Rupert Murdoch is a global action figure. The Australian talked foreign policy in the White House with John Kennedy when he was 30 years old. A decade later, he began making his way in New York media by buying the New York Post and championing future mayor Ed Koch. He has owned newspapers on four continents and pushed several wars in the Middle East, including the Iraq disaster. His role in the legendary dismissal of Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1976, when the left-winger opposed U.S. policy, has always been a mystery, right up there with Mossadegh and Pinochet.
Journalist Michael Wolff got hours of Murdoch’s time to produce a portrait in dishabille. It turns out that, like other action figures, Murdoch doesn’t have a lot to say. He’s not reflective, he’s inarticulate, and he has rarely read a book. He’s unsocialized, underwhelming, and superstitious, the author reports. There’s not much inner life and no psychology. He’s “spectral.” A finger-drummer.
He is amazingly hard working, however, from the moment he has his porridgea “horse has to have its chaff,” Murdoch says with charm. But that charm is limited. Murdoch is a networker, not a socializer, Wolff observes astutely. “Murdoch can seem rather out of it,” he says. “That’s partly the hearing issue, which no one acknowledges.”
Wolff has made up for his subject’s personality deficit with a dizzying feat of intimate storytelling. He narrates Murdoch’s purchase of the Wall Street Journal from its old, resistant family owners in 2007 as a white-knuckler, throwing in a lot of entertaining side stories about Murdoch’s social progress. We read a great deal about Murdoch’s three wives and six children and his several hair colors, toogray, orange, aubergine. Brearley, the Manhattan private school he intrigued to get his daughter into, is in the index, while Iraq, the country he intrigued to get his adopted land to invade, doesn’t show up. Murdoch’s undershirt, or “singlet,” is an essential device for Wolff. The comic climax of the tale is the consummation of Murdoch’s relationship with wife number three, Wendi Deng, who is nearly 40 years his junior: “Let us pause for a moment to consider the first moment when Wendi sees the singlet come off.”
The hard writerly chore of trying to imagine a soul where none may exist has pluses and minuses. On the plus side, Wolff is a shrewd and dazzling writer who has engaged in media ownership himself. He projects his own ego and values on to his inarticulate hero, and his book contains many excellent insights into how business works, how newspapers work, and how the New York elite works.
Take, for example, how Murdoch, seeking to leverage a daughter from Nightingale-Bamford school to Brearley, recruits lawyer/Clintonite/publicist Gary Ginsberg to help him get a letter from Caroline Kennedy, a Brearley alumna and board member, on the girl’s behalf. And we learn that when the legendary publicist Howard Rubenstein wants to show his power in the newsroom, he takes a long walk with “client in tow” right through it, toward the owner’s office.
Murdoch now has designs, Wolff asserts, on the New York Times, whose publisher Arthur Sulzberger “wants to be some New Age media mogul; Rupert wants to be a newspaper proprietor.” Not that Murdoch is always sharp. His New York Post loses nearly $50 million a year and employs ideologues who know how to play Murdoch: the likes of John Podhoretz, “a strange, abrasive, Asperger’s type” and the late Eric Breindel, who died in 1998, Wolff says, of AIDS.
Wolff’s observations on newspaper culture are also prizes. He loves Murdoch because he is a great troublemaker of the English tabloid tradition. Murdoch is “not a modern journalist but the last representative from an era when a newspaper was its own advertisement, when it had to sell itself.” But the American newspaper serves a different function. It was an aspirational tool for its middle-class readers: “A newspaper’s best strategy was to be sedate, mannerly, uncontroversialto offend no one, and not to call attention to the fact that it has monopolized the market…”
The culture got worse when, in the aftermath of Watergate, the news business began to explode and journalism, in Wolff’s delectable phrase, became a “profession of choice … the newsgathering function was overtaken by the information-processing onemore specialized skill sets were required…” News was now serious, joyless, robbed of personality.
In the novel that Wolff makes of Murdoch’s life, the hero is no worse than the rest. The real reason he wants to buy the Wall Street Journal is not to suck the music out of it, as he seems to have done with the Times of London, but to please his “liberal-ish” wife, Wendi, who revels in media celebrity and packs her unglamorous husband into Prada suits. The Journal is meant to be a cultural counterweight to the property that makes Murdoch a lot of money but he can’t abide: Fox News, led by his “monster,” Roger Ailes, and someone else Murdoch “despises,” the “bullying, mean-spirited” Bill O’Reilly.
