Throwback Thursday: Memo to Michael Calderone…

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Politico has quickly established itself as the hottest, buzziest publication in Washington DC. And much of the time, that buzz-rep is deserved–Politico has had scoop after scoop this year. And so by now, that “halo” of buzz is presumed to encircle all of its staffers–even those who don’t really deserve it. Why? Because of course, buzz is only valuable if it’s also accurate. Inaccurate buzz is bullshit, pardon my French.

And it appears that Politico’s media writer, Michael Calderone, has crossed that line, from buzz to b.s. And the cause is, once again, that b.s.-iest of buzzsters, Michael Wolff.

Having gotten a sneak peek at Wolff’s new book, The Man Who Owns The News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch, Calderone seems not to have noticed that some of the biggest and buzziest claims in Wolff’s book–that Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes had become estranged, that Murdoch had become a pro-Obama liberal–have been disproven.

Consider this from Calderone:

The embarrassment can no longer be missed,” Wolff wrote, in another section of the book. “He mumbles even more than usual when called on to justify it. He barely pretends to hide the way he feels about Bill O’Reilly. And while it is not that he would give Fox up—because the money is the money; success trumps all—in the larger sense of who he is, he seems to want to hedge his bets.

Wolff describes Murdoch as not wanting News Corp. to be defined by Fox News. And so last year’s purchase of the Wall Street Journal, he wrote, “was in no small way about wanting to trade the illiberal—the belligerent, the vulgar, the loud, the menacing the unsubtle—for the better-heeled, the more magnanimous, the further nuanced.”

Well, if all this were true, then why did Murdoch just re-up with Ailes for five more years? Back on November 20, I wrote this about Wolff’s line about a Murdoch-Ailes split:

But now comes news that makes me wonder if any of Wolff’s book is accurate, beyond the page numbers. The headline of the News Corp. press release reads, in big type: “NEWS CORPORATION SIGNS ROGER AILES TO NEW FIVE YEAR CONTRACT.” And here’s a money quote from Murdoch:

In making the announcement, Mr. Murdoch said, “Roger has done a remarkable job building FOX News into a force in journalism and built a great asset for News Corporation. I have complete confidence in his talent and his editorial judgment. Under his leadership, I believe that FOX Business Network will become the strongest competitor in financial television news.”

In other words, the whole thrust of Wolff’s take on Murdoch has been proven to be incorrect–by Murdoch himself. By word and deed, Murdoch has reaffirmed his confidence in Ailes. As the News Corp. press release adds:

The new agreement states that Mr. Ailes will continue to oversee FOX News, FOX Television Stations (FTS), FOX Business Network (FBN), My Network TV and Twentieth Television. He will also continue serving as a senior advisor to Mr. Murdoch on television and news matters.

Did you get the part at the end about Ailes “serving as a senior advisor” to Murdoch? Sorry, I am sure you did, but did Calderone?

For his part, Calderone lays great stress on Wolff’s claim that Murdoch considered endorsing Barack Obama in the general election. Well, that’s interesting, and if Murdoch had, in fact, endorsed Obama this year, then Wolff would’ve deservedly gotten credit for getting the scoop on that bit o’ news. But, uh, it didn’t happen: The New York Post thunderously endorsed John McCain in September, and The Wall Street Journal editorial page was steadily hostile to Obama. All of which reduces the value of Wolff’s insight into Murdoch’s ultimate intentions, wouldn’t you say?

For his part, Calderone seeks to cover for Wolff and his errors, concluding, “It’s still not easy to pin down Murdoch.” Actually, Michael, it is easy: You simply have to watch what Murdoch actually does, as opposed to relying on what someone such as Wolff says he will do. It might not be buzzy to wait till all the facts are 100% clear, but it is good journalism. You can trust hunches, but only up to a point. And you really can’t trust them after they have been disproven!

So why is Calderone covering so strenuously for Wolff? Why is the Politico man repeating Wolffian spin, even after it’s been overtaken, and falsified, by events? The answer is tucked away in Calderone’s story: “Politico obtained a copy of Wolff’s book, to be released Tuesday, under an agreement not to publish its contents before today.”

So, you see, Calderone made a deal with Wolff to get (relatively) early access to the book. What sort of deal? What might Wolff have wanted in return? Well, most obviously, Calderone might have committed to not pointing out the glaring errors in Wolff’s book. Calderone might have even promised to spin those glaring errors into close calls, as in, “Murdoch came this close to endorsing Obama, even if, admittedly, he ended up endorsing McCain.”

Calderone might be willing to play footsie with sources, even if that means shading the reality–but it’s a gross disservice to readers. Calderone seems to have been so hungry for the buzz of an exclusive sneak peek into a new book that he forgot that in addition to seeking out buzz, he also needed to use his b.s. detector.

Note to Politico editors: Watch Calderone. He will sell out your paper’s reputation for buzz, no matter how spurious that buzz might be. And down that road is not only the destruction of an individual reporter, but of a whole journalistic brand.

Reposted from The Cable Game, 28 November 2008

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