West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 3 | June 20 - 26, 2007

Talking Point

Murdoch would gut Journal, just as he did with Post

By Jerry Tallmer

I would like to have been a fly on the wall at the Alice in Wonderland tea party between the great grinning, purring Cheshire Cat, otherwise known as Rupert Murdoch, and that roomful of Tweedledums and Tweedledees — members young and old of the Bancroft family. The Bancrofts who were being wooed by Rupe ($5 billion worth of wooing) to sell him the grand old Wall Street Journal he was promising to never change one syllable of … this time, he swore, for real. Unless, that is, you count the Page 6 boardroom-and-bedroom snoopery column slated for implantation on W.S.J.’s Page 2.

The fly on the wall has been there before — not at an earlier such tea party, or courtship, where the torch of journalism was being passed (for a mere $31 million) from one pair of hands (female, soigné, aristocratic) to another (shrewd, smooth, Australian, rapacious, boorish when unleashed) — but on the very torch thus being passed, the no less historic old New York Post.

Buzz, buzz, dear Bancrofts. It may still not be too late to listen to Jack Shafer of Slate, who suggests that you immunize yourselves against Rupert’s soft soap by studying the pages about him in “The Lady Upstairs,” a recent biography of Dorothy Schiff by Marilyn Nissenson (St. Martin’s Press, 2007).

Or you could listen to the fly.

But first, the following key passage by Ms. Nissenson on Rupert Murdoch’s promise-making MO:

“Buyer and seller sat down together in Dorothy Schiff’s South Street office just after noon on November 19 [1976]. They issued a joint statement announcing the sale pending final negotiations and details. Dorothy said: ‘Rupert Murdoch is a man with a strong commitment to the spirit of independent, progressive journalism. I am confident he will carry on vigorously in the tradition I value so deeply.’”

Progressive? How did that word sneak in there? Maybe in the Orwellian sense? Black = white? Good = bad? Because, in fact, the tradition Dorothy Schiff valued so deeply — thanks, in part, over the years to her daily commerce with the last liberal left on earth, New York Post editor-columnist James A. Wechsler, but also because she was born into it — was the liberal tradition, an anathema to the mature, if not perhaps the young, Rupert Murdoch, press-baron-to-be.

From Nissenson, further to that feel-good final sit-down of buyer and seller: “Murdoch said he hoped to add pages and more good writers … He stressed that The Post would continue to be a ‘serious newspaper.’”

Buzz, buzz. The day after the contract of sale was signed, with Mrs. Schiff kept on for five years as a “consultant,” the troops — the reporters, sub-editors, photographers, etc., of The New York Post — were summoned to the City Room. The fly — this fly — was of course among them.

As we assembled, several score of us, maybe more, in a sort of ring, the new owner strode in and held up a hand for quiet. Good day, he said. I am Rupert Murdoch. There has been a great deal written about me in recent weeks, Murdoch said. Don’t believe any of it, he said. Don’t believe what you read or hear. Believe what we do. Watch what we do. And I promise you this: I am not going to change anything — anything — on the New York Post.

The day after that — the very next day — the folio, or page number, disappeared from the last page of all editions of the New York Post. It was such a skimpy paper, so few pages, as compared with Murdoch’s pet phobia, the Daily News. Why let that folio be there for all to see? You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time….

I’ve just looked at the back page of today’s New York Post, 31 years later. No folio.

The day after the folio disappeared — well, I won’t say the day after, but perhaps not much more than a week or two later, Jimmy Wechsler, under whose aegis I was at the moment writing editorials, came to me with a weary shrug and said: “They’ve just killed off Herblock. Rupert hates his stuff.” That would be Herblock, the Pulitzer-and-everything-else winning political cartoonist whose stuff (anti-reactionary might be one way of putting it) would of course be detested by Murdoch.

They — Murdoch’s imported editors, Australian-tinted Fleet Street hacks out of Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and Harold Pinter — had already started to butcher stories, chop them short, delete every qualifying phrase or nuance, jam them into a Procrustes bed of single-column or half-column length. And at that point, still early in the game, Murdoch brought in, as editor-in-chief, a bad-tempered, bullying bastard whose main role, as far as I (and many others) could see was to force all the remaining editors of the Schiff era to walk out the door. Almost the first to go, after 50 years at the paper, was Dolly’s right arm, sardonic executive editor Paul Sann. Everybody farther down the ladder who could get out did, as soon as they could.

Novelist Mary McCarthy once notoriously said of playwright Lillian Hellman: “Everything she writes is a lie including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” By now, everything appearing in the New York Post — unchecked, uncorroborated, unbalanced, unweighed, unverified — could be taken as close to a lie. “Never believe what you read in The Post” became the staff gag line.

The bullying bastard, his function completed, didn’t last long. He was replaced down the line by Roger Wood, an educated Brit cut to Murdoch’s cloth and much more insidious form of bully. For all that, I once saw Wechsler come back, white-faced, from an editorial conference — he had to go to around four such a day — in Roger Wood’s office.

“There was only Roger, Rupert and me,” Jimmy said. “And Rupert picked up today’s paper and went through it page by page, story by story, headline by headline, caption by caption, bawling the shit out of Roger for every damn thing on every page. I never heard anyone talk to anyone like that before in my life.”

