldn't even have the know-how for that."
News Corp. public relations executives would not authorize current employees at WTVT to talk about the issue. Employees received an e-mail reminder last week to clear any interviews with top local managers and the company's New York publicity executives.
But several former employees confirmed Robertson's take on working at WTVT, even when some viewers assumed the station would be more sympathetic to conservative causes, given sister cable outlet Fox News Channel's conservative slant.
"You got people in the field, they would give you a thumbs-up if they were people who enjoyed Fox News, or they might yell 'fair and balanced,' " said former anchor and reporter Bill Murphy, who left the station in early 2008. "But I can't think of one example where we were asked to spin a story."
When Fox first completed the purchase of WTVT from New World Communications in 1997, Fox News Channel was just getting started and few worried about its conservative politics. Instead, local media watchers wondered whether the fast and flashy tabloid news style of then-successful Miami Fox affiliate WSVN would somehow seep into WTVT's coverage.
"There was a time when we were trying to find our identity," said Robertson, recalling that WTVT had switched from a CBS affiliation to Fox in 1994. "But we quickly realized that didn't work in the Tampa Bay market. We had to be what we've always been."
There have been issues. In 1997, the station drew criticism for parking a rented Ryder truck near a federal building in downtown Tampa. They were testing security in Tampa on the same day court proceedings began against Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people with a truck bomb in a similar way.
That same year, married investigative reporters Steve Wilson and Jane Akre alleged WTVT dragged its feet in editing a report critical of chemical manufacturing giant Monsanto, eventually suing the station, claiming it tried forcing them to lie in the story. Courts later sided with WTVT.
But in both cases, which I covered, WTVT was struggling to cope with local decisions that spiraled into bigger problems.
These days, News Corp.'s New York offices — and by extension, Fox Television Stations chairman and Fox News Channel founder Roger Ailes — exert more control over nonnews aspects of WTVT, exporting its 11 p.m. NewsEdge format to other stations.
Its demand for control over public statements is so complete that no one at WTVT can talk to a reporter like me without authorization from a New York-based publicist. They also receive regular, companywide ethics training, including an online test.
It likely helps local stations such as WTVT that they really aren't expected to cover much of the news highlighted in the phone hacking scandal, such as the gossipy scoops about celebrities and politicians.
Still, if the spreading scandal engulfing Murdoch-owned news outlets in Britain and the United States offers any lesson, it's that giving individual news outlets their own independence might be a very wise strategy for whatever company is left after the dust settles over News Corp. and News International.