Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Review: The Man Who Owns the News

Rupert Murdoch is the narcissistic and evil bogeyman of the right wing media machine. He is a symbol of big, bad, Republican corporate conservatism.

Or is he?

Throughout The Man Who Owns the News, Michael Wolff explores the modus operandi of Rupert Murdoch and shows that Murdoch's true desire is not to further the goals of conservatism, but to own newspapers, especially prestigious and well read newspapers. For Murdoch, newspapers are a source of pride and power.

Wolff begins the book with a prologue introducing the reader to Murdoch. Wolff's account of Murdoch's development of his media empire is interwoven with the more recent story of Murdoch's clever and dogged pursuit of the Dow Jones Company and the Wall Street Journal, its flagship publication.

The Man Who Owns The News offers a compelling overview of Rupert's family tree, from his father Keith Murdoch (who owned a newspaper in Australia), to his own sons and daughters. As Wolff relates Murdoch's history, he attempts to answer the question: What makes Rupert Murdoch tick?, offering the observation that Rupert Murdoch is a man of contradictions.
[Murdoch] began as an insider, became an outsider because people didn't understand him as an insider. He is so successful as an outsider that he becomes an insider.
That, in a couple short sentences, is the abridged history of Rupert Murdoch, who first planted the seeds of his media empire in Australia before moving to London and then the United States to conquer new frontiers.

Murdoch's cunning ability to take advantage of people who underestimate him is depicted over and over again - so many times that it's easy to be left wondering why so many people refused to take him seriously.

Murdoch, Wolff contends, is not primarily interested in building a media empire to advance conservative ideology. Wolff observes that the target market of Murdoch's primary newspapers aren't businessmen or the well-to-do, but working people who crave tabloid gossip. Murdoch's publications make money by being trashy, much to the consternation of London's elite.

In pursuing the Wall Street Journal, Murdoch had to overcome objections from members of the Bancroft family (the owners of Dow Jones) - many of whom feared that the paper would lose its independence, its reputation, and its voice.

Murdoch coveted the Journal so much, however, that he was willing to patiently wait out the disunified Bancrofts (who are carefully profiled by Wolff) after he got Dow Jones to actually consider his offer.

Liberals, Wolff argues, aren't the people who Rupert reserves his ire for - rather, it's any group of people Murdoch perceives as elitist. He despises London, New York's elite, and absolutely loathes Hollywood.

Amusingly, Wolff suggests that Murdoch might be becoming more liberal. (His third wife, Wendi, is a liberal, and an acquaintance of the First Family. Murdoch also donated $2,300 to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign ).

Still, Murdoch lacks a moral compass, for as Wolff shows, he plays on people's fears and practices certain types of yellow journalism. That is reason enough to dislike him. Still, it's hard not to identify with Murdoch at various points in the book - or even feel sorry for him.

Progressive readers are unlikely to have an improved opinion of Murdoch after reading The Man Who Owns The News cover to cover. But it's difficult not to have a different opinion of him after getting through the book.

To many readers, the most surprising revelation won't be that Murdoch cares more for power than ideology, or profit at the expense of integrity, but that newspapers mean everything to him. Twenty First Century Fox, MySpace, DirecTV (which Murdoch sold to help clear the way for his pursuit of the Wall Street Journal) were and are the means to Murdoch's objective of owning still more newspapers.

The conclusion of The Man Who Owns The News leaves something to desired, but that's to be expected. This is a story with an unwritten ending. The media landscape is changing rapidly. Newspapers are losing value, losing advertisers, losing subscribers, and even shutting down.

And yet Rupert Murdoch still desires to own them. What's more, he continues to be at the center of controversy - the New York Post recently ran a racist cartoon which caused an uproar. Murdoch eventually issued a non-apology. However the people responsible for the cartoon have not been fired or reprimanded publicly. That's not surprising, considering Murdoch's self-centered view of the world.

Murdoch will also soon be without his trusted deputy Peter Chernin, who has kept News Corpoation's West Coast business humming in Hollywood for many years. Chernin is a key figure in Wolff's biography of Murdoch, and his departure is arguably a serious blow for the company, which cannot expect to rely on its newspapers to be a profit engine in the years ahead.

The end of the Murdoch story may thus be unwritten, but for those who have never heard the beginning and want to understand how big media has managed to get so big, The Man Who Owns The News ought to be considered a must-read.


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