Murdoch the Magnificent

orb thomas rupert murdoch a Murdoch the MagnificentThe Man Who Owns The News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch
By Michael Wolff
Broadway Books, 446 pages, $29.95

Among people in what’s called “traditional media,” a genre that today ranges in intellectual and commercial standing from the indifferent to the near-extinct, it’s a commonplace to think of Rupert Murdoch as the Great Satan—as a cur, a pig and monster of the lowest order, a vulgarian whose acquisition of The Wall Street Journal in 2007 may have been the greatest tragedy ever to befall the saintly business of Anglophone journalism. This prejudice disregards the perception held by many (myself included) that The Journal has become a much more interesting and essential paper than it was—notwithstanding that a form of clinical insanity still holds sway in its editorial pages.

That said, consider the following from The Man Who Owns the News, Michael Wolff’s eccentric, irritating, wacky, indiscreet, outspoken, utterly enjoyable and engrossing, really quite wonderful disquisition on Mr. Murdoch’s life and personality:

(1) “[I]t is a Murdoch strategy or character note that he is easy to get on the phone. … Rupert would take phone calls from people that he has no idea who they are. … The shoeshine boy called him up and he would take his phone call.”

(2) “However, the present [New York Times] scion, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. … more than once has tried to call Murdoch to complain about something the New York Post said about him—Murdoch doesn’t take the calls[.]”

You’d have to say, wouldn’t you, that such a person has the right priorities, and in the right order—or, as is said of persons hating dogs and small children, that such a chap can’t be all bad.

 

CERTAINLY THAT WAS MY conclusion when I put down Mr. Wolff’s book. There was a time, long, long ago—before I put aside childish things—that I too viewed Mr. Murdoch as a bad guy. After reading Wolff on Murdoch, I have to say that the Antipodean Anarch’s interestingness quite overwhelms his badness, as far as I’m concerned. This is definitely a book that encourages readerly side-taking. There can be no doubt that in his day Mr. Murdoch has done any number of low, underhanded things, but in Mr. Wolff’s telling, these are in large part offset by intelligent consideration of who it was that Mr. Murdoch did them to.

Be warned, though: This is neither a conventional biography nor a corporate history. It’s only glancingly about deals and lines of credit and exchange ratios. In return, there’s a lot of good inside stuff about people and their foibles and pretensions and what so-and-so thinks about so-and-so, all catnip to the readers of this paper. It’s great, great fun. (Indeed, no little part of this reader’s pleasure consisted in delectable speculation about who’s going to hate this book, and how much.)

What Mr. Wolff does is to put on display, in a swift, conversational and contentious style—he really is a very good writer—a man who’s so complex and self-contradictory, so Protean and unpredictable, so this way and that and t’other, so wonderfully, seductively, irresistibly awful, that any reader willing to set aside knee-jerk preconceptions cannot help but be fascinated (even if it’s the kind of fascination the rabbit finds in the rattlesnake).

This isn’t a biography so much as a psychological study. It’s anecdotal, opinionated and unapologetic in its interpretative claims. Now and then there shines through the fluid prose, like a glittering pebble in a stream bed, an unmistakable hint that the author considers himself and his ruminations quite as worthy a subject for serious consideration as, say, Rupert Murdoch. Don’t let this put you off. It takes this kind of writer to write this kind of book (unflinching, certainly no puff piece)—the kind that gives “judgmental” a good name.

 

THE MAN WHO OWNS the News is organized as a double helix: alternating narrative and expository strands, intercoiled and connected in a nucleic fashion. The first is the story, essentially chronological, of Mr. Murdoch’s negotiation for and ultimately successful purchase of Dow Jones from the descendants of its founders, whose hands-off style had let the company’s management, mainly in the form of Peter Kann (imagine Mr. Pooter married to Lady Macbeth), blow a commanding early lead in business journalism and information services to Bloomberg and Reuters.

