Murdoch knows best

Rupert Murdoch buys Pat Robertson's fundamentalist family cable network, uniting Bart Simpson with John-Boy Walton at last.

Published June 19, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

rupert murdoch had a tough month of May. His dream of direct-broadcast satellite-TV domination over America -- an odd dream, to be sure -- was crushed. His movie studio announced that the $200 million "Titanic" wouldn't be appearing this summer. And people made fun of his improbable $350 million bid to acquire the Los Angeles Dodgers. But in typical Murdoch fashion, he went shopping, and now everything seems to be better again.

The latest outlet for Murdoch's ambitions could not, on the surface, be more improbable: International Family Entertainment, the cable network founded by fundamentalist Pat Robertson. Murdoch's company, News Corp., bought IFE last Wednesday for $1.9 billion. IFE owns the Family Channel, home to Robertson's own "The 700 Club." Oh, and "Hawaii Five-O" re-runs.

Given Murdoch's record as a purveyor of tabloid television and of vaguely titillating sexual content, News Corp. and IFE may seem to be a strange match. (Murdoch, after all, is the man who introduced the Page Three girls to Britain and "Studs" to the U.S.) From a business point of view, though, there's a certain logic behind Murdoch's decision to acquire IFE. News Corp. wants to break Disney's tight grip on the market for children's and family entertainment, and the Family Channel will provide an outlet for all the programming created by Fox Kids Worldwide. In a larger sense, the fact that the Family Channel is on nearly every cable system in America -- could the audience for old episodes of "The Waltons" and "Rescue 911" really be that large? -- means that Murdoch won't have to beg cable companies to air his shows, as he's had to do for Fox's 24-hour news channel. And since Murdoch has given up on his satellite-TV hopes, having his own cable channel has become even more crucial. Bart Simpson and John-Boy, together at last.

More than that, though, Robertson's brand of cultural conservatism and Murdoch's aren't so very different. Murdoch's hostility to feminism and gay rights, while not perhaps on par with Robertson's equation of feminists with satanic witches, is well-established. His tabloid newspapers mine the same veins of cultural conservatism and hostility to modernity that Robertson's preaching does. And even the sleazy programs on Fox are generally self-conscious about their sleaziness and rather open about the fact that respectable people would never act the way their characters do. (Even if respectable people like to watch people act that way.) Fox, you might say, is the dark side of the Family Channel. But both roam the same cultural terrain.

Still it's probably a mistake to analyze the particular strategy behind any of Murdoch's acquisitions too closely because the most fundamental truth about him is that he is a creature of enormous appetite. Since the early 1970s, Murdoch has bought and sold (and in some cases bought again) Elle, the Star, Metromedia, Fox, the London Times, the New York Post, the Daily Racing Form, the Village Voice, TV Guide, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Boston Herald and New York magazine. He started Mirabella and Premiere. He started a paper in the former East Germany called Super! which spent most of its time attacking the "Wessies" for their decadent and greedy ways. (It folded.) Hell, for that matter, he brought Lotto to New York state, partnering with a company called Mathematica Inc. to win the operating concession in 1977. If it's printed or televised, Murdoch has probably tried to buy it. In that sense, IFE is just the latest course in his endless media banquet.

Murdoch's image in the popular mind -- make that the popular journalistic mind -- is of a right-wing tyrant who buys up newspapers and television stations in order to transform them into instruments of his ideological purposes. But the record is actually more complicated than that. Nearly every newspaper he's acquired has shifted noticeably and quickly to the right. (The New York Post after Murdoch, to take just one example, bears essentially no resemblance to the paper run by Dorothy Schiff, and not just because of the "Headless Body in Topless Bar" headlines.) Murdoch has made no pretenses about his desire to shape the editorial content of the businesses he acquires. What's the point of buying something, he's said more than once, if you have no say in how it's run?

Still, given his reputation, there are remarkably few stories of Murdoch actually intervening to spike stories or programs. At Fox, Murdoch presided over cultural ascendancy of "The Simpsons," which in every sense -- its bleak view of capitalism, its critique of religion and its casual depiction of gay characters as mainstream -- assaulted his own worldview. And when he owned the Village Voice, Murdoch interfered not at all, even when Jack Newfield and Alexander Cockburn were devoting their weekly columns to slagging the new, unimproved Post, which Murdoch had just acquired. There's no question that Murdoch has helped shift the media landscape to the right, but when other voices have proven popular -- which is to say, profitable -- he's been more than willing to let them speak.

What Murdoch hasn't been willing to do, though, is bring any substance to his self-proclaimed populism, and this is what is most troubling about him. For someone who has always billed himself as a maverick, challenging the establishment and bucking the edicts of the chattering classes in favor of the hoi polloi, Murdoch has shown himself more than happy to cater to the powers that be. While he certainly has been terrifically gutsy as an entrepreneur, in every other sense he seems to have chosen the path of least resistance.

A committed leftist who kept a bust of Lenin on his mantle as a young man, Murdoch turned to the right sometime in the 1970s, but his reasons for doing so remain opaque. He became an ardent supporter of Thatcherism at a time when Labor could not have been weaker, and an ardent Reaganaut when the supply-siders were riding high. Then, in 1997, he suddenly discovered the virtues of Tony Blair. Although he has spoken eloquently on the "unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes" posed by free airwaves, he dropped BBC World News from his Star TV satellite system when the Chinese government complained about a BBC documentary on Mao, and since then News Corp. has poured $3 million into a joint Internet venture with the People's Daily Newspaper, the Chinese equivalent of Pravda. His $4 million book bribe to Newt Gingrich at a time when Gingrich was at the peak of his power was, then, just par for the course.

There's been no more emblematic -- and egregious -- example of how thoroughly Murdoch has become part of the establishment than the United Jewish Appeal's decision to name him Humanitarian of the Year. What, exactly, Murdoch has done to earn the label "humanitarian" (aside from giving lots of money to the UJA) remains a mystery. But then, Henry Kissinger, a man many regard as a war criminal, was chosen to give Murdoch the award, so perhaps the UJA was trying to see how far words can be tortured before they lose all meaning.

That Murdoch has been able to portray himself as a tribune of the masses while amassing a $3.2 billion fortune and sucking up to the powerful is a testament to the complete erosion of genuine populism over the last decade and a half. It's also a testament to his own success in convincing people that you can hate privilege without hating the concentration of wealth. Murdoch has been a key figure in the shaping of a purely cultural populism, one divorced from any real idea of class or of economics. It's an impressive feat, and one that was crucial to the success of both Reagan and Thatcher. An essential part of this project, of course, has been the rhetoric of "family values" and the conjuring up of a mythic past when the community was whole and everyone knew right from wrong. Throughout his career, Murdoch has played on these themes, recognizing the possibilities they offered for profit and for political influence, and in that sense the Family Channel -- where everyone seems to live in a soft yellow glow -- and Murdoch are a perfect fit.

By James Surowiecki

James Surowiecki is a regular contributor to Salon.

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