Tabloid shocker: Why I'm feeling ambivalent about Rupert Murdoch's hard times
A few days ago, when I was heading out to a breakfast appointment, I discovered that someone had rifled through my car. They'd gone through the glove compartment and tossed things around, but oddly, nothing was missing — the coins in my change rack, my registration papers and an iPod were all still there. I called a friend who is something of an amateur detective to ask what a robber might have been looking for.
Do you keep any reporter's notebooks in your car, he asked mischievously. Why, I said. “Maybe Rupert Murdoch sent some guys over to see if you were working on anything embarrassing about News Corp.,” he answered.
Much of the civilized world has been appalled by the outrageous behavior in the News of the World scandal, especially by how the Murdoch clan, casting about for a plausible way to put some distance between themselves and their newspaper's tabloid excesses, has tried to plead ignorance.
While most of my friends have delighted in the prospect of Murdoch's downfall (one of my pals has dubbed the scandal “Karmageddon”), I've felt an odd sort of ambivalence about his predicament. As a lifelong newspaperman, it's hard not to feel a kinship with someone who, even after assembling an enormous empire of film, TV and publishing companies, always treated newspapers as his first love. Now I know what you're thinking: Big deal! This was a man whose employees were bribing police and hacking the phone of a slain teenager.
But the real root of my ambivalence is closer to home. There was a newspaperman back in my family tree: my great-uncle, Reubin Clein, and, truth be told, he was just as much of a cutthroat and a character as Murdoch. My cousin Billy has a small scar on his cheek, which he got as a boy when Reubin gave him a kiss and forgot he had a lit cigar in his mouth. Reubin was a lit-cigar kind of a guy. Long after he'd given up an early career as a boxer, he was still getting into fistfights in nightclubs and public rallies, even at a Miami Beach City Commission meeting.
He was the editor and publisher of Miami Life, a notorious scandal sheet, which he'd won in a poker game. Printed from the early 1930s until Reubin's retirement in the mid-1960s — it was a weekly in its heyday —Miami Life was chock-full of the kind of raw, uncensored vitriol that might make even a News of the World hack blush. Reubin blasted local politicians, heaped scorn on anti-gambling crusaders and took particular pleasure in railing against the big dog in town, the Miami Herald, which had once employed him as a newsboy and circulation manager. If anyone abused their power, Reubin was on them like a ton of bricks.
Reubin's business model would surely bring a twinkle to Murdoch's eye. When he had too much dirt to print, he'd offer his victims a choice: pay him off for his silence or see their peccadilloes in big, black blaring type on the front page. His headlines left little to the imagination, whether it was his take on State Atty. Vernon Hawthorne (“Hawthorne a Slinking Bootlick”), his thoughts about a paternity charge against a popular Miami Beach bandleader (“Ross Allen Deserts His Love Nest Infant!”) or his all-purpose insult directed at good-government advocate Mel Richard (“Richard Defrauds Blind Babies!”).
Reubin, who now has his own Wikipedia entry, didn't confine his attacks to the printed page. When Barry Gray, a local radio celebrity, made some unkind remarks about Miami Life, Reubin showed up at the nightclub where Gray broadcast his nightly show and punched him in the nose. This probably sounds like Wild West behavior from a faraway time, except that when the London Independent criticized News Corp. during the last British elections, it was James Murdoch who was so enraged that he hustled over to the Independent to chastise its editor (though no punches were thrown).
Though Reubin was surely an unlikely symbol for journalistic ethics, he was the first Florida newspaperman to go to jail for not revealing a source. It happened in 1950, when he printed grand jury testimony involving whether gambling interests had attempted to bribe a Miami Beach councilman. Reubin kept the paper going from his jail cell, dictating stories to his wife in a private code they had worked out for just that sort of occasion.
During the News of the World scandal, I've often wondered: What would Uncle Reubin think? Surely he would be envious about how Murdoch traded up over the years, ascending from tabloid slumlord to media tycoon. And no doubt he would marvel at Murdoch's enormous political influence, relishing the idea of Murdoch's lieutenants socializing with the British prime minister and his Fox News network being stuffed with Republican Party presidential aspirants on its payroll. The best political payoff Reubin ever got was when a Florida governor appointed him to a seat on the state council for the blind.
Reubin would be especially enamored with Murdoch's take-no-prisoners attitude toward his critics. News Corp. may be in apology mode right now, but its usual modus operandi is that the best defense is a good offense. When Keith Olbermann, then at MSNBC, attacked Fox News chief Roger Ailes in 2008, Fox's Bill O'Reilly responded not just by attacking Olbermann but by going after his then-corporate boss, GE's Jeffrey Immelt, who silenced Olbermann.
No one managed to silence Reubin, even though his printing press was bombed twice and his house was torched to the ground. (When someone asked him who did it, he said, “Take your pick.”) I knew him only in his old age — he had an unruly white beard that made him look a little like a con man in a Santa Claus disguise. Knowing I loved movies, he used to complain that no one had ever bothered to tell or — as Reubin no doubt would have preferred — buy his life story.
After all, in the heyday of Hollywood, the age of “Nothing Sacred,” “His Girl Friday” and “Sweet Smell of Success,” newspaper reporters were larger-than-life figures: colorful, incorrigible and, yes, often unprincipled characters who cut corners and never bothered with the finer points of ethics. Reubin was a product of that era. And so is Murdoch.
What's changed is that we hold newspapers to a higher standard today. Too often, instead of comforting the afflicted, Murdoch's minions cozied up to anyone in power who could either get them a scoop or help the boss get some dirt on a rival.
Reubin might have envied Murdoch's enormous sway, but I bet what he would have wanted, above all, would be to cut him down to size.
Photo: In Australia, the newspapers are filled with coverage of Rupert Murdoch's appearance this week before a British parliamentary committee. Credit: William West/AFP/Getty Images