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.

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.

The questions that get left out here are the larger ones that Wolff has no interest in asking. Must we put our hope for the future survival of newspapers in “white knights” like Rupert Murdoch? Is there no other alternative? Is the “news” business simply another business, deserving of no more regulation or regard or public subsidy than any other? Or is the existence of a free press, no matter how unprofitable it might be, critical to the proper functioning of state and society and worthy of special attention?

As I write this, there is an ongoing debate about a bailout of the Big Three automakers, following a similar debate about the survival of national banks, investment houses, and insurance companies. The argument made on their behalf is that their survival is of critical importance to the well-being of the nation. The same has been said, at different moments in our past, about family farms (no matter how many acres they might comprise) and sports franchises (no matter how many millions they might be worth).

But what about newspapers? There has been no call to rescue any of them, as far as I know. And this, despite the fact that this nation, in its founding state and federal constitutions, singled out the press for protection because it was, in the words of a resolution passed by the Virginia ratifying convention, “one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty.”

Constitutionally sanctioned guarantees of freedom of the press were intended to proscribe government interference, rather than warrant government support. Yet they bear repeating, because they highlight the singular and historic role of the press in American society. This role—and this significance—are neglected, then negated, when we regard the news business as just another business, its survival to be determined by market forces alone.

Wolff pays no attention, as I have already said, to such larger questions. And indeed, there is no requirement that he should. In the end, if we judge him by his intentions and review the book he has written, not the one we might have wanted him to write, we are obliged to give it, well, not three cheers, but a hearty two-and-a-half. It is fair to say, however, that for this reader at least, the questions he does not ask haunt his description of The Wall Street Journal deal and his portrait of Murdoch as newspaperman and businessman. 

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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.