Rupert Murdoch in the 1970s was just getting started on his global media empire, and by today’s standards, his 1976-77 New York acquisitions seem tame. Yet these deals, and the changes Murdoch undertook with them at the time, shook things up in the media print world and hinted at his grander plans ahead. In later years, Murdoch would create the Fox television network and acquire the Wall Street Journal, among other ventures. His 1976-77 deals, though, were the first signs that Murdoch would be a determined player in the U.S. market. These, however, were not the first deals Murdoch had made in America.In 1973 he acquired two newspapers in Texas – The San Antonio Express and The San Antonio News – for $18 million. The following year, he entered the U.S. supermarket tabloid business launching a brand new paper then called The National Star. More on these later.
By 1976, however, Murdoch had set his sights on the bigger eastern cities. He had looked at the possibility of acquiring some major women’s magazines, such as Redbook and Ladies’ Home Journal. But he was also considering starting a daily paper in either New York City or Boston, and that’s when the New York Post became available.
The New York PostThe New York Post had roots that dated to 1801 and one of its founders, Alexander Hamilton. For years it was known as the New York Evening Post, and described itself as the nation’s oldest, continuously-published daily newspaper. At the time Murdoch became interested in the paper it was owned by Dorothy Schiff, the granddaughter of Jacob H. Schiff, a New York city financier and social welfare advocate. Dorothy Schiff had purchased the paper in 1939. Under her tenure the New York Post was devoted to liberalism, supporting trade unions and social welfare. It was the only New York City daily to support Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate for president, in 1952 and 1956. Among some of its popular columnists were: Drew Pearson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Max Lerner, Murray Kempton, Pete Hamill, Earl Wilson and Eric Sevareid. It also had well a respected theater critic and Broadway columnist. Under Schiff’s direction, the paper increased its circulation by two thirds. The Post had undertaken stories critical of New York master builder Robert Moses, “slum clearance,” and J. Edgar Hoover, among others. It is also known for its 17-part series on communist witch-hunter, U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy – headlined, “Smear, Inc.: Joe McCarthy’s One-Man Mob.” By 1976, The New York Post was the only surviving afternoon daily in New York City, with a circulation of about 500,000.
When Murdoch remarked to Schiff at one meeting that he was thinking about launching a new paper in Boston or New York, Schiff, then 73, told him she was thinking of selling the Post. According to one account of the deal that followed, “Murdoch pounced, wrapping up the $30 million sale in three weeks of secret negotiations.” He acquired the paper by late November 1976.
New York Magazine Co.
After Murdoch made the Post deal, he moved next on the New York Magazine Co. This company was run by Clay Felker, an innovative editor and writer who had worked at various newspapers and magazines including Life, Sports Illustrated, Time, Esquire, and The New York Herald Tribune.
The flagship publication of the New York Magazine Co. was New York magazine, a weekly focused on culture, politics, and New York City style. New York magazine was begun in 1964 by Felker as a Sunday supplement enclosed with The New York Herald Tribune. After the Tribune folded in 1968, Felker and graphic designer Milton Glaser (who later invented the “I Love NY” logo) reintroduced New York as a glossy, stand-alone magazine.
New York initially was intended to compete with The New Yorker — and an earlier, scathing piece about the New Yorker’s “mumified” reporting in April 1965 when New York was still a Tribune supplement, had already set off a war between the two. But New York magazine also became known for its own unique enterprise: helping launch and define what would be called the “new journalism” – a departure from the more objective norm of journalism to a form of narrative and point-of-view journalism relying on characters, dialogue, participant authors, and/or fictional devices.Felker was the visionary in the enterprise. The magazine, under his leadership, “set about revising the hierarchies of urban experience,” Sarah Bernard and Aaron Latham wrote, in a 2008 retrospective on New York magazine. “Felker had observed something new happening in the city, and he’d brought his own outsider’s sense of romance and a fascination with power and status. The magazine he made had a new palette of interests, with no brow distinctions. Restaurants were as important as business, or politics. Everything that went on in a city dweller’s mind was something to be curious about.” The magazine, with Milt Glaser’s help, also did clever things with design, text, and illustration, also departing from the norm. New York magazine would become a model for many city and other magazines that would follow it in years to come. New York’s writers, editors, and contributors were some of the most talented to come out of the late 1960s and 1970s, including: Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, Nora Ephron, Kurt Andersen, Gloria Steinem, Gail Sheey, John Heilemann, Nick Cohn, Ken Auletta, Richard Reeves, Aaron Latham, Dick Schaap, Michael Kramer, John Simon, Pete Hamill, Gael Greene, Walter Bernard, Bill Flanagan, Anna Wintour, James Brady, Lally Weymouth, Andy Tobias, Judy Daniels, Laurie Jones, Nancy Newhouse, Nick Pileggi, Mark Jacobson, Robert Benton, Byron Dobell, Mimi Sheraton, Gael Greene, Dorothy Seiberling, Amanda Urban, Walter Bernard, and others. But Clay Felker was the visionary leader and editorial maestro. And as Tom Wolfe would put it, “he created the hottest magazine in America in the second half of the twentieth century: New York.” New York in the 1960s and 1970s under Felker and Glaser covered the national topics of the day as well as New York’s cultural scene and its movers and shakers. Tom Wolfe, wrote one of the magazine’s early features on 1960s’ psychedelic cultural renegade Ken Kesey and his band of pranksters, a story that later became the Wolfe novel, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Gloria Steinem wrote about women’s issues for New York. She also wrote on the 1968 presidential election. Felker helped her launch her own publication in 1971, MS magazine, using New York to launch a sample insert issue (see cover above). New York also covered New York sports stars, the arts, and national politics. In 1969, it did a story on Joe Namath, flamboyant quareterback of the New York Jets. In the 1970s, Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal were covered closely. In 1976, Nick Cohn wrote a New York story titled, “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” an account of a young working-class Brooklyn guy who spent his evenings at a local disco club – a story that became a sensation and helped spawn the film Saturday Night Fever.
