PublicAffairs, 2013, 384 pp., $27.99
Media magnate Rupert Murdoch has been the subject of a staggering 29 books, as well as innumerable essays, features, articles and a documentary. Most of the books come from a critical, liberal-left perspective, although there is also William Shawcross’s detailed but strangely bloodless biography, Murdoch, and a few that look at Murdoch as a business practitioner and CEO. Quite a number fall into the conspiracy theory category, and several are told in a breathless, tabloid tone—which is either appropriate to the subject or ironic, depending on your point of view. The field of Rupertology, it seems, might itself be enough to save the publishing industry.
So in confronting David Folkenflik’s Murdoch’s World, the first question to be asked is: Do we really need another Murdoch book? After all, Folkenflik, an NPR media correspondent, makes no secret of the fact that he resides on the political Left, though his background indicates that he deserves to be taken seriously as an investigative journalist. He says the book was inspired by the phone-hacking scandal of Murdoch’s British newspaper News of the World, but it’s a poor pitch for relevance because there simply isn’t much new to say about it. Indeed, Folkenflik seems to forget about the issue for much of Murdoch’s World. Even more odd, large chunks of the book lumber along without Rupert even making a walk-on appearance.
At least Folkenflik goes to the trouble of visiting Melbourne, where Murdoch grew up. Yet his view of Melbourne specifically, and of Australia more generally, seems remarkably superficial. Maybe he didn’t stay long enough. This would explain why he refers to Robert Manne as “one of the country’s leading public intellectuals.” Well, no, he isn’t, although Manne might describe himself that way, and the newspaper he writes for, The Age (a competitor of Murdoch’s Australian) might promote him in those terms. Unsurprisingly, Manne provides some trenchant criticism of Murdoch and the Australian, most of it having appeared elsewhere and much of it rather dated. In any case, Folkenflik dutifully repeats it, although it is not clear that he ever got around to reading a copy of the newspaper.
This is important, because Folkenflik describes the Australian as a template for Murdoch’s operations around the world. He notes that it ran a series of campaigns against the Labor government that was defeated in late 2013, and editorially endorsed the conservative parties in the election this past September. Drawing on Manne’s views, he sees this as evidence of a one-sided, anti-Labor newspaper.
But there is more to the story. The Australian has no fewer than four columnists who are formerly senior Labor figures (three government ministers and a premier). The most virulently and consistently anti-conservative political commentator, Phillip Adams, has had a prominent column in the newspaper for as long as anyone can remember. It is common for the Australian to publish opinion pieces from Labor people and Greens, as well as representatives of a range of interest groups. There are commentators from the conservative side, but to focus solely on these while ignoring the others seems overly selective, to say the least. In terms of opinion pieces, the Australian looks more like it presents a variety of views, with which readers can agree or disagree. Its opinion and commentary pages are certainly no more imbalanced than those of the New York Times, the Washington Post, or, for that matter, the Wall Street Journal.
As for political endorsements, Murdoch endorsed the Labor governments that were elected in 1972 and 1983, and his newspapers split over endorsing the Labor side in the 2007 election that brought Kevin Rudd to office. The Australian would become very critical of the Labor government (led first by Kevin Rudd, then by Julia Gillard, and then by Kevin Rudd again). There is an obvious reason for this: That government was wasteful, incompetent, and dishonest. It was a government, it should be noted, that claimed class warfare as one of its driving forces. Folkenflik argues that the Labor government did a good job of managing the economy, but those who lived through it have a different view. It inherited a budget in surplus and assets in the bank; it finished, six years later, swimming in red ink. If this is success, then Folkenflik (and Manne) must have peculiar criteria for it. In these chapters Folkenflik seems to be skimming across the surface, believing what he is told both because he wants to agree with it and because it’s a quick way to pile up copy. This is not uncommon in books about Murdoch (or in books in general), but one might have expected a writer of Folkenflik’s experience to look more deeply.
He is on firmer ground when he looks at Murdoch’s operations in the United States, and the development of the Fox News network. There are some important cultural differences in media behavior between the American operations and Murdoch’s British newspapers. Traditionally, U.S. media has been expected to be more or less even-handed between political perspectives, candidates and parties; in the United Kingdom, newspapers have long been willing to ally themselves with one side or another. (Australia, confusingly, falls somewhere between the two.) So the emergence of news networks with an explicitly conservative political agenda was, in its own way, a revolutionary development.
Folkenflik notes Murdoch’s own comments that the development of Fox was in response to the feeling among a large section of the U.S. political community that traditional news outlets were not as unbiased as they claimed to be, but leaned decidedly toward a liberal agenda. In this sense, Murdoch was following a business opportunity, and the huge commercial success of Fox and its various spin-offs would suggest that his instincts proved correct. Folkenflik might have discussed this in more detail, but instead he veers off into some colorful reiterations of the excesses of various Fox News figures. For example, he recounts a story (originally from the Washington Post, according to the book’s copious notes) about a Fox reporter called Steve Dunleavy, who was apparently run over by a snowplough outside a bar while having drunken sex with a Scandinavian heiress. It is hard to not find this sort of thing amusing, but one wonders why the incident is in Murdoch’s World at all, especially since Folkenflik says he dislikes tabloid sensationalism. Is there an unintended message here that there is, really, a little bit of Rupert in every journalist?
