David Carr writes:
Over the last month, many Americans watched from a distance in horror or amusement as it became evident that the News Corporation regarded Britain’s legal and political institutions as its own private club.
That could never happen in the United States, right?
As it turns out, a News Corporation division has twice come under significant civil and criminal investigations in the United States, but neither inquiry went anywhere. Given what has happened in Britain with the growing phone-hacking scandal, it is worth wondering why.
Both cases involve News America Marketing, an obscure but lucrative division of the News Corporation that is a big player in the business of retail marketing, including newspaper coupon inserts and in-store promotions. The company has come under scrutiny for a pattern of conduct that includes below-cost pricing, paying customers not to do business with competitors and accusations of computer hacking.
News America Marketing came to control 90 percent of the in-store advertising business, according to Fortune, aided in part by a particularly quick and favorable antitrust decision made by the Justice Department in 1997. That year, the News Corporation announced it wanted to buy Heritage Media, a big competitor, for about $754 million in stock plus $600 million in assumed debt. The News Corporation said it would sell the broadcast properties and hang onto the marketing division, which serviced 40,000 groceries and other retailers.
The deal would make News America Marketing the dominant player in the business and, for that reason, the San Francisco field office of the Justice Department recommended to Washington that the News Corporation’s takeover bid be challenged on antitrust grounds. Typically, such a request from a field office would carry great weight in Washington and, at a minimum, delay the deal for months.
But the Justice Department brass overrode San Francisco’s objections and gave its blessing in just two weeks. So who ran the antitrust division at the Justice Department at the time? Joel Klein, who this year became an executive vice president at the News Corporation, head of its education division and a close adviser to Rupert Murdoch on the phone-hacking scandal in Britain.