Amid the Murdoch empire's many and multiplying hard knocks -- now for instance, police charges on obstruction of justice against the former Chief Executive of all its British newspapers, their Head of "Security," and others -- it's easy to overlook intriguing items in the empire's actual editorial output.
But the New York Post, Murdoch's tabloid flagship among his American properties -- and so far untainted by the mire swamping its London counterparts -- this week got a scoop. And it can be seen as testimony to one of the good qualities the Murdoch operation will often display -- sheer journalistic enterprise and sometimes originality.
A Page One cover trumpeted an exclusive interview, carried across two inside pages, with the widowed spouse, Blake Allison, of a 9/11 victim, Anna Alison who died in American Airlines Flight 11 when it was crashed into the World Trade Center.
He was one of the "winners" of the draw for tickets allowing 10 relatives to attend the Guantanamo military tribunal trying the four al Qaeda members accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks, led by Khalid Sheik Mohamed. The ten could watch the proceedings through soundproof glass, but with the audio feed sometimes 'redacted.'
The distinctive dimension to Allison's presence there, the interview revealed -- and other media outfits had humbly to follow up -- was that he alone out of the relatives had met with the accused men's lawyers, and offered to help them, even by giving testimony, in arguing against the death penalty for their clients.
His notable quote was "Just because I was hurt very badly and personally does not in my mind give me the go-ahead to take a life." He also said: "The public needs to know there are family members out there who do not hold the view that these men should be put to death."
A good story, with little doubt. But on a professional note, I'll add the perhaps carping caveat that the Post's enterprise and originality can be exaggerated. Anyone following the 9/11 legal trail would know that Blake Allison testified, at the penalty phase, in the 2006 trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th terrorist -- arguing against the death sentence. ""I have felt from the outset that Moussaoui didn't deserve the death penalty," he said. So once it was known that he was among the select group of family observers for KSM's and the others' tribunal, you'd think it would be worth asking him a few questions.
It says more about the laggardliness of other journalists that it was the Post's Josh Margolin, recruited not long ago from New Jersey's Star-Ledger , who got the scoop.
His colleagues had their distractions, of course -- notably the much ballyhooed actions of protest that the defendants and their long-frustrated lawyers employed to draw attention to the lack of due process in the re-engineered military tribunal system.
It was, though, the Post's treatment of their scoop that intrigued me most. Unlike most of that noisily self-confident paper's editorial choices, the approach to this story felt decidedly ambiguous.
Oh yes, the front page headline appeared at first blush to leave few doubts about the paper's position: "DEVIL'S ADVOCATE" screamed out beneath Allison's photo. And the inside headline called Allison's purpose a "shocking mission." Both headers were fully in line with the Post's familiar knee-jerk, 'Hang 'em High' line in terrorism cases.
But the story itself was written with balance -- it was unusually lengthy, too -- and gave Allison's own argument full respect and deference... quite unlike many of the Post's scornful and snide swipes at the occasionally more liberal-minded subjects of its stories.
On the editorial page next day (and online on the same day) it published surprisingly temperate letters from readers, 2 to 1 in favor of Allison. Comments on the website, inevitably, were a different matter. They're moderated by Post staff, but not as firmly controlled as in the "Letters" space. And the predictable range of loyal Post readers could be relied upon for remarks like "Liberal Idiot," "Weak liberals like this," "These crazy Libs," "Appeaser," "Reminds me of Hanoi Jane," and "This guy should be sent to Afghanistan and... abducted by extremists." The Editorial Board of the Post, however, expressed nary a word -- no Editorial, no Opinion piece.
Altogether the paper's own staff efforts with the story just didn't look consistent, or true to its usual self... and that might be to its credit, you could say.
I'm just asking -- like Cindy Adams, the columnist who archly still uses that phrase in the Post's own pages -- are the hands at the helm not getting their usual firm guidance from the top, as the empire's highest officers now get more and more buffeted?
Rupert Murdoch's great political heroine, Margaret Thatcher -- though he now seems to find it hard to remember, when questioned during the UK public inquiry into press-politician connections, their tete-a-tetes in her official country residence -- had a favorite word for underlings and followers who disappointed her in times of trouble.
She famously called them "wobbly." She even, while on the phone with George H. W. Bush, warned him against getting the wobbles over Iraq.
Can wobbly be what the Post is turning -- and perhaps eventually other outposts of the empire, too?
Maybe that's just too much to hope for.
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Read more of David Tereshchuk's media industry insights at his weekly column, The Media Beat, with accompanying video and audio. Listen also to The Media Beat podcasts on demand from Connecticut's NPR station WHDD, and at iTunes.