The New York Magazine Co. also owned two other publications – The Village Voice and New West. The Village Voice, originally established by writer Norman Mailer and others in October 1955, was merged with Felker’s company in 1974, continuing as The Village Voice. The newest member of the New York Magazine group by 1977 was New West, which Felker had launched in Los Angeles, California in 1976, modeled after New York. The circulation of each of the magazines at the time of Murdoch’s takeover in 1977 was as follows: New York, 375,000; the Village Voice, 162,000; and New West, 290,000. So, how did Rupert Murdoch come to own this company?
Murdoch vs. FelkerClay Felker had met Rupert Murdoch in the early 1970s at the home of Washington Post Chairman, Katharine Graham. Felker, by this time had established his reputation as an innovator, and a gifted though somewhat erratic editor. He and Murdoch got on well at first, and by some accounts became “great pals.” In fact, Felker had introduced Murdoch to New York Post publisher Dorothy Schiff in 1974, at Felker’s East Hampton beach house. The two newspaper men had explored the possibility of undertaking a few business ventures together. Felker also confided in Murdoch about some difficulties he was having with his board of directors, as there had been some feuding about Felker’s “high living and low profits,” as one report later put it. Felker wanted to be chairman of the New York Magazine Co., but his board denied him that post – as well as his demand for a salary increase and company purchase of his Manhattan duplex. Felker had exceeded his budget for the launch of New West, and was reported as having spent lavishly on visiting staff, office space, and cut-rate introductory subscriptions. Meanwhile, the New York Magazine Co. was a publicly-held company, and its stock in 1976 was not appreciating, as the company had suffered a loss. Felker, then looking for some allies on his board, had asked Murdoch if he would be interested in buying a stake in the company. Some of Felker’s board members weren’t always cooperative and a few held sizeable stakes in the company. When Felker acquired the Village Voice in 1974, Carter Burden, the former owner of the Voice, received about 24 percent of the New York Magazine Co. stock. Murdoch told Felker he would be happy buy into the New York Magazine Co., but he wanted control of the company, which Felker would not agree to. The strategy of enlisting Murdoch’s help was soon dropped by Felker – but not Murdoch.
Murdoch saw another publishing asset to add to his New York base and began negotiating directly with the top shareholders at the New York Magazine Co. He wanted the whole company. Felker then sought allies in defense of Murdoch’s moves, eventually enlisting Katharine Graham of the Washington Post, who agreed to match Murdoch bid for bid – starting at $7 a share, then $7.50, then $8.25, matching his offers. But Murdoch by January 1, 1977 made a direct deal with Carter Burden, who then held the largest chunk of the company. Murdoch also lined up more than a dozen other shareholders in the New York Magazine Co. and soon held over 50 percent of the company. In the end, Murdock paid something on the order of $7.6 million for the New York Magazine Company.Felker had tried a variety of strategies to stop Murdoch, and at one point did get a temporary injunction from U.S. District Court judge to block some stock sales to Murdoch. Felker had also lined up potential allies for cash, including British industrialist Sir James Goldsmith, Cincinnati financier Carl Lindner, and some unidentified New York real estate interests. But the prospect of a protracted court battle with Murdoch soon dissuaded these backers. In the battle with Murdoch, Felker also had the support of his New York staff, who were not keen on the idea of working for Murdoch. They held press conferences and walked out at one point, some complaining that Murdoch would bring “trash” journalism to the enterprise. They also met with Murdoch’s lawyers, arguing if they left, the enterprise would be devalued. They were told in reply, according to Ken Auletta, that it didn’t matter what they thought or did, as writers they were merely “furniture” in the equation. On the inside of the New York Magazine Co., however, there was a perspective that Felker had made the company vulnerable with the New West project, enabling Murdoch to make his deal. Here’s one observation from Alan Patricof, an early board chairman at New York:
“…He [Felker] always wanted to be respected as a businessman. Then he wanted to start New West. We didn’t have the money to do it. Clay was determined to do it. We reluctantly supported him. Clay spent freely, and he really wanted to create this footprint on both sides of the country. I remember going to Clay in ’76 saying, “Clay, we’re going to have to find some way of resolving this” — but he didn’t do much about it. Then Rupert Murdoch came along and was prepared to pay a premium on the price at the time. He knew that he was going to be buying something where Clay was not happy about it, and it wasn’t until the very last second, when the board had gone very far with Rupert, very far, at the midnight hour, that Clay produced Katharine Graham, but it was too late by then. He had plenty of time, but he didn’t want to face up to it. I have to tell you, it was one of the most reluctant sales I ever made…”
