A House that Murdoch Bought
Sarah Ellison, War At The Wall Street Journal: Inside the Struggle to Control an American Business Empire (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010), 304 pp., $27.00.
David Kindred, Morning Miracle: Inside the Washington Post; A Great Newspaper Fights for Its Life (New York: Doubleday, 2010), 288 pp., $26.95.
Gay Talese, The Kingdom and the Power: Behind the Scenes at The New York Times: The Institution That Influences the World (New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2007), 576 pp., $18.00.
[amazon 0547152434 full]THESE THREE books are all of the genre of unabashed fascination with broadsheets, written in the implicit and fervently held belief that prominent American newspapers and what happens inside them—the infighting, the breaking of stories and the principal personalities behind these activities—are vital and interesting. Unfortunately, I don’t agree. Having been the controlling shareholder of several of the world’s best or best-known newspapers (the London Daily and Sunday Telegraphs, the Spectator, the Sydney Morning Herald,Melbourne’s Age,the Australian Financial Review, the National Post of Canada,the Jerusalem Post, the Chicago Sun-Times and scores of others), I can attest that they are really only interesting to those directly concerned with their daily machinations. These books all dote on the minutiae of the three great American newspapers they describe, respectively, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and the New York Times. I have known the principal recent players at the head of those three daily print media, including the last two Sulzbergers (Arthur Ochs Sr. and Jr.) to publish the Times, as well as Sydney Gruson, a foreign editor turned executive-board member, John Oakes, once of the editorial page, executive editor from 1977 to 1986 Abe Rosenthal and some additional prominent Timesmen; Rupert Murdoch and his sidekicks at the Journal, the former group led by Peter Kann, the CEO of Dow Jones & Company, as well as his wife, onetime publisher Karen Elliot House; and Kay and Don Graham of the Washington Post—former publisher and current CEO, respectively—along with Ben Bradlee, now a vice president at-large. There is not one that I disliked, nor any whose intelligence wasn’t or isn’t evident, but few of them were unusually interesting people to know, have dinner with or talk to.
Murdoch, because he is probably the most successful media owner in history (so international, innovative and daring) and has, when he can be loosened up to part with them, a considerable store of astute and mordant aperçus, should be a bottomless storehouse of interest. But he is generally not overly forthcoming, rather monosyllabic, an enigma whose banter is nondescript bourgeois filler delivered in a mid-Pacific accent. His idea of humor is pretty coarse, in the Australian manner, without being very original, or very funny.
[amazon 0385523564 full]Murdoch has no discernible attachments to anyone or anything except the formidable company he has built. His periodic foraging trips for media attention (the oddly hoped-for story where he’s made to seem human) usually lead to hilarious fiascoes such as the journalist Michael Wolff’s effort at comradely biography combined with sophomoric mind reading, a sort of Charlie Rose approach in The Man Who Owns the News: phrases like “Rupert and I thought . . .” abound. Of course no one could possibly have the least interest in what—or if—Wolff thinks, and Wolff couldn’t have had any idea what was on Rupert’s mind because Rupert never lets anyone know what he’s thinking. Murdoch’s centenarian mother was “okay” (about as affectionate as it gets with Rupert); no business associate lasts long, except perhaps Michael Milken as an exotic financial guru, and economist Irwin Stelzer as a random and chatty, ersatz muse. Save for Ronald Reagan, he turned on every politician he ever supported in every country where he has operated; he discarded every loyal lieutenant, two wives and countless friendly acquaintances, as if he were changing his socks. Murdoch is a great white shark, who mumbles and furrows his brow compulsively, asks questions and listens, and occasionally breaks loose and has pictures taken of himself dressed in groovy black, pushing a baby stroller through Greenwich Village, or has stories written about his supposedly popish-leaning religiosity, published as humanizing touches, much like his orange-dyed hair, in the Sumner Redstone style.
Certainly Murdoch is interesting as a phenomenon if not as a person; a man who is airtight in his ruthlessness, unlimited in his ambition, with the iron nerves to have bet the company again and again. And although he has had some narrow escapes, he always emerges in fighting form. That story is fascinating, but he has the self-confidence never to try to impress people, is monotonous as a public speaker and unfathomable as a personality in regular conversation. Someone who could grasp and present the scope of Murdoch’s talents and ambitions could produce an interesting book, but it would have to be done by acute observation and intuition, and from a bit of altitude, because it is impossible to get anything but a banal smoke screen with occasional ripples of humor out of the man himself. I have long thought that his social philosophy was contained in his cartoon show, The Simpsons: all politicians and public officials are crooks, and the masses are a vast lumpen proletariat of deluded and exploitable blowhards. Almost all studies of Murdoch, including the reflections on him in Sarah Ellison’s book War at the Wall Street Journal on his takeover of the paper, where she was a reporter, are mosquito explorations around his shins, which is all he cares to reveal.
