Could the post-Katrina mood swing take the heat off the bellicose Fox News brand?
Its media competitors keep scanning its ratings -- in vain at the moment -- for signs that Rupert Murdoch's cable station will wilt along with President Bush's poll numbers. At New York gatherings, one much-masticated indicator of possible zeitgeist shift is that even though Fox still leads the pack, CNN's increases during Katrina were greater in percentage terms than Fox's.
Transatlantic Murdoch watchers can tell you that all this is wishful thinking even without the demonic TV skills of Fox's supremo Roger Ailes. Less publicized than Murdoch's fierce political conservatism -- undoubtedly his private conviction -- is his readiness to turn on a dime when it's commercially expedient. That suppleness is one of the things that make him such a formidable opponent. Nothing distracts him from his business goals -- not ideology, not friendship, not some inconvenient promise, not even family.
No one in London believed that the Sun, Murdoch's rabidly Thatcherite tab, would ever support the Labor Party. But in the 1997 election Rupert was quick to spot Tony Blair's rising star. The tabloid cowboy editor, Piers Morgan, kept a diary of working for Murdoch while editing his scandal sheet the News of the World and wrote a book that rode the bestseller list all summer in Britain. "The Tories look like dying donkeys," he notes in a diary entry in August 1995, "and Blair is starting to resonate with the public as a fresh, dynamic, viable alternative. Murdoch doesn't back losers and he is talking in a way that suggests he might ditch the Tories."
That shift had begun privately in 1994, when Blair and Murdoch met for the first time over dinner in an upstairs room in the Belgravia restaurant Mosimann's, as another of Murdoch's Boswells, Sunday Times Editor Andrew Neil, records in his memoir: "Blair indicated that media ownership would not be onerous under Labour; Rupert that his newspapers were not wedded to the Tories."
The comparisons often made with William Randolph Hearst are misleading. Like Hearst, Murdoch was a liberal populist as a young man and moved far to the right in middle age. But Hearst, once he switched, kept his flag flying from the same ideological pole. When the vehemently anti-communist Rupert wanted to expand his television beachhead in Asia, he didn't hesitate to cancel a book contract by his HarperCollins imprint with the former governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, rather than risk alienating the Chinese. Bruce Page, author of "The Murdoch Archipelago," described to me Murdoch's outwardly authoritarian character as "fluid nothingness at the core -- less a matter of drives than lack of the containing structure found in normal people."
Friends and colleagues were all floored in 1998 when he suddenly dispatched Anna, his second wife of 31 years, with breathtaking speed, fired her from the News Corp. board and married a 32-year-old go-getter, Wendi Deng. Anna, it's said, had wanted Rupert to ease down the work drive. Rather than change his life, he changed his wife, a familiar pattern in other moguls but surprising for the famously uxorious Rupert.
New York magazine's cover story this week is an epic survey of the dynastic dilemmas of Rupert Murdoch since the arrival of two new heirs and the departure from the company of his eldest son, Lachlan. But the question of what happens in the unlikely event he ever dies is irrelevant -- at least in the news arm of his organization. Even when not physically present, he lives so pervasively in the heads of his executives that he will find a way to channel his influence from wherever. Morgan's diaries bristle with paranoia about such psychic interventions. Whether he was yanking a photo of a dead gangster off the front page because someone told him Rupert hates pictures of dead celebrities ("stiffs don't sell papers") or ruminating that a fellow editor had been forced out for backing Margaret Thatcher's opponent in the Tory leadership contest, Piers couldn't get the boss out of his brain. (God knows he hung around in my own head for a time when he fired my husband, Harold Evans, as editor of the Times of London.)
Murdoch's newspapers -- British, American and Australian alike -- operate on a policy of what the historian Michael Marrus, author of "Vichy France and the Jews," has called "anticipatory compliance." French authorities were never instructed to round up the Jews but did so because that's what they thought their conquerors wanted. There was a memorable Vichy moment in the New York Post at the end of August when the Iraq constitution deadline fell apart for the last time and the Page One screamer read "IRAQ DEAL!"
The difference between Fox News and Murdoch's other news outfits is that Ailes is almost as formidable a figure as the boss. And Ailes is a former GOP operative to boot. During the Katrina crisis Fox has excelled at the basics of covering the story while toning down some of the political bluster. Ailes does not spend his day reading Rupert's tea leaves, but if Bush continues to slump in the polls, a shift of gravity to the center -- or any rate a lowering of the bullhorn -- might ultimately serve his interests as well as Rupert's. Being constantly tagged as a Bush stooge has become a drag for Ailes, whose success at Fox owes more to his inventive TV gifts than to Republican positioning.
Recent friendly meetings between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Murdoch, recorded in the New York Observer, may be early signs of embryonic bet-hedging. Has Rupert begun to stir and put his loyalties in play again? Given his oft-expressed contempt for "gabfests" (second only to Bleeding Heart Journalism as a Murdochian term of abuse), it's interesting that he will be showing up for the Clinton Global Initiative that starts in New York today.
Murdoch knows that occasionally shifting his political support in an unexpected direction is a tactic that increases his power. It means no one can ever take him for granted, and it is an effective means of convincing politicians that helping him with his business interests is both prudent and wise -- that what's good for the News Corp. is good for America/Britain/Australia.
When Murdoch's executives start publishing diaries about working for Rupert in the Dubya years, my guess is you will see an entry, dated sometime in 2005 or 2006, about the shift in mood on the day he first murmurs that the neocons "have started to look like dying elephants."
(c)2005, Tina Brown