< The Forbidden Dance


Friday, June 24, 2005

BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Last week, the New York Observer took note of an odd kind of political flirtation taking place between none other than the media mogul from Australia and the junior senator from New York. The power and money that naturally flows from politics and media often make for strange bedfellows, but Hillary Clinton and Rupert Murdoch? I mean, really. Well, why not? Ben Smith wrote the piece called The Odd Couple '08, and he joins me now. Ben, welcome to OTM.

BEN SMITH: Thanks for having me.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: To put Murdoch's potential political pull into some context here, what happened for Tony Blair after he got cozy with Murdoch?

BEN SMITH: Murdoch had been a great devotee of Margaret Thatcher but didn't like the way John Major, her successor, had treated her; didn't like the way the British conservatives had treated her. And so, invited Tony Blair, the new Labor leader to a retreat in the Hayman Islands off Australia in 1995, and over the next couple of years, they grew closer. I think his crusading tabloid, the Sun, which has I think more circulation than all the broadsheets there combined, started I think serializing Blair's personal essays and endorsed Labor in the 1997 elections, crusaded for them are widely thought to have perhaps, you know, provided the margin.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And do you know what Blair gave him in return for his support? A few regulatory breaks, perhaps?

BEN SMITH: Yeah, Blair's communications policy was helpful to Murdoch's new TV interests in cable and satellite.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what has Murdoch's relationship or at least his newspaper, the New York Post's relationship with Hillary been up until now?

BEN SMITH: During her 2000 Senate campaign, the Post was incredibly hard on her. New York Magazine's Mike Tomasky actually counted, and they had something like 217 negative stories about her; 7 positive; maybe 10 or 15 neutral, by his count. And since she's been in the Senate, that has really changed. I mean she has courted them extremely hard, given their reporters access, treated them at least as well as any other publication, and the editorial page has softened, and the news pages have softened.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So give me some of the evidence that you've gathered that this relationship between Murdoch and Hillary is in fact warming up.

BEN SMITH: Well, the most striking thing is the New York Post and the way in which it's in recent weeks gone after this attack biography of Hillary, a book by Ed Klein called The Truth About Hillary. First, Page Six, the feared gossip page trashed it. Wednesday, the news pages had a roundup of negative reviews of the book under the heading Anti-Hill Swill Bashed, and the same day a columnist, John Podhoretz went after the book on the op-ed page.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: They went after the book that goes after Hillary, but did they actually stand with Hillary on anything?

BEN SMITH: The most I think strictly and strongly positive editorial she's ever gotten from the paper came earlier this year when they wrote an editorial just to say that she had the best stance on the war that they could imagine from a Democrat.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And what about the personal contacts between Hillary and Murdoch or the Clintons and Murdoch?

BEN SMITH: Hillary and, and Rupert had lunch at News Corp. headquarters in a private dining room in 2002 which, according to a person there was, was very cordial, which I know a lot of people might find hard to imagine. [LAUGHTER] And Bill, who kind of works as Hillary's political operative in a certain way has been courting him, you know, assiduously, and in fact, he's holding this kind of Davos-On-The-Hudson Clinton Global Initiative Conference this fall to which, you know, a handful of royals and heads of state are invited to - a dozen, maybe two dozen people, only two business leaders are invited, and one of them is Rupert Murdoch.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wherefore this warming relationship between Murdoch and Hillary Clinton? I mean what's in it for both of them?

BEN SMITH: Well, for Hillary, I mean it's just, you know, you want to have all the friends you can get, and one of the Clintons' great geniuses has always been to you know keep your friends close and your enemies closer. For Murdoch, a lot of people who've written about him and who've known him say he's not an ideologue. You know, what he wants is to advance his business interests, and he's attracted to powerful, decisive people more than he is to a particular set of policies. What one person suggested to me is that you, I mean you don't want to be taken for granted, and to the extent to which Murdoch's media empire is seen as an arm of the conservative movement or of the Republican Party, to that extent, it's harder for him to ask for things from the conservative movement and the Republican Party, not easier. I mean they're going to be more solicitous of him if they're afraid that he's going to jump ship.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: It does put his journalistic operations in a rather peculiar position, though, if that is indeed what's going on, because in New York, Hillary Clinton has a Senate run to think about and is supposed to contend with the New York Post, and then she may have a presidential run to think about, and then she'll have to deal with Fox News. What will happen to these typically right-leaning news outlets if their boss puts himself in Hillary's corner?

BEN SMITH: Well, Rupert has always made the calls on the endorsements at the New York Post and in his newspaper empire. I mean that's traditional, for the publisher to do that. And the New York Post has endorsed Democrats before. It endorsed Chuck Schumer for re-election, and it's already begun to beat up one of the potential opponents to Mrs. Clinton, a guy called Ed Cox, Richard Nixon's son in law, and it just seemed like they certainly opened the door to endorsing Mrs. Clinton.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But Murdoch hasn't called the shots for Fox News's editorial orientation; that's always been the province of Roger Ailes.

BEN SMITH: It's certainly hard to see Fox News pivoting toward Hillary the way the Sun pivoted toward Tony Blair in England, for example. I mean Fox's business model is very much about being a conservative network, and they make huge amounts of money, and an executive at News Corp. just dismissed the idea on the grounds that they don't want to lose that money.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: As we said at the outset, Murdoch is widely regarded as having been crucial to Tony Blair's win. It's unlikely that he can have anywhere near that kind of influence on Hillary's chances.

BEN SMITH: Well, there, I mean there's nothing like the English Sun here. There's no-he doesn't have an outlet that can make or break an election. But I mean if Fox News could turn the dial two degrees toward fair and balanced and away from tearing the Democratic nominee to shreds or was a bit harder on the Republican nominee, I mean I think sure, that could make a difference, and I mean I think John Kerry's people would certainly tell you that straighter coverage from Fox could help a Democrat.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, Ben, thank you very much.

BEN SMITH: Thank you for having me.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ben Smith writes for the New York Observer. [MUSIC]