The Man Who Owns the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch

By Michael Wolff

Broadway

446 pages, $29.95

Michael Wolff’s prose style is sui generis. Unique. Which we know. Sort of. His prose is so hard-edged he uses Fuck You as an adjective. He breaks every rule, and with gusto. With sentences that consist of one-word exclamations. And longer, complex sentences—studded with dashes—which run on and on and never seem to end. Not now. Not ever. It shouldn’t work, but it does . . . well, often it does. Except when it doesn’t.

In choosing to write a biography of Rupert Murdoch—a sort of biography, anyway—Wolff has found his subject. Murdoch not only chose to sit for interviews, but arranged for the author to interview family members and business associates, creating a perfect storm of conditions for a wildly idiosyncratic, bizarrely organized (disorganized might be the better word), but never less than fascinating portrait of the press baron and his family. At the same time, Wolff crosscuts this biographical project with a blow-by-blow narrative of the deal that won Murdoch and his News Corporation control of The Wall Street Journal.

The deal forms the spine of the book and is recounted chronologically. In telling his tales of Murdoch, however, Wolff generally eschews chronology, making abundant use of detours, flashbacks, retrospectives, and frantic leaps from decade to decade, continent to continent. The constant shift in location does mirror the peripatetic quality of Murdoch’s life. (The poor man, we learn, is perpetually jet-lagged, which accounts in part for his fleeting attention span and often grumpy demeanor.) But the shifting time frames are neither necessary nor particularly helpful.

As a historian, I admit I am partial to chronological organization. Life is lived forward: what happens yesterday has an effect on today; one builds a business empire, a personal life, an identity over time. Wolff’s jumping around is irritating, and worst of all, confusing.

Meanwhile, his Murdoch remains pretty much the same, no matter the continent or the decade. There are surface changes, but nothing terribly significant until, perhaps, his third marriage, when he undergoes “a marked, odd, and possibly transformative shift” from the outsider persona he took on forty years earlier to “an official member of the glamour establishment,” who dresses in Prada suits, has dinner with celebrities, and dyes his hair a frightful orange.

Wolff displays little interest in Murdoch’s childhood and adolescence, scants his college years, and rips through the decade and a half he spent in Australia building a highly successful media empire. His biographical study effectively takes wing only in 1968, when Murdoch relocates to Britain, where, primed with borrowed money, he buys the weekly News of the World in 1968 and the daily Sun in 1969. The first of these purchases establishes Murdoch as a “new and unnatural character in British public life”: a transplanted Aussie sleaze merchant. But it is the Sun that makes him rich. “In addition to suddenly giving Murdoch a power base,” we read, “the Sun’s startling success turns Murdoch, in the establishment view, into England’s most disreputable and dangerous media figure.”

In 1973, he crosses the Atlantic to establish a beachhead in the New World. His first acquisitions are two San Antonio papers, which he buys because they are for sale. (There appears to be no other good reason for his decision to invade America by way of Texas.) Then, in rapid succession, Murdoch founds his own supermarket tabloid, the National Star, buys the New York Post, New York magazine, and The Village Voice (all in the late seventies), and then returns to England to purchase The Times of London and the Sunday Times. He keeps on buying newspapers throughout the 1980s, including the Boston Herald, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the South China Morning Post, while simultaneously expanding into trade magazines, television stations, book publishing, Hollywood film studios, and a satellite-based British network. By the mid-1980s, he has morphed from “a print publisher to the first truly all-media media company.” But the empire is built on debt—$7.6 billion of it, in Wolff’s reckoning. At the end of his own fabulous decade, Murdoch’s empire is on the verge of collapse.

David Nasaw is the Arthur M. Schlesinger Professor of History at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and the author of Andrew Carnegie and The Chief: The Life and Times of William Randolph Hearst.