This fly once saw the same side of Rupert Murdoch in a narrower context. It was at the desk of a sub-editor — an American — who was desperately trying to make The Post live up to a somewhat higher standard. He was also running a radio show The Post had started, bringing reporters to the microphone. I was talking with him about something when Rupert Murdoch blazed in, slapping down that day’s issues of The Post and the Daily News. He banged his fist down on the News.

“You’ve got to stick it to them, John!” he shouted. “You’ve got to stick it to them! Don’t let ’em up!” He was all but foaming at the mouth — a caricature almost out of the Daily Worker, or a bad Australian movie, or something.

“Perhaps we can educate Rupert,” that editor later said to me. “There’s too much good at stake here. Perhaps we can get him to change.” But I remembered what Harold Evans, onetime editor of the London Sunday Times, had reported in “Good Times, Bad Times,” his memoir about his stewardship of that paper. Evans had said that very same thing — “Perhaps Rupert can change” — to some person of consequence in London. The person of consequence replied: “I went to school with Rupert. He’ll never change.”

Almost the last person to take his (or her) leave of the Murdoch Post was also the most important person who had ever worked for The Post. That was Murray Kempton, not only the finest writer ever on The Post but one of the finest writers on any newspaper in the United States, before or since. (He was also the person, I had best say, who was instrumental in my coming to The Post in 1962.)

Now, under Murdoch, there was a period of some months during which I edited a special News of the Week section for a Sunday edition of The Post. This section had sprung into being when Rupert — taking a cue from what Dorothy Schiff had done some years earlier — settled with the several editorial and printing and delivery-truck unions while all the other city dailies were still adamantly on strike or lockout, whichever way you saw it.

By now, The Post had still another editor, or managing editor, whose name I have mercifully forgotten. What I remember was that he had worked for the Associated Press, that he was huge and abrupt and bearlike and walked down the halls like a bear, thump, thump, thump, his arms swaying at his sides.

Murray Kempton was off in Poland, covering the revisit of the pope to his, the pope’s, native land. Murray was asked to file a story for my News of the Week section by midnight of a certain day of the week. Mr. Kempton was living in a hostel somewhere in Warsaw, and hard to reach by telephone.

Along about midnight, on the day in question, I finally got Murray, who seemed quite warmed with happy juice, on the phone — I was, in fact, calling from the desk of Editor X, the man who walked like a bear, and who throughout the evening had kept nervously enquiring if we were going to meet that deadline. Now, across 3,500 miles of land and ocean, Murray swore at me a lot and said he wasn’t going to file any goddamn story. I said, Oh please, Murray. He said a few other — quite a few other — recalcitrant things, like who the hell wanted to read his goddamn junk anyway — junk in that News of the Dilly-Dally section he wasn’t even getting paid for — and I said, Oh please, Murray, and then, when he kept snarling negatives, I began to lay it on thick about how much we and the world and the New York Post’s News of the Week needed a voice like his, the greatest ironist in journalism, the insight that only he could supply, and so on and so forth. I guess it was a little like Rupert wooing Dorothy Schiff — or the Bancrofts — if you want to know.

And suddenly Murray said: “Stop talking to me like a fucking Leontyne Price,” and hung up.

“What did he say?” Editor X wanted to know.

“He said: ‘Stop talking to me like a fucking Leontyne Price,’” I said.

There was a long silence. Then, at what must have been 2 o’clock in the morning, Editor X, formerly of the Associated Press, managing editor of a daily newspaper in the greatest and busiest city in the world, looked at me blankly and said: “What is a Leontyne Price?”

An opera singer, I said. Very sweet lady. Gushy, almost.

What’s further to be here confessed is that I am quoted, briefly, now and again, in Marilyn Nissenson’s biography of Mrs. Schiff.

The most consequential of these excerpts is as follows:

“It was a blinding shock to me to come to work and learn that the paper had been sold. I had been telling everybody — everybody was telling everybody — that this was her [Dorothy Schiff’s] life, she was only seventy-three, she’s in the prime of her life, and she’ll never let it go.”

It must have been the next winter, or the winter after that, I happened on a dark, wet, snow-laden, rotten evening to be walking down Lexington Avenue, right across from Bloomingdale’s. As I mushed along toward my bus stop, I passed a little old lady hitched by a leash to a tiny dog. I was a quarter way farther down the block when I stopped, was struck by thunderbolt, and retraced my steps. Sure enough, the little old lady with a dog was … Mrs. Schiff. She’d always been too vain to wear eyeglasses outside the office, and too blind to recognize you until close up. I came close up and identified myself. She stared and said — with what could be read as paranoia — “What are you doing here?” I mean, like, here in her neighborhood, across the street from Bloomingdale’s.

Ah, Mrs. Schiff. You of the silks, the tulles, the beiges, the lilacs, the penthouse, the pillows, the perpetual cigarette in the perpetual F.D.R.-angled cigarette holder, the well-bred nasal bored-unbored timbre of speech, the interest in everything, the command of everything, the Imperial Dolly — this dried-up little fallen leaf of an old lady? Where now the snows of yesteryear?

You should never have let it go, Dolly, $31 million or no $31 million. It kept you alive, and young. Forever young. Bancrofts young and old, be warned.

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