“…It was a time that we all thought the power was really with the writers, with the creative people, and in a way we learned what they learned in Hollywood: That’s not the way it is. The power is with the money…”
– Richard Reeves In the end, Murdoch won. Felker was not happy with the loss of his dream enterprise. At the first directors’ meeting following the deal, Murdoch demanded two seats on the New York Magazine Co. board — and got them. He also said to Felker at the time that he thought Felker was “an editorial genius” and wanted him to stay and run the magazine. Felker refused. In his departure from the company, Felker was paid $1.5 million for his shares plus his $120,000 salary for three years. The managing editors of New York, the Voice and New West, as well as the ten most senior New York writers, were all given two-year contracts by Murdoch. Clay Felker, meanwhile, went on to other magazines and editorial projects, briefly tried Hollywood, and later took a faculty position at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1995 he was honored with the creation of the Felker Magazine Center at Berkeley. After battling throat cancer for some years, he passed away in July 2008 at age 82 and was eulogized and fondly remembered by many of his former New York staff.
Richard Reeves, one of the early writers at New York, offered this observation on Felker, Murdoch, and the magazine changing hands in1977:
“…The story was Clay was a great editor and a bad businessman, and Murdoch sensed that. He was like a wolf or a shark. He could sense there was blood in the water, and he made his move. It was a time that we all thought the power was really with the writers, with the creative people, and in a way we learned what they learned in Hollywood: That’s not the way it is. The power is with the money. While we wrote about that all the time, and while Clay understood that intellectually, as a businessman I don’t think that he did.”
Now that Murdoch owned New York, The Village Voice, and the New York Post, the city’s publishing establishment began to size up their new neighbor and the kind of journalism he might be bringing their way. They looked at his record in Australia and the U.K, and what he had done in San Antonio and with his new national U.S. tabloid, The Star. What they found was not encouraging.Rupert Murdoch, born into an Australian newspaper family in 1931, was educated at Oxford in England and began his rise back home with one newspaper, the Adelaide News. But he soon began acquiring suburban and provincial newspapers throughout Australia. In 1956 he bought a Sunday paper in Perth for $400,000. He was also successful launching the Channel Nine TV station begun in Adelaide, a station that became profitable. In 1960, he spent $4 million for the Sydney Daily Mirror, a tabloid-styled paper. He also acquired a small, Sydney-based recording company, Festival Records. In 1964, he ventured to New Zealand acquiring a daily in Wellington called The Dominion. That same year back home, he established a new newspaper called The Australian, the nation’s first national daily newspaper. The Australian was intended by Murdoch to be a “quality” newspaper, and one with political influence.
By 1968 Murdoch’s holdings included newspapers, magazines and broadcasting stations worth an estimated $50 million. He then turned to the U.K., making a bid in 1969 for the largest-selling British Sunday newspaper, The News of the World. With $20 million he outbid British book publisher Robert Maxwell and won controlling interest of the “Sunday scandal sheet,” as some called it. News of the World then had a circulation of about 6 million. A year later, also in London, he acquired The Sun, a daily broadsheet newspaper associated with Labor politics; a paper then in poor condition with a circulation of about 950,000. The Sun had begun in 1964 with noble aspirations, designed to tap into the lifestyle changes of the 1960s and the rise of the young, upwardly-mobile professionals, including career-oriented women. Murdock and his editors turned it into a tabloid, shifted the emphasis away from Labor politics, and moved to more titillating topics using a formula of “sex, sport and sensation.”The Sun’s first edition of November 17, 1969 ran with the front-page headline “Horse Dope Sensation,” billed as an “exclusive” – a story about a racing trainer admitting he had doped his horses. Some of the stories inside that edition featured gossip on the “playboy Prince of Wales” – the 21-year-old Charles “sowing his wild oats” with 20-year-old daughter of the Duke of Westminster. The Rolling Stones were also given some ink in the center of that edition, focused partly on the clothed and unclothed ladies they encountered in their rock ‘n roll travels. Other stories in subsequent issues would focus on sex scandals. At one point, Murdoch’s other London paper, The News of the World, began rehashing the memoirs of a famous call girl named Christine Keeler – a former model and showgirl whose affair with a British government minister in 1963 rocked the Conservative government of Harold Macmillan. U.K. talk show host David Frost brought Murdoch on TV at one point to grill him about the Keeler material his paper was then running. Some critics began calling Murdoch the “dirty digger” – digger being a slang term for an Australian. Murdoch seemed unscathed by the criticism, happy to see his newspapers’ circulation rising. In fact, the use of titillating material in Murdoch’s papers was just getting started.
