It is with a mixture of outrage and envy that an old-school newspaper veteran like me views Great Britain's newspaper hacking scandal.
Even the most straight-laced reporters sometimes envy the fun that the scandal-sheet folks must have, chasing scoops at any cost. The problem with the scandal that brought down Rupert Murdoch's News of the World is that the cost proved to be too high.
We certainly have had more than enough of our own pay-for-scoops scandals on this side of the Big Pond.
We have seen such dust-ups as the Cincinnati Enquirer's acknowledgement in 1998 that a reporter illegally obtained voice-mail messages from a company executive at Chiquita Brands International Inc. The newspaper apologized on its front page and paid $10 million to Chiquita.
More recently we have seen such questionable ethics as the $200,000 ABC News paid Casey Anthony for photos and video of her then-missing 2-year-old daughter, Caylee.
Yet, despite the many complaints from critics about the news media getting worse, the growth of media competition actually has improved the ability of media to get stories right -- and to get them ethically.
I entered journalism in Chicago at a time when veteran reporters mythologized an earlier era when, as one old-timer put it, "we didn't let the truth or burglary laws get in the way of a good story." I heard about reporters and photographers who lied about who they were to get information from crime witnesses, disaster survivors or the relatives of victims.
Yet, nothing in the media history of this country or Great Britain quite compares to the scandal in which Murdoch's News Corp. empire now finds itself embroiled. The company shut down its British tabloid News of the World after claims that people hired by the paper hacked into the cellphones of newsmakers, including celebrities, the royal family, a young murder victim and family members of British soldiers killed in Afghanistan.
The final straw this time was the case of Milly Dowler, who was kidnapped and killed in 2002 at age 13. Her phone messages were reportedly hacked by a News of the World investigator while police were searching for her. Some of the messages were reportedly deleted to make room for more messages, misleading police and Dowler's parents into thinking she was still alive.
The resulting uproar has been great enough to threaten Murdoch's other enterprises, scuttling his plans to take over British pay-TV firm BSkyB, worth around $14 billion.
The resounding lesson from this unfolding scandal might begin with this: When you constantly push the boundaries around a bonfire, you eventually get burned.
The cultural differences between our media environment and that of our British cousins is embodied in the Page 3 girls. Nothing rattled my American stereotypes of staid, uptight, formal Britons more than to open a British tabloid and see a topless young woman smiling back at me.
The Page 3 girl began at the Sun, another Murdoch paper. The feature managed to survive the outrage of feminists and clergy and was immediately imitated by other tabloids. Readers seemed to enjoy the show, and outraged politicians were too cowed by the reputation-damaging power of Murdoch's media to push back very hard.
A similar permissiveness appears to have led to the hacking scandal, with much more dangerous consequences.
There's a warning here for journalists everywhere: Chasing scoops can be fun, but don't forget to take yourself and your audience seriously.