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.

Rupert Murdoch. Click image to expand.
Rupert Murdoch

Michael Wolff surmises in the opening pages of The Man Who Owns the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch that the News Corp. chairman and CEO submitted to 50 hours of interviews and directed family and business associates to speak on the record for the biography because he sensed that Wolff had the "same contempt" for "many of his enemies—particularly the journalistic priesthood."

Wolff, who writes about media, politics, and power for Vanity Fair, cultivates a cynical and dark image for himself, so Murdoch made a logical bet when he wagered that their shared blackheartedness would produce a flattering biography. But Murdoch bet wrong.

Oh, Wolff applauds the entrepreneurial daring that created a global media conglomerate out of an Adelaide daily. He relishes Murdoch's rejection of cultural and business norms and his coldblooded cunning. Recounting in detail News Corp.'s dramatic 2007 acquisition of Dow Jones & Co.—parent to the Wall Street Journal—Wolff almost cheers as Murdoch outwits the bumbling Bancroft family (which controlled Dow Jones) and its executives. He also gives the benefit of the doubt to Murdoch's newest wife, Wendi Deng, a 39-year-old Chinese businesswoman with a Yale MBA. Previous coverage of Deng has depicted her as a home-wrecking vamp, but in Wolff's view, she's rejuvenated the 77-year-old genocidal tyrant and coaxed him out of his shell to socialize with the elites at Davos and Cannes. Deng is no simple gold-digger in The Man Who Owns the News. She's Murdoch's partner who speaks business, his language of love. Wolff reports that after-hours Dow Jones deal-making was routed to Murdoch through Deng, writes Wolff, because the mogul still doesn't get e-mail.

By accepting Murdoch on his own terms, Wolff tilts his focus toward the sympathetic, but it's the sort of sympathy John Milton rewards Satan with in Paradise Lost. Murdoch, like Satan, is simply the most interesting character in the larger story and therefore the most deserving of our understanding. This doesn't mean that Wolff turns Murdoch's negatives into positives but that he suspends judgment as he records his subject's many "signature" acts of betrayal, double-dealing, and skulduggery. In a lesser writer's hands, this would have turned into a "warts and all" biography; Wolff is shrewd enough to know that Murdoch is all warts.

Murdoch's media empire has continued to grow, unlike those founded by Ted Turner and Conrad Black, Wolff writes, because Murdoch is unburdened by their human need to be liked. Although Wolff found Murdoch bad at explaining himself in interviews and generally devoid of self-awareness, he figured out what his subject lives for: the scorn and the vilification of the "establishment," and almost any establishment will do. It is his fuel, his life blood, his Vegemite. Upon invading the British newspaper market in the late 1960s with the purchase of the News of the World and the Sun, Murdoch published whatever would give fits to the nation's left establishment, its journalistic establishment, its banking establishment, its royal establishment, and especially its trade union establishment. Wolff writes:

He's in the tabloid business. He's the whoremaster. The ruder you are, the more papers you sell. You can sugarcoat this, or not. In some perversely honorable sense, he chooses not to.

Murdoch's tabloid vision fails him in San Antonio (Express and News) and New York City (Post) when he transplanted it onto American soil in the mid-1970s, and in Boston (Herald) and Chicago (Sun-Times) during the 1980s. He eventually sold all of them and even unloaded the Post in 1988 to satisfy FCC regulations barring ownership of a newspaper and a TV station in the same market. But he secured a waiver to reacquire the Post in 1993 because he couldn't really function without it.

Wolff understands Murdoch's visceral attachment to his newspapers, especially his tabloids. The New York Post "has no business reason for being other than to prosecute political and business grudges and to entertain Murdoch himself," Wolff writes. A Murdoch newsroom is about "pursuing Rupert Murdoch's interests, hitting Rupert Murdoch's enemies over the head," Wolff observes later. Murdoch believes that no real business power can be amassed without political connections, and the Post, however shoddy, has provided him a seat at the table on every level of New York politics. Playing the king-making game brings power to a press baron even if the politician he picks doesn't end up winning. The victorious candidate has every motive to turn his press enemy into a friend for the next election, which suits Murdoch just fine.

This kind of press baron flexes power not only in what he runs but in what he doesn't. For example, Wolff alleges that both Conrad Black, former owner of London's Daily Telegraph, and Mortimer B. Zuckerman, owner of the New York Daily News, have arranged personal coverage "truces" with Murdoch.

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).

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.

******

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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