[amazon 0812977688 full]Kay Graham on the other hand was a very gracious and unpretentious woman. She never tried to disguise that she was the ugly duckling of the Washington Post’s controlling Meyer family (with her financier, government-official and publisher father Eugene, and her intellectual, “harpy,” political-activist mother Agnes), only grabbing real control of the paper when her husband abruptly committed suicide—like, as former–Post journalist David Kindred aptly writes in Morning Miracle, Edwin Arlington Robinson’s Richard Cory (the rich gentleman who despite his privilege, takes his own life)—short-circuiting his plans to divorce Kay and replace her with his paramour. And she only became a famous publisher because of the Watergate affair. This was an event of vast importance to the country generally and to the national media, but unfortunately, I part company radically from Mr. Kindred’s retailing of it as a triumph of the free press. She was an exceedingly honest and generous-minded person, as is her son Don, but that is not to say that they have been epochally interesting or original people either. Ben Bradlee is a noisy macho man, a live wire at a dinner party, indeed pretty entertaining even at a quiet lunch, but he was an energetic and fearless producer of news stories, not a memorable intellectual, or even a very thoughtful champion of the newspaper. It was fun to impeach a president; I suppose it was if you didn’t consider the consequences or the iniquity of it.
Former–Times journalist Gay Talese’s study of his then-employer, The Kingdom and the Power, is a real period piece, a classic like the film Easy Rider, and like Easy Rider, it is now difficult to see why it ever was a classic. “You do your own thing in your own time. You should be proud,” said Peter Fonda to some Latino farmer, conferring the approbation of the age on this generic worthy. The self-importance of the early Sulzbergers is captured clearly, and the leading personalities of the paper in the last fifty years are described accurately, but far too idolatrously. Except for Sydney Gruson, who was a Jewish, Irish, Canadian leprechaun with a startlingly good sense of humor, especially when he was married to Flora Lewis, who spent time at both the Times and the Post. They slugged it out verbally—Don Rickles and Joan Rivers going at it—but they weren’t endlessly interesting either. Abe Rosenthal, shabbily treated by the current Arthur Sulzberger at the end of a distinguished career, was an amiable journeyman, far from the foreign- and public-policy expert he fancied himself to be. Then-journalist James “Scotty” Reston was an opinionated, neat little bantam rooster, whose 1942 book, Prelude to Victory, was an exercise in hortatory boosterism, as if he felt that the oratorical efforts of Roosevelt and Churchill were insufficient to rouse the English-speaking peoples to their stern tasks. Various of the other leading Timesmen—managing editor Clifton Daniel, Turner Catledge, the paper’s vice president at the end of his career, and others—were of the Burberry-wearing, clichéd, World War II–correspondent type, of whom Edward R. Murrow was probably the greatest exemplar: affecting a worldliness that vastly exceeded their comprehension of what they were chronicling, as is usually the case with journalists; men who became legends to themselves a bit prematurely. When I first feared that the group had suffered acutely from Wartime Londonitis was when Walter Cronkite, another of them, accompanied President Nixon to China in 1972, and declared with great solemnity at the end of the first day of the visit that it was blessed with “a Hitler moon.” An arcane elaboration followed that must have caused many viewers to think that Walter had been jet-lagged into insensibility. This was apparently a good moon for the night bombing of Germany in the mid-1940s. The fact was that the war years were the good years to all of them. It was an exciting time, it was history, they had huge audiences and readerships, and were wooed with passion by their British hosts, especially the man-starved and, in any case, pretty sexually accessible women of and around the British upper classes. At times, Mr. Churchill’s daughter and daughter-in-law were having torrid affairs with Murrow, Lend-Lease Administrator Averell Harriman and the U.S. ambassador, John G. Winant. As I wrote in my biography of Roosevelt, “Mr. Churchill [was] an indulgent father and a full-service ally.” No one doubts who were the good guys between Churchillian Britain and Nazi Germany, and these people reported it well, but rather than dashing cavaliers womanizing in humanity’s interests in male-denuded wartime Britain, they were self-important pawns of their hosts and forerunners of the naive American droves of tourists in Europe in the 1950s and 1960s—John Gunther and Time magazine readers, armed to the teeth with Arthur Frommer’s Europe on 5 Dollars a Day. For the rest of their long and very media-exposed lives, they always seemed to derive some legitimacy, grandeur, and professional and patriotic pedigree from the fact that they rode the baggage train of General Eisenhower’s armies through liberated Europe. I never doubted that it was all newsworthy, an utterly virtuous and brave cause, that it was fun and adventuresome, and that they all performed professionally very capably, but there was always to me something irksome about the airs of the veteran, of the all-knowing witness to diluvian events that these fortunate and physically unthreatened men took upon themselves. This emerges in Talese’s book, but in groveling adherence and respect, not agnosticism, much less dissent.
