Monday, August 8, 2011

The Star of Page One

If you've seen the film about the N. Y. Times called Page One, you've been introduced--almost personally--to a well-travelled veteran who now is a media reporter for them named David Carr. Much of his appeal arises from his checkered career--on papers from one in Minneapolis to the Washington City Paper (for which he appears in a ski hat adorned with its logo) and off the job from his past attraction to crack and his years as a single parent.

His big story in the picture is uncovering the almost idiotic leadership that bought and bled the Chicago Tribune until it went into bankruptcy. With careful inquiry, he found that at best the managers only knew what they had picked up working in radio and at worst they carried on as if what was once (self-described as) the World's Greatest Newspaper was a fraternity party complete with sex and booze.

I should have expected that when I picked up the Times today, he would be breaking yet another great story that required a lot of work. Trying to find out if Rupert Murdoch's minions in the states had engaged in conduct just as atrocious as had their colleagues on his U.K. enterprises, Carr set his gaze on a company that dealt with one area of advertising. It had come to dominate its field, however, by pulling every conceivable violation of antitrust and through behavior that was strikingly anti-competitive.

The Justice Department regional antitrust office had recommended prosecution and denial of permission to acquire its major competitior. Strangely, and leaving no paper trail, the front office of the Antitrust Division in Washington had instead cleared the merger. It turns out that the then-head of the division was none other than my old law school classmate Joel Klein, until recently the generally-regarded as successful reform-minded Chancellor of New York City's public schools. Joel was hired upon leaving the NYC school system by none other than...Rupert Murdoch.

OK, and the Carr story tells all sides, Klein's division some time later denied some Murdoch outlet permission to acquire something else. But there's no good explanation for this decision, especially since no one will talk even now, and the federal prosecutors who decided not to pursue the case in New Jersey now work for Gov. Chris Christie, who was then the U.S. Attorney there.

As my old friend and fine journalist himself, Don Kaul, said (as the title of one of his books), "they're all in it together." Carr's story certainly leads one to that most reasonable conclusion. By the way, the movie, which generally was well done, was at its best when it showed Carr and a few other media reporters and editors at the Times encountering the classic kind of theory-mongers who turn up on panels in New York and D.C. It may be, as these types have it, that newspapers really are over the hill, but you have to hope there will always be intrepid reporters like Carr and some place for them to practice their skills.

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