The New York Times asks today (Nov. 17) if all the soft Barack Obama coverage published in the New York Post this month indicates that Rupert Murdoch has “gone soft on liberals” or is reacting “pragmatically” to the president-elect’s victory. The Post’s ultra-positive Obama coverage includes a bunch of flattering photos of him on Page One paired with such headlines as “Brink of History,” “Bamelot,” “Dashing,” and “Obama’s Historic Victory.” The paper also ran a 12-page, post-election special section about Obama.
The Times reports that while Post editorials and its columnists “leaned to the right this year” and the paper endorsed John McCain, “its everyday coverage of the general election campaign was more evenhanded.” But then, “starting the day before the voting, the paper’s coverage of Mr. Obama turned positive, even admiring, sprinkled with gauzy bits about his family life, even urging him at one point to adopt a particular puppy for his daughters.”
Murdoch-watchers tell the Times that the News Corp. chief “is a less predictable, less doctrinaire character than his critics imagine,” citing his support of Tony Blair and his 2006 Senate fundraiser for Hillary Clinton. Well, yes, it’s true that the genocidal tyrant’s ideological flexibility knows no bounds. But what seems to be going on at the Post is the tabloid maneuver practiced at Murdoch’s London Sun whenever circumstances demand a quickie editorial turnabout. It’s called the “reverse ferret.”
Peter Chippindale and Chris Horrie attribute the phrase to legendary tabloid editor Kelvin McKenzie in their 1999 book, Stick It Up Your Punter! The Uncut Story of the Sun Newspaper. McKenzie would “roar around the office shouting ‘Ferret up your trouser!’ ” whenever he wanted to alter made-up pages at top speed. “Then he might shout, ‘Reverse ferret!’ and all the pages would have to be changed all over again.”
Reverse ferret proved such a useful phrase that it acquired a second McKenziean meaning. Neil Chenoweth, author of 2001’s Rupert Murdoch: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Media Wizard, writes that while running the Sun, McKenzie would
stalk the newsroom urging his reporters generally to annoy the powers that be, to “put a ferret up their trousers.” He would do this until the moment it became clear that in the course of making up stories, inventing quotes, invading people’s privacy, and stepping on toes, the Sun had committed some truly hideous solecism—like running the wrong lottery numbers—when he would rush back to the newsroom shouting, “reverse ferret!” This is the survival moment, when a tabloid changes course in a blink without any reduction in speed, volume, or moral outrage.
The Post’s current round of Obama love reeks of the reverse ferret. As a broadcaster, Murdoch has good reason to butter up the incoming president, who will be appointing new commissioners to the airwave-regulating Federal Communications Commission. But as the Times notes, Murdoch loves politics and political power, and, whenever he can, he attempts to negotiate intimate proximity to it.
Murdoch’s reverse ferret portends, of course, a reverse-reverse ferret when Obama-bashing starts to benefit him more than Obama-stroking. In Chenoweth’s view, it is “Murdoch’s genius” that his whole business philosophy has come to resemble a reverse ferret. If a Murdoch venture falters, if he comes to regret a strategy, if a partnership or friendship no longer serves his interests, he merely “sets off with undiminished speed in a new direction” without pausing to acknowledge his change.
Tabloids depend on the reverse ferret, writes Chenoweth, because they can never afford to admit they’re wrong. Send examples of the reverse ferret 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 ferret in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to email@example.com.