A Unified Theory of Murdoch

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

Protests outside Murdoch's Fifth Ave. apartment in New York (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

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There’s a vast difference between investigative reporting, which is based on slow, painstaking — and legal — efforts to acquire information versus tapping into voice mails and bribing police officers to provide information about the whereabouts of celebrities and others. Even ambush interviews on street corners, while disturbing, fully disclose the reporter’s actions and intent to the subject of an investigation.

What proper journalists don’t do is misrepresent themselves, break laws and recklessly invade the privacy of victims. For a long time, the British public seems to have accepted that royals and celebrities were fair game, but efforts to tap the voice mail of the family of a little girl who was kidnapped and later found murdered seem to have pushed Brits into outrage. When her voice mail box was full, reporters for the News of the World were alleged to have erased some messages to make room for more, giving her family false hope and even affecting the course of the police investigation.

An Early Taste of Murdoch Culture

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.