Wolff (or perhaps his interviewees, on whose testimony so much of the book is based) loses interest here. After compellingly describing how Murdoch captured his prizes, he leaps past the potential debacle and never quite explains how Murdoch was able to pull back from the edge of disaster. We leave him “on the brink of ruin”—and return, one hundred pages later, to learn that he’s doing just fine.
Let me repeat: Wolff has no intention of writing a traditional biography. And there’s nothing wrong with that. His forté is the character sketch, the deal history, stories of bad guys going up against bad guys. There are no heroes here, certainly not the hapless Bancroft family, which, after definitively and repeatedly declaring that it would not sell The Wall Street Journal, changed its collective mind and delivered the goods. But there are no real villains, either, only flawed men and women unable or unwilling to acknowledge their flaws.
Murdoch is among the most flawed. He is variously described by Wolff as aloof, contained, preoccupied, crippled by shyness, gossipy, grumpy, penurious, remote, unfeeling, abstract, disembodied, puzzling, old and old-fashioned, a fifties guy, a guy’s guy, and a reluctant socializer. Murdoch is, we learn, “a brilliant and manipulative bastard” afflicted with frightening mood swings. He cares little for ideas, is no visionary, has no interest in culture, knows nothing about current technologies, and can barely operate a computer. But he is also a decent listener, a brilliant networker, and “one of the most politically influential men in the world.”
Murdoch, at least in Wolff’s telling, is best characterized by his antipathies and enemies. On returning to England, at age thirty-seven, and buying the News of the World and the Sun, he “becomes the bogeyman.” In his own eyes, he is simply an Aussie doing business abroad, an opportunist who has come to where the opportunities are. For this, according to Wolff’s narrative, Murdoch is lambasted, censured, humiliated in public.
Rather than retreat, he transplants his British-tabloid sensibility to the New World. And again, he is condemned, as he had been in London, for his rudeness, his crudeness, his nerve at taking two great New York institutions and transforming them into something quite different (which is true of the Post, but not of New York). “He’s the outsider. He’s the big guy picking on the little guy. He’s the thief. He’s the guy who forecloses on widows and orphans.”
Wolff, who admires no one, sympathizes with no one, pities no one, does not side with poor beleaguered Rupert in his battle with the establishments. Murdoch, he believes, has always been a bit of a fool for buying newspapers and losing money on them. Yet in Wolff’s view, those who condemn him are more worthy of scorn for not understanding that without fools like Murdoch, newspapers like the New York Post, The Times of London, and perhaps even The Wall Street Journal might disappear altogether.
The story of Murdoch’s pursuit of the Journal is a prime example of the sort of lose/lose scenario that, Wolff believes, is inevitable in newspaper takeover narratives. Nobody comes out well here. But there is something heroic about Murdoch’s foolishness, and something scandalously and stupidly shortsighted about the foolishness of those who profess a love of newspapers but oppose his attempt to purchase another one. Murdoch’s offer of $60 a share for The Wall Street Journal, Wolff argues persuasively, made no business sense whatsoever. But Rupert wanted the Journal and was willing to pay a premium to have it, then lose money (as he has at the New York Post and The Times of London) as its owner.
Why? Though he was, by 2007, a global media tycoon with interests larger and wider than any before him, Murdoch remained a newspaperman. And, Wolff surmises, what he desired more than anything else at the end of his career was to own a quality, elite, establishment newspaper. So he overpaid for a property no one was willing to bid on, believing himself to be “the real white knight of newspapers.” Would the men and women who work for the Journal, or its readers, or the community at large have been better served had Sam Zell or General Electric bought the paper? From the vantage point of the present moment, it appears highly unlikely.