It was another long night at Elaine’s for Col Allan, who—before the festivities staggered to an end at three o’clock in the morning—would ingest the better part of four bottles of Pinot Noir, while I, unwisely, did my best to keep up.
“If we were the only media organization in the United States, then I would think we would be a little more guarded,” the editor-in-chief of the New York Post told me with a smirk as he refilled my glass. We’re discussing the tabloid’s ruthless mockery of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. “However, given the vastness of the choices that people have, whether it’s the Internet or broadcast television or the cable networks, or the positions taken by the New York Times—”
But doesn’t the Times, I interrupted, conspicuously attempt to be fair and balanced?
Allan—whose outsize wire-rims might lend him a mildly ineffectual aspect if his lips didn’t curl into a default position of amused disgust—leaned into his argument as though uncorking a punch. “I can’t have a serious conversation with you if you tell me the Times plays these issues down the middle,” he says in a braying Aussie twang. “The point is that the New York Times would be extremely dangerous if it were the only choice that Americans had.”
The Obama coverage was not especially over the top in the Post context, but it did seem a vivid example of Allan’s particular gift as an editor. Both the Times and the News had given respectful coverage to the Illinois senator’s major foreign-policy address last month at a Washington think tank. But the Post’s story—headlined OBAMA: I’D INVADE ALLY, STUNNING PLAN TO FIGHT QAEDA IN PAKISTAN—asserted that “Obama’s foreign policy is shaping up to be a ‘talk to your enemies, invade your friends’ approach to American relations abroad,” joining an editorial (which Allan controls), “Obama Bombs”; an op-ed, “Barack’s Blunder”; and a column, “Bluster of Berserk Barack.” Allan had commissioned a photo-illustration depicting the senator poking his helmeted head out of a tank turret—like hapless Democrat Michael Dukakis in the famous 1988 campaign commercial—and featuring a crude map of Pakistan with a schoolboy scrawl: “OBAMA’S PLAN FOR INVADING PAKISTAN. 1. Someone Said the Bad Man iS playing hide-and-Seek there. 2. I want to take my SoldierS to capture him. They have rifles. 3. I don’t care if Mr. Mu Shu or whatever hiS name iS SayS I can’t. I’m the president. 4. I hope I win the game or else the Scary men will get the really big weapons.”
At our table near the back wall, Allan explained, “We treated his position with healthy disrespect, and we let the readers make up their minds.”
He smiled that sardonic smile, and drained the rest of his glass.
At the Post, the party is slightly out of control, which is part of the fun, both for readers and reporters. The paper is aggressive, uninhibited, unpredictable, prone to anger and sometimes juvenile comedy in equal measure. Heroic consumption of alcohol has long been a part of this equation, but even in this tradition Allan stands out. “Col is a very engaging man,” says his sometime dinner companion Graydon Carter. “And he can drink just about anybody I know, with the exception of Christopher Hitchens, under many tables. He’s got real Aussie blood in him.”
Allan sees himself and his News Corp. colleagues as outlaws. “We like being pirates,” Allan tells me. “We don’t like conforming. I don’t want to go to the fanciest cocktail parties. I don’t care for it. I’m not interested. There’s a broader culture within the company that encourages creativity, encourages freedom. And speaking particularly for the Post, I like the idea of a sword and a patch over the eye.”
Certainly, Allan’s vessel is crude, ribald, swashbuckling. His minions torment their victims for sport. They’re outsiders, outlaws. They don’t play by the Times’ rules, or anyone else’s. The pillars of the community are rum and the lash. It’s a hard life, but it has its pleasures.
The day after Elaine’s, my only punishment for my close encounter with Col was a wicked hangover. Australian opposition leader Kevin Rudd wasn’t so lucky. Last month, the Aussie media and several American papers, notably the Daily News, made a frenzied meal out of the revelation that, during an official visit by the Labor Party leader to New York four years ago, the straitlaced Rudd let Allan lure him to the East Side gentlemen’s club Scores, where he got so blotto he allegedly manhandled the strippers, a revelation that has jeopardized Rudd’s well-paid plans to be elected Australia’s prime minister this fall.
The disclosure was only the latest in a series of incidents that have threatened the Post’s pirate lifestyle. In April of last year, there was the astonishing revelation that spat-wearing, watch-fobbed “Page Six” reporter Jared Paul Stern had allegedly tried to shake down Los Angeles billionaire (and Bill Clinton crony) Ron Burkle, offering to keep negative items out of the column for a monthly payment of $10,000, after an initiation fee of $100,000. The scandal widened when Ian Spiegelman, who had been fired for threatening a source, alleged in an affidavit in support of a possible lawsuit by Stern that “Page Six” editor Richard Johnson had accepted $3,000 from a restaurateur to whom he’d given favorable coverage, that negative “Page Six” stories about the Clintons had been routinely killed, and (horror of horrors) that Allan himself had been a habitué of Scores.
Meanwhile, though the Post has managed to spend itself into a circulation stalemate with Mort Zuckerman’s marginally profitable Daily News, Murdoch is still waiting for Allan to stop bleeding tens of millions of dollars annually, much of the deficit the result of the Post’s 25-cent daily cover price, which is half that of the News. Much of the argument for the success of the Post has been that, while unprofitable, it’s nonetheless the “popular” paper, trouncing the News in circulation growth. When, in late April, the Post raised its price to the News’ 50 cents (and when the News countered by dropping its price to 25 cents) the growth disappeared overnight, showing the Post’s popularity to be more than a little overstated.
The backdrop to this procession of embarrassments was News Corp.’s pursuit and eventual capture of The Wall Street Journal, an enterprise that required Rupert Murdoch to present himself as a fair-minded steward of responsible journalism, not a rapacious tabloid mogul. Col Allan and the Post have seen themselves as something like Murdoch’s id incarnate. But in the past few months, Dr. Jekyll has been eager to keep Mr. Hyde under wraps. And the Post, of course, wouldn’t be the Post if it was forced to play by a more dignified set of rules.