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What Rupert Wrought

“But, boss,” pleaded Dunleavy, “you just spent $30 million on the Post. For once, let it be limos!” And it was.

The few who were familiar with Murdoch’s history were skeptical, but for the most part, New York, a city of subway readers, gave him a warm welcome. “New York hasn’t had a first-rate newspaper rivalry since the Great Strike of 1962,” wrote Michael Kramer in More, a respected, if short-lived, journalism review. “And now, thanks to Australian newspaper magnate Rupert Murdoch, the good old days seem to be on their way back.”

And what of Murdoch’s briny recipe for success—the blood, the guts, the boobs? That would never play here, Kramer, More’s editor, confidently predicted. “His mix for the Big Apple is going to be a good deal more sophisticated.”

Not long after assuming control of the paper, Murdoch had stood in the Post’s newsroom and assured his staff that he had no dramatic changes in mind. “Don’t judge me by what you’ve heard about me,” he said. “Judge me by what I do.”

The first sign of change had been harmless enough. On January 3, 1977, Murdoch added a thick red stripe to the Post’s otherwise black-and-white front page. That same day, “Midnight” Earl Wilson finally got some company: “Page Six.” In its first month, “Page Six,” a gossip column assembled by a team of reporters, spotted Woody Allen canoodling with a “very young girlfriend” at Elaine’s; reported that Dorothy Hamill was carrying on with Dean Martin’s son, Dino Jr.; and quoted Muhammad Ali saying that he’d like to star in an all-black remake of Ben-Hur.

Murdoch was an active presence in the newsroom, writing and rewriting headlines, even answering telephones. Men with Australian accents—“gangaroos,” as veteran Posties called them—were soon roaming the paper’s halls too. They liked the feel of the city, and they loved that the pubs stayed open past 10:30. But they had a lot to learn about New York. One of the new editors, Peter Michelmore, asked veteran reporter George Arzt about the ethnicity of the staff.

“We’re mostly Jewish,” Arzt replied.

“I haven’t met many Jews,” said Michelmore. “We were always taught that they had horns on their head.”

“Mine are retractable,” answered Arzt.

The most reviled of Murdoch’s new editors was Edwin Bolwell, a squat Aussie prone to shouting and turning red in the face. Among other ignominious acts, Bolwell decided that the reviews by the Post’s young film critic, Frank Rich, were “too windy” and ordered them halved.

Beame called Murdoch an “Australian carpetbagger” who “came here to line his pockets by peddling fiction in the guise of news.”

Topless women, it was decided, wouldn’t fly in New York, but that didn’t rule out cheesecake. In March 1977, the Post ran 21 items on Farrah Fawcett-Majors, the feather-haired star of Charlie’s Angels. Stories became shorter, pictures bigger, headlines louder, the news more ideologically charged. The Post hammered away at what it perceived as New York’s permissive criminal culture, fronting a photograph of Alice Crimmins, a cocktail waitress who’d been sent to jail for killing her two children, enjoying her weekend furloughs on a yacht. On the eve of the execution of serial killer Gary Gilmore, the first person put to death in America in more than a decade, a peaceful protest took place in front of his Utah penitentiary. This is how the Post played it on the front page: THREAT TO STORM GILMORE PRISON.

Then came the blackout—and New York’s first real taste of what Murdoch could do with a major news event. On July 13, 1977, Con Ed lost power and plunged the city into darkness. The lights went out around 9:30 at night, and within minutes, there were reports of looting. Violence would end up striking every borough, but damage was particularly severe in poor neighborhoods like Bushwick, Brooklyn, where virtually every single store was gutted and burned.

The city struggled to make sense of the carnage—was this a cry for help from neighborhoods buckling under the unfair burden of unemployment and disinvestment? Had the safety net failed?

The Post felt no ambivalence whatsoever. The riots, in the paper’s plain view, were the handiwork of criminals running free under the cover of darkness. Murdoch came into the paper’s un-air-conditioned office at dawn after the blackout and quickly sweated through his white dress shirt. The power outage prevented the Post from publishing that afternoon, but the paper’s “Blackout Special,” with the front page blaring 24 HOURS OF TERROR and a pullout section headlined A CITY RAVAGED, was on the streets the following morning to stoke the anger and fears of its readers. An editorial blasted the police commissioner for his “absurd order to go slowly . . . as the mobs ran wild.” The Post also invoked the blackout from 1965 to suggest that conditions in the city were worsening. “In ghastly contrast to 1965, when a spirit of unity and common sacrifice brightened every section of the darkened city, New York was transformed into a series of seething battlegrounds.”

To Osborn Elliott, whose job as a deputy mayor was to attract business to the city, the real disaster wasn’t the looting. It was the New York Post’s coverage of it. Elliott dispatched a letter to Murdoch. “So your New York Post has now covered New York City’s first big crisis since you took over,” wrote Elliott. “Are you proud of what your headlines produced?”

Mayor Abe Beame denounced Murdoch too, calling the paper’s arriviste publisher an “Australian carpetbagger” who “came here to line his pockets by peddling fiction in the guise of news.” The Post, the mayor continued, “makes Hustler magazine look like the Harvard [Law] Review.” Pete Hamill also laid into Murdoch, comparing him to a guest who vomits at a dinner party: Everyone looks at him with alarm and pity, but no one knows quite what to do with him. “Something vaguely sickening is happening to that newspaper,” Hamill wrote in the Daily News, “and it is spreading through the city’s psychic life like a stain.”

Murdoch himself could not have cared less. The Post’s July 15 “Blackout Special” exceeded the paper’s usual Friday sales by 75,000. His tabloid—and his Hobbesian view of the city—was starting to catch on.

As if the blackout weren’t enough diversion for one summer, New York was also contending with a serial killer. Here again, Murdoch seized the opportunity to frighten and soothe, and to define the city on his terms. For a newspaperman, it was hard to imagine a better story. A killer with a .44-caliber pistol was hunting young women and leaving notes for the police signed “the Son of Sam.”