“Page Three Girls”
In November 1970 – about a year after The Sun’s first edition – a nude photo of German model Stephanie Rahn appeared on page three of The Sun. It was the first nude photo, shot from the side with breast area exposed, that a major circulation U.K. newspaper had run. Murdoch, out of the country when the photo ran, was reportedly upset over the move at first, but after the circulation numbers rose, accepted it. Page Three girls boosted circulation — from about 1 million in 1969 to 3.8 million in 1977 by one count – and made The Sun one of the most popular newspapers in the U.K.Thereafter, “the Page Three girl” became a regular feature. A year earlier, Murdoch’s first edition of The Sun had included a “glamour page” using clothed models, some with unbuttoned shirts or in otherwise provocative poses, but none that were nude or topless. With the Stephanie Rahn photo of November 1970, however, a new era had begun, as the Page Three girls were gradually shown in more overtly topless and/or suggestive poses. Over the next four years The Sun published photos of topless Page Three girls intermittently, going daily with the feature in 1975. Although controversy ensued, the Page Three girls boosted circulation — from about 1 million in 1969 to 3.8 million in 1977 by one count – and made The Sun one of the most popular newspapers in the U.K. Competing U.K. tabloids the Daily Mirror and Daily Star, instituted similar features in their papers. Today, “Page Three” and “Page 3″ are registered trademarks of News International Ltd, the parent company of The Sun. In 1999, The Sun also launched a Page Three website, Page3.com, complete with online archive.The Sun newspaper in the 1970s also ran feature stories with headlines such as such as “Do Men Still Want To Marry A Virgin?” and “The Way into a Woman’s Bed.” The Sun would also run serializations of best-selling erotic books. Portions of The Sensuous Woman by “J” (Joan Garrity), first published in 1969, were run in Murdoch’s Sun at a time when copies of the book were being seized by British customs, causing a stir in London, but providing some free publicity for Murdoch’s newspaper.
The Sun also ran excerpts from Jacqueline Suzann’s 1969 novel, The Love Machine. Through the 1970s, The Sun would overtake the Daily Mirror to become the UK’s biggest selling daily. Back in Australia, meanwhile, Murdoch in 1972 acquired another Sydney newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, a morning tabloid. But he also began looking elsewhere around the world.
Murdoch in Texas
By 1973, Murdoch had turned his attention to America, buying up his first two newspapers in San Antonio, Texas – the San Antonio Express and San Antonio Evening News from the Harte-Hanks news group. Reportedly, Murdoch flew into town and made the deal in a single day, signing the papers at the airport, but leaving instructions on his way out to turn one of the papers “into a screamer.”Under Murdoch, the San Antonio News became a tabloid-styled paper, while the San Antonio Express retained its original, conservative format. Neither the San Antonio Express nor the Evening News showed much interest in politics. Neither paper’s reporters covered state or national political conventions, but sportswriters would travel wide and far to cover the San Antonio Spurs basketball team. Murdoch pitted his San Antonio News against Hearst’s San Antonio Light in a circulation battle which brought out the worst in both. “Murdoch provided a daily diet of rape and mayhem, tortured tots, and killer bees,” reported Time magazine of Murdoch’s 1970s San Antonio paper. One classic story in the San Antonio News during that time was about a divorced epileptic, who told police she was buried alive in a bathtub full of wet cement and later hanged upside down in the nude, with the News recounting a bizarre horror story of rape, torture, and starvation. In addition, because single-copy sales were a major part of the News‘ circulation, news-stand “rack card” advertising became part of the hype. Rack cards are poster-size advertisements attached to the paper’s vending machines and newspaper racks. These cards often feature attention-grabbing headlines touting stories in the paper. San Antonio News rack-card advertising went the extra mile, shouting out the newspaper’s latest story lines, using bizarre and sordid-type headlines such as: “Midget Robs Undertaker at Midnight”; “Dissolve Old Man in Acid!”; “Gunned-Down Pregnant Cat Fights for Life”; “Vampire Killer Stalks City”; “Sewer Boy Still Missing”; and “Animal Auschwitz.” And the actual front-page headlines that appeared in the paper were often of a similar vein. In 1976, Texas Monthly magazine ran an article critical of Murdoch’s San Antonio News, titled, “Weirdo Paper Plagues S.A.” In the piece, the writer took the paper to task for its diet of strange stories:
“…Readers of the News are learning things that five years ago they never dreamed they might be privileged to know: ‘Nude Principal Dead in Motel,’ for example, or ‘Armies of Insects Marching on S.A.’. The front pages regularly impart disconcerting information: ‘Handless Body Found.’ Or, ‘Screaming Mom Slain.’ Or, ‘Uncle Tortures Tots with Hot Fork.’ …The columns of the paper are populated by an unforgettable (and recyclable) cast of characters: tots, oldsters, thugs, nudies, grannies, moms.”
