When Rupert came to Boston

By ADAM REILLY  |  August 8, 2007

Some critics argue that, if the paper’s top editorial slots hadn’t been occupied by Murdoch loyalists with limited knowledge of Boston, this mistake might never have made it to press. “Here’s where the weakness of the Murdoch era comes in,” argues one long-time Herald watcher. “Robinowitz” — nicknamed the “Rhinestone Rabbi” by some wags — “was a 32-year-old Texan; Hinton was more seasoned, but he didn’t know Lucas and he didn’t know White. They should have spotted the vulnerability there and been worried about it.”

“It’s one of the great mistakes in Boston media history,” says a second. “And one of the thoughts is that, if Robinowitz had known a little more about the institutional players, they might have been a little smarter.”

This argument is actually a surrogate for a bigger debate about whether Murdoch’s Herald ever had sufficiently deep Boston roots. Robinowitz edited the paper until 1986, when he left to join the nascent Fox Broadcasting Corp. and was replaced by Ken Chandler, a Brit who’d been managing editor of the Post. Chandler kept that job until 1993, when he, too, left for Fox.

After brief editorial stints by Martin Dunn (a Brit with intensely tabloid-y instincts) and Alan Eisner, Costello — one of the aforementioned “Micks with Dicks” — was named editor. (Ironically, Dunn decamped for the New York Daily News; under his editorship, the Daily News fell behind Murdoch’s Post in circulation.) Costello imbued the paper with a more sober, less sensationalistic feel — that is, until new owner Pat Purcell brought back Chandler as a consultant and de facto editorial czar in 2003. (Purcell, a former advertising director for Murdoch’s Village Voice, became the Herald’s publisher in 1984 and the Post’s publisher in 1986; in 1994, when FCC joint-ownership rules forced Murdoch to choose between the tabloid and WFXT-TV, Purcell purchased the Herald from him for an estimated $10 to 15 million.)

Here in Boston, there’s a broad consensus that Murdoch’s Herald improved as it tacked away from its original, Post-lite incarnation and focused more on hard local news, including politics, business, and crime. But whether Murdoch encouraged this change or kept it from being fully realized is another matter.

Another point worth mentioning: the connection, or lack thereof, between Murdoch’s conservative political views and the Herald’s content. Sciacca, the current Herald assistant managing editor for news, offers a resounding rebuttal of his former employer’s reputation for editorial meddling. “I covered politics most of the years Murdoch owned the paper, and never once, ever, was I told to go after someone because he was an enemy of Murdoch’s, or an enemy of the paper’s in some way,” he says. “There was no interference whatsoever in terms of coverage.”

To make his case, Sciacca cites the 1984 drug-overdose death of David Anthony Kennedy, one of Robert F. Kennedy’s children. The Post reporter on the scene in Florida assembled an account of David Kennedy’s last hours that was filled with salacious detail. Sciacca couldn’t confirm this lurid color, however, and penned a more subdued account for the Herald. “They could easily have killed my story and run the Post’s story” in Boston, he says. “They didn’t. And there was never any pressure to do so.”

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