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Rupe’s Attack Dog Gets Bitten, Keeps Barking

At Elaine’s, Allan tells me gleefully that for the next day’s paper, he has commissioned another daffy illustration—this one of Hillary Clinton in a nurse’s outfit (for a story on the Democratic front-runner’s photo op on a nursing shift at a Las Vegas hospital). Since Rupert Murdoch pledged $500,000 to Bill Clinton’s Global Initiative and hosted a fund-raiser last year for Senator Clinton’s reelection campaign, the Post sometimes is cheeky, but never nasty, with its Hillary coverage—in sharp contrast to its harsh treatment of Obama and John Edwards. “We play it straight,” Allan claims. “Hillary has been an excellent senator for the people of New York, and we have been unafraid to say so.”

The biggest gaffe of Allan’s reign came in July 2004, when he splashed a front-page headline announcing Missouri congressman Dick Gephardt as Democratic presidential candidate Senator John Kerry’s running mate. A close Allan confidant told me that Murdoch himself had supplied the tip, a supposition that was widely rumored at the time, but if that’s the case, Allan has fallen on his sword. “Listen, I’m like any other journalist. I got told something by one source that I trusted,” Allan says. “Rupert wanted to know what happened,” Allan reports. “I said, ‘I screwed up.’ He said, ‘Well, I suppose you had a 50 percent chance of getting it right!’ ”

At the bar once again, Allan is talking about his news judgment. “Sales to me are like ratings to television executives,” he explains. “And I happen to believe that the market is right. If they’re not selling, they don’t like us; if we’re selling, they do. I respect the judgment of the audience. They’re smarter than most people in our business give them credit for.

“I’ll get fired not because Rupert doesn’t like the stories I put in the paper. I’ll get fired because we don’t sell newspapers. And that judgment is made not by Rupert, but by the market, and by the audience. And I think that’s pretty democratic. I like that deal.”

“There is a certain braggart swagger” to Allan, says Cindy Adams, “and for there to be this chink in his armor, it hurt him deeply.”

The Post hasn't won a Pulitzer Prize since 1931 (which was well before Murdoch), a fact that pleases Allan. “Hopefully never!” he exclaims defiantly. “Who would want to win an award that is dished out by the hard left of American journalism? Who’d want that?”

The News won its tenth Pulitzer for last year’s series of editorials on the health consequences of the World Trade Center attacks. “Are you fucking kidding me?” Allan demands in a conspiratorial whisper, draining and refilling his glass of Pinot (and topping off mine). “It’s actually fucking sad. I don’t mind if they won a Pulitzer Prize, but it was so flawed, it’s amazing to me.”

Zuckerman’s Daily News is Allan’s white whale, and he’s put a number of irons in it, but the eventual victor is still unclear.

Under Allan’s watch, propelled by its 25-cent price but also by Allan’s snappier packaging, the Post had achieved parity with the News and even a slight edge. Thinking it was safe to stanch its losses (at one point at least $30 million per year) and move the battle to a new phase, the Post on April 30 raised its newsstand price in Manhattan to match the News’s 50 cents. But Zuckerman’s paper was tipped off by distributors to the Post’s pricing plan and slashed its price to a quarter on the same day that the Post was doubling its own. It was, for the Post, a fiasco, both in terms of PR and in terms of dollars. News Corp. execs had calculated it would cost the Post as much as 10 percent of its circulation (to around 650,000 daily), putting the News comfortably back on top (at over 700,000). But the 50-cent price would also have added around $15 million to the Post’s coffers, and the paper would still have been more than 200,000 copies ahead of where it was when it last charged 50 cents back in 2000. But Murdoch hadn’t figured on Zuckerman’s lowering his own newspaper’s price and spending as much as a million dollars to advertise the ploy—an unprecedented display of bravado for the real-estate magnate. A News Corp. exec claims Zuckerman’s ambush was a miscalculation. “Which scenario would you rather have if you were at the News—one where both papers are charging 50 cents or one where you’re charging 50 cents and the Post is charging a quarter?” the exec asks. “They got a short-term win, but long-term, I think it was crazy.” Still, for a man like Allan, who hates to lose, especially to the News, it must have stung.