Maybe so, for whatever one feels about Murdoch it is impossible to escape the fact that he has been enormously successful at identifying opportunities and exploiting them. Here, the legions of Murdoch critics fall into two camps. The first argues that he is interested only in making money, and that his empire is an end in itself. The other argues that he is essentially a right-wing ideologue, and that the business exists to promote his political objectives. Folkenflik falls (mainly) into the first camp, and his exploration of Murdoch’s excursions into television, especially into new markets in China and India, supports that view.
But again there is more to this picture. It does not explain, for example, why Murdoch has often subsidized loss-making newspapers (including the Australian) for years or even decades. It does not explain why he poured money into the online-only experiment The Daily, even though its chances of success were always slim. To say that he was looking to long-term profitability is too pat an answer: The newspaper business is too fraught with risk for that. The point of Murdoch’s business is to make money, but it is merely facile to say that money is the only thing that interests him.
Here the case of the New York Post is illustrative. As Folkenflik notes, when Murdoch acquired it in the mid-1970s he took it resolutely down-market and breathed some new life into it. When he was forced by regulators to sell it in 1988, the new owners tried to upgrade the tone. It was a disaster; the paper was on the verge of collapse five years later when Murdoch, with the permission of the same regulators, swooped back in. He managed to stem the bleeding, but the paper continued only with generous subsidies. Folkenflik quotes the editor, who says the paper was losing $1 million a week but Murdoch’s backing ensured jobs for 800 people, including 200 journalists. On what basis, asked the editor, could that be a bad thing? Indeed, he wanted to know, why do you even ask that question?
The simplistic idea of Murdoch as a plutocrat concerned only with the bottom line does not fit with his extensive support for unprofitable publications. But one gets the feeling from many of Murdoch’s critics that they would rather see newspapers go under than be owned by him. Those critics, presumably, have jobs safer than those of most journalists.
To the camp that sees Murdoch essentially in political terms, support for money-losing operations makes sense, insofar as they are only vehicles for furthering his agenda. They point to Murdoch’s endorsements and contacts with various conservative politicians as evidence of his loyalty to the far Right. They apparently believe that the editorial endorsement of a candidate or a party is enough to make or break an election outcome. Oddly, they do not seem concerned about endorsements on the liberal side of politics; one thinks, for instance, of Oprah Winfrey’s gushy endorsement of Barack Obama as “brilliant! brilliant!”
But again the picture is simple to the point of caricature. For example, Murdoch personally helped raise money for Hillary Clinton in her bid for Senate re-election, and for her fellow Senate Democrat, Charles Schumer. Yes, Murdoch supported David Cameron, Conservative leader in the United Kingdom, but he had also supported Tony Blair on the Labour side. (Folkenflik’s description of Murdoch as Cameron’s “patron” seems to be drifting into conspiracy territory.)
Murdoch has said that, in general, he believes conservative-leaning governments are better for business, but there are too many connections with people on the other side to simply brush away. Does that describe a tight-lipped, arrogant ideologue, living in a world where he controls everyone around him? We should remember that Murdoch was happy to appear in an episode of The Simpsons (produced by Fox) in which he voiced himself, and enthusiastically made a joke of his own role as boss.
Folkenflik notes many of Murdoch’s connections across the political spectrum, just as he acknowledges Murdoch’s history of supporting unprofitable newspapers. But noting contradictions does not explain them, and a biographer should offer explanations, not just a parade of facts—especially when most of the facts are on the stale side. In the final chapters of the book, Folkenflik discusses the rearrangement of the Murdoch empire, which separated the newspapers into a separate sub-group, and here too we find little that is new. Nor is there anything especially insightful about Folkenflik’s musing over who might eventually take over from Murdoch at the top. (There is already a book devoted largely to this issue, Paul Barry’s Breaking News: Sex, Lies & the Murdoch Succession.) Folkenflik’s comments about Murdoch’s divorces and difficult relationships with his children seem oddly vindictive. It is as if he is saying: Well, Rupert, you might be incredibly rich and successful, but your personal life must be miserable.
Why does Murdoch attract such ire from media sophisticates? Twenty books or more denouncing him is, by any measure, a great deal of spittle. What explains such a quantity of venom? It may be that Murdoch’s very success puts a thorn in the eye of his detractors. Many on the Left believe that they stand exactly in the middle of the political spectrum, and that their concerns are the only ones that have legitimacy, the only ones that should matter. That belief is punctured by Murdoch’s ability to discern untapped markets, and to develop audiences whose interests are different from and often opposed to those of the chattering class. The audience numbers are too large to overlook, the ratings too clear to dispute. Perhaps, too, Murdoch is such a bête noire because he usually ignores his cultural critics and consistently proves them wrong about a great many things.
The critics invariably respond not by reconsidering their own view of the world and their place in it, but by looking for a culprit and a conspiracy, someone who insidiously drives events from behind the scenes rather than someone who merely responds to opportunities in the marketplace. Hence Rupertology.
And there is no end to the stream of books in sight, even if it has all become so repetitive. Murdoch is 82 years old but is likely to be with us for some time yet; his mother died last year at the age of 102, and was a formidable presence until her final days. He was clearly personally humiliated and professionally embarrassed by the mess of the phone-hacking scandal, but nobody seriously believes that it will prompt a fundamental reassessment of his business methodology.
A greater threat to his (now divided) empire is the challenge that digitization presents to traditional print media. There are signs that Murdoch intends to focus much of his energy on this issue. As for his detractors, they will probably continue to produce cut-and-paste books on him, and will probably continue to congratulate themselves on taking the fight to the enemy. That may raise their status within the fraternity of lizard-lounge political journalists, and it might sell some books. But, of course, it’s all white noise to Mr. Murdoch, as it should be to the rest of us.