THIS IS the problem with so much of this writing; it aggrandizes the downright-uninteresting power brokers of a dying genre that—most damningly—is slowly collapsing under the weight of its own substandards. Talese opens with an astonishing double-narcissism-mirror trick: The Times gives large play to a story that President John F. Kennedy regretted that the paper did not give more attention to an intelligence piece they had published which accurately predicted the sort of Cuban-exile amphibious action that was about to take place at the Bay of Pigs. Its own managing editor, Clifton Daniel, said JFK believed that if the New York Times had played the story more strongly, the administration might have abandoned the operation. As retold by the Times, the president lamented that the patriotic faction of the paper, which wanted to play down its advance scoop for national-security reasons, prevailed over those who wanted to magnify a great reporting coup. The Times was to protect the administration from itself, and cause the president to change military and strategic policy. This has to be the supreme coruscation of the collective institutional megalomania of an overmighty press. Talese and Daniel have performed a great service in revealing this orgy of self-importance, though not the service they probably expected. It is not unlimitedly flattering to JFK either.
In a jerky to-and-fro, pitching forward and back, Talese takes almost a hundred pages of flashbacks to get us through a twenty-minute prelude to one of Daniel’s daily editorial conferences. There are ten pages on the selection of a new Washington bureau chief. No one today could imagine that any of this really matters very much. The Times has recommended the losing candidate in seven of the eleven presidential elections since the book was originally published in 1966. Former–Times political columnist Tom Wicker reported on the weekend before Richard Nixon’s inauguration in 1969 that he might well blow up the world. (He tried to expiate his pathological hostility with a rather-favorable biography of Nixon twenty-two years later.) Then-columnist Reston pronounced Reagan a failure as president in 1984 and predicted he would give up and go back to California like Gene Autry singing “Back in the Saddle Again” (rather than be reelected by forty-nine states as he was).
Nothing in this book prepares the reader for the Times to write off the $1 billion it invested in the Boston Globe, or for the paper to go on life support with a usurious bond issue to Carlos Slim Helú, the Mexican telco king who is the apogee of the red-in-fang-and-claw corporate buccaneer about whom the Times is usually keenly censorious. These are more malleable principles than Talese conditions us to expect. Walter Duranty, the groveling Stalin apologist, and his like-minded successor Harold Denny in the Moscow bureau during the 1930s are glossed over in two neutral sentences, and the fact that the interminable Arthur Krock, Washington bureau chief for twenty-one years, was in the pay of Joseph Kennedy for much of that time is omitted altogether.
Ms. Ellison describes a frequent occurrence in the newspaper industry, as a longtime enterprise-controlling family splits over the publication’s future, supporting this or that manager. In the case of Dow Jones, publisher of the Wall Street Journal, the case is one of a keenly interested elder generation of relatives who feel proprietary about the newspaper and the resentful cousins and in-laws who criticize the company’s performance and grumble about low dividends. A wealthy outsider arrives (Murdoch), exploiting the split and buying the property. And then there’s the fact that Murdoch soon wrote off his $5 billion investment. The grumbling relatives put the conquering lion of tabloid newspapers, television and film over the barrel even more expensively than had Walter Annenberg when he sold Murdoch TV Guide for at least $2 billion more than it was worth. This was the real news, in addition to the fact that for the first time in his long career, Murdoch actually has bought a quality title and raised the quality of it. He added a sports section, an inserted magazine, and made the stories less ashen and more accessible, with no diminution of quality. Perhaps one of the rare examples of news as NEWS.
