This defense is a smoke screen. The real transgressions of the Murdoch empire are not its outré partisanship, its tabloid sleaze, its Washington lobbying, or even what liberals most love to hate, the bogus “fair and balanced” propaganda masquerading as journalism at Fox News. In fact, these misdemeanors are red herrings—distractions from the real News Corp. corruption that now threatens to bring down its management and radically reconfigure and reduce its international corporate footprint. The bigger story is this: An otherwise archetypal media colossus, with apolitical TV shows (American Idol), movies (Avatar), and cable channels (FX) like any other, is controlled by a family (and its tight coterie of made men and women, exemplified by the recently departed Rebekah Brooks) that countenances the intimidation and silencing of politicians, regulators, competitors, journalists, and even ordinary citizens to maximize its profits and power and to punish perceived corporate, political, and personal enemies. And, as we now know conclusively, some of this behavior has broken the law.
This ethos would never be tolerated for long at most public companies, but News Corp. is a faux-public company thanks to the Murdochs’ special tier of controlling shares. What’s being illuminated daily by the News of the World revelations in London are the broad parameters, still sketchily filled in, of News Corp.’s definition of business-as-usual: the compulsive lying (James Murdoch’s testimony before Parliament is of a piece with that interview Rupert gave to the Times in 1976); the wholesale buying of police and politicians; the thuggery employed to invade the privacy of cheesy celebrities and the 13-year-old murder victim Milly Dowler alike to pump newspaper sales; and the dizzying array of cover-ups, from the sham News Corp. “investigations” and “independent committees” to the hush money that rains down on victims, discarded employees, and cops. It’s not happenstance that many watching the Murdochs’ testimony on television were struck by the resemblance to the Senate hearing in The Godfather: Part II, with James Murdoch starring as Michael Corleone and Joel Klein in the supporting Robert Duvall role of the consigliere Tom Hagen. Students of pop culture know an epic family business when they see one.
As in Godfather II, it’s useful to flash back briefly to what really happened after the patriarch’s splashy arrival in New York. Even in embryo, the corporate DNA was snapping into focus.
Contrary to Cuozzo’s account, it was not tabloid excesses or conservative ideology that drove the exodus of many Post reporters in late 1976 and 1977. In truth, the paper’s tabloid voice hadn’t fully differentiated itself from the one Schiff left behind, even if the headlines were better (though the immortal HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR was still six years away). Nor, in those early days, had the paper’s politics undergone their hard shift rightward. When 50 of the Post’s 60 reporters infuriated their new boss by publicly protesting the paper’s slanted news coverage during the local 1977 political campaign, that coverage was tilted in favor of Ed Koch and Carol Bellamy—both then unabashed liberal Democrats, running for mayor and City Council president. It was the Post’s journalistic corruption that enraged those reporters—the editorials run as news stories (including on page one), the endless parade of fawning features on the favored candidates—not the fungible ideology of Murdoch’s opportunistic partisanship. (His reason for supporting Koch over Mario Cuomo in that race, he explained, was that there were “two-and-a-half million Jews in New York and 1 million Italians.”) This corruption had seeped quickly even into my own soft-news beat. I left the Post soon after a newly installed Murdoch underling informed me that I had to “take the views of our advertisers into consideration” when reviewing movies.
In retrospect, those were the good old days. To appreciate where we’ve traveled since, few words are more evocative than those of Graham Foulkes, who recently learned that his 22-year-old son, killed by a suicide bomber in London in 2005, may have had his cell phone hacked by Murdoch goons. “You think it’s as dark as it can get,” Foulkes told the BBC, “then you realize there’s someone out there who can make it darker.”
The Post would not be my last brush with Murdoch’s minions. An emissary tried to rehire me for his other new purchase in New York—this magazine, which he wrested unscrupulously from its founder, Clay Felker, in 1977 and owned until 1991. (I declined.) Years later, when I became a Times columnist who frequently criticized various Murdoch organs, I was harassed by a “blind” fictional “Page Six” item that had me leaving my wife for a Broadway director. That was a mere warm-up for a full-frontal assault from Bill O’Reilly. After I came to the less-than-novel judgment that Mel Gibson and his 2004 movie The Passion of the Christ were anti-Semitic, O’Reilly, whose one novel had been optioned by Gibson for a film, attacked me on six different installments of his prime-time Fox News show, The O’Reilly Factor, sometimes displaying my photograph. I would have laughed off his blowhard provocations—“Hollywood and a lot of the secular press are controlled by the Jewish people” was a typical hypothesis—had they not incited the most explicitly violent and virulently anti-Semitic threats of my career. It was only one of two times in seventeen years as a Times columnist that I sought security advice. (The other was when I wrote critically about Scientology some years earlier.)