Time magazine, in one January 1977 review of Murdoch’s San Antonio paper, observed that “the front page of the News is virtually devoid of substantial news.” Only “the diligent reader,” concluded Time, would discover any meaningful reporting on politics or national policy issues.
The StarMurdoch in 1974 also started from scratch a new tabloid he named The National Star. It was designed as a U.S. supermarket paper to compete with the established National Enquirer tabloid. The Star, as it would become known, was initially an unstapled tabloid printed on newsprint. In a few years’ time, however, it became hugely successful, although at first it ran well behind the Enquirer. Murdoch spent millions on a TV ad campaign to promote it and he burned through a series of editors as well. But by 1977, The Star was making a profit and reaching about 1.6 million readers weekly. By the early 1980s, it was almost even with the Enquirer, at close to 4 million. Although based in New York, some portion of The Star’s production was printed on Murdoch’s San Antonio, Texas presses, and a version of The Star was also inserted as a Sunday supplement in the San Antonio papers. Both The Star and The Enquirer did their commerce in front-page titillation, typically using the most current celebrity news coupled with headlines of the off-beat, outrageous, and/or scandalous. Murdoch, meanwhile, had begun living in the U.S. by 1974, splitting his time between his New York city office and a more spacious family residence upstate.
But in 1977, what Murdoch’s New York city neighbors in the publishing biz wanted to know was: would his tabloid publishing style from the U.K., San Antonio, and The Star now carry over into the New York Post, New York magazine, and the Village Voice?
Murdoch in New York
Some of the fears about what Rupert Murdoch would do with his New York acquisitions were realized, but some weren’t. The New York Post turned for the worst, according to some, but New York and The Village Voice, by most accounts, did not seem to change substantially.
At New York, Murdoch initially had a succession of editors in the 1970s, followed by Edward Kosner, of Newsweek, who Murdoch hired in 1980. Murdoch also acquired another magazine, Cue, a listings magazine that had covered the city for more than 50 years. Murdoch folded Cue into New York, which added value to New York with a going-out guide, while eliminating a competitor. New York’s content, meanwhile, tended toward a mix of news- magazine-style, trendy pieces, articles on shopping and consumer topics, and close coverage of the glitzy 1980s New York scene epitomized by financiers Donald Trump and Saul Steinberg. Other stories focused on national and New York political figures or the major issues of the day. The magazine was profitable for most of the 1980s and its stories sometimes permeated popular culture, as in mid-1985 when the term “Brat Pack”was coined by New York – used in a cover story to describe a group of young Hollywood film stars that variously included: Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall, Rob Lowe, Andrew McCarthy, Demi Moore, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheedy, Tom Cruise, C. Thomas Howell, Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, Charlie Sheen, and James Spader. Meanwhile, given New York’s survival and good standing through the 1980s, the earlier worries of Murdoch trashing the magazine seemed over done. Even his critics would later concede that he did not fundamentally change New York magazine.“In 1977, I was working for New York magazine when Murdoch bought it,” explained Ken Auletta in a 1995 Frontline documentary for PBS. “We all feared he would tart up our journalism, so more than 40 of us quit. But he didn’t care. And as it turned out, we were wrong. He didn’t change the magazine. But some thought he did desecrate the Post. He made it more conservative and he replaced one quarter of the staff with tabloid warriors from his empire.”
Over at The Village Voice, meanwhile, many employees there also feared for the paper’s quality under Murdoch, at least initially. And Murdoch did make a number of personnel changes at the Voice, but largely allowed the paper run itself. Some found in subsequent years that the Voice had actually become closer to its original form, hitting a steady circulation of about150,000, where it remained for several years. In 1981, The Voice received a Pulitzer Prize for the feature writing of Teresa Carpenter.
The biggest changes that Murdoch brought to his acquired New York publications, however, were those that came at the New York Post.
Murdoch’s PostAt the Post, Murdoch initially became an active presence in the newsroom, according to some, especially punching up the paper’s headlines and copy. Celebrities got more play, too. Early on, Murdoch’s editors created a “Page Six,” gossip column at the Post, and before long there were stories about Woody Allen’s love life, ice skater Dorothy Hamill dating Dean Martin’s son, and a piece noting that Muhammad Ali wanted to star in an all-black remake of Ben-Hur. In March 1977, The Post ran 21 items on Farrah Fawcett-Majors, then a big star of the popular Charlie’s Angels TV show. Stories at the Post also became shorter; photos and headlines, larger. And as it turned out, the summer of 1977 was a ripe time for Murdoch-styled journalism, beyond just celebrities.
