Any Wall Street Journal reporter, editor—or reader—would do well to read the first 40 pages or so of Judith Regan’s 75-page wrongful dismissal complaint from Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.
One needn’t see Bernie Kerik’s ex-mistress, the notoriously profane and forceful publisher, as particularly naughty or nice (or even stable) to realize that News Corp.’s hierarchy behaved cynically in the handling of her career and underhandedly in her dismissal.
The Regan complaint is tendentious, of course, but the bare facts of the story aren’t really in dispute: The project that led to her ouster, the O.J. Simpson confessional book and TV interview, was vetted, approved, and applauded by anyone who mattered at News Corp., including those who played a key role in firing her, Jane Friedman, HarperCollins’ CEO, Mark Jackson, the unit’s in-house lawyer, and Murdoch himself, who personally green-lighted the project at a February 2006 dinner.
So with the pressure on, the top executives ran to ground, leaving the erstwhile superstar to take the fall.
That much is clear. Are you with me so far, WSJ reporters and editors?
Let’s leave aside the question of whether Regan was a rogue element within the company or in fact embodied something essential in News Corp.’s culture. That’s for philosophers. Also not for us today is whether the O.J. project was really so very different from anything Regan and News Corp. had been doing for many years—pushing boundaries of taste to the breaking point and coarsening the national discourse (providing fodder, meanwhile, for Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and other culture warriors on News Corp.’s payroll on the Fox channels).
But, again, no need to go that deep.
The Regan affair helps illustrate the environment in which Journal reporters and editors, particularly the media reporters in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, will operate as they try to cover media policy, the media industry, and one of its largest actors. News Corp.’s acquisition of the newspaper’s parent, Dow Jones & Co., is closing any minute now. We see what happens to someone who is perceived as a threat to News Corp.
As soon as the scandal broke, a series of damaging stories based on quotes from unnamed “senior” News Corp. and HarperCollins executives appeared in Vanity Fair, The New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly, and, News Corp.’s own New York Post, making allegations that were in turns true, false, and unproven.
It was death by media.
News Corp.’s top brass, in the end, engaged in a whispering campaign, a sleaze-fest that had all the earmarks of a negative political campaign: strategic leaks, trumped up charges, and a cynical deployment of a basically bogus hot-button issue, in this case, anti-Semitism. It wasn’t deft. It was media meat axe. This was a company in panic.
Here’s just one example: At the crest of the O.J. controversy in December 2006, the New York Times ran an allegation that implied that Regan had once run around her apartment building replacing scrolls in neighbors’ mezuzas with “bits of” dollar bills. Now, I admit, that’s nutty. Did it happen? The sources are “two top executives at Harper Collins.” Note the wording:
According to the executives and another person involved in the incident, Ms. Regan was investigated in the spring of 2003 after an editor complained that she had boasted of removing the scrolls from her neighbors’ mezuzas and replacing them with torn pieces of dollar bills.
The two executives said the company’s investigation had corroborated the employee’s account and Ms. Regan was reprimanded at the time.
And here’s the punchline:
A spokeswoman for HarperCollins, Erin Crum, declined to confirm the account. “We do not comment on personnel issues,” she said.
So, Regan was “investigated” four years earlier after an “editor complained” that she had “boasted” of this, and so. The Times story is unclear whether the internal probe corroborated the incident itself, as opposed to the boast. For her part, Regan says a former employee lifted the “mezuza story” from a transcript from her divorce, and that her ex-husband had done both the deed and the boasting.
Whatever. Point is, what is that? That’s toxic sludge cranked out by a slime machine.
A News Corp. spokeswoman called the entire Regan suit “preposterous,” but said the company and its executives wouldn’t comment further.
Audit Readers, news organizations, especially newspaper organizations, to say nothing of a business watchdog, can’t behave like that. They must play it straight. If someone needs to be fired, you fire them. You don’t throw poison darts from the media brush. How does a circus like this cover other corporations?
I said a lot of tough things about Dow Jones, the soon-to-be-extinct Journal parent, but it didn’t stoop near that level. Neither, for that matter, does The New York Times Co. or The Washington Post Co.