And so, after 400 pages, Murdoch, whom Wolff unconvincingly styles as an outsider in an effort to jazz the reader’s interest, has become the Obama-loving blue-state insider.
Can the reader hang in that long, even with the pleasure of Wolff’s headlong comical prose? Put another way, as Wolff asked in his most famous moment in journalism when, at the start of the Iraq War, he boldly took on a general at the sterile media center in Qatar: “What’s the value proposition? What’s the value of what we’re learning at this million-dollar press center?” I’d say that this story is not a value proposition for two reasons, political and social.
Wolff reminds his readers that the business story is the great drama of recent journalism. The journalism of the journalism business is business. But timing has been unkind to Wolff. His book comes out as readers are beginning to wonder how many of the heroic tales of capitalism we have been fed over the last 20 years have been, well, underwritten by suck-ups to the heroes themselves. Quite a bit, to judge from Wolff’s own reports.
Had the author anticipated this shift in the zeitgeist and expressed some dyspepsia about globalism and growth for growth’s sake and the puffery that surrounds it, he might have escaped some of the damage of the financial meltdown. But Wolff loves deals and dealmakers. It’s worth repeating that he says nothing about the disaster that Murdoch helped underwrite, the Iraq War. He takes numerous jabs, meanwhile, at anybody who vaguely questions political authority. The Whitlam affair is brushed off. One of Murdoch’s sons is dispatched as a “tree-hugger.” An owner of the Wall Street Journal lives in Burlington Vermont, an “alternative-lifestyle capital,” Wolff says with New York provincialism, where she runs (start the irony drip) a “sustainable and socially conscious redevelopment company.” The Village Voice is a “leftwing insane asylum.” (What, then, is the New York Post, haven to vicious drunken jingoists and losing a million a week?) Wolff repeatedly derides the WSJ’s old family as “proudly remote from commerce” left-leaning, entitled, elitist.
It’s one thing to have values, it’s another to be so assumptive about them. It does not help that Wolff’s acknowledgments, which precede his story, end with a fulsome paean to Claridge’s, Wolff’s favorite hotel in London, which I would quote but for the fact that I’d have to read it a second time.
The same provincialism inhabits Wolff’s social values. The New York world that Rupert Murdoch makes his progress in is a Jewish one. At times almost all his acolytes and henchmen and lawyers and bankers seem to be Jewish. Many of these close associates, Irwin Stelzer, Breindel, Howard Rubenstein, are Zionists and neoconservatives. I don’t remember either word appearing in this bookthough “neoconish” does.
Wolff is of that world, and that’s fine. He savors acumen, the love of the deal, globalism, prestige, image-making. The shadow hero of the book would seem to be its main unspoken source, Matthew Freud, great-grandson of you-know-who, a publicist married to a Murdoch daughter and a media/publicity necromancer in the mold of Wolff himself. “Freud too has been a factor in this book,” Wolff says opaquely, about the time he and the reader are tiring of its subject.
The problem for a reader who wants to understand the ways of the new establishment is that Wolff cannot step outside that culture for even a minute to explain it. Meanwhile, he takes endless shots at WASPs. He must use that word a dozen times, and it is always a put-down for crusty entitlement, if not clubby anti-Semitism. Wolff angrily rebukes an allegedly anti-Semitic writer who frowned on Stelzer for not storing wine properly. He fails to point out, meanwhile, that Stelzer is another neocon working at the Hudson Institute, a co-author of the Iraq War.
I wish Wolff could have been even a fraction as wiseass about Jews as he is about Protestants. WASP culture, he says smartly, “capitulated. Just sat down and refused to go on.” It was “patrician, remote and snobbish.” OK. And what about the culture that replaced it? How essential is a love of Israel to Murdoch’s new set? What does it signify that, of Murdoch’s brood, Wolff has the greatest disdain for son James, the treehugger, who goes off on Zionists in an audience with his father and Tony Blair (a story culled from someone else’s book)? When father Murdoch attacks the Palestinians, James says he’s “Talking f—–g nonsense. … They were kicked out of their f—–g homes and had nowhere to f—–g live.” Wolff characterizes James as “aggressive,” “intense,” “judgmental.”
It is Wolff’s fine achievement that we see how Rupert Murdoch’s politics are not well thought through. They are ready-made, instinctual and handy, pragmatic. If you are a suck-up with a simple argument, Wolff notes with savage insight, you can get far with the publisher. Murdoch goes with the spirit of the timesand may adjust better to the new one than his biographer.
Philip Weiss is at work on a book about the American army in Australia in 1943. He blogs at www.philipweiss.org /mondoweiss/.
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