First, it was the summer of the great New York city blackout of July 13-14, 1977 that created near panic in the city for about two days, during which the city suffered heavy looting and civil unrest. Over 3,000 people were arrested. “They [The New York Post] handled the blackout stories by exaggeration and by scare headlines over their stories and on their front pages,” recalled Thomas Kiernan on a PBS Frontline TV documentary. “The impression was created that there was an impending threat of a kind of race war in New York.” The Post published a “Blackout Special” on the first day following the blackout with the giant front-page headline: “24 Hours of Terror,” also noting in smaller headlines that New York Governor Carey “fears a new blackout” and that Grand Central Station was “crippled.” Inside the paper was a special pullout section headlined, “A City Ravaged.” New York City’s deputy mayor, Osborn Elliott, sent a letter to Murdoch during the crisis suggesting his paper had made the situation worse. Mayor Abe Beame was more direct, calling Murdoch an “Australian carpetbagger” who “came here to line his pockets by peddling fiction in the guise of news.” Across town, at the rival Daily News, Pete Hamill wrote: “Something vaguely sickening is happening to that newspaper, and it is spreading through the city’s psychic life like a stain.”The second big story for the New York Post and other New York papers that summer was the “Son-of-Sam” murder spree. “Son of Sam was just a godsend for the Post,” said James Brady ” — you know, a good serial killer. He was targeting people in lover’s lane, primarily attractive young women of a certain physical description, and he was sending these wacky notes.” Steve Dunleavy, who covered that story for the Post, added that Son of Sam “really changed the city” during the killer’s rampage. The sale of locks and guns soared. “The Son of Sam virtually gave New York City this massive nervous breakdown,” said Dunleavy. And Murdoch’s Post was in the thick of it, whipping up the fear and fervor. “It was half truth, half speculation,” said Thomas Kiernan. “That was Murdoch journalism.” Among the headlines the Post ran as the killer increased his range in city was one on August 1st that declared: “No One Is Safe from Son of Sam.” On August 10, 1977, when the police finally caught Son of Sam – whose name was David Berkowitz — Murdoch’s Post ran the banner headline shown above. Inside this edition, the Post ran sixteen related stories along with 36 photographs. There was also the first in a series of installments from a crime novel “that might have inspired” the Son of Sam killer. The New York Post that day sold more than 1 million copies, nearly twice its average daily circulation. After Son of Sam, it was on to other stories. The August 17th, 1977 issue of the New York Post – like other newspapers that day – ran a front-page story on the death of rock ‘n roll singer, Elvis Presley. But the Post had a special angle on the Elvis story, thanks to reporter Steve Dunleavy, whose book “Elvis: What Happened?” had just been published. Excerpts from the controversial book, including allegations of Presley’s extensive drug use, had been slated to run the following week. However, with Presley’s death, the Post printed the first installment in its paper that day, with a front page box boasting “exclusive ” material along with headline: “New Book Tells of His Decline in Drug Nightmare.” The story helped push the relatively unknown book into the spotlight.
In addition to the 1977 front-page stories covering Elvis, the blackout, and Son-of-Sam, Murdoch also put his Post squarely in the middle of the New York city politics – and particularly so in the promotion of Ed Koch for mayor. Koch, then a U.S. Congressman, later recalled in a PBS Frontline documentary, a phone call he received one day in 1977 from Murdoch:
…When the phone rang, the voice on the other end said something like, “Congressman Koch, please.” I said, “Speaking.” He said, “Congressman, this is Rupert,” and I guess I was still a little sleepy maybe. I said to myself, “Rupert? Rupert? Rupert’s not a Jewish name. Who could be calling me at 7:00 o’clock in the morning named Rupert?” And then suddenly, because he was speaking, I realized it was Rupert, the Australian. I mean, the voice came through. And I said, “Yes, Rupert?” He said, “Congressman, we’re going to endorse you today on the front page of the New York Post and I hope it helps.” I said, “Rupert, you’ve elected me.”Ken Auletta added, that The Post did not just support Koch, “it anointed him.” Koch would also reiterate in later interviews that the Post’s endorsement transformed his campaign. “I wouldn’t have won without it,” he would later tell The New Yorker’s John Cassidy.
In 1977, Koch ran in the Democratic primary against incumbent mayor Abe Beame. Also in the primary were candidates Bella Abzug, Mario Cuomo, and others. Koch ran to the right of the other candidates, on a “law and order” platform, using the blackout and crime as major issues, promising to restore public safety. Still, Rupert Murdoch’s decision to have the Post endorse Koch in both the primary and the general election was key.
According to one poll, only four per cent of voters even knew who Koch was before Murdoch’s Post endorsed him. Koch proceeded to win the initial vote in the Democratic primary as well as a runoff between he and Cuomo. In the general election, too, Koch prevailed, not only crushing Roy M. Goodman, the Republican candidate, but also beating Cuomo for a third time, as Cuomo ran on the Liberal Party ticket. Journalist Jonathan Mahler, who would write the 2005 book The Bronx is Burning, later observed: “Murdoch had wagered that Koch represented his best shot at becoming a kingmaker in his new town.”Murdoch’s Post, meanwhile, would continue to collect criticism for its political coverage, both during the 1977 mayoral race as well as subsequent gubernatorial and presidential elections. During the month before the 1977 mayoral primary, the Post’s early editions ran nothing unfavorable about Ed Koch, but there were unflaterring stories about Koch’s opponents, including Mario Cuomo. One of the latter used the headline, “The Blond Millionairess Whose Big Bucks Back Cuomo.” Koch also received more favorable front-page headlines and more front-page ink in the Post than all of the other candidates, including the incumbent, Mayor Abraham Beame, who had already lashed out at Murdoch, calling him an “Australian carpetbagger.”