The second might be called “Childe Rupert’s Pilgrimage,” in which we see our well-born, well-bred hero bound from peak to peak, from the apex of Australian power and social circles to his present position atop Manhattan’s media and residential (the old Laurance Rockefeller apartment on Fifth Avenue: $44 million) Everest, where he doth bestride the world. He’s a dynast—and so there’s lots of stuff about marriages (three) and children. He has great ambitions for his children, and doubtless great love—but he can’t help messing with their heads and affections.

The opening bars of the book are about change-making, and that’s the key to which the tale again and again returns as theme and variation. No sooner does he seem to attain some sort of personality grounding than it’s as if he’s consumed by a need to become someone else, and he’s off again. Same with his business interests. The people who work for him are hard-put to keep up; the pressure to upgrade and stay current with what the boss wants, what he’s thinking, must be horrific. This is a man who’s always in the moment, whatever, whenever, wherever he sees that moment to be. He’s always halfway out the door.

On the basis of what Mr. Wolff has written, to understand Mr. Murdoch, one needs to grasp the following: The guy’s a true aristocrat. He was born, bred and schooled at the top, and he’s never left the top. He chooses his own friends. He doesn’t give a damn what lesser mortals think (an imperviousness confirmed by the recent dye job). In Mr. Murdoch’s world, I infer from Mr. Wolff’s account, everyone is a lesser mortal save three whom he fears: one man (Roger Ailes) and two women (his mother and his wife, Wendi).

 

HE SPEAKS HIS MIND, goes his way, does what he pleases and that’s that. His trust and confidence in his instincts, mainly about people, is absolute, even if now and then these let him down. His loyalties are strong—and mainly to individuals (none of that New York Times “public trust” bullshit for our lad). He’s a gambler, a real one, who knows that the point of the exercise is to end up with the other players’ stakes. He has a passion for gossip. In these ways and many others, Rupert Murdoch truly represents old-time aristocratic values as opposed to postmodern House of Lords buffoonery. I think he would have done well in Regency times, hanging out with the likes of Byron.

Obviously, he has an innate, you might say vocational, gift for newspapering (his main love) and its media kin. Take two passages from Mr. Wolff that I’ve conflated: “It is this strange combination of lack of doubt, impulsiveness, high-risk behavior, a striking capacity to ignore everyone else, and a disinclination to seek cover that makes him … the Sun God. He’s got dark, magical powers—insidious powers that border on mind control. For a person who is suspicious of the abstract, he himself is largely an abstraction—a media nerd, if you will, always with the mental wheels spinning, his variables … in constant motion: audience behavior, competitor advantages … the cost of content, the complication of distribution, the difficulties of production, how to do everything more cheaply and simply. … He’s containing this in his head.”

When I read that, I said to myself, I know this guy from somewhere else, and in a second it came to me: Remember the beginning of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, when—in reference to Monroe Stahr, the genius studio chief based on Irving Thalberg—the narrator says, “Not half a dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads”? Change the commercial context and you have a snapshot of Rupert Murdoch.

I think his true genius—his true competitive edge—is for making real mischief, in markets, for competitors, for people he dislikes and, funnily, not unoften for himself and those who sail in him. His mastery of the arts of distraction and discomfiture is sublime; he thrives on chaos. In this area, I think he’s right up there in the Empyrean Hall of Fame, as memorable in his line as Mozart or Einstein or Usain Bolt in theirs.

In that regard, there’s another character in literature whom Mr. Murdoch brings to mind. Fifty years ago, Terry Southern wrote a novel called The Magic Christian. Its protagonist is a billionaire named Guy Grand, who places his energy, money, ingenuity and craftiness in the service of what seems to me a wholly admirable goal: to make it hot for people. I think Guy Grand and Rupert Murdoch would have had a hell of a good time together.

Michael M. Thomas’ next novel, Love & Money, will be published by Melville House in 2009. He can be reached at books@observer.com.