Paper’s lurid attack mimics campaigns

On Monday The New York Times unloaded on Rupert Murdoch and his bid for The Wall Street Journal. A front-page, above-the fold hatchet job that jumped inside to a double-truck extravaganza was an unprecedented journalistic mugging, even for the beleaguered Australian media mogul. Yesterday, the Times’s front-page rabbit punches went below the fold, but kept up the withering attack.

This catfight reminded me of the old joke that The Wall Street Journal is read by the people who run the country, while The New York Times is read by people who think they run the country. The gag goes on to parody newspapers from USA Today to Murdoch’s New York Post, a paper the joke says “is read by people who don’t care who’s running the country … as long as they do something really scandalous, preferably while intoxicated.”

The joke is pretty lame, but along with the Times story, it explains a lot. For one thing, it confirms that The New York Times is obsessed with the Journal, probably because it’s no fun playing on the second-string team of opinion-leader journalism, getting runner-up ribbons for elite circulation and even production achievement.

Monday’s Times article acknowledged that “the sale would give Mr. Murdoch control of the pre-eminent journalistic authority on the world in which he is an active, aggressive participant.” Ouch. But the hurt goes even to look and feel. The
Times’s obsession was especially evident after the Journal narrowed its page width. Times reporters covered this small bit of “news” like Dick Cheney had shot Rupert Murdoch. Times corporate types countered that their own paper would also soon be trimmed of excess inches. If the width of the Journal’s pages could prompt such a fulsome response, it’s not surprising that ownership issues elicited a front-page exposé.

Monday’s pitiful piece of drive-by reporting barely mustered any real news, suggesting only that in 2003 Murdoch avoided congressional limits on media ownership by throwing Trent Lott a bone in the guise of a book deal. The rest was a mélange of recycled old tales (Murdoch called Ted Kennedy fat) and glittering generalities (including the use of ugly phrases like “Ruler of an Empire” and “attacking his adversaries, sometimes viciously”). The Times would know something about the latter. Tuesday’s send-up included the word “murdochracy,” a term the Times’s crime-beat reporters probably coined, and revelations that Mr. Murdochracy “joined hands with the Communist Youth League” and was invited by former Prime Minister Zhu Rongji to “become Chinese.” And you thought Murdoch’s Post was lurid.

What the Times stories surprisingly got right was Murdoch’s less-than-ideological approach to his business affairs lately. The Australian’s recent dalliances with communists and liberals like Hillary Clinton and Tony Blair undercut his Fox News persona. This fresh perspective on Murdoch defied pre-publication whispers and back-room speculation that the Times’s angle would be about Rupert turning the  Journal into a right-wing rag.

But the Times wrote a different story. Perhaps they recognize that the public has an evolving perspective these days on supposed bias in reporting. A recent Pew poll of Americans’ attitudes toward network and cable TV news found that even the “biased” cable channels (CNN and Fox News) are described as good by most viewers. My takeaway from Pew’s interesting study is that viewers may like to sample both unbiased and even “biased” news before coming to any conclusions. If this is true for TV news viewers, might it also be true of newspaper readers?

So the Times chose to attack Murdoch personally rather than deal with outdated journalistic notions of bias and objectivity. The Times’s strategists have learned about the “politics of personal destruction” from political campaigns. But will they keep their foot on Murdoch’s throat? Stay tuned.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.