Ken Auletta, later writing for the New Yorker, would also observe: “When Murdoch endorsed Edward I. Koch for mayor…, his support spilled over onto the news pages of the Post, with the paper regularly publishing glowing stories about Koch and sometimes savage accounts of his four primary opponents.” But after the election, adds Auletta, “fifty of the sixty reporters on the paper signed a petition of protest to Murdoch.” Murdoch reportedly invited them to quit, and twelve did.As the 1980 presidential race was gearing up, The Post would sometimes jump into the fray with a controversial front page, as it did in the June 1979 example at left when incumbent Democratic president Jimmy Carter and U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy appeared to be the likely contestants for the Democratic nomination. The Post was one of the few newspapers nationally to run the full quote on its front page. On television that evening, the CBS’s Evening News substitute anchor, Bob Schieffer, alluded to Carter’s remark without quoting it directly, as a copy of the New York Post’s front-page headline was projected on a screen behind him.
Later in the 1980 presidential race between Carter and Ronald Reagan, Murdoch’s Post supported Reagan. And some of the Post‘s news columns during the campaign used headlines that tilted to Reagan such as: “Reagan: I’ll Save the Middle Class” – a headline which ran in red ink on the front page. Other Post stories featured celebrities for Reagan but not Carter, with headlines such as, “Stars Want Ron to Get the Part.” The Post also ran a headline the day before the Reagan-Carter election that said, “Kohmeni Pulls Strings,”a slam on Carter’s then difficult going with a hostage situation, then a hot-button election issue.In January 1982, a front-page headline in the Post proposed “Ed Koch for Governor” even though Koch had not entered the race. In fact, ten days earlier in the Post’s discussion of some11 possible candidates, Koch wasn’t even mentioned. But the Post charged ahead on behalf of Koch. It invited readers to fill out Koch-for-Governor coupons on its news pages every weekday for the two weeks. Simultaneously, the Post ran news headlines such as, “Apple Loves Koch.” Mayor Koch eventually entered the gubernatorial primary, which he proceeded to lose to Mario Cuomo. Still, Cuomo was steamed about the ink the Post had given Koch. When most papers endorse candidates, Cuomo explained, “you get one column on the editorial page. With Rupert, he turns the whole paper over to you.”
In any case, within five years of making his New York acquisitions, Rupert Murdoch had become something of a political broker and kingmaker, both locally and nationally, by virtue of his media holdings. And there was much more to come. “Murdoch says he loves newspapers because they give him the power to help shape the public mind and, as always, he loves to win,” observed Ken Auletta in the 1995 Frontline documentary. Robert Spitzler, who had been managing editor at the New York Post, added in that same documentary:
“Rupert is a power junkie, in the sense that he enjoys the company of people with power. He also holds them in a certain degree of contempt…
When Rupert first came to New York, he was an Australian of no particular reputation. He bought the New York Post, suddenly he becomes an intimate, so to speak, with mayors, with governors and the president. You can’t ignore a guy who runs a New York newspaper….”Meanwhile, out on the newsstands, Murdoch’s New York Post continued to shock with the best of them, using sensational and gritty headlines to sell its papers. One of the all-time classics in the outrageous headline department is the New York Post’s April 1983 classic, “Headless Body in Topless Bar,” shown at left, which described a robbery at a Brooklyn strip club in which the gunman herded all the customers into one room, shooting and decapitating the tavern owner.
Other front page headlines at the Post could play to the popular hero of the moment, such as New York city subway rider Bernie Goetz who turned to vigilantism in December 1984 when he shot four would-be muggers on the New York subway. The incident made headlines for months at the Post and elsewhere. In 1985, when Goetz turned himself in, the Post ran the front-page headline, “I Am Death Wish Vigilante.” Other classic front-page headlines in the Post during the first Murdoch era ran the gamut of stories – crime, politics, sex, sports and scandal. The Post in recent years apparently became quite happy with the notice its front-page headlines received, as it compiled a collection of them in a 2008 book using the title, Headless Body in Topless Bar: The Best Headlines from America’s Favorite Newspaper.
