I’ve never had a conversation with Rupert Murdoch but our paths did cross a couple of times in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s when I was the Metropolitan Editor, and then an Op-Ed columnist, at the New York Times, writing about the New York scene. Like most people, my views have been shaped by my personal experiences, and my experiences with Murdoch were instructive.
Murdoch arrived in New York in 1977 with a deliberate splash, purchasing the strongly liberal but financially slipping New York Post. Along with a bargain-basement $31 million, he gave the paper’s long-time owner, Dolly Schiff, a fervent promise to “maintain its present policies and traditions.” Few in the journalism community believed his pledge, and he confirmed their expectations by quickly skewing the Post to hard-core conservatism both on its editorial pages and in its news coverage. Apolitical reporters were not wanted. The news pages also became sensationalized and trashy.
To any journalist in New York–or any regular newspaper reader for that matter–it was clear that Murdoch was a rough-riding business pirate intent on expanding his empire, one who would say or do almost anything to get his way. His rightist political ideology was real, but he generally made it secondary to his primary crusade–his search for profit, power and the most elusive goal of all, respectability. He was not satanic or even a demon; he was merely a human, modern-day robber baron.
Only a year after his takeover of the Post, a city-wide strike by the pressmen’s union forced the closure of the city’s major papers–The Times, the Daily News and the Post. Murdoch, though he was a member of the Publishers Association, decided to break precedent and provide financing and distribution for a “strike paper”–one of three that sprung up to satisfy the city’s newspaper readers after the strike began. Called The Daily Metro, it operated out of office space on the East Side. Several Times copy editors, reporters and news assistants, to pay their bills, joined Murdoch’s jerry-built strike paper. On paper, the owner of the company was listed as Frederick Iseman, who was unknown to me, though he was described in a Time magazine article at the time as a pre-strike, 25-year-old assistant editor at the Times.
As the Times’ Metropolitan editor, I was a management employee and therefore required to come to the office every day and go through ritual routines, such as editors’ meetings, though there was no paper to put out. It was the worst passage in my journalistic life. One afternoon, after several weeks of these ritual workdays, I decided to take a walk in the summer sunshine and visit the Times staffers at the Murdoch-financed paper. It was a cheerful reunion; all of us were lonely and eager to get back to real newspapering. I spent about an hour schmoozing with these colleagues. I introduced myself to Iseman and explained that this was merely a social visit. There seemed to be no friction.
Early the next morning, I received an angry call at home from Abe Rosenthal, the Times‘ executive editor. He wanted to know why I had gone off the reservation to visit “the enemy.” He was referring not to Murdoch but to the striking Times employees working at his makeshift paper. I said I didn’t consider them “the enemy.” He then told me that he had found out about my visit from Walter Mattson, the chief operating officer of the Times, who had received a nasty call from Murdoch himself, who claimed that I had told all the Times employees at his shop that Rosenthal considered the strike a betrayal and didn’t want any Times employees working for Murdoch. This was utter rubbish; Murdoch was just flexing his muscles in New York and using intimidation tactics, something he was well-known for. I told Abe that no such conversation had taken place. I also told him that Murdoch had frequently demonstrated in the past, as he put together the pieces of his media operation, that he was a person who lied easily. Abe and I spoke loudly to each other for several minutes before our conversation ended.