Like most effective leaders, Rupert Murdoch derives his power from what others will do in his name. In person, Murdoch can project an unassuming, almost grandfatherly mien. He often displays his ferocity through the subordinate spheres of influence that orbit around him. So it doesn’t feel like much of a loss that he didn’t talk to David Folkenflik for his portrait of the 82-year-old’s vast and influential empire, which includes the 20th Century Fox movie studios, Fox networks, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, the Times of London and other media properties. After all, to understand the czar, one does well to watch the work of the cossacks.

That’s the underlying message of Folkenflik’s readable, brisk account of Murdoch’s News Corp. and the near-death experience brought on by its role in a British phone-hacking scandal. The book opens in the summer of 2011 with Murdoch seated across from the parents of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old British girl whose disappearance in March 2002 captivated the country for months. She was, for a time, the U.K.’s Elizabeth Smart. But Milly never returned to tell the story of her kidnapping. Her remains surfaced in the woods, months after she vanished on her way home from school. While she was missing, ravenous British newspapers scrambled for clues. And as we all now know, Murdoch’s News of the World Sunday tabloid hacked into Milly’s voicemail to gather tidbits to feed its front page.

When the Guardian newspaper broke the story of this sordid example of News of the World tradecraft, a phone-hacking case against the Murdoch papers, which had been simmering for months, boiled over. The scandal forced the closure of the News of the World and sparked a bitter argument between Murdoch’s daughter, Elisabeth, and his younger son, James, chief executive of Murdoch holdings in the region where the hacking took place, over James’s handling of the crisis. And it caused the abandonment of what was going to be the company’s biggest takeover, the full acquisition of the British communications giant BSkyB, part of which it already owned. Most important, the scandal both built up and then quickly punctured the myth of Murdoch’s invincibility.

Before describing the phone-hacking drama in detail, Folkenflik provides some context. The book is an effort, he writes, “to understand and explain what really happened.” He revisits Murdoch’s omnipresence in book and newspaper publishing and television in his native Australia, and then chronicles his tabloid beginnings in Britain, home of the now-defunct News of the World and the Sun with its topless Page 3 girls. (He makes little mention of Murdoch’s more serious papers there, the Times of London and its sister publication, the Sunday Times.)

’Murdoch's World: The Last of the Old Media Empires’ by David Folkenflik (Public Affairs)

From there, Folkenflik moves to the United States, where he takes us on an amusing-when-not-disturbing turn through the Murdoch-owned New York Post. Col Allan, the paper’s longtime editor, periodically urinates in a sink in the corner of his office during editorial meetings, “as a way of underscoring his authority.” We meet Steve Dunleavy, “a Murdoch favorite from Australia,” a star columnist at the Post and later a reporter at News Corp.’s nascent Fox network, whose outdoor intimacies with a Scandinavian heiress are uninterrupted even when his foot is run over and broken by a snowplow. “I hope it wasn’t his writing foot,” journalist Pete Hamill joked at the time. Nearly all of this has been written before, and Folkenflik gives ample credit to his sources, but it is illuminating to have all the anecdotes in one place.

Folkenflik reminds us of Murdoch’s effort to create a conservative’s “60 Minutes,” with powerhouse former Harper Collins editor Judith Regan and former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil as co-hosts. The idea for the show gave rise to an entire network after Murdoch brought in the Republican media consultant Roger Ailes. Today, as a result of Ailes’s efforts, “just about every news organization either mimics or reacts against the way Fox presents the news and the values it represents,” Folkenflik writes.

At Fox News, Folkenflik spoke with anonymous PR staffers who policed the blogosphere for stories about Fox. They were, he writes, “expected to counter not just negative and even neutral blog postings but the anti-Fox comments beneath them.” He spoke to a former Fox staffer who used 100 different aliases to comment on stories related to Fox.

Folkenflik outlines the Obama administration’s run-ins with Fox, notably in 2009, when the network was cut off from White House briefings because, as then-White House communications director Anita Dunn told him, “we see Fox right now as the source and the outlet for Republican Party talking points.”

The book draws on Folkenflik’s reporting from his years at the Baltimore Sun and at his current employer, NPR, as well as his original reporting for the book. He explains in an author’s note that he chose this moment to take on his subject because the hacking scandal “opened an unprecedened and broad window into the thinking of Rupert Murdoch.”

The book is being published at a good time: As I wrote this review, the phone-hacking trial was kicking off with salacious details of a six-year affair between the two key players in the crisis: Rebekah Brooks, the former editor of the News of the World and chief executive of Murdoch’s British newspaper division, and Andy Coulson, her former deputy at the News of the World, who later worked as the top public relations official for Prime Minister David Cameron. Both face multiple charges and possible jail time. If you aren’t caught up on their stories, Folkenflik’s book is a good place to start.

The hacking crisis drew in even the Wall Street Journal, Murdoch’s “Jewel in the Crown.” First it forced the resignation of the publisher, Les Hinton, who had been the chief executive of Murdoch’s British newspaper division when the hacking took place. Folkenflik says that the Journal, which was purchased by News Corp. in 2007, faced its first real test of independence when it covered the scandal. In one damning passage, he charges that the paper’s editor, Robert Thomson, one of Murdoch’s closest friends, “tried to kill” a key front-page story that attributed knowledge of phone hacking to multiple people at the News of the World, at a time when the company was still claiming that hacking was limited to a rogue reporter.

Eventually, Murdoch agreed to quarantine all of his newspapers in a separate company, tearing in two the empire he had worked all his life to build. Following up on that, Folkenflik mentions another separation — that of Murdoch and his 44-year-old wife, Wendi. The book closes with him at the helm of his “fading empire,” isolated from his wife and his children, and declared “unfit” to run a major company by the British Parliament.

Murdoch himself told investors that his current situation is “an extraordinary opportunity most people never get in their lifetime: the chance to do it all over again.”

Even faded, he presses on, and we are all living in the world he created.

Sarah Ellison is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and the author of “War at the Wall Street Journal: Inside the Struggle to Control an American Business Empire.”


The Last of the Old Media Empires

By David Folkenflik

PublicAffairs. 373 pp. $27.99