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What Rupert Wrought

Post headlines from 1977 on the capture of Son of Sam and the blackout.  

The Post published the great Murray Kempton, whose columns seemed to embody best the paper’s ethos, its commitment to ennobling the struggles of the working class, while keeping a keen eye on the rich and powerful. It was also the paper of “It Happened Last Night,” the gentlemanly gossip columnist written by “Midnight” Earl Wilson. “Nobody ever feared me,” Wilson once boasted.

Through the sixties, Schiff embraced the emerging ways of the tabloid, a whole new approach to fashioning narratives. Tabloids were passionate, dramatic, melodramatic. Even when big issues were at stake, tab stories had to be driven by larger-than-life characters and defining details.

In December 1962, a citywide strike upended the New York newspaper world. Four major dailies died in its wake, and the Post would have keeled over, too, if Schiff hadn’t broken ranks with her fellow publishers and negotiated her own settlement with the unions. (Murdoch pulled exactly the same stunt in the summer of ’78.) In 1967, when the Post’s last afternoon competitor folded, the paper’s circulation nearly doubled to 700,000.

But the good times didn’t last. The Post grew dowdy in its dotage. Schiff’s cheapness was partly to blame; among her memorable cost-cutting measures was the mandate that reporters obtain prior approval before placing overseas phone calls. While the rest of the media were busy discovering the new celebrity culture—Time Inc. launched People, Andy Warhol launched Interview, the Daily News hired people-spotter Liz Smith—the Post was still clinging to Midnight Earl and his jocular chitchat about the Great White Way.

It’s hard not to read something else into the paper’s aimlessness. The trauma of the Lindsay years had eroded New York’s civic culture, which the Post had so assiduously nurtured with its expansive liberalism. By the mid-seventies, New York’s middle class was becoming increasingly conservative. Somewhere along the way, the Post had lost its raison d’être, and Rupert Murdoch, who, like any self-respecting publishing tycoon, yearned to sink roots in New York, had apparently found his.

Murdoch first met the Post’s silver-haired doyenne in the summer of 1974, at the East Hampton beach house of New York Magazine’s founder, Clay Felker. Murdoch could be charming, particularly when he smelled a bargain. Like a young couple eyeing a widow’s gracious, if dilapidated, Park Slope townhouse, he recognized the Post as a blue-chip property that had just about bottomed out. Schiff, who’d been married and divorced four times and still smoked Kools through a white cigarette holder, was not immune to charm, particularly when her seducer’s sweet nothings included attacks on the New York Times.

The first time Murdoch asked Schiff about buying the Post, she turned him down. But after the paper logged a substantial loss in ’75 and was en route to an even bigger deficit in ’76, Schiff, in the fall of that year, invited Murdoch to lunch at the Post’s shabby downtown digs. The two publishers sat at her luncheon table and ate roast-beef sandwiches on rye bread—Schiff served corned beef to Jews, tuna to Catholics, and roast beef to Protestants—beneath a life-size papier-mâché statue of Alexander Hamilton. “I sensed that she was very tired,” Murdoch later reflected. Within three months, they had settled on a $31 million price tag.

Murdoch went off to a private dining room upstairs at ‘21’ to celebrate with twenty of his most trusted colleagues. The corks were still popping come midnight. The group eventually stumbled downstairs and found Governor Hugh Carey and Tip O’Neill, who would soon become speaker of the House, at the bar. Murdoch and his crew joined them for a drink. James Brady, the editor of The National Star, suggested that they finish the night at Elaine’s, where the media elite always finished its nights.

As was the custom, a few stretch limos were grazing in front of ‘21,’ hoping for some freelance fares. The Star’s ace reporter, Steve Dunleavy, suggested that they travel uptown in style. Murdoch shook his head; taxis would be cheaper.