On June 26, News Corp., the international media giant helmed by Rupert Murdoch, lashed out at The New York Times for its dogged pursuit of a series of stories laying out Mr. Murdoch’s history as a media mogul in England, the United States, Australia and China.
“… [The] agenda for this unprecedented series is so blatantly designed to further the Times’s commercial self interests,” read the statement from News Corp. executive Gary Ginsberg in part, “by undermining a direct competitor poised to become an even more formidable competitor.”
The irony is that the accusation was printed in the second installment of the series itself.
Mr. Murdoch is presently tangling with the Bancroft family, owners of the controlling share of stock in Dow Jones Inc., over the terms under which News Corp. might buy the company.
The chief and most contentious element of those negotiations in the days immediately preceding The Times’ publication of its two-part series was the degree of editorial independence Mr. Murdoch would furnish the Dow Jones publications after they came under his control.
It might have been worth asking whether only dishonest or agenda-driven reporting could undermine Mr. Murdoch.
Indeed, The Times had been covering Mr. Murdoch’s bid obsessively—if not as successfully as The Wall Street Journal itself—since news of the takeover offer first leaked on May 1.
Daily reporting in the pages of The Times from business reporters Richard Siklos, Andrew Ross Sorkin and Richard Pérez-Peña, and columns by Joe Nocera, David Carr and Floyd Norris as well as an entry on the Times editorial page.
So what propelled The Times to flood the zone by inaugurating a special, multi-bureau reporting project, helmed by Times managing editor Jill Abramson, that would bring lead writer Jo Becker, London bureau reporters Jane Perlez and Raymond Bonner back into the mix?
In answer, Times executive editor Bill Keller asked rhetorically, in an e-mail: “Are you serious?”
“Why would we take a close journalistic look at a powerful, controversial figure who is about to acquire one of the crown jewels of American journalism?” he continued. “ … [That’s] our job. The pieces were well reported, utterly fair, and fascinating.”
And as to whether The Times was serving its own corporate interests in—and here was where Mr. Murdoch’s people flattered him—trying to undermine a deal that would put Mr. Murdoch at the helm of their great competitor, The Journal, company spokesman Catherine Mathis offered dryly:
“The New York Times always maintains a strict separation between its news report and its business interests.”
Previous pieces in The Times, largely emanating from the business desk, focused reporting on the terms of the independence deal and the likelihood of the Bancrofts finally giving in to Mr. Murdoch’s advances.
But the larger question—just how much independence could Mr. Murdoch really offer, without applying a wholly different standard to his Dow Jones properties from the ones he has applied elsewhere?—had remained largely unanswered in The Times’ overall report.
The first meeting to discuss the “Murdochracy” series, as it is being called, took place at The Times’ former West 43rd Street headquarters while Ms. Abramson was still in the hospital last month, recovering from injuries she sustained in a traffic accident, according to one Times staffer.
The basic idea, according to sources familiar with the evolution of the series of articles, was to look into the connection between Mr. Murdoch’s business interests and policy—both domestically and internationally.
Ms. Abramson wrote about Mr. Keller asking her to lead a month-long “investigative project” that would involve “a group of domestic and foreign reporters.” Almost four weeks later, The Observer revealed that the project was to focus on Mr. Murdoch.
Washington bureau chief Dean Baquet was involved early on, and since policy was more the domain of the formerly Washington D.C.–based Ms. Becker, she was eventually given the lead. Ms. Becker had a strong reputation for her investigative prowess, according to a Washington Post staffer, and was a bit of a loner, seated away from most staffers in the newsroom.
Ms. Becker, wife of Times metro reporter Serge Kovaleski, began working at The Times around June 1. It was her first byline for the paper—ironically, it appeared the same day her investigative piece on Dick Cheney appeared on the front page of The Washington Post.
Mr. Siklos was put on the story, too, while fellow BizDay reporters Mr. Sorkin and Mr. Pérez-Peña remained covering the hard elements of the deal.
But investigations editor Matt Purdy would be the primary editor on the new project, assisted by media editor Bruce Headlam.
When they appeared, The Times’ pieces weren’t shy about how central the issue of editorial independence was to the newspaper’s investigation.
“The sale,” The Times wrote, “would give Mr. Murdoch control of the pre-eminent journalistic authority on the world in which he is an active, aggressive participant. What worries his critics is that Mr. Murdoch will use The Journal, which has won many Pulitzer Prizes and has a sterling reputation for accuracy and fairness, as yet another tool to further his myriad financial and political agendas.”
Was the Times ownership doing the same thing? Mr. Ginsberg asserts it was.
“Ironically, The Times, by using its news pages to advance its own corporate business agenda, is doing the precise thing they accuse us of doing without any evidence,” read the remainder of his statement, printed in The Times article.
Ms. Abramson, in an e-mail to The Observer, wrote only: “The work speaks for itself.”