The same moral-journalist-as-overhyped-pseudocelebrity-with-little-real-talent is seen over and over again—including at the Washington Post. With commendable candor, Mr. Kindred declares himself in his first sentence “a hopeless romantic about newspapers.” He is certainly entitled to that, but from my more than forty years in the business, in six countries as an owner and scores of others as publisher-traveler (doing my miniature New York Times role of calling on local heads of government and foreign ministers), I am long cured of any such romance. I think that most journalists, like most people, are pleasant enough to meet, but few can write properly, few report thoroughly, many are frustrated at being chroniclers rather than the persons whose deeds and words are reported. As a group, they often claim to be a craft, if not a learned profession, but generally act like an industrial trade union. Mr. Kindred thinks they have great loyalty to the proprietors. Perhaps where there is no competition, this is the case. In Washington, DC, there is concern for position, pay and prerogatives that masquerade as loyalty to the status quo. But where there is rivalry, like in London, as the late Lord Rothermere, erstwhile chairman of Associated Newspapers (the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday and the Evening Standard), said to me over dinner, after poaching one of my editors, “They are actors, and we own the theaters. They perform on our stages but don’t give a damn about us, and will go elsewhere tomorrow for an extra farthing a week.”
Kindred subscribes to the triumphalist school of Bob Woodward evangelism, and thinks that he and Carl Bernstein were the precursors of the great, crusading, truth-seeking reporting that, with Watergate, brought on a golden era of investigative journalism. He does not mention Woodward’s book Veil, where the author simply invented a hospital-deathbed interview with former–CIA Director William Casey, nor the wild exaggerations of the Watergate literature that claimed Woodward and Bernstein feared for their physical safety while reporting the crisis. There is some mention of Deep Throat (Mark Felt) but none of the fact that although Nixon suspected Felt was the informant, he insisted on being called as a witness when Felt was charged by the Carter administration with criminally violating the privacy of the Weather Underground urban terrorist organization, as Nixon considered Felt’s actions justified by legitimate national-security concerns. Nixon was jostled on his way into the court, heckled inside it and gave extensive exculpatory testimony. His offer of personal financial aid to the defendants was declined, but his strong recommendation to Reagan to pardon Felt and his co-accused, which was followed, went unacknowledged by the beneficiaries—as did Nixon’s gift to them of champagne when they were absolved. Kindred mentions none of this.
He concludes by celebrating that the Washington Post “will survive” because of Washingtonpost.com. As a former subscriber to the Post, I can attest that their related website is a relatively vigorous effort to keep abreast of other media, but it remains essentially an attempt to attract people into the printed newspaper and to keep the vast overhead of printing and physical distribution viable. The Post should survive, but that is not assured by anything we have seen up to now. Kindred buys into the theory that newspapers are necessary to expose abuses by police and prosecutors. The fact is that the local and national media have been severely complicit in the shredding of most protections of individual rights, civil liberties and due process in the Bill of Rights. While the media slept or applauded, the grand jury has become a rubber stamp for prosecutors, and the Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Amendment guaranties against uncompensated property seizure, and of due process, access to counsel, an impartial jury, prompt justice and reasonable bail, have been eviscerated. The media have said practically nothing while the United States has pursued an insane and hypocritical war on drugs, emptied the mental asylums into the prisons, and incarcerated between five and twelve times as many people per capita as Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom, comparable prosperous and sophisticated democracies. In these areas, the media, national and local, have pandered to public fear of violent crime, and have incited the mindless paranoia of the nation and the reactionary authoritarianism of people—like HLN host Nancy Grace demanding the preemptive imprisonment of a great swath of suspects. Mr. Kindred is clearly a sincere idealist, but he seems to have the utmost difficulty recognizing how inadequate the press has been in warning of visibly approaching economic and societal dangers. He is so steeped in the rites of his occupation that he thinks eating in a public place with a Pulitzer Prize winner is, as he reveals, almost a process of canonization for the laureate’s prandial companion.
THESE BOOKS are fairly accurate accounts of what they describe, but they constitute a thousand pages of overblown prose about people who don’t deserve the attention, and institutions that are very fallible sacred cows. The Times and Post titles are essentially snapshots of a moment in the lives of those properties, where the Journal book at least describes a takeover, albeit a friendly one. But they are exercises in journalistic narcissism, to the point that the mundane is exalted, the twitches and ticks of the media leadership are thought implicitly to be newsworthy and interesting, and the whole function is implied to be in safe hands and running smoothly, serving the nation and the world conscientiously. None of that is true.
