David Folkenflik is NPR’s media correspondent and the author of “Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires.”
Corporate titans and political conservatives lionize Rupert Murdoch for his business success and a journalistic formula that thumbs its nose at the rest of the press. Liberals, media critics and corporate-governance analysts routinely castigate him and much of the journalism produced by his tabloids for their brawling, gossipy style and occasional indifference to facts. The Australian-born media mogul has been on the scene so long — even in the United States — that many think they know all about him. And yet Murdoch contains multitudes: The man and his story prove more complex than his fans or his detractors might think.
1. Murdoch is on the far right.
Fairness and balance aside, Fox News serves up some of the most conservative voices active in American politics. The Wall Street Journal publishes consistently anti-tax and anti-regulatory editorials and opinion pieces. Murdoch’s London tabloids beat the drums for the invasion of Iraq, while his Australian tabloids routinely mock the idea of global warming.
And yet, this is a guy who kept a bust of Lenin in his student chambers at Oxford University. Murdoch founded his native Australia’s sole national newspaper (the Australian) in 1964 and encouraged its reporting on conditions confronting aboriginal peoples. Even though he is hostile to government initiatives on climate change, groups that examine corporate carbon emissions have given News Corp. high marks for monitoring and disclosing its footprint; the company beat a five-year deadline that he set back in 2007 to become carbon-neutral. A naturalized American citizen, Murdoch supports more liberal immigration laws.
Over the years, he has moved to the right. But his cultural conservatism and skepticism of regulation are tempered by more progressive stands, influenced in part by his three adult children with his second wife. And his political instincts prove flexible. Although he went after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a leading Republican, last year for cozying up to President Obama in the wake of Hurricane Sandy so close to Election Day, Murdoch has made common cause with center-left Democrats such as the late New York City mayor Ed Koch and Hillary Rodham Clinton when she was a senator from New York. Similarly, he backed Labor’s Tony Blair for prime minister three times in Britain. He is simply not as conservative as Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes or the Journal editorial page.
2. Murdoch cares only about profits.
Murdoch is a billionaire several times over and shows relentless drive, seeking to expand his share of existing markets and explore new ventures.
He made a fortune by going downmarket in Australia and replicated his formula in Britain. But the Australian is not profitable, and Murdoch has never made a dollar from his acquisitions of the tabloid New York Post or the well-regarded Times of London. He loves newspapers for the visceral connection to them he feels as the son of a newspaper executive; for the mass audiences the tabloids give him; for the ability to shape elite discussion with his prestigious papers; and most of all for the influence he derives with leading politicians because of both kinds of papers. A chief executive with a stronger affinity for the bottom line would have jettisoned those newspapers a long time ago.
3. Whatever he touches turns to gold.
Murdoch has had such a string of big-dollar successes — Fox News, “The Simpsons,” “Avatar,” BSkyB in Britain — that it’s easy to forget how many things have gone awry. A little more than two decades ago, News Corp. flirted with bankruptcy, spinning from one bank to another to get them to push his company’s debts further down the line.
Murdoch wanted in on the fight to dominate social media and spent $580 million to acquire MySpace in 2005. He got back $35 million when he sold it after his executives drove it into the ground.
Against the wishes of almost all his top executives, Murdoch paid $5.5 billion in News Corp.’s money for the Wall Street Journal and other lesser-known elements of its parent company, Dow Jones, in 2007. Less than 18 months later, News Corp. wrote down the value of the Journal and Dow Jones by $2.8 billion. An embarrassment in any other conglomerate; to Murdoch, part of the cost of doing business.
In 2011, Murdoch announced with great bravado the introduction of the Daily, a tablet-only publication intended to be the next-generation, seven-day-a-week Time magazine. It consumed tens of millions of dollars and folded after less than two years. And the phone-hacking and corruption scandal in Britain — in which Murdoch’s surrogate daughter, Rebekah Brooks, the former head of his British newspaper division, faces multiple criminal charges — has cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
4. He destroys good journalism.
It is true that Murdoch ignores the promises he makes in order to close deals. He did so at the Wall Street Journal, engineering a change in top news executives without consulting a committee set up to review such maneuvers. He similarly disregarded agreements he had reached in purchasing the News of the World, the Times of London and the Sunday Times, and the New York Post.
Yet Murdoch plays a sophisticated game. His sensibility is more clearly reflected in his tabloids, such as the Sun and the Post; he is usually more reluctant to influence coverage at the Journal and the Times. Indeed, the Journal remains an impressive paper with a fuller global report than ever. Its political focus has expanded, as have its cultural and local offerings.
But cautionary tales exist as well. The two top editors Murdoch transferred from the Times of London to run the Journal, Robert Thomson and Gerard Baker, shared his belief that the Journal’s ranks tilted left. Staffers there told me of more than two dozen news stories — shared as representative instances, not an exhaustive catalogue — that were nudged to the right. Editors stripped out liberal sources or framed passages in ways that some reporters felt were unfair.
More troubling, at the height of the hacking scandal in 2011, Thomson repeatedly tried to prevent the publication of a story that could have damaged Murdoch’s British business interests by suggesting that senior figures at the News of the World had knowledge of hacking years earlier than they had admitted. After a guerilla campaign by editors and reporters, the story did appear, weeks later, watered down, with the key elements dropped from the first paragraph to the ninth, though the article was on the front page.
5. Murdoch is old and spent.
Executives at News Corp. tend to say “if Rupert retires” or “if Rupert dies,” rather than “when.” He is convinced he will live forever and points to the vitality of his mother, Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, who died in December, weeks shy of her 104th birthday. When he addressed investors this spring on the split of his newspaper holdings from his broadcast properties, Murdoch cast the move in personal terms: “I have been given an extraordinary opportunity most people never get in their lifetime: the chance to do it all over again.” Most chairmen of publicly traded companies find other ways to present corporate change. But he had more on his mind. Days later, documents he had filed in court became public: He had, at the age of 82, filed for divorce from his third wife, Wendi Deng Murdoch, 37 years his junior.
Murdoch’s schedule is filled with appointments across the world, keeping him busy with friends, executives and family. He may not yet be entirely single and ready to mingle. But associates envision the possibility of another companion in the years ahead.
News Corp. is his passion. Murdoch is determined to solve the financial woes of the newspaper business. This mission fills him with purpose, even if no one — other than the man at the top — believes that his company will hold on to all those publications once he really is gone.