But through the tumultuous summer of ’77, Koch gained ground with a steady drumbeat of clever commercials, produced by his ruthless campaign strategist, David Garth. “Mayor Beame is asking for four more years to finish the job,” went one memorable ad. “Finish the job? Hasn’t he done enough?” Meanwhile, Koch put in eighteen-hour days, campaigning in a Winnebago blaring “N.Y.C.,” the hit song from the Broadway musical Annie.
Koch had one great advantage over his rivals. He was a pragmatist, unbeholden to New York’s liberal institutions and therefore adaptable to the changing desires of the electorate. He inveighed against the powerful unions with their stranglehold on the city budget. He championed the death penalty, which was meaningless as a practical mayoral position—the state, not the city, was in charge of punishing criminals—but it nevertheless translated into a tough-on-crime message that resonated with an increasing number of New Yorkers.
The anti-crime stance proved crucial in the wake of the blackout. Before it, Koch had been marooned in the polls in the mid-single digits, a distant fourth behind Abzug, Beame, and Cuomo. By the middle of August, with less than a month to go before the Democratic primary, Koch was at 14 percent. And he only needed to take second place. The primary rules were such that if no candidate captured 40 percent of the vote, the top two finishers would face each other in a runoff.
The break that put Koch over the top came in a phone call on the morning of August 19. The caller identified himself as Rupert.
“Rupert?” asked Koch. Then he recognized the Australian accent. “Ahhhh, Rupert.”
In a field of unreconstructed liberals, Koch stood out easily as the most conservative. He was the best Murdoch could do. The Post, Murdoch told Koch, was going to endorse him; the paper actually did much more than that, running the editorial on its front page and generating so much pro-Koch copy in the ensuing weeks that 50 Post reporters and editors signed a petition complaining about their tabloid’s biased coverage. Murdoch invited them to quit; twelve did.
What did Murdoch get in return? Some penny-ante patronage—Koch agreed to appoint a particular lawyer to a senior position in his administration—but more than that, Murdoch had wagered that Koch represented his best shot at becoming a kingmaker in his new town. It was yet another bet that paid off. Koch routed Cuomo in the runoff and went on to win the general election in November.
Like Koch, Murdoch intuitively understood the city’s desire for drama and conflict because he shared it.
Murdoch and Koch were an unlikely pair, but beneath the surface, they had a fair bit in common. They were flawed, farsighted, self-made men who intuitively understood the city’s desire for drama and conflict because they shared it. They were not idealists but egomaniacs.
To their hungry eyes, New York wasn’t a “ruined and broken city” but a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
As imposing a figure as Murdoch quickly became in New York, nobody could have foreseen the effect he would have all over the country, and indeed the world, in the coming decades. With the Post as his base, he bought up this magazine, as well as the Village Voice (later selling both), then embarked on a fearless expansion that made his company News Corp. second only to Time Warner as a U.S. media giant. His properties extend from book publishers to the latest satellites, and still plenty of newspapers (175, give or take).
The Post, though, remains the soul of the News Corp. monolith. It has never made a penny under Murdoch, but it has been a powerful cultural force. The Post’s reaction to the blackout and riots became the popular view, laying the foundation for a revised thinking about crime. The soft approaches that had been implemented with Great Society fanfare in the sixties, the focus on housing, jobs, and a supportive welfare state, lost support even among many of its early liberal champions. The Post was among the first institutions to grasp the significance of this change and to play to it. Real action on the political front took much longer to develop—crime rates continued to soar through the eighties—but by the time Rudy Giuliani took office in 1994, the city heartily embraced his zero-tolerance ideas about policing. The political support (and popular goodwill) that the NYPD enjoys to this day has its roots in those frightful events of July 1977, which the Post pinned on a weakened and disillusioned Police Department.
The Son of Sam episode, meanwhile, opened the door for a whole new brand of media gamesmanship. The hypercompetitive, interventionist tabloid tactics that were, in part, invented by the Post as it pursued the Son of Sam story spread to all corners of the media universe. Years later, when New York Times editor Howell Raines talked of “flooding the zone” in terms of how the paper covered critical events, he probably did not realize the debt he owed to its early practitioners at the New York Post. Murdoch’s editors built stories out of the thinnest shreds of news, jammed them together in unwieldy packages, and shamelessly plugged the results. And while Murdoch wasn’t the first newsman to realize news could make spectacular entertainment (see Hearst, William Randolph), he mastered the art of news hysteria, which would prove irresistable to television. That was no accident either, since Murdoch’s Fox network led the way there, too.
And with “Page Six,” and the rest of the gossip columns that were soon jockeying for space in the pages of the Post, Murdoch helped create a form of news that has since come to dominate the American media—one which invented an ever-shifting community of famous, near famous, and formerly famous people, about whom the merest personal detail could be reported as if it were a powerful revelation. Long before there was a Nick and Jessica or a Brad and Jen, Murdoch gave them a stage to dance on.
Murdoch’s Post now reconciles two contradictory impulses. It has stolen from the Daily News the mantle of New York’s populist paper, and yet it also fêtes the city’s rich and powerful, trafficking in a kind of tycoonophilia. The very same power-hungry plutocrats whom the old Post loved to torment are given the royal treatment by Murdoch’s Post—until they fall, that is, and then the Post gleefully piles on. In his free-market worldview, it’s the nastiest divorce, the scariest car chase, the grisliest murder that wins. And we cannot help but be entertained by it. We love the extremes, the sweetness of cheap victories and the agony of humiliating defeats, and he serves them up.
In Murdoch’s years as a New Yorker, a city of civil servants, political clubhouses, and labor unions became a city of real-estate developers, hedge-fund managers, and media barons. Like it or not, the New York we are living in today was born in 1977, and Murdoch was one of its founding fathers. On the ashes of the social-democratic city, he built a capitalist utopia where corporate lawyers live in the Soho lofts once occupied by garment workers; where Trump and Diller have replaced Shanker and Gotbaum as icons; where the mayor isn’t just a Republican, he’s a billionaire.