The media are threatened not only by technological changes but also by the public’s disillusionment with them as a reliable source of news. In fact, it does go back to Kay Graham and the Watergate affair, because it was those decades ago that the press began to celebrate itself while slowly losing the faith of its readership until there was little left but angry partisan personalities squawking from rooftops. The Washington Post book’s blind and mute acceptance of the Watergate myth makes the deficiencies of the media’s own self-image abundantly clear. The media’s treatment of Vietnam and Watergate was irresponsible—because a war was needlessly lost and a president unjustly chased from office—no matter, the media so riotously continues to celebrate these events as its finest modern hours.
The Washington Post and New York Times, in particular, enjoyed a reverent trust that is such an important part of the Talese and Kindred books. Their influence, as opposed to their efficacy as a source of ordinary information and advertising, suffered an almost-mortal wound in public esteem, as did almost all those that urged the desertion of South Vietnam and led the lynch mob against Richard Nixon, published the Pentagon Papers, and then, after the destruction of the Nixon presidency and the defeat of the United States in Vietnam, showered themselves with awards and claimed credit for the salvation of constitutional democracy.
The mythmaking only ended with the Nixon character assassination (in which, it must be said, he effectively and inexplicably participated himself by his mismanagement of the problem). That was preceded by a whitewashing of John F. Kennedy, naturally assisted by the horrible nature of his death and the great dignity with which his wife and family bore the tragedy.
The happy and unthinking foot soldiers of the lore, such as David Kindred, repeat like boot-camp marchers the mantra of the Washington Post’s triumph in destroying one of the most successful presidencies in the country’s history (with such domestic achievements as the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency, the end of school segregation and avoidance of interdistrict school busing, the cessation of the draft and the decline of the crime rate, and the famous foreign-policy successes of China, arms control, Vietnam, détente and the Middle East).
The quality of news reporting has deteriorated steadily for decades. Walter Lippmann really was an icon for whose opinion people waited before deciding how to vote. Scores of millions watched Walter Cronkite administer his friendly moustache (a little like Vichy Chief of State Marshal Pétain’s for the French, though his was white), with his country-doctor bedside manner of imparting the news, and appreciated the crisp authority with which fellow newscasters Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, Howard K. Smith, Frank Reynolds and E. P. Morgan acquitted the same task. Now we have pretty female and male talking heads describing freakish but supposedly heartwarming human-interest divertissements and earnestly giving family medical alerts. At the height of the controversy over the proposed downtown mosque in Manhattan, the admirable Diane Sawyer opened with an item about an assault on a Muslim New York taxi driver. This isn’t national news at all, and the function of telling the real news has been largely wrenched from the hands that formerly held it.
A large part of the country does not trust the industry now, and the news-delivering credibility of the old media has sharply declined, whether the Kool-Aid-drinking devotees of Washingtonpost.com see it or not.
The news media can regain credibility if they cease to make exaggerated claims of virtue and increasingly focus on quality and fairness of reporting. The tabloidization of network newscasts and the intrusion into comment of strident vulgarizers and ideologues will diminish if the national media moderate their relentless elitist liberalism. Their from-on-high perch, a poor condition in and of itself, creates a reaction that divides the market and popular opinion along stark ideological lines, shrinking the traditional center. It coarsens and envenoms public discussion, and it will not cease until the public sickens of it and cultural warriors rediscover the virtues of civility. The New York Times and the Washington Post should mend their ways, not least their endless claims to the status of national redeemers. But they are not traitors and should not be branded as un-American by their accusers.
As print media evolve into a twenty-four-hour product, edited to suit the preferences of individual subscribers, those who play it down the center, where the majority of Americans always are, and behave professionally, will prevail. Costs will be transferred to the subscriber and reduced to an Internet signal as readers print out their own individualized newspapers on more sophisticated home printers than we have now. Exclusive draws among writers, joined by editing and rewrite teams, will build out under the familiar and respected trademarks of great broadsheets. Somewhere along these lines lies the future.
The romantic nostalgia and hushed reverence of the authors reviewed above will become steadily less relevant to what will be a fierce struggle for survival, though all three of those great titles should be among the living, especially the Wall Street Journal if a man of the seventy-nine-year-old Murdoch’s cunning and determination can hang on usefully for another decade.
Conrad Black is a writer and former newspaper publisher whose most recent book is Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full (PublicAffairs, 2007). He is publisher emeritus of The National Interest.