Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
May 25 1997 3:30 AM

Rupert Murdoch, Humanitarian?

He's not as bad as he seems--really.

 

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Rupert Murdoch is scum. The media tycoon has built his global empire on schlock and sleaze, used heavy-handed tactics and legal chicanery to evade laws and taxes, toppled British and Australian governments to expand his domain, all but bribed Newt Gingrich and Margaret Thatcher with sweetheart book deals, made mockery of the grand traditions of Australian/British/American journalism. He is perhaps the world's most sinister businessman, the Ernst Blofeld of the Information Age. Even his company's name, News Corp., has an ominous, Big Brother ring to it.

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So it's no wonder that the press--at least that fraction of the press he does not own--is gloating about his recent troubles. May has been an unpleasant month for Murdoch. He abandoned a huge U.S. satellite-TV venture, provoking a $5 billion lawsuit from his jilted business partner and inviting speculation that he'll be shut out of the American satellite market. A judge threw out most of Murdoch's own lawsuit against Time Warner. (Time Warner had refused to carry Murdoch's Fox News Channel on its cable system in New York City, prompting a spectacular squabble between Murdoch and Ted Turner.) He horrified the publishing intelligentsia by shutting down Basic Books. Even his lone May triumph, the planned purchase of the Los Angeles Dodgers for $350 million, has been dismissed as an expensive folly.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

But Murdoch, as usual, is getting a raw deal. You may not like Murdoch--it's nearly impossible to like Murdoch--but you should probably admire him. He has done more to help the great mass of media consumers than anyone in the world. Murdoch is the global capitalist par excellence, the very model of free enterprise and entrepreneurship. Almost single-handedly, Murdoch has modernized the world's media, forcing competition on stagnant businesses, cracking open monopolies and oligopolies, vanquishing "traditions" that were often an excuse for laziness, unleashing the creative destruction of capitalism on an industry that thought itself exempt from it.

Everywhere Murdoch has gone, competition, efficiency, and consumer choice (and profit) have followed. In his launching pad, Australia, Murdoch bought weak papers, outworked established rivals, and became the market leader. In Great Britain, he dragged the newspaper industry into the 20th century. In 1986 he broke the press operators' union. He won the eternal enmity of British lefties, but he was right: The unions were lazy and intransigent. By sloughing off thousands of make-work employees and ditching absurd union rules (which had banned computerization, for example), Murdoch made his newspapers cheaper for readers and more profitable for him. (Murdoch's critics rarely acknowledge that publishers all over the world--including liberal saint Katharine Graham--have crushed press unions to stay afloat.) Murdoch's British satellite-TV operation, BSkyB, shattered the BBC's near monopoly on programming. British terrestrial broadcasters had limited viewers to only a handful of channels. Murdoch's satellites give them nearly two dozen.

In the United States, too, Murdoch has greased the wheels of capitalism. Critics savaged his tabloids--the New York Post, the Boston Herald, the Chicago Sun-Times (he no longer owns the latter two)--as grotesque conservative rags. Which they were. But they also grabbed market share from big complacent dailies and awakened the sleepy local news trade. Murdoch brought the same fierce energy to the self-satisfied American TV industry. He broke up a four-decade oligopoly by starting a fourth network, a feat that no one, least of all ABC, CBS, and NBC, thought possible. (At the time he bought his first seven U.S. TV stations for $2 billion, industry analysts said he'd paid too much for them. They don't say that anymore.) While Fox has certainly splashed its share of garbage on the screen (e.g., Studs), it has also given viewers some of the decade's most remarkable shows (The Simpsons, The X-Files, America's Most Wanted). Even Murdoch's aborted American satellite deal would have benefited consumers. If it had succeeded Murdoch would have offered the first serious competition to the cable monopolies--the very choice that politicians and consumer advocates have been pleading for.

The hatred of Murdoch is, at its core, aesthetic. Murdoch's in-your-face conservatism is alienating. His newspapers and TV shows exaggerate and distort for the sake of sensationalism. They deny the very existence of good taste and propriety.

Murdoch is immune to such criticism. He's a billionaire. He was also born in Australia, which makes him, almost by definition, disrespectful of elites. He derides the BBC and respectable newspapers as "unpopular" media subsidized by a condescending, out-of-touch gentry. ("Popular" is the highest praise in the Murdoch lexicon.) Murdoch may be a modernist in his pursuit of a global techno-empire, but he's also an anachronism, a throwback to Hearst and Pulitzer. British and American journalism used to be competitive, sensational, overtly political, and populist. Murdoch believes that the snobs have crippled the profession with respectability, making journalism irrelevant to the masses. Murdoch has done all he could to restore that scrappiness. Murdoch is, in some sense, the best democrat of all: He prints newspapers that people want to read and produces TV shows that people want to watch. His British tabloid the Sun has the largest circulation of any English-language newspaper in the world. Populism is popular.

Sadly, Murdoch the robber baron may not be with us much longer. The 66-year-old is not showing signs of age, but he is showing signs of respectability. Murdoch has always had his yearning-for-respect side. But as he gets older, it seems to be getting worse (or, if you prefer, better). In 1981 he bought the money-losing London Times. Characteristically, he both vulgarized it and turned it around financially, thus chalking up another business triumph but losing much of the cachet he sought. Last year, he championed the effort to give presidential candidates free air time on network TV. Fox also produces far more children's programming than the other networks. What a shocking notion: A Rupert Murdoch who cares more about his legacy than his bottom line.