A Unified Theory of Murdoch

The hacking scandal is just one aspect of a broad pattern of sleazy behavior.

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I worked at the New York Post in the 1970s before it fell under the spell of Rupert Murdoch. The paper was an openly liberal tabloid that covered underdogs, unions and minorities sympathetically. The standing joke in the newsroom was that when the world ended, the Post headline would read, "World Ends: Jews and Blacks Hurt Most." 

The Post, founded by Alexander Hamilton in 1801, was owned by Dorothy Schiff, a genteel, rich, liberal woman who would later be a model for Mrs. Pynchon, the genteel rich, liberal publisher on Lou Grant, the late-1970s CBS show about a fictional newspaper. Mrs. Schiff received visitors in a boudoirlike office with antiques and floral wallpapered walls. She served tuna-fish sandwiches, whether the guests were presidential candidates seeking the Post's endorsement or the three or four black reporters on staff she occasionally invited to her office to discuss their gripes about the paper. She always insisted that she was well-informed on what "the blacks" were thinking or feeling about important issues. We young turks suspected that she consulted her black chauffeur, who sat on the plastic-covered front seat of her limousine.

I had left the New York Post before Murdoch acquired the paper in 1976, but the change of tone at the Post was sudden and remarkable. Its politics turned 180 degrees to the right. But more important, the attitude toward people of color became downright nasty. Murdoch's Australian editors published brutish caricatures of black people; some pundits brushed it off as Aussie brashness. The paper relentlessly challenged the competence and intentions of New York's first black mayor, David Dinkins -- an aggressiveness that would not be evident in its coverage of his white successors, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. The negative racial tone reached a peak in 2009, when the newspaper published a cartoon of a dead monkey and made a link to President Obama's stimulus package.

For years at a time, the Murdoch Post had no black or Hispanic reporters. The "Australians" brushed off questions about diversity. When they did hire minority journalists, the hires ended up suing the paper, complaining about the toxic atmosphere in the newsroom, where they alleged that star reporters like Steve Dunleavy regularly shouted racially derogatory language.

And then there are the broader business practices of Murdoch's News Corp. empire. While the impetus for the FBI investigation is the allegation that phones of 9/11 victim families may have been hacked, there are plenty of other incidents suggesting that Murdoch's company has long behaved as badly in America as in England. In a remarkable article in the New York Times earlier this week, David Carr reported that, in the U.S., "the News Corporation has paid out about $655 million to make embarrassing charges of corporate espionage and anti-competitive behavior go away." The charges included hacking into computer systems at a company called Floorgraphics, anti-competitive behavior and violations of anti-trust laws.

When you understand what Rupert Murdoch is willing to let happen at his other entities, it puts Fox News into perspective and explains how the "fair and balanced" slogan has long been network boss Roger Ailes' attempt at irony. The network has served as a platform for attacks on President Obama's race, birthplace, competence and commitment to America. Fox News has practically created the Tea Party movement, legitimizing it faster than any previous populist or third-party movement through constant sympathetic coverage. It has played a large role in cheapening political dialogue in America and rewarding those holding extreme views with prime-time exposure.

A grand unified theory of Murdoch corporate culture emerges from all this evidence -- the sleaze, the recklessness, the disinterest in the truth in pursuit of the sensational, protecting right-wing interests and feeding the basest instincts of the population. It first came to light at the News of the World but reaches into all the recesses of News Corp.

Just a couple of weeks ago, before the London press scandal took center stage, the New York Post was in full bloom in the Dominique Strauss-Kahn rape case. Having done a complete turnaround from daily crucifying "Le Perv," the Post declared that the former IMF chief's accuser worked as a prostitute at the hotel where the incident is said to have occurred, a charge that neither law-enforcement entities nor any other media outlet could verify. The woman has filed a libel suit. For Murdoch and his minions, it was just another day at the office.

Joel Dreyfuss is managing editor of The Root.

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