When I was offered a job as a film critic for the New York Post in 1975, it had just been labeled “a terrible newspaper” by Nora Ephron in her media column for Esquire. Having been a Post reporter, she knew whereof she spoke. Dolly Schiff, the paper’s legendary dowager-in-chief, was notorious for being cheap, petty, whimsical, and, somewhat more fetchingly, a rumored onetime paramour of FDR. Her paper was a rapidly declining asset—a staunchly liberal tabloid chasing after a hypothetical middlebrow afternoon readership too highfalutin for the Daily News and yet insufficiently titillated by the sober New York Times. I knew Nora and asked her if I should really take the plunge into a newsroom she had so convincingly portrayed as a hellhole. She advised, wisely: Well, why not? I was 25 that spring and had nothing to lose except my innocence.
Which I would lose soon enough. I liked and looked up to my colleagues at the Post, many of them talented, hardworking, and ingenious at circumventing the obstacles imposed by the owner. They soon inducted me into the gallows humor of the joint. Everyone knew the ax would fall one day. We just didn’t know which day, or who would be wielding it. When the moment finally arrived, shortly before Thanksgiving in 1976, with the announcement that Schiff would sell her paper to a foreign mogul almost no one had ever heard of, it was greeted as good news. “Nobody was crying,” one reporter told the Times. “It was a rebirth. The Post is an orphan that has been adopted.” Our Daddy Warbucks would not only pour money into the paper’s impoverished coffers but also, as he told the Times, preserve its “essential characteristics,” “style of reporting,” and “political policies.” The Post would continue to be a “serious newspaper.”
A day or two later, I was walking across the South Street newsroom when I ran into a young Australian reporter on the staff, Jane Perlez. You must know something about Rupert Murdoch, I said, feeling quite upbeat about our white knight from Down Under. Jane would have none of it. “He’s bloody why I left Australia!” she replied.
Within a year or so, many of us would leave the Post, in some cases to land sooner or later at the Times: Jane (these days a courageous correspondent in Pakistan), Anna Quindlen, Clyde Haberman, Joyce Purnick, and Joyce Wadler, among others. In the telling of Murdoch’s hagiographers (who often are on his payroll), we and those who departed his subsequent acquisitions were driven out solely because our delicate liberal sensibilities were offended by the new proprietor’s Fleet Street–style sensationalism, blatant conservative politics, and machete editing of our precious prose. Such is the tale told in It’s Alive, a celebratory 1996 memoir written by Steven Cuozzo (a Schiff-era hire who never left). As he has it, Murdoch was a savior whose Post “broke the elitist media stranglehold” by democratizing public discourse and ruffling “Establishment feathers.” Indeed, his cheerful 300-page-plus encomium invokes Alexander Hamilton, the Post’s long-dishonored 1801 founder, as often as it does the paper’s latter-day mascot, the pickled Aussie hack Steve Dunleavy. “All of us owed our destinies to Alexander Hamilton,” Cuozzo writes grandly of his colleagues past and present. Of course, the same could be said of Aaron Burr.
The story told by Cuozzo is a triumphalist gloss on what actually happened just after Schiff sold the Post, but his take on Murdoch could stand as the template for News Corp.’s line of defense today, as a tidal wave of scandal washes over its British properties and inexorably heads toward American shores. This perennial spin—which often has served as the lazy conventional wisdom in non–News Corp. accounts of the great man as well—casts Murdoch as a brilliant newspaper maven who’ll go so far as to roll up his shirtsleeves to help his mates at deadline. In an era when even his own bean counters tell him newspapers are a dying business, he has valiantly overpaid for dinosaur print properties and saved the jobs of multitudes of ink-stained wretches who would otherwise be thrown out of work. And yet he gets little respect because he’s just too damn brave and iconoclastic for his own good. His only crimes are to hold political views unfashionably to the right of the “mainstream media” and to pursue tabloid stories that challenge those in power, delight the masses, and offend the antediluvian standards of the tweedy has-beens teaching at Columbia’s journalism school.
This romantic profile of Murdoch puts him squarely in the tradition of a fabled (if often tawdry) old-school media mogul like William Randolph Hearst, whose papers famously fomented the Spanish-American War and perfected the modern gossip machine. Murdoch, ipso facto, is Citizen Kane, while the Post and “Page Six” are recast as scrappy descendants of Hearst’s Mirror and Walter Winchell—the all-American New York tabloid culture enshrined in another film classic, the 1957 Sweet Smell of Success. In the eyes of its defenders, the Murdoch dynasty can even be likened to the Sulzbergers and Grahams. Maybe the Times and Washington Post turn up their noses at tabloid antics, but their proprietors, like Murdoch, have strenuously endorsed political candidates and causes and, at times, secured government favors that serve their business interests.