Residents of Marshalltown, Iowa—population: 27,552—woke up yesterday to a front-page story in the local paper, the Times-Republican, about Rupert Murdoch’s testimony before a British parliamentary panel. So did readers of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times in Texas, the Indianapolis Star and the Pensacola News Journal.
So why did readers in the media capital of the world have to flip to page 35 of the New York Post to get the news about Murdoch? The News Corp. hacking inquiry was the biggest story on two continents on Tuesday, yet the Post buried it on an inside page of the business section.
We all know the answer: Murdoch owns the New York Post and no one wants to upset the boss.
Sixteen out of 20 of the largest papers in the country rightly weighed the importance of the Murdoch story and put it on the front page Wednesday. You may not think what goes on the front page matters, but it does—it’s an important barometer that lets readers know what their paper’s editors, who are paid to interpret the news, think is worthwhile. So why did the Post think it could get away with burying its coverage? Have we all seen this happen so many times that we just assume his newsrooms will duck stories involving News Corp.?
I took the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal to task last week for its softball “minor mistakes” interview with the boss. And on Monday the Journal published an editorial that tried to take on every criticism of its parent company. The Journal took shots at Fleet Street (“home of the blind-quote single source story”); the New York Times (“the Schadenfreude is so thick you can’t cut it with a chainsaw.); and the Bancroft family (“we shudder to think what the Journal would look like today without the sale to News Corp.”)
Fair and balanced? No. But at least it was clearly labeled as an editorial.
This week, the Journal gets some credit for realizing the momentum of the story and putting it front and center on Wednesday, and also for an article today that included about as blunt an assessment as you’ll find in any newspaper on its parent company’s troubles.
I was also pleasantly surprised when I looked up at the Fox News monitor in our newsroom on Tuesday and saw that the network had joined its competitors in live coverage of Murdoch’s London testimony. That a major news organization is covering a major story shouldn’t be a surprise. But until this week, Fox had been steering clear. An analysis by the Pew Institute’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found that, over the eight days ending July 15, CNN devoted 35 minutes of daytime coverage to the phone-hacking scandal; MSNBC spent 18 minutes on the story. Murdoch’s Fox News devoted just under 4 minutes.
I truly love reading the New York Post and usually appreciate the fact that it charts its own editorial path. It is often my first read of the morning as I prepare for the televised summary of the headlines I deliver to New Yorkers each day. But when a photo of David Letterman and Harrison Ford riding horses outside the Ed Sullivan Theater gets placed prominently on the third page while coverage of the “most humble day” for the CEO of the world’s second-largest media conglomerate is hidden on the third page of the business section, we’re not being well served as readers. The fact that we’ve grown accustomed to this pattern doesn’t make it acceptable, and judging from viewer reaction when I made that opinion clear on NY1 Wednesday, I’m not the only one who thinks the Post went too far.
Of course, my indignation isn’t solely riding on this high horse of journalism. What really irked me as I read yesterday’s Post was the fact that this story is perfect for them in every other way. It has all of the elements: Rupert being asked if he’s surrounded by yes men; James telling his father not to gesticulate so much; Wendi coming to the defense of her husband with her right hook. It would have made for a pun-tastic headline. Can you imagine how hard it was for the Post’s brilliant headline writers to sit on their hands while Vanity Fair did their job for them with a series of imaginary front pages?
I’ve heard anecdotally that every News Corp. journalist fears the wrath of Murdoch. I would like to think that this could change now that a not-so-intimidating Rupert has admitted his company is too large for him to oversee everything. But if we as readers don’t insist on less-biased coverage, the editorial deference to the boss will remain. And the fear of Murdoch will remain intact now that his editors know he can call on Wendi to set things right.
Pats Paper’s Website producer Caitlin Drexler provided research for this column.