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Goodbye, Objectivity; Hello, Fleet St.: Murdoch's Trojan Horse

September 08, 1996|Neal Gabler | Neal Gabler is author of "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood." His new book is "Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Cult of Celebrity" (Knopf)

NEW YORK — If you believe New York Post editor Ken Chandler, it was all a coincidence. Just in time for its Aug. 29 edition, the Post got a leak from the supermarket tabloid Star that President Bill Clinton's political advisor, Dick Morris, has been carrying on a toe-sucking liaison with a blond prostitute. As luck would have it, that Thursday just happened to be the very day Clinton would be accepting his party's nomination at the Democratic National Convention.

Funny how these things work out. I mean, if you were trying to damage Clinton, you could not have had a better day to break the story. But, then, it was only a coincidence the story broke that day. Right?

Anyone who buys that probably also believes John Gotti was just a plumbing contractor. Even the Star's editor, Phil Bunton, now concedes the Morris story was timed for the Democratic convention, where it would get maximum exposure. In a nonpartisan spirit, he has also said he wished he had had a similar story about Bob Dole during the GOP convention. But some cynics have detected a more sinister hand here than the invisible hand of capitalism. Some suspect that the reactionary media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Post and one-time owner of the Star, deliberately manipulated the timing to wound Clinton on his big night. If so, it would have major implications for the American media.

In Britain, where Murdoch owns five papers, including the 4-million circulation Sun and the august Times, manipulating press coverage wouldn't raise an eyebrow. There, it is assumed that individual newspapers have a rabid partisan agenda, and one factors this not only into what one reads but into the nation's whole political culture. When the Murdoch papers attack a Laborite, or the liberal papers attack a Torie by revealing some sensational misconduct, it is business as usual. All scandals come with this sort of built-in discount.

And, once, it was not so different here. Many early 19th-century American papers were essentially partisan organs, with the express purpose of promoting certain candidates and parties and lacerating others. No one expected objectivity or fairness--and no one got it. Even by the end of the century, when the press was no longer formally attached to political parties, the new, high-circulation papers retained an edge and an attitude.

The most famous publishers of our own century--William Randolph Hearst of the New York Journal-American, Robert McCormick of the Chicago Tribune, Joseph Medill Patterson of the New York Daily News and his niece Eleanor "Cissy" Patterson of the Washington Times-Herald--were political slashers who used their news pages to editorialize. None felt encumbered by the niceties of journalistic impartiality--whether it was Hearst refusing to run his own reporter's expose of President Herbert Hoover's postmaster general because it would damage the GOP cause, or McCormick promoting isolationism in headlines before World War II.

There are still a few old-fashioned newspapers out there, like the infamous Manchester Union-Leader of New Hampshire or the Post, that make no pretense of being anything other than mouthpieces for a political faction, but the majority of the U.S. press has developed a general sense of objectivity and propriety and has established a clear separation of editorial opining from news reporting.

Indeed, the two--objectivity and propriety--had worked hand-in-glove. In trying to be fair, the mainstream press restricted its purview to those areas it felt could be objectively reported: events, political decisions, legislation, policy debates. The idea of reporting on a politician's personal life was long off-limits--both because it would have leveled the protective wall of propriety separating respectable papers from disreputable ones, and because it would have forced the press to make the kinds of value judgments it had forsworn making on its news pages.

That's why there was so much angst eight years ago, when the Miami Herald staked out presidential candidate Gary Hart's Washington home and discovered model Donna Rice there. Other papers debated whether this was a legitimate news story or should have been left to the tabloids--a debate that would never have occurred in Britain. At the time, a Herald spokesman felt the need to justify the stakeout and the subsequent story. It spoke to Hart's judgment, he said. Everyone seemed to realize the wall of propriety had been breached, but 1) it wasn't for any partisan purpose, and 2) there was guilt at having done so.

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