By Sydney H. Schanberg
I’ve never had a conversation with Rupert Murdoch but our paths did cross a couple of times in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s when I was the Metropolitan Editor, and then an Op-Ed columnist, at The New York Times, writing about the New York scene. Like most people, my views have been shaped by my personal experiences, and my experiences with Murdoch were instructive.
Murdoch arrived in New York in 1977 with a deliberate splash, purchasing the strongly liberal but financially slipping New York Post. Along with a bargain-basement $31 million, he gave the paper’s long-time owner, Dolly Schiff, a fervent promise to “maintain its present policies and traditions.” Few in the journalism community believed his pledge, and he confirmed their expectations by quickly skewing the Post to hard-core conservatism both on its editorial pages and in its news coverage. Apolitical reporters were not wanted. The news pages also became sensationalized and trashy.
To any journalist in New York – or any regular newspaper reader for that matter – it was clear that Murdoch was a rough-riding business pirate intent on expanding his empire, one who would say or do almost anything to get his way. His rightist political ideology was real, but he generally made it secondary to his primary crusade – his search for profit, power and the most elusive goal of all, respectability. He was not satanic or even a demon; he was merely a human, modern-day robber baron.
Only a year after his takeover of the Post, a city-wide strike by the pressmen’s union forced the closure of the city’s major papers – The Times, the Daily News and the Post. Murdoch, though he was a member of the Publishers Association, decided to break precedent and provide financing and distribution for a “strike paper” — one of three that sprung up to satisfy the city’s newspaper readers after the strike began. Called The Daily Metro, it operated out of office space on the East Side. Several Times copy editors, reporters and news assistants, to pay their bills, joined Murdoch’s jerry-built strike paper. On paper, the owner of the company was listed as Frederick Iseman, who was unknown to me though he was described in a Time magazine article at the time as a pre-strike, 25-year-old assistant editor at The Times.
As the Times’ Metropolitan editor, I was a management employee and therefore required to come to the office every day and go through ritual routines, such as editors’ meetings, though there was no paper to put out. It was the worst passage in my journalistic life. One afternoon, after several weeks of these ritual workdays, I decided to take a walk in the summer sunshine and visit the Times staffers at the Murdoch-financed paper. It was a cheerful reunion; all of us were lonely and eager to get back to real newspapering. I spent about an hour schmoozing with these colleagues. I introduced myself to Iseman and explained that this was merely a social visit. There seemed to be no friction.
Early the next morning, I received an angry call at home from Abe Rosenthal, the Times’ executive editor. He wanted to know why I had gone off the reservation to visit “the enemy.” He was referring not to Murdoch but to the striking Times employees working at his makeshift paper. I said I didn’t consider them “the enemy.” He then told me that he had found out about my visit from Walter Mattson, the Chief Operating Officer of the Times, who had received a nasty call from Murdoch himself who claimed that I had told all the Times employees at his shop that Rosenthal considered the strike a betrayal and didn’t want any Times employees working for Murdoch. This was utter rubbish; Murdoch was just flexing his muscles in New York and using intimidation tactics, something he was well-known for. I told Abe that no such conversation had taken place. I also told him that Murdoch had frequently demonstrated in the past, as he put together the pieces of his media operation, that he was a person who lied easily. Abe and I spoke loudly to each other for several minutes before our conversation ended.
When I got to the Times building later that morning, I went to see Walter Mattson. I had been at The Times for twenty years and was pretty annoyed at having been accused of some kind of disloyalty. I asked Walter why, since he had to have heard that Murdoch regularly played loose with the truth, he hadn’t called me first to check on on the credibility of Murdoch’s story before passing it on unquestioned. Most of the loud talk in this conversation was mine. Walter is a real gentleman and mostly just listened.
Several weeks later, two months into the strike, Murdoch abruptly pulled out of the Publishers Association agreement and announced he was resuming publication. He made separate deals with the pressmen and all the other newspaper unions. This was in the first week of October. The Times and the Daily News were caught unawares and quickly resumed negotiations with the unions. It was a month before they came to terms and resumed publishing – a month when Murdoch’s Post was on the news stands every day. It would appear that Murdoch blatantly used the strike for financial advantage and to establish his trademark in New York while the city’s other papers were shut down.
Rarely has a man made false promises and told lies so effortlessly. Now Murdoch, as he prepares to take over the Wall Street Journal, is promising to preserve that paper’s superior level of journalism, maintain its integrity and keep ideology out of the newsroom. We never knew he was such a joke-teller.
