April 2, 1993, Friday, CITY EDITION


Other Edition: Nassau Pg. 64, Suffolk Pg. 56

LENGTH: 668 words

HEADLINE: His News Is Bad News

BYLINE: By Mitchell Stephens. Mitchell Stephens is chairman of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication of New York University and the author of "A History of News" (Penguin).


RUPERT MURDOCH'S likely return to control of the New York Post may be good for the newspaper's employees, but it is disturbing news for those of us who are concerned with keeping political debate in this city honest and fair. For Murdoch was more than the publisher who, with such headlines as "Headless Body in Topless Bar," began the current wave of tabloid sensationalism in New York City. He was, during his first run as the Post's owner, from 1977 to 1988, unscrupulous in his use of the paper's news columns to advance his political causes.

Almost all American daily newspapers today at least try to keep their editorial opinions from influencing their news coverage. It is a worthy effort, given how few newspapers are left for readers to turn to for news. The Post under Murdoch made no such effort.

Here are some examples from studies I helped conduct:

During the month before the 1977 mayoral primary, the Post's early editions ran no unfavorable stories about Murdoch's candidate, Edward Koch, but many nasty stories about Koch's opponents, such as "The Blond Millionairess Whose Big Bucks Back Cuomo." The Post mentioned Koch favorably in four front-page headlines; the six other candidates were mentioned favorably on the front page a total of once. Koch received 32 inches of favorable coverage on pages 2 through 5, all the other candidates, including the incumbent, Mayor Abraham Beame, a total of 35 inches.

In 1980, Murdoch's support of Ronald Reagan in his race for the presidency against Jimmy Carter spilled all over the Post's news columns, as was apparent in these headlines: "Reagan: I'll Save the Middle Class" - a scoop proclaimed in red ink on the front page. "Israel Fears Carter Victory" - the article referred to by this front-page headline included no quotes from any Israeli, named or unnamed, supporting the charge. "Stars Want Ron to Get the Part" - no stars supporting Carter were quoted. "Khomeini Pulls the Strings," and then in smaller type, "Carter Back on Campaign Trail" - this intriguing pairing of thoughts was given two-thirds of the front page on the day before the election.

On Jan. 25, 1982, a front-page headline in the Post - not, of course, labeled an editorial - proposed "Ed Koch for Governor." Koch had not entered the race and had not been included 10 days earlier in the newspaper's discussion of 11 possible candidates. But, after the paper invited readers to fill out a Koch for Governor coupon on its news pages every weekday for the next two weeks and ran news headlines such as "Apple Loves Koch," the then-mayor eventually entered the primary, which he went on to lose to Mario Cuomo.

When other papers "endorse you, you get one column on the editorial page," groused Cuomo at the time. "With Rupert, he turns the whole paper over to you."

Murdoch's flagrantly partisan style of journalism was common in the United States a hundred years ago. But then each city had many newspapers; they balanced each other's slants. New York now has only three other general-circulation dailies, and they attempt to honor the line between news coverage and opinion columns or editorials. If Murdoch returns, there will again be no one to balance his front-page crusades and assaults.

That may be one reason so many politicians, including Cuomo, are trying to get on Murdoch's good side by helping in his bid to regain control of the Post. Because his support extended beyond the editorial page, Murdoch was for a time arguably the most powerful political force in the country's largest city. He may very well become that again.

The problem, if Murdoch regains control, is that the city's newspaper readers, conditioned to expect a different kind of journalism, may not understand that many of the news stories they will be reading in the Post may not be the result of normal reporting but rather expressions of the publisher's personal political preferences. That would be unfortunate for them and for the political life of this city.

GRAPHIC: Photo- Mitchell Stephens