All the Publisher’s Men

Having spent many conceited weeks amid the Strauss-Kahn case, listening to locals assert that America's justice is superior to France's, we're now pitchforked into the next debate. Could U.S. journalism sink to the septic depths of the scandal-ridden News of the World, whose immediate closure was announced Thursday by Murdoch's News International.

What would happen if Rupert Murdoch had ever built a press empire over here?

Hold hard! Back in the early 1970s, one of Rupert Murdoch's earliest ventures in America was starting The Star, a weekly rival to the best-selling supermarket tabloid, the National Enquirer. It paddled in the shallow waters of Hollywood gossip, gothic crime and stories about Bigfoot.

There was one huge difference. The National Enquirer and The Star were never reckoned to be part of the “national press” as the News of the World has been. They had zero political clout and inflicted no political endorsements on their readers. They sold in 7/11 stores and supermarkets to an audience that did not lay them aside to pick up The New York Times.

The respectable press ignored The Star and the Enquirer, even though they broke big stories. Sold by Murdoch in 1990 to the Enquirer's parent company, The Star was the first to expose Clinton's philandering, during his first run for the presidency in January 1992. He survived precisely because the scoop was in The Star and could be deprecated as being in a mere tabloid.

The same thing happened with the Enquirer and John Edwards, encumbered with a mistress as well as a wife with terminal cancer during his run for the presidency in 2008. The Enquirer was reporting accurately on John and Rielle's “love child” at the same moment as newspapers were giving Edwards a pass on the “tabloid tattle” rationale. Finally, the Enquirer was quite properly put up for a Pulitzer, though the jurors, respectable newspaper executives and the like made sure that it didn't win one.

Both The Star and the Enquirer were run by Fleet Street veterans, and there's no particular reason to assume that these transplants were of innately superior moral caliber to Murdoch's crew at the News of the World — or would be aghast at the notion of breaking into voice mail boxes, fostering corrupt relationships with cops and so forth. In fact, the Enquirer had such swift, real-time inside dope on the movements of Edwards and his mistress that in retrospect I now wonder whether some investigator or in-house hacker had discharged the same duties as private investigator and hacker Glenn Mulcaire, who is now whining about the incessant demands of the editors at the News of the World who were paying him around $3,000 a week for his services. That's the kind of money that doesn't come out of a petty cash tin, and it would need to have been approved by the same executives who approved around $150,000 in payoffs to the Metropolitan police.

The darker moral moments for America's press came in the 1940s and 1950s: Billy Wilder's 1951 “Ace in the Hole” and Alexander MacKendrick's unforgettable 1957 film, “Sweet Smell of Success.” Burt Lancaster played a character modeled on the hugely powerful gossip columnist Walter Winchell, who was caught in exactly the journalistic moral corruption that has Britain gasping in revulsion today — the hacking of the voice mail and deletion of messages on the cell phone of Molly Dowling, a girl kidnapped and then murdered.

This was the era that saw Hoover, all-powerful head of the FBI, working week by week with nationally syndicated columnists like Winchell and Hedda Hopper to destroy suspected Commies, uppity blacks and kindred subversives. By the mid-1970s, radicalism was on an ebb tide, and this tactical alliance between columnists and cops became less a political requirement. By the late 1970s, Hollywood-based gossip became dominant, mostly fluff and mostly on terms dictated by the Hollywood studios.

Murdoch began with The Star because the big city papers he craved weren't up for sale at that time. Then in 1976, he bought the New York Post and seemed to lose interest in The Star. When he bought the Post, the press treated the acquisition of Dolly Schiff's liberal paper as a dark day for American journalism. Either Time or Newsweek or New York magazine (later bought by Murdoch) had a cartoon of Murdoch on the cover as an ape shinning up the Empire State building.

As his empire grew, the zeroes in the price of his acquisitions, in his debts to the banks and in his personal fortune predictably smoothed Murdoch's image. But there's nothing like competitive pressures to prompt an editor, or a publisher, to call for the knuckle-dusters. American newspapers in their profitable heyday were mostly regional monopolies. It was Murdoch's takeover of The Wall Street Journal in 2007 and vows to knock The New York Times off its perch that prompted the Times last September — under its recently ousted editor Bill Keller — to run a long, closely reported story on the News of the World scandal. Few corporate employees are more sensitive to the whims, preferences and overall political and moral coordinates of their commanders than journalists.

Murdoch, ruthless and unprincipled his entire professional life, has cast a long, dark shadow over journalism in Australia, Britain and the U.S. As plumbers like to say, sh*t flows downhill and payday comes on Friday — from Murdoch's closet to the furthest reaches of his empire. Small wonder that his employees carried out their grimy tasks without demur.