By Geneva Overholser
4:02 PM EDT, October 17, 2013
A year ago, word went out that Rupert Murdoch was looking to buy this newspaper. Reaction was swift, strong and all over the map.
Some envisioned the father of Fox News turning The Times into another partisan mouthpiece. Others fretted over Murdoch's enmeshment in the United Kingdom's huge phone-hacking and police-corruption scandal. A few countered: Here is a man who loves newspapers and invests in them, lavishly.
In short, the response was as complicated as the man. This is the challenge facing David Folkenflik in "Murdoch's World: The Last of the Old Media Empires." Six decades ago, Murdoch began to create what so many media executives yearn for today: a global media empire. From his father's modest company in Australia, he built a business spanning 50 countries, a powerhouse of influential TV and movie production companies, newspapers and book publishers. Admired, loathed and feared, Murdoch is hard to size up neatly.
Folkenflik, NPR's media correspondent, alerts us up front: His focus is on the U.K. scandals, but we'll need considerable context to understand them. After a scene in a London hotel in which Murdoch speaks contritely with the family of the dead girl whose cellphone his journalists hacked, we swing back in time to Australia, where everything Murdoch-related begins.
Having launched his native land's only national general-interest newspaper and assembled over time the dominant papers in most of the major cities, influential news websites and a controlling stake in the nation's largest cable TV provider, Murdoch personifies the alarm that the phrase "global media tycoon" evokes.
As one media critic tells Folkenflik: "It's bad for a democracy when 70% of the newspapers in this country are pushing one line and pushing it so hard."
That Australian template is one Murdoch "has perfected in his exploits around the globe," Folkenflik writes. He chronicles Murdoch's reach into the United Kingdom in 1969 before moving on to New York in 1974. It is in the U.K. that Murdoch set out the philosophy that was to determine the highs and lows of his legendary career.
"Anybody who, within the law of the land, provides a service which the public wants at a price it can afford is providing a public service," Murdoch said in a public address.
That little "law of the land" detail was sorely to bedevil him. But, oh, what successes his no-holds-barred thinking — or, in the author's nice phrase, "circumvention as innovation" — would yield.
One success devoutly desired by Murdoch was the takeover of the British Sky Broadcasting Group, or BSkyB, the U.K.'s largest cable broadcaster. The tension between that quest and the unspooling scandal is the heart of the book, and it's rich with detail: The pompous denials by cops and news executives, News Corp.'s hapless defensive stands, crumbling inexorably toward the closing of the tabloid News of the World, the firing of Rebekah Brooks and the collapse (for now) of the BSkyB dream.
This makes for meaty reading. But Folkenflik's devotion to context keeps us hopping across oceans and back and forth in time. We veer off to Fox News, to the Wall Street Journal, to check on Murdoch family members.
"Murdoch's World" is bolstered by deep reporting, including scores of interviews, and laced with delicious anecdotes. But, compelled as Folkenflik feels to tell multiple good tales rather than one, the read is often choppy.
Still, it all feeds into an intriguing notion of what makes Murdoch who he is. We feel the ubiquity of his reach. One angry victim of the phone hacking testified against the Murdochs in court, then went on to appear in five movies produced by Fox-owned studios, see his TV shows run on a Murdoch-controlled cable channel and his book published by a Murdoch-owned house.
"It was hard to do business without the Murdochs," writes Folkenflik.
Then there is Murdoch's self-invention as an outsider — "a preposterous confection," Folkenflik notes, for an Oxford grad consulted by the mighty and invited to all the toniest occasions.
Murdoch and his Aussie mates, says the author, "believe themselves to be outsiders" yet become "consummate and powerful insiders, creating their own establishment from which to operate." And, he adds, tenaciously defining themselves by their enemies.
In the end, declared by Parliament unfit to lead a major media company and compelled (this year) to split his empire in two, Murdoch only savors the challenge: "I have been given an extraordinary opportunity most people never get in their lifetime: the chance to do it all over again," he told investors in New York City.
He seems to mean it, in life as well as in work: At 82 (his mother died last year at 102), he has bought himself a winery in the hills above Bel-Air. Newly single, he's getting dating advice from GQ. His Sun on Sunday, successor to News of the World, leads the Sunday U.K. tabloid market. The Melbourne Theatre Company has staged a dramatization of his life: "Rupert."
His Twitter attacks on the "toffs" back in the U.K. who want to "gag the press" steam on, even as the Brits finalize oversight measures triggered by his own lawless journalists.
So what to think? Pull for Murdoch to buy the hometown paper? Pray that he won't? "Murdoch's World" confirms: It's complicated.
Overholser, former director of USC's Annenberg School of Journalism, has worked for the New York Times and the Washington Post and was editor of the Des Moines Register. She is now an independent journalist in New York.
The Last of the Old Media Empires
PublicAffairs: 384 pp., $27.99
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