Change & Sell Off
Rupert Murdoch’s media reach in the 1980s and 1990s was extending more into broadcast and satellite television, although print and publishing would remain important to Murdoch. Still, his 1976-77 New York publishing acquisitions – the New York Post, New York magazine, The Village Voice – as well as his San Antonio newspapers and supermarket tabloid, The Star, were all sold off during the late 1980s and early 1990s for various reasons. Among these sell-offs, however, the New York Post would be re-acquired by Murdoch later. More on that in a moment.In September 1985, Murdoch became a naturalized U.S. citizen primarily to satisfy legal requirements enabling him to become an owner of American television stations. In that year, Murdoch acquired 20th Century Fox film studios as well as $1.55 billion worth of TV stations in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Boston and Washington, DC. These stations then reached some 22 percent of all television households in the U.S., and combined with the Fox film studio, they provided the structure and distribution network for studio programs and a fourth U.S. broadcast television network, the Fox Broadcasting Co. Murdoch would continue buying up newspapers, however, as he acquired several in 1987 and also U.S. book publisher Harper & Row, combining that publisher two years later with another, Collins, to form HarperCollins. Murdoch’s News Corp. by then was the world’s largest newspaper publisher, controlling, for example, about 60 percent of Australian newspapers and thirty-five percent of U.K. newspapers. In 1989 he also began Sky television in the U.K., an expensive undertaking in the subscription satellite TV business. In the course of all the media buying and selling, Murdoch was incurring debt and running up against regulatory restrictions.
In 1985 he put the Village Voice up for sale when the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) blocked his purchase of a New York radio station unless he sold off one of his New York papers. So at that point, he sold the Voice to Leonard Stern, heir to the Hartz Mountain pet food company, for $55 million. But Murdoch was also confronting cross-ownership media rules in other parts of his burgeoning U.S. empire – and in the process, coming up against some unfriendly politicians. Among the latter was U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy, who Murdoch’s papers and TV stations had covered in some unflattering ways, including dredging up and re-broadcasting some old news about Kennedy’s 1969 Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts automobile accident, in which a Senate aide named Mary Jo Kopechne had been killed.
Murdoch, however, had enjoyed a “temporary” waiver under FCC rules enabling him to own both a newspaper and a broadcast station in the same city. Murdoch profited from that waiver in New York, Boston, and other markets where he owned newspapers and broadcast stations. However, by the late 1980s,One headline in the Herald read: “Kennedy’s Vendetta,” calling the Sen- ator “fat boy” in a front- page editorial. Ted Kennedy and Senator Fritz Hollings backed a rider to a budget bill that ordered the FCC to strictly enforce the media ownership rules, eliminating waivers such as that held by Murdoch. So Murdoch went to war. He turned his Boston Herald and New York Post headline writers loose on Kennedy. One headline in the Herald read: “Kennedy’s Vendetta” and included some prose in a front-page editorial calling Kennedy “fat boy.” The New York Post ran one headline during the controversy that announced, “It’s War on Post Busters.” In addition, Murdoch went on CNN’s “Crossfire” TV show to publicly plead his case. “We’re keeping the Boston Herald in spite of Senator Kennedy,” he said. Murdoch explained he would sell his small Boston TV station if necessary, but keep the newspaper. However, in the end, Murdoch was forced to sell off the Boston Herald. In New York, he would also sell off the New York Post for $37.6 million, as he could not give up his New York TV station since it was the flagship for his new Fox television network. But Murdoch wasn’t finished with the New York Post in 1988; he would return. In the meantime, however, he went shopping elsewhere, acquiring TV Guide and others at Triangle Publications for $3 billion.By the early 1990s, feeling the bite of mounting debt in some of his other ventures, Murdoch began selling off a few more of his U.S. publishing properties. Among these was the supermarket tabloid, The Star, which he sold to the GP Group, the National Enquirer’s parent, for $400 million in cash and stocks. At the time, the Star’s 3.6 million weekly circulation was just below National Enquirer’s 4.1 million. Murdoch also sold off his San Antonio newspapers in 1992 – by this time, combined into one paper, The San Antonio Express-News. Murdoch’s News Corp was then struggling from some earlier debt restructuring and needed cash. So he sold The San Antonio Express-News to the Hearst Corporation for $185 million.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, Murdoch was buying and selling media properties as the situation and his expansion plans required. In 1993, the New York Post came on the block again, as it was in poor shape financially and nearly bankrupt. But in order for Murdoch’s News Corp. to acquire the Post, a waiver from the same FCC rules that required him to shed the paper five years earlier was required. This time, a number of politicians, including Democratic New York governor Mario Cuomo, came to Murdoch’s support and persuaded the FCC to grant him a permanent waiver from the cross-ownership rules. Without that ruling, the New York Post would have shut down, but instead, under Murdoch’s renewed direction, the Post more or less picked up where it left off when Murdoch first owned it. In recent years, criticism of the paper’s style and sensationalism has appeared in selected articles and at various websites, including one list of documented 1997-2009 items at Wikipe- dia.org.
Rupert Murdoch, meanwhile, has continued to build his media empire through the 2000s, acquiring most notably in recent years, MySpace.com in 2005 for $580 million, and the Wall Street Journal in July 2007 for $5 billion.
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Date Posted: 25 September 2010
Last Update: 25 September 2010
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Jack Doyle, “Murdoch’s NY Deals, 1976-1977,”
PopHistoryDig.com, September 25, 2010.
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