In tomorrow's (Monday's) paper:
A 'Tabloid Guy' Calls It a Night
After 41 Year With Murdoch
By TIM ARANGO
There are so many stories about the life and times of Steve Dunleavy, the longtime New York Post columnist and even longer-time Rupert Murdoch acolyte, that some, inevitably, have evolved over the years.
That is how Mr. Murdoch remembers it.
Mr. Dunleavy tells a different version. Yes, he punctured the tires of a car, but it was owned by his father’s newspaper and he did not know his dad was there. And it was not a murder but the story of a group of missing hikers.
“That story gets told and told, and each time it gets a little bit more whiskers on it,” Mr. Dunleavy said.
After 55 years in journalism — 41 of them spent working for Mr. Murdoch — Mr. Dunleavy is seeing the curtain come down on his career. He has been an unabashed friend to police officers, firefighters, civil servants and the occasional mobster and the scourge of polite society and liberals.
In his heyday, Mr. Dunleavy was the personification of Mr. Murdoch’s brand of tabloid journalism, both in print and, for 10 years beginning in the mid-1980s, on television. He was an on-air reporter for “A Current Affair,” a news magazine whose sensationalized mix of crime and celebrity inspired a lot of what is on television today, like TMZ.com, Court TV and Fox News Channel.
“Steve was very much involved in educating America about the joys and pleasures of tabloid journalism,” said Col Allan, editor in chief of The New York Post. “In many ways, Steve has represented the News Corp. culture — that is, hard work, hard play, laughing.”
Mr. Dunleavy also tweaked the political landscape of the city, proving that populism in New York City could come from the right and not just from the cadre of well-known left-leaning columnists of the time, men like Pete Hamill, Jimmy Breslin, Murray Kempton and Jack Newfield.
“Politically, the notion that there could be a populist, right-wing columnist in New York seemed almost inconceivable at the time, but that’s exactly what he was,” said Jonathan Mahler, author of “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning,” a chronicle of New York City’s turbulent times in 1977, and a contributor to The New York Times Magazine. “All of the iconic New York columnists were liberal, and Dunleavy was like the party crasher.”
There were times when his political instincts seemed to lead him astray, such as his championing of Wayne DuMond, who had been convicted in Arkansas of raping a distant cousin of former President Bill Clinton, who was governor of Arkansas at the time of the rape.
Mr. Dunleavy wrote a series of columns defending Mr. DuMond, who was eventually paroled, only to be convicted of murder in Missouri. And of course, Mr. Dunleavy has steadfastly refused to accept any criticism of the police — perhaps most notably by supporting the officers who were convicted in the case of Abner Louima, who was assaulted in the bathroom of a Brooklyn precinct in 1997.
But Mr. Murdoch has always liked party crashers, being one himself. Long before the News Corporation, his media conglomerate, conquered the world with cable news, movies and satellite television, it was an Australian newspaper company looking for a toehold in the United States. In the mid-1960s, Mr. Dunleavy was working in New York for United Press International, the wire service, which had its office in a building that also housed the foreign correspondents for Mr. Murdoch’s newspapers. It was there that Mr. Dunleavy met Mr. Murdoch, whom he now refers to simply as “the boss.”
In a nearly three-hour chat last week at Mr. Dunleavy’s home in Long Island, where he lives with his wife of 37 years, Gloria — hours in which he drank just two cans of Budweiser — he was uncharacteristically contemplative, melancholy even, but funny all the same.
He is in frail health, he says, because of back problems, which prevent him from moving around easily — although he insisted on fetching his second beer himself. Mr. Dunleavy and his wife have two sons, one a police officer, the other a soldier who has served in Iraq.
“I always had dreams of dying at the desk,” he said. “It’s frustrating not doing what I love best, and serving, I know it sounds corny, the one who I admire the most. Murdoch. The boss.”
It is a relationship that has spanned more than four decades, one that put Mr. Dunleavy, now 70, at Mr. Murdoch’s side as he popularized tabloid journalism.
“He was livelier than Solomon, and he was always the most entertaining reporter,” Mr. Murdoch recalled in a telephone interview last week.
Of Mr. Murdoch, Mr. Dunleavy says, “even though he’s done so well in TV and movies, I think if you asked him, he’d say he’s first a newspaperman.”
After working for several years as a correspondent in New York for Mr. Murdoch’s Australian and British papers, Mr. Dunleavy was tapped for a Murdoch start-up business in New York, The Star, a supermarket tabloid to compete with The National Enquirer. In 1976, Mr. Murdoch bought The New York Post, which was then a liberal newspaper.
