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.
As a Fox News commentator might put it, in a news organization, values matter. One day, business press readers are going to realize that.
It pays for Journal readers to review the history of the Regan case. For those who do not inhabit the dark and evil planet known as “Midtown,” Regan is the Long Island single mom (battered, by her account, by men in her life) who willed herself to become one of the most successful publishers ever, first at Simon & Schuster, then at News Corp.’s HarperCollins, having been recruited personally by Murdoch in 1994. Her list of hits includes the Zone Diet, Jenna Jamison, Howard Stern, and more serious work, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in book sales, which is a lot in publishing.
Was Regan a lightening rod? Yes. Erratic? Err, yes. Given to yelling, “I have the biggest cock in the building”? So we are told by Grigoriadis.
Still, in February 2006, according to the complaint, she and News Corp. director Tom Perkins, of Al Gore’s new firm, Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, dined with Murdoch, who approved the idea of a Simpson book and suggested paying $1 million for it. Regan says Murdoch knew the book would be framed as a hypothetical confession. News Corp. officials have disputed that, but Murdoch has acknowledged approving the project.
A call from The Audit to Kleiner’s Menlo Park, California, office wasn’t returned.
Regan says she spoke frequently with Friedman, the Harper Collins CEO, who enthusiastically embraced the idea, even suggesting at a conference in Puerto Rico that the print run be increased.
Again, Friedman’s support for the project doesn’t appear to be in dispute. Regan cites a February 2007 Grigoriadis story in New York that said Friedman saw the project as a “gigantic mound of cash piled on her bottom line.”
Jackson, the in-house lawyer, negotiated the deal, according to Regan. Fox Broadcasting produced an accompanying televised O.J. interview. Regan says she wanted to wait, believing it to be in “bad taste” (I know, I know) to air it during the holidays, but a top Fox broadcast executive, Mike Darnell, told her: “The big guy (e.g. Murdoch) wants it now,” the complaint says.
So, this was not a rogue project.
The media storm broke with the leak of a clip from the Simpson interview, November 13, 2006.
Regan made an already bad situation worse three days later, when, during a Sirius radio show she hosted, she said she had decided to publish the Simpson book as a means of dealing with her own past abusive relationships, or something.
…because I wanted him, and the men who broke my heart and your hearts, to tell the truth, confess their sins,” etc. etc.
Yes, it’s stupid.
Okay, the nation is in uproar. Fox News personalities man the ramparts against the cultural degradation spewing from, um, News Corp.’s publishing arm. You’d need a doctorate from MediaBistro and would have to eat at Michael’s every day for the rest of your life to figure out the internal politics of all this, but Bill O’Reilly, Greta Van Susteren, et al. join what quickly blossoms into a category five doo-doo storm. Jim Pinkerton, a regular conservative panelist on Fox, lobs this:
Even among her fellow publishers at - at - Harper, she’s ‘slimy,’
Ick! Watch out for that flying crap, Jane Friedman!
At some point, Fox News chief Roger Ailes, among others, called Murdoch at his Australian ranch to talk it all over, according to a Business Week interview with Murdoch last February. Regan blames Ailes for orchestrating the media takedown. She may be nuts, but is that such a stretch? Here’s Bill O’Reilly saying as much, quoted by Regan from court papers in his own sex-harassment lawsuit:
I’ll make her pay so dearly that she’ll wish she never were born If you cross Fox News Channel it’s not just me, it’s (Fox president) Roger Ailes who will go after you Ailes operates behind the scenes, strategizes and makes things happen so that one day, bam!
In any event, daggers are thrust into Regan from media columns all over le New York. On November 18, the Post publishes an interview with a Regan ex-boyfriend who alleges Regan profited from marijuana smuggling and says she lied about being abused by him. Nice!
Newsweek weighs in on December 4 with a story headlined “No More Free Rein for Regan.” It says:
Regan only had to present a general concept of the Simpson book to HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman to get the budget approved for the project, according to one person close to Friedman who doesn’t want to be identified because he’s not authorized to speak to the company.
The Audit to Person-Close-to-Friedman: nice try.
In her suit, Regan accuses Friedman of planting the leak, but The Audit, without better evidence, refuses to believe it. (Among the weirder turns that Regan notes, Publisher’s Weekly named Friedman “Publishing Person of the Year” on Dec. 11, three weeks into this mess, citing her as a “visionary pragmatist,” [the best kind!] who, among other things, led her company “through the O.J. scandal.” Wow. And I thought academia was weird.)
This entire summary of media leaks is spelled out in Regan’s complaint. But what can I say? They ran.
There’s more, of course. My fellow hobbits may remember this ended with Regan screaming at Jackson, the in-house counsel, that a “Jewish cabal” was out to get her. I won’t parse the remarks, but it was nothing News Corp. executives hadn’t heard from her before. No one believes she was fired for being an anti-Semite.
The dismissal, appropriately, is leaked by “senior News Corp. executives,” to the Los Angeles Times on December 17:
’It was an accumulation of her behavior,’ said one of those executives, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the legal sensitivity of the issue.
In the interview with Business Week last February, Murdoch provides some kind of limited half-apology—“It’s my fault; I should have been closer to it”—that actually makes no sense. Why should he have been closer to it?
Murdoch also summarizes her career in way I find ungenerous—to say the least. “She was very good at Simon & Schuster. She had a great sort of pop feel and did some very good best sellers to start with and then went sort of downhill.”
As Regan notes, seven of her books hit the best-seller list after she was fired. Murdoch here could have shown more class.
So, how did the Journal do covering this suit, with the merger closing in weeks? It short-armed the story,
particularly when it comes to Regan’s affair with Kerik, the newly indicted former New York City police commissioner, and its impact on his friend, Rudy Giuliani, who is running for president of the United States of America.
Talking Points Memo
rightly zinged the Journal for giving the story short shrift. Me, I hate to see the paper even exposed to that kind of suggestion, but here we are.
This is not about sympathy for Regan, who deserves and apparently asks for none. But can you imagine covering this company. From the inside?Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.