The Tasmanian Devil

By Sydney H. Schanberg

Rupert Murdoch, though he continues to lose about $20 million a year publishing The New York Post, has managed to do in New York what he has done with his other papers in the United States and Britain and Australia: make politicians afraid of him and his power to sway minds.

Nothing affirmed the ascending political influence of Mr. Murdoch more than last Wednesday’s breakfast debate between Edward Koch and Mario Cuomo. Arranged, conducted and paid for (at a cost of over $10,000) by The Post, this first oratorical battle in the campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor drew 600 of New York’s finest realtors, bankers, labor leaders, obese tabbies and other political junkies to Imperial Ballroom A of the Sheraton Centre hotel.

Mr. Murdoch himself was not there (an aide announced that business pressures had suddenly called him overseas) – making the Australian swashbuckler’s aura even more mysterious and intriguing. Oh, that sly Tasmanian devil! (Encyclopedia description: ”Extremely voracious marsupial. Its expression appears evil, and it has a fierce snarl. It is very strong for its size and preys on animals larger than itself.”)

The melon and sausages and eggs may have been routine, but as political spectacle it was far above average. Photographers crowded the rim of the stage, exploding their flashes upward at the candidates. Eight television cameras whirred continuously from a platform at the rear.

And on the stage, hanging above the combatants, reminding everyone of the entity that drew them there, was a huge green sign with white letters that spelled ”New York Post.”

Put simply, Rupert Murdoch seems willing to go on losing many millions annually on his generally trashy tabloid so long as it provides him the platform to wield power in this city and be a political kingmaker.
He helped elevate Congressman Edward Koch to the mayor’s chair in 1977 not only by endorsing him but by employing a well-known Murdoch tactic – using his news pages to carry out his editorial bias. Mr. Koch was awarded constant, flamboyant, favorable stories while coverage of his opponents could be found only through microscopic analysis.

Mr. Murdoch did it again for Mr. Koch this year with a write-in coupon campaign aimed – successfully – at persuading the man who had sworn to stay on as mayor to run for governor.

And he has already begun to do it for the man he would like to become mayor after Mr. Koch – Donald Manes, the unspectacular borough president of Queens. Hardly a couple of days pass that Mr. Manes’s visage does not peer out at the reader -wearing a silly hat or stuffing his cheeks with some ethnic food.
Mr. Murdoch’s politics are right-wing, but he has on occasion backed left-of-center candidates. The key ingredient may be a politician’s chances of winning and his amenability to manipulation by the Australian entrepreneur.

An Esquire article in 1979 quoted Mr. Murdoch as saying of an Australian Government: ”I elected them. And, incidentally, I’m not too happy with them. I may remove them.”

Lieutenant Governor Cuomo, who knows what it’s like to be unfavored by The Post, describes the paper’s political pamphleteering this way in the current issue of The Columbia Journalism Review: ”The New York Times is perhaps the single most credible newspaper in the world. But when they endorse you, you get one column on the editorial page. With Rupert, he turns the whole paper over to you.”

This time, actually, The Post has been more evenhanded in its coverage of Mr. Cuomo than it was in the 1977 mayoral primary, when the paper virtually shut him out. It could be that Mr. Murdoch – noticing Mr. Cuomo’s rise in the polls, which give him a good chance of winning – may be hedging his bets somewhat.

And quite apart from the favoritism-in-news-reporting issue, The Post has expanded its political coverage of late, improving it quantitatively and sometimes qualitatively, thereby further staking out its role as a political force. However, lest anyone get the idea that the sheet is going respectable, keep in mind that its massive coverage of the Koch-Cuomo debate was on the flip side of a page headlined ”Jealous Rage Sparks TV Model’s Bloodbath.”

That’s the mix of sex and gossip and crime and general luridness that The Post has used, since Mr. Murdoch took it over in 1977, to raise its daily newsstand circulation by 50 percent, from 600,000 to over 900,000 – even though it has been unable to attract the ”upscale” advertising needed to get the paper out of the red.

”We’re not here to pass ourselves off as intellectuals,” Mr. Murdoch has said. ”We’re here to give the public what they want.” This stager of breakfast spectacles dismisses all aspersions about his newspapers as the mewlings of timid, stodgy, bland ”professors of journalism.” ”Liberal propaganda” is his sneer for The New York Times.

As you can see, he can be a sharp fellow toward critics, particularly on Page Six, his gossip repository. Maybe if I took back ”Tasmanian devil” and made it ”Tasmanian wombat” instead …

First published in The New York Times, July 13, 1982

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