“Murdoch took it over and Murdoch-ized it,” said Mr. Mahler. “And Dunleavy was at the center of it.”
In 1977, Mr. Dunleavy’s reporting on the infamous Son of Sam serial murder case reinvigorated The Post. Before Mr. Dunleavy hopped on the story, The Post had basically conceded it to The Daily News’s Jimmy Breslin.
“They kept spiking his copy,” said Mr. Murdoch, “while Breslin was leading every day. It was just killing The Post and killing Dunleavy. So I made a change because of that.” Mr. Murdoch brought in new editors, and Mr. Dunleavy began earning his own scoops — in one instance by sneaking into a hospital, dressed in clothes that looked like hospital scrubs, to interview a victim’s family.
“Steve is one of the three people in America who loves Rupert Murdoch,” said Mr. Breslin. “In a time of listless reporting, he climbed stairs. And he wrote simple declarative sentences that people could read, as opposed to these 52-word gems that moan, ‘I went to college! I went to graduate school college! Where do I put the period?’ ”
Mr. Hamill used to drink with Mr. Dunleavy at Costello’s, an old Manhattan saloon favored by reporters.
“He always had this energy,” Mr. Hamill said. “I always thought he was writing his columns like he was double-parked. He was a tabloid guy in every fiber of his body. If it didn’t have conflict, he didn’t want to write it.”
In 1988, the federal government forced Mr. Murdoch to sell The Post because he had bought a television station in New York, WNYW-Channel 5 (five years later, he reacquired the newspaper out of bankruptcy). It was around this time that Mr. Dunleavy’s television career was born on “A Current Affair.”
Recently, invitations went out to a slew of New York city journalists, police officers, lawyers, firefighters — and who knows who else — inviting them to a party given by Mr. Murdoch this week to celebrate Mr. Dunleavy’s retirement. Note that the party is not being held at Langan’s, the Midtown Manhattan bar around the corner from The New York Post’s newsroom that for years served as Mr. Dunleavy’s office.
He had a routine, normally arriving at Langan’s around lunchtime for a day of reporting. “You’d always know if he was hung over from the night before because he would have a cold beer right away,” said Des O’Brien, the owner of Langan’s. “He’d work the phone all day and various people would come in and out. He’d put in a full workday.”
If Mr. Dunleavy seems like a character out of a movie — the gruff, hard-drinking troublemaking journalist — that is because he is. Robert Downey Jr.’s role as an Australian TV reporter in Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” is said to have been based on Mr. Dunleavy. He was also a character in “The Bronx Is Burning,” which was made into a mini-series on ESPN.
“When I first came around, there was some very good newspapermen in New York,” Mr. Dunleavy said. “But increasingly, they started leaning on this Columbia School of Journalism thing. That you wanted your mom to be proud. That it was a profession.
“Journalism is a craft, like being a master plumber. We wore white collars, but we were blue collar.”
This generational clash became evident to Mr. Dunleavy years ago when he was on the campaign plane for Robert Dole, the former senator who ran for president in 1996, and saw younger reporters heading off to health clubs at the end of the day.
“As soon as we’d stop, we’d go have a gargle,” he says. “I think the younger generation is far better served going to the gym rather than the gin mill. No question about it. But we learned from our elders.”
Mr. Dunleavy gets to Manhattan infrequently nowadays, usually only when he has to see doctors at Mount Sinai Hospital, leaving voids at Langan’s, The Post’s newsroom and Elaine’s, the Upper East Side restaurant that was Mr. Dunleavy’s other favorite nightspot.
One night last week at Elaine’s, Elaine Kaufman, the proprietor, recounted the time that Mr. Dunleavy left the bar with a woman during a snowstorm and was hit by a truck. “He didn’t want to go the hospital,” recalled Ms. Kaufman. “And then there he was on the gurney.”
Mr. Dunleavy has not written much lately — he has been in a sort of unofficial retirement while he tends to his health. If he never writes again, his last byline was a tribute to his friend Tim Russert, the late NBC newsman.
“I laugh easily and loudly, but like so many of us, sometimes not sincerely,” Mr. Dunleavy wrote in June. “But with Tim, you responded with more than just a belly laugh — you’d end up in hysterics with tears streaming down your face.”
Probably more than a few can say the same about Mr. Dunleavy. “He’s a legend in his time,” said Mr. Murdoch.