Michael Wolff's new Rupert Murdoch biography accepts the mogul on his own sordid terms.

Media criticism.
Dec. 1 2008 8:56 PM

Reunderstanding Rupert Murdoch

Michael Wolff's new biography accepts the mogul on his own sordid terms.

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Murdoch's position is to represent News Corp.'s interests "while at the same time giving consumers what they want," Wolff writes. Murdoch believes that the "Bishops" of journalism—Murdoch's term, not Wolff's—who criticize his approach "merely hide their interests while continuing to flog them."

Murdoch's tabloid news formula of "mischief and sanctimony" didn't work its commercial miracle in the United States until he started programming entertainments like Married … With Children on his Fox network in the late 1980s and broadcasting it on his Fox News Channel, which started in 1996. The secret of Murdoch's strength is his lack of shame: He doesn't personally care if something he publishes or broadcasts might offend someone, and if it does—like the aborted O.J. Simpson book If I Did It—he's happy to walk away and offend again some other day.

This book shines brightest when describing Murdoch's "politics," such as they are. The "liberal people" around him say he's a "libertarian," Wolff writes, but "Murdoch's politics aren't actually politics." He was a lefty in Australia but later a Reagan-Thatcherite. He supported Tony Blair and hosted a Sen. Hillary Clinton a re-election fundraiser, but he endorsed John McCain for president in his New York Post. Murdoch's political worldview floats on an "amalgamation of half facts, quasiprejudices, shorthand analysis, and cockeyed assumptions, with a smattering of gossip. All combined with his massive certainty and determined nature. That's the basis of his and his newsrooms' political agenda." He continues:

A vital element in understanding his political consciousness is understanding its shallowness. For an ideologue, he's done little of the reading. Ideas are of marginal interest to him; he's a poor debater (although he can raise his voice and pound the table).

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The Man Who Owns the News ends strangely on the claim that Murdoch desired the Wall Street Journal as an antidote to the "belligerent, the vulgar, the loud, the menacing, the unsubtle" that Fox News has come to represent in his later life. The man who bares no shame for falling for the Hitler Diaries, who screwed his friend Clay Felker out of the New York/New West/Village Voice mini-empire in the mid-1970s, and who kowtowed to the Chinese Communists in the 1990s suddenly fears for his reputation? Come on!

Just published today, this gossipy, elliptical biography started making news in October as Murdoch reportedly took issue with some of its claims. Today, New York Times Managing Editor Jill Abramson strongly disputes the book's assertion that Murdoch deterred her paper from fully covering him. If you read it, spend less time concentrating on what it says about Murdoch and more about how it says it. For all of its flaws, this quickie biography, published just 14 months after it was announced, reveals the truest portrait of the inner Murdoch yet.

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John Milton on Rupert Murdoch. Now that's a book I'd love to read. What great literary voice from the past would you like to see writing on Rupert? Send your nominations to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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