Rupert Murdoch added girth to his distending legend this week by all but sewing up a deal for Newsday and squeezing out of the Wall Street Journal the top editor he inherited.
While Murdoch may stride the planet like a ravenous, mythic beast, can you believe every ripping yarn you read about him? Take, for instance, the opening anecdote in the 4,100-word profile Newsweek published about the media baron on Monday. The story portrays Time Inc. editorial executives Norman Pearlstine and John Huey as slavering supplicants in a May 2005 visit to Murdoch’s Manhattan headquarters.
Pearlstine, then editor in chief of Time Inc., and Huey, editorial director, were fighting a grand jury subpoena of a Time magazine reporter and internal e-mails in the Valerie Plame investigation. The company had petitioned the Supreme Court to review the case, and the pair visited Murdoch and his lieutenants to ask for News Corp.’s editorial support of their appeal.
Newsweek’s Johnnie L. Roberts writes that Pearlstine and Huey realized that they might have to
cross that most sacrosanct journalistic line: revealing their reporter’s confidential source—who in this case happened to be Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby. So they called on Murdoch to seek support for their legal position, recalls Pearlstine. Huey says they were also looking for a promise of a restrained response from Murdoch’s minions if it were necessary to out the confidential source. They didn’t want to land on the [Murdoch-owned] New York Post’s front page with their heads superimposed on rats, for instance (such is the power of the Post over Manhattan’s media elite). “Done,” Murdoch said quickly, to the surprise of the editors.
It’s a great image, one that expands Murdoch’s distended legend all the way to bloated: Murdoch, godfather of media, holding court and dispensing favors; Pearlstine and Huey, princes of media themselves, begging the great man not to cast a News Corp. spell on them and turn them into rats; Murdoch startling the pair by saying, “Done,” like a monarch, dictator, or gang leader.
But Pearlstine and Hueydispute three important elements in Newsweek’s account.
In his 2007 book, Off the Record: The Press, the Government, and the War Over Anonymous Sources, Pearlstine writes about meeting with Murdoch and his lieutenants to ask for editorial support of the Time Inc. petition, so that part of the anecdote is undisputed. News Corp.’s New York Post ultimately published a soft editorial backing the petition on June 22, 2005.
But Pearlstine says he couldn’t have asked Murdoch for promises of restraint at the meeting because he was at least a month from making a final decision about the confidential source, and he had made a point of not discussing that option. “I deliberately kept [Huey] in the dark,” says Pearlstine. “I never would have brought it up in front of him” at the meeting. Pearlstine says he told Roberts that there was no discussion of turning over the notes at the meeting.
As for the flourish of Murdoch’s pronouncement, “Done”?
“He never said anything like that. That’s bullshit,” says Pearlstine. Huey concurs. Pearlstine says that when he left the meeting, he had no expectation that Murdoch’s organization would support the Time Inc. petition.
On the third point, Roberts concedes that he never meant to imply that rats were actually discussed at the meeting. “[R]ather it was meant to illustrate the type of treatment for which the New York Post is famous,” he e-mails. But besides that clarification, Roberts says he and Newsweek stand by his story.
“According to Mr. Huey, they had asked more generally that they not be targeted with mean headline[s] or mocking photos,” e-mails Roberts. Murdoch confirmed the version Newsweek ran, Roberts states, and Huey confirmed it “on the record at least three times, including Friday, as I was fact checking.”
(Roberts urged me to contact Murdoch to confirm his confirmation, but I declined as I have no doubt that this is Murdoch’s version.)
Huey contradicts Roberts, denying that any of his conversations or correspondence with Roberts can be read as confirmation of the “restraint” anecdote.
“I know for a fact that we never mentioned mocking headlines or mean headlines to Rupert. And I know we didn’t ask about any coverage except to request editorial support,” he says in an e-mail.
Roberts accuses Huey of waffling once he learned that Pearlstine was telling a different version of the story and insists there is no way he misunderstood Huey on the three occasions they discussed the meeting. From there, the Roberts-Huey dispute becomes an adamant “he said-she said” tussle. In one possible scenario, Huey told Roberts something that he now regrets and wishes he could take back. In another, Roberts, an experienced journalist, erred in his reconstruction of the meeting.
But the main event is this: Did Pearlstine and Huey roll over and show their bellies to the blood-thirsty dingo at the May 2005 meeting? I accept Pearlstine’s version for several reasons. He’s not known for submissiveness (quite the contrary), he has a reputation for honesty, and groveling is the worst business strategy this side of suicide.
And finally, this particular grovel makes no sense. If your two options were to be caricatured as a rat by the New York Post and the Fox News Channel for a couple of weeks or held ransom by Rupert Murdoch until the end of time because you pleaded for his mercy, which would you choose?
But what about Murdoch’s confirmation? I’ll explore the rotten old bastard’s unique relationship with the truth tomorrow. Whom do you believe? Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a “Press Box” correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word grovel in the subject head of an e-mail message and send it to email@example.com.