July 22, 2011

Wall Street Journal Managing Editor Robert Thomson is rumored to have said of his boss: “Rupert is not going to die.”

That proclamation of immortality, allegedly uttered to an obit writer trying to get ahead of events, preceded the phone-hacking scandal now dogging Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. A July 4 story in the Guardian reignited this five-year-old controversy by revealing that News Corp.’s Sunday tabloid News of the World in 2002 had hacked into the voicemail of then-missing 13-year-old Milly Dowler. The paper’s “voicemail interceptions” — News Corp.’s preferred euphemism for hacking — gave Dowler’s family false hope that she was alive. She was later found murdered.

Several weeks of nonstop headlines led to a dramatic Tuesday appearance in Parliament by Murdoch and his son James, a high-ranking company executive. No one would have mistaken Rupert Murdoch’s performance as the work of an eternal being. He projected an aloofness that flirted with ignorance and denial, depending on the question. He perked up a bit after he was attacked by a shaving-cream-pie-wielding wacko.

Though it’s wise not to bet against Rupert Murdoch, his stubborn loyalty to his British newspaper lieutenants has invited questions about his fitness to run a company with $32 billion in annual revenues. A Bloomberg report indicated that company directors were considering stripping him of his title as chief executive while keeping him on as chairman. Any title shuffling, any dilution of Murdoch’s control will yield a less aggressive and probably less profitable News Corp. Such an outcome would be hard for the mogul to stomach, given that he once said that he would retire “when I’m 133 or something.”

That moment could come four or five decades sooner for the 80-year-old. If it does, here’s what a world without media mogul Rupert Murdoch would be filled with:

Lonely Editors

Federal regulations forced Murdoch to sell the New York Post in the late 1980s, though he eventually repurchased it. In the interim, Murdoch lamented, “I feel depressed. This will be the first time I’ve lived in a city with no newspaper going on around me.” Tales of Murdoch’s newsroom micromanagement have followed him throughout his nearly 60-year career as a media entrepreneur, even as he has acquired broadcasters and entertainment companies. New York Post editors know firsthand his quest for brevity and snappy headlines. And in his recent parliamentary testimony, Murdoch spoke of his steady interaction with the leadership of the Wall Street Journal. That could be an understatement. As a Journal editor told the New Yorker of the interaction between Murdoch and Thomson: “They probably talk five times a day. You’re kicked out of his office when Rupert calls.”

Softer Elbows

Murdoch doesn’t enjoy sharing. Whenever he’s been forced to co-govern a media property, he has done everything possible to shove his partner out of the picture. That’s what happened in 1969, after Murdoch prevailed in a takeover bid for News of the World. The deal stipulated that longtime owner Sir William Carr stay on board as chairman. He did, until Murdoch booted him out months later. Similar scenarios played out as Murdoch rounded up New York media properties in the late 1970s. And again this year, as Murdoch boosted his controlling 39 percent stake in British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB) to full own — hold on! That one actually didn’t work out for Murdoch: The phone-hacking crisis scuttled plans for a 100 percent BSkyB takeover. As Murdoch once advised New York media eminence Clay Felker, 100 percent ownership means “you don’t have to take any crap from anybody.”

Integrity

All the hacking has stirred debate over Murdochian journalistic standards. Did the mogul’s newspapers in Britain stoop to already-low tabloid ethics? Or did Murdoch’s properties set the bar at ground level? Answer: Murdoch savors muck. In his 2008 Murdoch biography, Michael Wolff recounts finding a 77-year-old Murdoch working the phone in pursuit of a story. Though impressed with the chairman’s reportorial techniques, Wolff concludes, “he was trying to smear somebody.” At a recent dinner party, Murdoch had “heard that a senior Hillary Rodham Clinton operative was a partner in an online porn company. He didn’t like the operative, and he didn’t like — no matter ho much he had tried — Hillary.” It didn’t pan out, though Wolff claims it “became a staple in Murdoch’s repertoire of whispers and confidences and speculations.”

A Break From Tired Classic Movie References

With each new Murdoch crisis comes a new round of features on Murdoch. That means yet more Citizen Kane references. The clichés need retirement more than Murdoch.

Roger Ailes, Howie Long and “Avatar”

Almost 30 years ago, Murdoch told Fortune magazine: “I don’t know any better than anyone else where the electronic age is taking us, or how it will affect a large newspaper company. But I do know that. . . you will have to be a major player in the production of entertainment programming.”

That’s why Murdoch is Murdoch. He owns more than 150 newspapers but gets rich off of his film and TV properties. No matter what happens to him, he has shown that there’ll always be a market in the United States for tendentious, right-leaning cable talk shows, state-of-the-art coverage of Cowboys vs. Redskins, and genre-crushing big-budget movies. As Murdoch himself wrote, “I wonder if there is anyone left on this planet who has yet to see Avatar.”

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Erik Wemple writes about the media at http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/erik-wemple.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.