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Monday, October 22, 2012

Murdoch, McCarthy—who's the greater menace to the dignity of Chicago journalism?

Posted By on 10.22.12 at 03:40 PM

Which news is worse: that the Sun-Times is adding Jenny McCarthy as a columnist or that Rupert Murdoch is kicking the tires of the Tribune? McCarthy will be just one more columnist among many (albeit the only one who was once a Playmate of the Year) and just a small step further along the primrose path through the wild side that the Sun-Times has been walking since—well, since Murdoch bought it back in 1984. (He sold it in '86.)

Murdoch, on the other hand, would own the Tribune if that deal were to go through. Apparently, it's nowhere near done. In fact, Murdoch's News Corporation released a statement Saturday calling reports of preliminary talks "wholly inaccurate." There's no particular reason to believe this. As the talks were reported in the Tribune and LA Times, newspapers that still enjoy a reputation for credibility, there's reason not to.

Even so, the News Corporation's denial caused Tribune Company to flinch and backtrack. The story on the Tribune website Saturday evening said, "With Tribune Co. expected to emerge from bankruptcy soon, News Corp. Chairman and Chief Executive Rupert Murdoch is looking to acquire two of its trophy properties: the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times." According to the version of the same story in Sunday morning's Tribune, "Murdoch is said to be looking to acquire . . ."

(Yes, said by the Tribune a few hours earlier.)

If I were still a working stiff at a Chicago daily nursing my woes at the Billy Goat after hours, the idea of sharing a news hole with Jenny McCarthy would trouble me less than Rupert Murdoch deciding what goes into that news hole in the first place. That's why when Murdoch took over the Sun-Times, journalists from Mike Royko on down bailed out by the dozens—some of the best crossing the street to the Tribune. McCarthy would have had nothing close to the same effect on that Sun-Times, though there would have been consternation among some of the male reporters if she'd been allowed to write from home.

But this is a different time. Wondering if Murdoch would trigger a similar Tribune exodus, I asked a few people who work there for their thoughts.

Mary Schmich: "I'll say this for the record: My first response was simply, 'Hey, at least he's a newspaper guy.' He has a good eye for what works for different markets. I like his version of the Wall Street Journal. Things could be way worse than Rupert Murdoch, at least theoretically."

"He's certainly capable of owning and running an upmarket paper—the Sunday Times and Wall Street Journal to wit," a writer who asked not to be named replied, "and with the addition of columnist Jenny McCarthy to complete the Splash-eriffic degradation of the Sun-Times I don't think a canny businessman would try to compete in the downmarket newspaper race in Chicago. So I'm not filled with despair."

Feature writer Rick Kogan, who was actually at the Sun-Times when Murdoch bought it, can't imagine an exodus from the Tribune similar to the one he joined in '84.

"There is no across the street," he pointed out. "I have no idea what you're doing when you hire Jenny McCarthy and lose [Pulitzer winner] Mark Konkol. The Jenny McCarthy thing is ridiculous, just ridiculous. I can't begrudge them hiring her—newspapers still have comic strips. But to splash it like this—I don't know who's going to buy the paper to read Jenny McCarthy."

As for Murdoch, "I'll bet Monday morning, 75 percent of the people will not have heard the story," said Kogan, talking with me Sunday afternoon. "And they'll have a vague notion of who Rupert Murdoch is. It's not the newspaper culture you and I are familiar with. . . . I think a number of people here have been and will continue to look for work because of the uncertainty of new ownership and the uncertainty of the business itself. That's the catalyst. It's a constant stream."

It's hard to believe that Rupert Murdoch is a name many Chicago journalists would have trouble putting their finger on—not after the recent phone-hacking scandal in Britain that forced Murdoch, 81, to shut down one paper, News of the World, present himself before inquiring MPs as an out-of-touch old man, and suffer a parliamentary report that concluded, "Rupert Murdoch is not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company."

But after years of Sam Zell and more years of bankruptcy, how particular can a Tribune working stiff afford to be? I didn't ask them about Jenny McCarthy, but two of the three Tribune reporters who got back to me brought her up, in a grass-is-still-greener-on-our-side-of-the-street sort of way.

Something about McCarthy's deficiencies made it easier for them to take their minds off Murdoch.

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