There is so much to remember about Rupert. He was a very busy bee. When the Australian-born magnate arrived in New York, he set about wooing – and showing off his macho to — the city’s politicians, real estate developers, bankers, Wall Street mandarins and various other mavens of the establishment. He threw breakfast events in the ballroom of one of the city’s larger hotels. All the mavens showed up – unusual turnouts for an establishment that prides itself on being second to none.
He also gave generously to political campaigns. Soon he had persuaded Congress to change the anti-trust law that prevented a single owner to hold a newspaper and a television station in the same market area. And so the Fox television network was born. Rupert had gotten his way and he was on his way.
In 1985, he wangled special permission from Washington to skip certain time and residency requirements, jumped the line and became an American citizen. One of his motives was to circumvent the rules limiting foreign ownership. He has also copied our home- grown moguls in other ways. For the past four years, according to recent news reports, he has paid Lilliputian-sized U.S. taxes. In the latest two of those years, the reports said, he paid no taxes at all. Citizen Murdoch is apparently following the Leona Helmsley rule: only little people pay taxes.
Further details of his history have been extensively detailed of late in the nation’s press – the result of his effort to take over the many-faceted Dow Jones media company and its flagship paper, The Wall Street Journal. Rupert’s offer was a surprisingly high $5 billion, obviously meant as a pre-emptive bid to fend off any other possible suitors. The Journal is a much-respected paper that covers the business world across the globe with distinctively high-quality journalism. Most elders in the journalism community have expressed fears that Rupert would take the Journal’s quality downward, as he had with so many of the other newspapers he has acquired. Not surprisingly, in his negotiations with the Dow Jones board of directors, he has promised to maintain the paper’s quality. Rupert’s promises, as he has taught us, have a very short life span. He promised Dolly Schiff when he bought the Post, He promised the London Sunday Times when he took over there. He promised many others. The results tell the story. Rupert is a street-fighter, he doesn’t observe any Geneva Conventions, he makes his own rules as he swallows each media unit.
From the start, most people believed that by waving $5 billion under the many noses of the extended Bancroft family, who have maintained the credibility of Dow Jones and the Journal for over a century, he would again get his way. And he did. After weeks of debate and agonizing, exactly at his deadline, July 31, enough of the Bancrofts succumbed and cast their shares for his offer.
What happens to the Journal now? Only one thing is certain. A man in his late 70s does not suddenly get a soul transplant. He is an amasser of power and profit. His tools are charm, money, ruthlessness and intimidation.
My other personal memory of Rupert has to do with all these qualities. Sometimes he doesn’t even have to lift a finger, since his track record precedes him. This was one of those times.
I had moved from the Metropolitan Editor’s chair to The Times’ Op-Ed page, introducing a new opinion column titled “New York.” And after watching Rupert’s comings and goings for about a year, I wrote a column about his power-gathering. The headline was: “The Tasmanian Devil.” (Obviously it was not meant literally; he is carnivorous, but only in a figurative sense.)
The next morning, I learned from Max Frankel, then the editor of the opinion page and later the paper’s executive editor, that the publisher, Arthur (“Punch”) Sulzberger Sr., had called Max the night before, after getting his hand-delivered copy of the early edition, to complain about the tone of my piece. He wanted it removed from later editions. Max said he talked him out of this, arguing that its absence in later editions would only draw excessive notice to the column.
Instead, the publisher called a late-afternoon conference in his digs on the 14th floor. In a polite fashion, I was being called on the executive carpet. In addition to the publisher, Sydney Gruson, Punch’s right-hand man, was there, as was Max. Drinks were poured and Punch explained his stance. He felt that other publishers were our colleagues and therefore not proper material for critical columns. I posited that newspapers were major opinion shapers and therefore centers of power and that if my column was going to examine the establishment, media chiefs should not be left off the list. Punch then got right to his point. “Sydney,” he said of Murdoch, “I have to do business with him.” I understood him completely and said no more.
As I left the meeting, though, I thought to myself: Murdoch is the guy who, during the 1978 strike, thumbed his nose at the Publishers Association and resumed publication of the Post while the other papers were still dark. This was a man who went around slurring The Times, calling its journalism “liberal propaganda.” Yes, Punch had to do business with him, knowing that this is a man whose word has little worth.
The reporters and editors of the Wall Street Journal [which Murdoch was purchasing] have reason to be worried.
First published on Schanberg Reports, July 22, 2007